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Europe’s ‘Big Five’ take over Champions League to leave the rest trailing

Paris (AFP) – Atalanta’s achievement in reaching the Champions League last 16 despite a dreadful start is remarkable, especially for a club of their stature, but it has also had another, ominous knock-on effect.

The modest Italians, appearing in the competition for the first time, defeated Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 on Wednesday to progress at the expense of the Ukrainians, despite taking just one point from their opening four games.

Their joy contrasted with the agony for Ajax 24 hours earlier, as last season’s semi-finalists were eliminated following a 1-0 defeat by Valencia.

The Dutch champions will have to console themselves with a crack at the Europa League in the spring, and their exit may accelerate the definitive breaking up of an exciting young team.

“You don’t always get what you deserve in football,” said Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, bitterly, after that game.

However, football is almost all about money these days, and so we are left with something never seen before — this is the first time since the current Champions League format was introduced in 2003 that every club through to the last 16 has come from Europe’s biggest five domestic leagues.

Holders Liverpool’s victory in Salzburg, and Chelsea’s win over Lille, confirmed that every English representative will be in the first knockout round for the third year running.

The Premier League quartet are joined by four Spanish clubs, three Germans, three Italians and two French teams.

Last year saw Porto reach the quarter-finals while Ajax were seconds away from the final. Two years ago, Basel, Porto, Shakhtar and Besiktas made for an eclectic last-16 line-up.

– A sign of things to come? –

This time there will not be so much as a traditional Dutch or Portuguese giant, or super-rich Russian side, in Monday’s draw.

It feels like a sign, in the week that new reports emerged about the possibility of a closed Super League being created for the world’s richest clubs.

Such a competition may well be on the horizon, but then again it already exists in the shape of the Champions League, despite the claims of the Association of European Leagues.

“Professional club football is not a private business for a few where only the size of the pockets determines who is welcome,” the organisation said in a statement in response to the Super League reports.

– The rich get richer –

Yet no club from outwith the ‘Big Five’ leagues has won the European Cup since Porto in 2004, and UEFA’s gradual revamp of the financial rewards from the competition has further reduced the possibility of that happening again.

Participating clubs get part of their prize money from past performances, cementing their financial strength and their position among the elite.

Meanwhile, it says much about how football in Europe has changed that Ajax — four-time European Cup winners — and Salzburg are now championed by neutrals as plucky underdogs.

Salzburg were bought by energy drinks giant Red Bull in 2005 and then refounded. They have won the last six Austrian league titles and are on course for another. Similarly, Shakhtar have won eight of the last 10 titles in Ukraine.

None of which should take away from the achievement of Atalanta, a club whose reported annual wage bill is a comparatively very modest 36 million euros ($40 million).

“This will remain in the history of the club and in the history of football,” said their captain, Papu Gomez.

Now, perhaps, they can be the team to get behind for fans of the underdog.

In the meantime, fans of football in general should still be in for a treat in the knockout phase.

From Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski and more, the world’s best players will all be involved.

The latter stages have arguably become more exciting than ever, producing more than three goals per game in each of the last three seasons.

But while the quality of football at the summit of the game continues to thrill, the lack of representation from the continent’s smaller leagues is still to be lamented.

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