Sunday 28 March 2010

Champions League - the Quarter-Finals

The Champions League has once again reached the quarter final stage. My predictions from last autumn as to the likely semi-finalists are not looking too good. Two, Real Madrid and Chelsea have fallen by the wayside, leaving Barcelona and Manchester United as the survivors. As the draw would have it they are on course to repeat last season’s final. However I for one would not bet on it. In fact I won’t be making any predictions at all. Though I will say that Manchester United look more likely to reach the final than Barcelona.

Barça are having a strange kind of season. They have amassed more points than last season in the league, yet are only level on points with Real Madrid. Which goes to show how well Real have done and makes their failure to beat Lyon all the more surprising. Barça are also nothing like as convincing as last season. They are still winning and sometimes well, but too often they struggle to win matches that last season they would have won comfortably. Overall in the past month they have given the ball away needlessly more times than in the whole of last season. This is most marked in the defence which has shown alarming signs of inconsistency. And up front they are very reliant on Lionel Messi. Just as well the wee man is having such a great season. But even he cannot win every match on his own. Henry hardly plays now and when he does is but a pale shadow of his former self. Young Pedro has done well, but does not score anything like as many goals as Henry in his prime. While Ibrahimović is having a good first season with Barça, he has recently gone through a long barren spell. However the bright spot is that he has now scored in each of his last three games and maybe he is about to embark on a prolific scoring run. If not it is very hard to see Barça winning anything this season.

Back to the Champions League. The big surprise this season, apart from the continuing failure of Real Madrid, is the halving of representation from England. Only two English clubs this year as opposed to the more recent four. There is a welcome return of French teams and this time we have two - Bordeaux and Lyon. As they meet each other in the quarters France is guaranteed one semi-final place. Well done France. However, once again there is only one team from outwith the Big Five countries - this year it is CSKA from Russia.

A brief overview of the quarter finalists from the last three seasons - including this one, shows up the extent to which the Champions League has become evermore the almost exclusive preserve of teams from the Big Five countries ie England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Latterly it has almost become a reverse of the Armada in which a solitary Barcelona repels the challenge of the big spending English giants. The figures are quite fascinating and show the extent of English dominance of the latter stages. Of the 24 places available at the quarter final stages in the last three years, English clubs have taken an astonishing 10, which amounts to almost 42%

The rest are pretty much nowhere. Spain is the next highest with Spanish clubs taking up just four places. Even this is a bit misleading as three of these places were taken by just one club - Barcelona, which means only two Spanish clubs have made the quarter finals in the last three seasons.

When it comes to clubs from the Big Five, no less than 21 of the available quarter final places have been taken by clubs from these five countries. In each of these seasons only one quarter finalist has come from a country outwith the Big Five. The successful outsiders were - CSKA, Porto and Fenerbahçe. Which also shows that none of the other countries has been able to mount a consistent challenge.

The dominance of the latter stages of the Champions League is even more pronounced if you look at the clubs involved. Fifteen teams have reached at least one quarter final in the last three years. However almost two thirds of these places have been taken by only six teams. Three clubs have reached this stage in each of the last three years - Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United. A further three - Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern Mũnchen - have reach the quarter finals on two occasions.

Another fascinating and perhaps surprising feature of recent quarter finals is the complete absence of former European giants such as Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus. Inter Milan, who made it this year, are the only one of the former kings of Italian and European football to have escaped the recent decline of Italian clubs.

Will this current trend continue? I thought Real Madrid were very unlucky to lose against Lyon. In both matches Real dominated, but just couldn’t get the goals their play deserved. With the squad at their disposal I find it hard to believe they will not be back among the elite pretty soon. As for Italy, football there still seems to be in crisis with no obvious way forward. While Inter’s defeat of Chelsea was a very good result and performance, the way AC Milan were taken apart by Manchester United shows that in general Italian clubs still have a long way to go to recover their former glory. A lot will depend on whether the English Premiership can continue to attract funny money from all over the globe. Only four clubs can qualify for the Champions League, so at some stage, some of the money men will realise that their team is never going to regularly reach this particular nirvana. At which point the money behind English football’s current dominance may begin to dry up. And sooner or later, the likes of AC Milan, Roma and Juventus will get their act together. Once again though, no predictions - as they say, football is a funny old game.

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