Blockbuster Champions League quarter-finals underline its attraction and flaws – The Athletic

By Jacob Whitehead8h ago

Take yourself back to the evening of August 31. It is the last days of summer, early season hopes have not yet been quashed, and the Champions League group-stage draw has just been made.

Imagine you are in a bar, a nice restaurant, the queue in a fish and chip shop — any of them work for this exercise. You are deep in discussion with a friend. To settle a point, you grab a napkin and write down the eight clubs you think will make the Champions League quarter-finals in April. Run through those eight sides in your head. How similar are they to what we have ahead of us now?

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After the last of the round of 16 games on Wednesday, the 2024-24 Champions League’s quarter-finalists have now been set: Arsenal, Manchester City, Paris-Saint Germain, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.

Maybe there were a couple of changes — Napoli to replicate last season’s Serie A form in Europe or AC Milan to emerge from the group of death. By and large, however, the identities of these teams were entirely predictable.

There is a thrill to the sides remaining, of course. Eight storied clubs, four heavyweight clashes looming. When the draw is made tomorrow (Friday) at 11am UK time (7am ET), every match will have narrative stitched into its fabric. Elite-level club football is a small world; the crossover between each team is a web, not a line.

Into tactics over backstory? Consider the managers: Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, Luis Enrique, Carlo Ancelotti. Even those set to leave at the end of the season — Thomas Tuchel and Xavi — have intriguing styles and players with the ability to win any game.

Can any of Europe’s elite coaches stop Guardiola? (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

And as for those players? For all the investment of the Saudi Pro League — and, to a lesser extent, MLS — the Champions League is where the sport’s best perform. Though certain individuals in The Athletic’s tactics department may disagree, the general fan is far more likely to want to see Kylian Mbappe running at Real Madrid’s defence than the likes of Royal Antwerp or Red Star Belgrade.

There is a flip side.

For all the imminent excitement of the last eight, the names of those clubs imply a predictability to the competition’s previous rounds that have taken seven months to produce these quarter-finalists. The Champions League’s preliminary stages are meant to be complete by the start of the group phase in September — not extended until the middle of March. The Champions League should be the best club competition in the world because of its drama, as well as the sides involved. Without a surprise presence in the last eight, is that just what has happened?

As The Athletic’s Michael Cox explained in September, the group stage has become less exciting, with the average gap between the group’s winners and losers growing by the year.

To give this season’s competition its due, there has still been intrigue. Group F, featuring PSG, Dortmund, Milan and Newcastle, was a thrill ride — with a crazy final day seeing all four clubs retain a chance of progressing at some point. FC Copenhagen, with a budget just five per cent of Manchester United’s, went through to the last-16 at the Premier League side’s expense. Porto just took Arsenal to penalties.

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Be that as it may, the big teams have still emerged on top. That is by design, not coincidence.

Watching Sergio Conceicao’s Porto was an instructive exercise. Porto were arguably the last ‘surprise team’ to win the Champions League — its most recent champions who did not come from a big-five European league, in any case — when they triumphed under Jose Mourinho in 2003-04.

Just as back then, Porto are one of the most dominant sides in Portugal and, similarly to 2003-04, produced an outstanding tactical performance. In that round-of-16 tie against Arsenal, it felt as if they came far closer to their best display than the Londoners, but Mikel Arteta’s side still went through. Arsenal’s potential, with the depth of their squad, is simply far higher than Porto’s. There are different levels between the elites of the Premier League and La Liga and those from other divisions.

There is nuance to this. This is the first time Arsenal have reached the quarter-finals since 2010, but that is more due to the strength of the Premier League limiting their opportunities to qualify than the strength of the Champions League itself.

The semi-finals in 2018-19 were a high point for the competition thanks to two classic comebacks, with two of the clubs involved, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax, relative strangers to the latter stages of the tournament in the 21st century.

Since then? No teams from outside Europe’s top five domestic leagues have reached the semi-finals, with the only ‘surprise teams’ being RB Leipzig (2019-20), whose funding makes that classification debatable, Lyon (2019-20), historically one of France’s largest teams, and Villarreal (2021-22), who, in fairness, have been relegated since their previous burst of European form in the mid-2000s.

This season, not even one of the final eight could be considered a ‘surprise’. Their concentration at this stage promises a captivating end to the competition — and please do enjoy it! – but their presence is also a symbol of a problem.

European football seems designed to aid the biggest clubs, such as Real Madrid (Maria de Gracia Jimenez/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

UEFA were furious at the prospect of a European Super League. The Super League remains a terrible idea for competitiveness, for fan culture, for viewers.

But the UEFA competition we have ended up with is a Super League in everything but name. Aside from the German sides, who were approached by the proposed competition’s organisers, every team remaining in this season’s Champions League would have been involved in that prospective competition as it was initially designed.

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In every knockout tie so far, barring Inter Milan versus Atletico, the club with the higher revenue has progressed. According to Deloitte’s Money League, six of the eight quarter-finalists are among the top 10 revenue-generating clubs in the world. The other two — Dortmund and Atletico— are 12th and 15th respectively.

This Champions League marks the end of an era — next season’s competition will bring the advent of the so-called ‘Swiss Model’. In that, 36 teams, up from the current 32, will be split into four pots of nine (a change from eight four-team pools) based on seeding — and rather than play against all the eight other sides within their pot, clubs will play against two teams from each of the four groups. The top eight sides will immediately advance to the last 16, with the ones finishing ninth to 24th facing off in two-legged ties for the right to join them.

Do not expect any imminent change — this format makes it harder still for big clubs to be eliminated in the group stage. Its structure will not usurp the established order but merely change the way teams get there. Think of it as taking the stairs rather than the lift to reach the top floor.

The more significant rule change was introduced more quietly in April 2022 when UEFA brought in new financial regulations to replace the financial fair play system. This introduced what UEFA termed a “squad-cost rule” — where a club’s total expenditure on transfers, wages and agent fees cannot exceed 70 per cent of its revenue.

Now in effect — though the full 70 per cent cap is being phased in by 2025-26 — the regulations are likely to benefit those sides who already enjoy large revenues. Smaller ones, without large commercial deals and international followings, have a massive bridge to cross.

Take Porto — as mentioned, the last Champions League winners from beyond the top five leagues. According to Deloitte’s figures, they now sit outside Europe’s top 30 revenue-generating clubs. The same goes for 1995 winners Ajax, the outsiders who arguably came closest to triumphing in recent seasons before that astonishing late collapse against Tottenham in the semi-final second leg nearly five years ago — both clubs generate less than the likes of Everton and Crystal Palace, who are both in the bottom half of the Premier League.

Under current conditions — and those to come — larger sides are given a leg-up. Take prize-money distribution, where a proportion of broadcasting revenue is distributed according to historic success, benefiting the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who have all qualified in each of the past 10 years.

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This season’s final eight sides all come from storied backgrounds — but as exciting as the matches are likely to be, that is also a symptom of wider problems. Enjoy the ties to come, by all means, but accept these match-ups are by design.

See it for what it is: the Champions League is not as far away from a Super League as it might think.

(Top photo: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

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Jacob Whitehead covers Newcastle United for The Athletic, and previously worked on the news desk. Prior to joining, he wrote for Rugby World Magazine and was named David Welch Student Sportswriter of the Year at the SJA Awards. Follow Jacob on Twitter @jwhitey98

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