Atletico Madrid’s elimination from the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday at the hands of local rival Real Madrid effectively ended the interest of many neutrals in the competition. In this era of Financial Fair Play (FFP), the Champions League has become so predictable that for each of the last six seasons, two of these three teams (Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and FC Bayern) have been in each semi-final, while in three of the last four seasons each of those three teams have made the semifinals.
Diego Simeone, Atleti’s manager, has been criticized by some including Bayern’s President Karl-Heinz Rummenigge for his tactical approach to Champions League matches. But Simeone has simply adjusted to a reality in this era which is that his club with its resources cannot compete without playing a style elites might consider negative and boring. But Simeone’s other option is to unilaterally disarm against the long odds provided non-elite clubs in today’s Champions League.
The Champions League could get more exciting next season with a new seeding process announced on Thursday. It better become more compelling because this year the second-tier Europa League has been far less predictable and far more entertaining than UEFA’s showcase competition.
Thursday’s UEFA Europa League quarterfinal second leg between Zenit and Sevilla was one of the most exciting knockout stage matches of any competition this season. The comeback of Zenit in front of an enthusiastic St Petersburg crowd was finally cancelled out by a late Sevilla winner and the holders advanced to the semifinals by the narrowest of margins. To this point, the Champions League has failed to provide any sort of similar drama.
This has continued a clear pattern over the last few seasons in UEFA competitions where the Champions League doesn’t really capture the imagination of neutral fans. By contrast, the Europa League has thrown up some genuine surprises at the group stage and continues that excitement right through the competition. The balance of teams and competitiveness of the competition has made for exciting and compelling football, and has exposed fans to some teams that aren’t normally household names. The Champions League Group Stages are a complete bore and the Round of 16 was interesting this season simply because it exposed the weakness of England’s Premier League in continental competitions.
The era of FFP has sorted out the haves and have nots in European football. The haves consist of three or four clubs while the have nots include everyone else. Very few clubs can actually compete for a Champions League title in this day and age – the days of the likes of Porto, Marseille, AS Monaco or Bayer Leverkusen reaching a Champions League final are behind us. Even the recent successes of Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid cannot hide the reality of the staleness of most Champions League fixtures – they will be won by the team that spends the most money or has the most inherent institutional advantages. The three teams that benefit the most from this are once again still alive at the semifinal stage of the Champions League.
The elite clubs of Europe, as evidenced by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s dismissive attitude toward Atletico and his previous statements about Manchester City, have seen continental football and the supremacy that comes with it as a private playground. Thank goodness for the Europa League. which has provided exciting midweek football with some clubs we do not get to see often.
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