Liverpool and Roma have revived the Champions League. Well, sort of. Europe’s primary club tournament was in serious danger of losing its lustre, with the same teams monopolising the latter stages and, more often than not, picking up the trophy. A high quality of football is nice, but competitions always appear somewhat pointless without some semblance of competitiveness.
When Jürgen Klopp and Eusebio Di Francesco meet this Tuesday night for the first leg of their semi-final, expect knowing smiles to be shared between two giant-killers. The former vanquished Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, an expensively assembled squad who ran away with the Premier League title; the latter did away with Barcelona, serial achievers who are unbeaten in 33 La Liga games this season.
Each of the quarter-final wins ensured fairly fresh faces in the semi-finals. The last time Liverpool reached the last four was exactly one decade ago – they lost 4-3 on aggregate to Chelsea in 2007/08’s penultimate round – while Roma last reached this stage 34 years ago, eventually losing to Liverpool in the 1984 final.
Their progress also came with an element of surprise. Liverpool had proven themselves capable of beating Manchester City in a one-off event, overcoming the English champions in a 4-3 win at Anfield in January.
However, City had been installed as Champions League favourites before their 5-1 aggregate loss to the Reds. As for Roma, they pulled off one of the most unexpected comebacks in the history of the competition, hammering Barcelona 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico to turn around a 4-1 deficit from the first leg.
Both clubs are within the top 25 richest in the world, according to the 2018 Deloitte Money League table. That two such financially strong sides could shock by reaching the latter stages of the Champions League is an indictment of how far the gap between the elite and the rest has become in recent years.
In the last decade, the competition has been dominated by the top two in Spain and top one in Germany. Real Madrid and Barcelona have each won the title three times in this period, while Bayern Munich have won it once and finished runners-up twice. This trident – who incidentally make up the 2018 Deloitte Money League’s top four alongside Manchester United – have, collectively, taken up over half of the 40 semi-final slots available in the last 10 years.
Real and Bayern have made it once again this year, and they will meet one another in Wednesday night’s semi-final, though the clash will have a slightly staid air about it in comparison to Tuesday evening’s meeting of Liverpool and Roma.
The growing disparity between clubs is part of an even more concerning disparity between nations. The Champions League essentially now belongs to the ‘big four’ leagues – the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, and the German Bundesliga. This is a relatively new situation as far as the tournament is concerned.
Going by decade, the Champions League – or European Cup, as it used to be known – has generally always had a reasonably even share of semi-finalists from big four leagues and those from ‘other’ leagues.
In the decades prior to the re-branding in the early 1990s, the highest percentage of semi-final spots taken up by teams from the big four leagues had never eclipsed 62.5 per cent. Teams from other countries – Portugal, Holland, Scotland, Belgium, Romania, Serbia, and more – often made it to the latter stages.
However, in the ten-year period stretching from 1996 to 2005 the disparity became obvious as more clubs from the big four leagues were allowed into the competition. In this period, teams from the big four leagues took up 77.5 per cent of the semi-final spots.
If that was a warning sign of the predictability to come, no-one heeded it. From 2006 to this season the big four leagues have swallowed up a stunning 96.2 per cent of the 52 semi-final spaces available.
Furthermore, the only two teams from other leagues to make it to the last four in this 13-year period – Lyon and Monaco – were both from France’s Ligue 1 – the league widely regarded as Europe’s fifth best.
There has been talk of a European Super League being formed, with top clubs from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France taking part. Frankly, though, this breakaway has already occurred – it’s known as the Champions League knockout rounds.
The group stages have become a rather dull affair, with top clubs virtually assured of their place in the last 16. Last year, Arsène Wenger queried the validity of the process when asked if he would be watching the tournament. “I think that the group stage, there are not many interesting games so I choose one or two that are interesting,” he said. “It’s a routine now in the group stage. Look at the audiences, it has lost some attraction power.”
This monotony looks unlikely to end soon.
Next season there will be further changes to the format, with the top four from England, Spain, Germany and Italy to be guaranteed of a place in the first round proper, strengthening their already vice-like grip on the competition.
The Champions League needed Liverpool and Roma to beat Manchester City and Barcelona to end the tedium, if only temporarily. However, ultimately their semi-final match is only a small step towards a more unpredictable, exciting tournament.