The mediocrity of the Champions League

October 23, 2008
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

The Champions League's status is secure. It is the biggest prize a club side can claim. Yet both its results and its personnel can be instructive.

EmpicsManchester United celebrate Champions League glory. But were all the games on the way to Moscow truly competitive?

Last season, Manchester United fielded arguably a weaker team against the champions of France, Lyon, than they did four days later against Portsmouth in the FA Cup.

Then Sir Alex Ferguson named a lesser line-up against Roma than Middlesbrough in April. Admittedly, both were second legs after United had prospered away from home, but it suggests that mid-table Premier League sides posed greater problems than Europe's finest.

And that leads to a question that should concern UEFA: for all the status it confers and money it generates, is the Champions League providing enough competition? The early-season exploits of the unheralded newcomers of Cluj and Anorthosis Famagusta would suggest so, but it is very possible that each group will be won by the top seed, followed by the second-ranked side.

Moreover, the results so far show a surfeit of one-sided games. Chelsea and Bordeaux are the respective runners-up of the English and French leagues, but a scoreline of 4-0 showed the Londoners' superiority. Arsenal scored four times against Porto, champions as recently as 2004, and five in Istanbul against Fenerbahce.

Liverpool's victory over PSV Eindhoven was so comprehensive that Huub Stevens admitted the gulf was too big for the Dutch club to bridge. Manchester United overwhelmed Aalborg and Celtic.

With a record-equalling 36 goals in Tuesday's eight games, the entertainment value was high and the prestige remains, but, as far as the English contingent is concerned, the fear factor is gone. The inferiority complex has been shed; indeed, it may have been transported on to the continent to the teams facing Premier League opposition.

With six semi-finalists in the past two seasons, their dominance is established, but there are occasions that it feels that it has come rather too easily. The early stages can be a process rather than a test and, while Liverpool almost contrived to get eliminated before the last 16 last season, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Rafa Benitez rotated unsuccessfully against Marseille then, but such a policy appears feasible for the four English teams now. All are unbeaten and the stiffest test to any was presented by Standard Liege in Liverpool's laboured qualification.

This may be nostalgia setting in, but Manchester United's 1999 victors rank above their 2008 counterparts, for this observer anyway, because they overcame greater obstacles. A place in the last four provokes little surprise now, yet when Leeds advanced that far in 2001, it felt a huge achievement.

That may have been a product of the two group stages that made it more gruelling, and indeed a feat of endurance. Yet, besides the element of surprise in Leeds' progress, it was also memorable because so many matches were genuinely competitive; Barcelona and Juventus both perished in the first phase.

When neither figured in Europe's top 16 teams, it was indicative of a greater strength in depth, helping to produce more even contests across the continent. There may be larger concentration of talent at the top now, but it is hard to argue that the 10th, 15th and 20th teams have improved. Perhaps the best have got better, but the rest haven't.

GettyImagesFC Cluj: The exception to the rule?

Lyon, for example, are perennial French champions, but an inferior team to the 2004 vintage. As Stevens has admitted, the Dutch challenge has disintegrated. With its more sensible funding and fairer pricing, German football is admirable, but ill-equipped to provide a winner.

Italy can still produce genuine contenders, but there are fewer of them since Serie A lost its pre-eminent position. Real Madrid possess the resources but not, in recent seasons, the cohesion. The influx of oligarchs into Russian football may prompt a challenge from the east, but it has not materialised yet.

So what can be done? Michel Platini, with his egalitarian streak, has proposed limiting the major countries to three qualifiers apiece. That has an appeal to the traditionalists - by its very name, the Champions League ought to contain more champions - but may serve up more mediocrity, even if the intention is to bolster the UEFA Cup, which was fatally weakened when many of its leading sides were incorporated into the premier competition.

For several years, especially in the 1990s, it had a higher standard of quarter-finalists, if not necessarily winners, than the Champions League. Now the UEFA Cup is a competition of quantity rather than quality, where it is harder to get knocked out of, than progress from, the group stages.

The Champions League has a different problem. The cream are rising to the top rather too easily. Admittedly, it is only five seasons since it produced the final few had forecast, between Porto and Monaco, but that already feels like a different era. The superpowers may swat the rest aside imperiously. It is a spectacle, but it lacks the drama the unexpected provides.

And that puts Platini in the same position as Richard Scudamore, though the latter relishes the repeated triumphs of the rich and famous rather more than the former. The Premier League and the Champions League are the two great marketing triumphs in sport in the last 15 years.

England's domestic league has been accused, often correctly, of being too predictable. It would be a shame if the same criticisms continue to be levelled against the Champions League.