It really was not supposed to be like this for Europe’s elite. Having been linked with a breakaway super league earlier this month, some of the biggest clubs head into this week’s Champions League facing the doomsday scenario of making a group-stage exit next month.
Real Madrid could be forced to win on Matchday 6 to avoid elimination, as could Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Tottenham and Inter. And with Manchester United lurching from one bad performance to another, the home win against Young Boys on Tuesday, which would virtually secure, is far from certain.
If European champions Real lose at Roma, then defeat on Dec. 12 vs. CSKA Moscow, who won 1-0 when the sides met at the Luzhniki Stadium last month, will see them eliminated (assuming the Russians overcome Viktoria Plzen this week.) The last time Madrid failed to progress beyond the group stage was in 1995-96; they failed to qualify for the following season’s tournament.
If those permutations sound unlikely, then last season’s beaten finalists are in more realistic peril. Defeats away to Napoli and Red Star Belgrade mean Liverpool cannot afford another loss in Paris. PSG, meanwhile, have only one win in four games, so need to avenge a 3-2 defeat at Anfield to turn next month’s Liverpool-Napoli game into an elimination battle. And with Red Star just two spots outside the qualification spots, it remains possible that two big names could go by the wayside.
Elsewhere, Lyon go into their home game with Manchester City on Tuesday knowing that a win would secure a round-of-16 place and put them joint-top with Pep Guardiola’s men on nine points, having already beaten the Premier League champions at the Etihad Stadium earlier in the competition.
And Spurs, who beat Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in last year’s group stage, must beat Inter at Wembley to have any hope of qualification ahead of the Italians next month. Even if they do win this week, though, Mauricio Pochettino’s men might need to beat Barcelona at the Nou Camp next month to stay in the competition.
But while all of this might induce furrowed brows for the big boys, the scenarios should be seen as good news for UEFA. Rather than put their showcase competition at risk of being weakened without the presence of its biggest and most successful clubs in the knockout stages, the sense of jeopardy and uncertainty actually makes it more compelling and exciting.
Perhaps the unpredictability of this season’s group stage is precisely why the superpower clubs would relish the opportunity to pull up the drawbridge and create their own members-only competition at the expense of those who still possess the ability to land a knockout blow.
CSKA’s victory against Madrid, Red Star’s thrilling win over Liverpool and Lyon’s triumph against Man City have breathed new life into the Champions League. Further success for the less fancied clubs over will give Europe’s governing body an opportunity to reassert authority over the so-called “elite.”
How so? Well, FIFA’s reaction to the Football Leaks revelations about a proposed super league was to warn that any player participating in such an unsanctioned competition would be banned from playing in future World Cups. “Either you are in or you are out,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said earlier this month in response to reported breakaway plans. “This includes everything.”
That is a big stick to wave and one that would alarm many of the world’s top players and clubs, but it also strengthens UEFA’s hand. They can be more radical and impose changes that the elite do not like, such as fewer places for them and more for smaller clubs, because players are unlikely to risk missing a World Cup by playing in an alternative competition to the Champions League.
Infantino and FIFA are attempting to structure a Club World Cup, held every four years, which they hope will prove enough to deter Europe’s biggest clubs. In the meantime, the “you are in or you are out” warning has diminished prospects of breaking away.
Given FIFA have talked tough on the topic, then, the question is whether UEFA will be bold and find a way to give us more of what we have seen this season in the Champions League. Instead of offering more places to clubs from England, Germany, Italy and Spain, as they did in 2016, UEFA should make it easier for the champions of Poland, Romania, Sweden, Scotland and others left at the back of the queue to make it into the group stages.
More raucous nights involving Red Star, Celtic, Steaua Bucharest and Legia Warsaw would serve the tournament better than another encounter between Tottenham and Inter or Liverpool and PSG. The big clubs will not like it, just as Real, Liverpool, United, Spurs & Co. will not enjoy the prospect of being knocked out at the group stage.
They may all, ultimately, make it through, but the fact that it has not been a formality is down to the performances of those clubs who would not have a seat at the super league table. By rewarding them, UEFA can make the Champions League even better.
Mark Ogden Senior
Writer, ESPN FC