Football is a long way from real-life, so it was difficult to have too much sympathy for the players of Porto, Basel and Basiktas as they endured vigorous thrashings in the Champions League over the past fortnight. They’ll struggle on. Pity, though, the poor souls who’ll be traipsing to England’s north-west from Portugal and Switzerland next month, all for the sake of a dismal dead rubber. In Turkey, too, 32,000 football fanatics will amass at Istanbul’s İnönü Stadium to see their team play out the second half of a tie whose outcome was put beyond all doubt three weeks earlier.
In the grand scheme of thing, three results – two five-nils and a four-nil – is hardly a definitive pattern, but the pastings dished out by Liverpool, Manchester City and Bayern Munich over the last fortnight did present the clearest evidence yet of a growing tectonic shift within European football: that the clubs from what we now know as the “top five” leagues (an epithet whose sudden prevalence speaks for itself) are speeding away from the chasing back.
The group stages saw the club that qualified as the fourth best team in England demolish the champions of Russia and Slovenia, each by a seven-goal margin. It saw Paris Saint-Germain rack up 25 goals over six matches. There were some mild surprises – the exits of Napoli and Borussia Dortmund chief among them – but these were more than offset by a general feeling of a kind of mass muscle-flexing, of the continent’s superclubs racking up easy wins at half-speed, like the uber-talented academy kid who’s been roped into turning out for his school team.
And despite the best effort of Juventus and Tottenham, of Chelsea and Barcelona, that feeling was only amplified by the round of 16. Factor in that the eight places in the last four finals have been taken by just four clubs (between 2001 and 2004, that number was eight), and the last 16 semi-final places taken by the same eight clubs, and the bigger picture comes into focus. Increasingly it feels as though the Champions League’s early rounds are merely a warm-up act for the later ones, which are played out by a now-familiar recurring cast.
If by this point you’re awaiting the mention of a breakaway European Super League, you’d be right. After all, whose purpose is served, exactly, by these ever more predictable and pedestrian early stages? Not the “smaller” clubs, whose much-anticipated bouts with Europe’s heavyweights tend to end in a swift and faintly demeaning knockout punch. Not the big clubs, who would rather be playing each other and raking in the TV money accordingly. As for UEFA, Gazprom and the various other behind-the-scenes powerbrokers, the situation doesn’t at this stage require an intervention – which is to say, people at home aren’t yet turning off – but the alternative must set a few boardroom pulses racing.
But if these monster-v-minnow tonkings hinted in one way at a breakaway league, perhaps the more interesting inference could be made from the second round’s one true clash of the titans. PSG’s trip to the Bernabeu was the headline game of a nascent tournament, billed as holders against upstarts, Ronaldo against Neymar, European football’s old emperor against the young pretender (which is to say: the continent’s historically richest club against its currently richest one). It the event it was a weirdly airless game, PSG taking the lead yet failing to ever really get going against a desperately below-par Madrid side, felled at the last by a couple of strangely straightforward goals.
It was hard to escape the feeling that PSG looked distinctly rusty and unprepared. This despite having warmed up by winning six domestic games on the bounce by a combined score of 19-6. A week before that they’d flattened Dijon 8-0, Neymar scoring four. The Paris club are cantering to the Ligue 1 title, having cannibalised last season’s surprise winners of their best player (the transfer market showing up the piddling finances of Monaco’s Russian oligarch as no match for PSG’s gulf state). Yet, despite having a squad as grizzled, glitzy and star-studded as any of their European counterparts, they can’t seem to muster a performance to prove it.
It’s becoming a pattern for PSG: routinely waltzing to the French title yet pitifully unable to make it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The suspicion is that the ability to sleepwalk their way to domestic dominance is in fact doing more harm than good for a project whose ultimate ambition – to act as a soft-power arm of the Qatari state – is fundamentally international. Any more of this and PSG run the risk of being remembered as football’s equivalent of Be Here Now: acclaimed at the time due to their enormous profile but looked back on as a cash-bloated and incoherent mess, a collection of egos running wild and failing shamefully to deliver.
So on the one hand, a cohort of wealthy superclubs who are winning too easily. On the other, the wealthiest superclub of them all who can’t buy a win when it counts. A breakaway league would, in theory at least, cure everyone’s problems at once – at least, everyone within this wealthy few. And if there’s one way in which football really does reflect real life, it’s in how the wealthy few tend to get what they want.