Amid talk of revamp, Europe’s giants begin Champions League assault
While the battle for the Champions League of the future is fought behind the scenes, this week the continent’s biggest clubs begin their latest quest for European glory with holders Liverpool dreaming of reaching another final in Istanbul.
The current 32-team group stage format leading to a knockout round of 16 was introduced in 2003. Since then, an ever smaller group of clubs has competed to win the trophy, with the last 15 champions coming from Spain, England, Germany or Italy.
There is a consensus that it is time for a change, and the European Club Association, chaired by Juventus chief Andrea Agnelli, has been busy working with UEFA on plans to completely revamp the competition from 2024.
Moves towards even more of a closed shop for the elite have stalled because of dissent from some clubs and from domestic leagues, but change is coming.
“We are confident of finding a good format for after 2024 that includes of course the big clubs, mid-size countries and also a possibility for, let’s say, the smaller countries but also with history to find their place in the European football scene,” said Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar last week.
Of course Ajax have extra determination to ensure their voice is heard. The Dutch champions enchanted Europe on their run to the semi-finals last season but entered this season’s tournament in the third qualifying round. There was no special treatment for them.
Meanwhile, for the likes of Agnelli’s Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, the Champions League has become the be all and end all due to a lack of competition domestically.
More English domination?
It is easy to see why they might like more games against the best teams from around Europe, along with more money.
For now, the Champions League winners stand to take home around 75 million euros ($83 million; £66.6 million). On top of that will be added considerable sums from television along with money depending on each team’s UEFA ranking.
This rewards past success, guaranteeing the top-ranked team, Real Madrid, a further 35.46 million euros. For holders Liverpool that added figure is nearer 27 million euros.
The financial strength of the Premier League’s top clubs means they are less eager for change to the Champions League, and it also helps explain why all four European finalists last season were English.
After beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in Madrid to lift their sixth European Cup, can Liverpool reach a third straight final? This season’s showpiece will be played in Istanbul, scene of their remarkable triumph in 2005.
“We have the same chance like everyone else, but that is all, and I don’t see us, the English teams, dominating. I really think a lot of teams have a good chance,” insisted Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool begin their campaign in Italy against Napoli in one of the standout early ties. There are plenty of games to whet the appetite, although the genuine, meaningful drama will not arrive until the knockout rounds.
The latter stages have arguably become more exciting than ever, epitomised by last season’s semi-finals and sensational comebacks by Liverpool and Spurs against Barcelona and Ajax.
There have been more than three goals per game on average in the knockout rounds in each of the last three seasons.
But while Ajax’s performance has shown the way forward for clubs from smaller leagues, predicting who reaches the last 16 this season may not prove too challenging.
We may be heading into a new era in another sense, as the two players who have defined the Champions League in the last decade edge towards their twilight years.
Either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo has been the top scorer in the competition in each of the last 12 years.
Messi, now 32, has scored 110 goals and won the trophy three times in that period, while Ronaldo, soon to be 35, has 123 goals in that time and five winner’s medals.
The Argentine is in a hurry for more. As he said ominously to Barca fans in an interview with Catalan daily Sport last week: “I have no intention of going anywhere, but I want to keep on competing and winning.”
Will this be his year again, or will a younger face like Kylian Mbappe or Joao Felix leave their mark?
The Champions League may be ripe for a revamp, but it remains the pinnacle in club football.
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