Thursday, May 29, 2014


The majesty and splendour of Plzen

Let me take you back a few years. Remember Aston Villa beating Bayern Munich in Rotterdam with a clumsy swipe from Peter Withe’s simple black Puma-clad foot? Or John Robertson bouncing Forest’s daisy cutter winner against Kevin Keegan’s Hamburger SV? How about Porto beating Monaco 3-0 in Gelsenkirchen in José Mourinho’s first final, ten years ago? Fine, memorable moments in the history of a spectacular club competition and not a single one of them likely to be repeated ever again at the rate we are going.

ESPN writer Miguel Delaney recently posted an interesting article, reflecting on the continental porridge that we are slowly but surely falling into, as far as carrying off the Champions League is concerned. It is without doubt a tournament that creates different emotions, depending largely whether your team is participating in it or not. Manchester City, for so long the ugly bridesmaids looking in through the steamed-up glass at a party that they had practically never been invited to (apart from one inglorious occasion when some noisy Turks destroyed our concentration), now include themselves in a tiny elite group of clubs that look set to dominate this competition for years to come. Who in their right mind can see anyone from outside Bayern, Real, Barcelona, the Manchesters City and (perhaps even) United, Paris St Germain and Chelsea winning it in the future? Delaney includes statistics that fair numb the senses, but probably only confirm what many of us have been thinking for a long time: we are fast heading for a closed shop:

The number of years since the following clubs had tasted glory in the European Cup/Champions League around the end of 1996-7 season is in the first column. The number of years since their last win as of today stands alongside in the right hand column. Just look at how the it has all changed...

CLUB                                                          1996                                        2014
Real Madrid
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Paris St Germain

City struggle with Fenerbahçe in '68
As Delaney points out, the figures at the end of the last century suggest it was – after all – quite a difficult trophy to win. The number of different winners was inspiring. The list below, from the time when English clubs dominated in the late 70s to the Italianate end of the 90s looks just how you would want a trophy hit list to look. Sadly, there is a proliferation of clubs that either do not exist as top flight contenders anymore or are becoming rare birds at these sorts of occasions in the modern football era. The entrants from Sweden, Romania, Belgium and Holland are these days more or less resigned to filling their pockets whilst making a quick exit stage left. they are merely making up the numbers. Even Italy’s finest, past heavyweights in this tournament down the years, look wistfully towards the latter stages and retreat to the warm embrace of the Europa League, where Benfica, Ajax and a host of other past glories often await them.

As well as the afore-mentioned Villa, Forest and Porto, it is difficult to imagine the likes of Marseille, Red Star Belgrade, Hamburg, Roma, Steaua, PSV or Sampdoria ever coming anywhere near again. Even clubs, who are still relatively big noises in their own leagues (Roma, Juventus, PSV, Liverpool) are unlikely to make a splash again on the big stage like they once did.

UEFA have constantly tinkered with the European game in an attempt to, in their words, increase competition, and in the eyes of many, ensure a revenue stream that dissuades the giants from breaking away and forming their own tournament. When the Champions League began in 1992-93 (what a year that was), with Glasgow Rangers and IFK Goteborg coming close to the final as losing semi-finalists and Marseille and Milan actually making it, there were two series of groups. The second phase was later discarded for the
Just another night at the Nou Camp
format we have today, whilst qualifying arrangements have been tinkered with to allow more representatives from smaller UEFA nations to get as far as the groups.. This has had a twofold negative effect: firstly, the gap between Bate Borisov and Barcelona means their like are thrashed and turfed out every year. Secondly, the loser’s winnings keep them way above their own domestic competition, so they may return each year to be humiliated by Bayern and Real all over again. They have become simultaneously untouchable kings in their own territories and cannon fodder internationally. Witness the hoo-ha these days if there is a debutante in the group stage or if an unheralded team like Malaga (although propped up with dubious finances) make a bit of a splash. By the time we reach the quarter finals each year, the draw throws teams together, who now play each other four or five times a decade. Unless you are one of these teams, the interest level is surely unsustainable and, even if you are, the attention must begin to drift a little as Barcelona hove into view yet again

City, new to this sumptuous banquet of noblemen, have already had to visit Prince Ludwig's lair twice and they have only participated three times. City’s opponents in the Champions League so far have been:


City’s chances of drawing Real, Barcelona or Bayern yet again next season are high, given they are likely to emerge from Pot Two. Already a familiarity is seeping into the experience and we have only seen the side escape the group phase once in three attempts. It is likely that City will, FFP attempts to derail them notwithstanding, become one of the staples in this diet of stellar teams, megastars and wide-eyed camera-holding spectator-tourists. How are we going to feel about that? Until City win the thing – and this will surely happen one day, given the momentum the club now has and despite its historical bent towards avoiding such glamorous outcomes– it will no doubt hold a sufficiently high level of interest for most onlookers. The chance to see City step out in the cathedrals of Europe (and Plzen) is still a novelty of high enough value to attract many of us brought up on the away end at Huddersfield and trips to the Baseball Ground, but how much time do we still have in this world of unhappy millionaire footballers before even this becomes a little too stale for our liking?

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