This season the group stages of the Champions League has thrown up some surprises. The biggest is undoubtedly the failure of both Manchester clubs to progress to the last 16. This is the first time in a long time that only two English clubs have made it through to this stage. This achievement or failure, has somewhat overshadowed the fact that only two Spanish teams have succeeded in reaching the last 16. Again the first time this has happened for a long time. Is this the start of a new trend or just a temporary blip?
Only time will tell of course, but I suspect this is more a temporary blip. While Manchester United’s failure is really surprising, given that they have been in three of the last four finals, winning one and losing two, and were in a relatively easy group, Manchester City’s failure is less so. Though they are now the richest club in Europe with a very big and impressive squad this was their first experience of the Champions League. And they were in a very difficult group with Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villareal as their opponents. I expect both clubs will be in the Champions League next season and that both will progress to the last 16.
The Spanish situation is slightly different. There, the gap between the big two - Barcelona and Real Madrid - is growing wider and wider. None of the other big Spanish clubs - Valencia, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid etc - seem able to develop a sustained financial base. They will still be able to develop good teams, but it will become more difficult to progress to the last 16 on a regular basis.
However if you look at the bigger picture and take the last five seasons, including the current one, there is little to suggest a major shift in power in the Champions League. The Big Five countries - England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France - continue to dominate. This year 11 clubs from the Big Five progressed, while the average over the past five years works out at 12.6. Hardly a crisis. This dominance can be shown in another way. 18 clubs from the Big Five have access to the Champions League out of around 70 clubs in total. This represents around 25% of the total. While their representation in the last 16 mounts to around 75% or more.
Within the Big Five there is a clear division between the top three - England, Spain and Italy - who tend to get three clubs through to the last 16. In the case of England this is often all four clubs. While France and Germany have never managed to get more than two clubs to this stage. There may be some long term change within the Big Five. I would expect England to continue to get three and sometimes four clubs to reach this stage. On the other hand, as already mentioned, Spain may find it more difficult to get a third team through.
Outwith the Big Five there is no consistent pattern to participation in the last 16. Only three countries have managed to get a club through to this stage more than once in the last five years. Portugal stands out in this respect - one Portuguese club as progressed on four of the past five years and two in 2008/9. Russia has managed this feat twice, and this year two Russian clubs have progressed. Greece managed one team in the last 16 on three occasions, but none in the last two.
Otherwise there has been no pattern or consistency. Six other clubs have managed to make it through to the last 16, and all six come from six different countries and each has only done it once. On three occasions two such clubs have progressed, while in the other two years, none did. The countries represented are Scotland, Denmark, Turkey, Ukraine, Switzerland and Cyprus. The latter two made it this time around with FC Basel and APOEL.
However there is nothing in the above to suggest anything other than continuing domination of the competition by clubs from the Big Five. What is perhaps even more surprising is just how few teams manage to reach this stage on a regular basis. Only 37 clubs have managed to reach the last 16 over the past five seasons. This is out of a potential total of 80 places. Of this 20 have only appeared at this stage once, while a further six have managed two appearances at this stage. This leaves just 11 clubs who have managed to reach the last 16 on three or more occasions. Two, Roma and Porto have achieved this on three occasions, but have never in that time progressed further. Porto have also missed out on the last 16 on the past two seasons.
This leaves us with just 9 teams who have recently dominated the competition, year in year out. Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Manchester United have appeared in the last 16 in four of the past five seasons. While Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Lyon have reached this stage every time. It is also noticeable that the finalists in this period have all come from this group. Indeed if you take the last 10 completed seasons - from 2001/2 to 2010/11 - 14 of the 20 finalists have come from these 9 clubs, and 8 of the 10 winners.
The interesting question for the coming five years or so is will the composition of this elite group of 9 clubs change. The persistence of Lyon is quite remarkable, though they are the only one of this group to have never reached the final. So perhaps there is really only 8 elite clubs in Europe. Whatever, it will be even more remarkable if Lyon can continue to reach the last 16 year after year. Inter Milan are struggling this season in Italy and may not make the Champions League next season at all. Juventus though are doing well and may make a comeback into the Champions League. The rise of Manchester City on the other hand may put the continuing presence of either Arsenal or Chelsea in this elite group at risk. Particularly if Tottenham Hotspur maintain their league form.
Whoever makes it into this elite group in the years to come, one thing is for sure, no club from outwith the Big Five will make it there on a regular basis. For that to happen we would need to change the whole structure of European football. More likely to see a solution to the Euro crisis!