Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning goal that helped Manchester United see off Porto in their Champions League quarter final earlier today really summed up the quality of football and sheer entertainment that the competition has offered up this season. It truly was an incredible goal, the pure instinct of it and to strike a ball so cleanly is a rare thing. I only feel sorry for the Porto ‘keeper who will forever have to watch constant replays of the moment, and see people drooling over a clip that sees him flail wildly in an admirable attempt to prevent the impossible.
However, while I like the rest of you thoroughly enjoyed the football from all four quarter finals (even though i did have to get up at 6.30am to watch them), I still have to wonder whether the importance and prestige that this competition holds is in the end, good for the game as a whole.
As an Everton fan I often stop and think about what could have been with regard to our singular assault on the Champions League after a fourth placed finish a few seasons ago. As luck would have it, we drew arguably the best side in the qualifying round of the tournament, Villareal, and thanks to the worst decision that Pierre Luigi Colina (you know, the bald ref with the bulging eyes) ever made were denied the chance to play in the tournament proper.
The subsequent season collapsed around us as, reeling from that defeat, we crashed disastrously out of the UEFA Cup and made a horrid start to the Premier League campaign, eventually limping over the line in mid-table, rather not what we had hoped for after our glorious ruption of the top four dominance the season before.
But if we had managed to beat Villareal, if Colina hadn’t ruled out a perfectly good goal for no apparent reason, I wonder whether or not Everton may not have established themselves by now as a member of the ‘big five’. Villareal after all, were regarded very much as underdogs that season but went all the way to the Quarter Finals (at least) if memory serves, and have gone from strength to strength since, giving Arsenal a good game just this morning.
The thing is, the glamour and riches that the Champions League bestows on a club are son incredible and so rewarding, and yet every season rolls around and we see, for the most part, the same roster of clubs taking part. This season again, like last season, sees three English clubs make it to the semi-finals, and given the financial benefits that this brings, it is hard not to see them repeating the trick next season.
But if Everton had just squeezed their way in, they could have raised their profile and bank balance sufficiently to join this very exclusive club. As it was, we fell back down into the general anonymity of the Premier League and had to re-initiate our quest to break the ‘big four’.
The trouble is, as time goes on, it just gets harder. Every season that has passed since Everton crashed the party, the ‘big four’ have qualified, succeeded and thus become even better. They’ve continued to rake in far more money that all the other clubs in the league combined and so the gap in quality continues to increase. Yes, Everton and Villa are once again closing in, but the top four will, come the close season, again strengthen their squads with copious spending while we scratch around to try and convince top players to come and play in the UEFA Cup Europa League. And despite its jazzy new name, that’s still a tough task.
And it is not an isolated problem. Sepp Blatter turned some heads a few months ago when he made a sensible remark, questioning the point of a competition (the Premier League to be precise) that only four teams could genuinely hope to win. He was right, we all knew it, and we all dislike that only a minority of the clubs in the league can realistically hope to be crowned champions. However, Blatter’s criticism, as it so often is, was aimed at England. What about the rest of Europe?
In France, Lyon actually own the Ligue 1 trophy, I’m pretty sure all the other clubs have forgotten what it looks like. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid, for the most part engage in a two way brawl for the title, and only occasionally will another club get a chance to pip them at the post, usually when they’re too busy fighting each other to notice what’s going on around them. In Italy Inter Milan have had the Serie A sewn up since Juve and Ac Milan got done for match-fixing because the likes of Roma are just too damn inconsistent, and of course Scotland (it counts!) has been a two horse race for longer than I care to remember.
In fact, the only reasonably high profile league that isn’t contested between only a few clubs seems to be the German Bundesliga, where Bayern often dominate but usually given either Hamburg, Werder Bremen, Schalke, Hertha or even Wolfsburg a shot a the title. It’s a genuinely exciting and open league where a lot of teams can have a realistic chance of qualifying.
The thing is though, apart from Bayern, how often do we see German teams in the last eight of the Champions League? And Bayern seem to be a fading force too, being given a footballing lesson by Barca and seemingly resigned to losing Franck Ribery, their only really world class player, because they just can’t match his ambition. The sad truth is, that if you want to have a widely competitive domestic league, you can’t expect to do well in the Champions League.
The Premier League clubs do so well in the Champions League because the concentration of top quality players is so top heavy. The big four are saturated with them, and Everton and Villa have a fair few but not quite enough. As you move down the league, the clubs only have a sprinkling each until you get to Newcastle, who are discounted from such trends due to the fact that they are a constant bemusing anomoly of football.
So tell me football fans, what would you rather see? Exciting and even and open football week in week out in the Premier League, where most teams have a reasonable chance of having a good season and winning the title, or a League dominated by a few clubs who also dominate Europe? I know which I’d rather, but unfortunately if you, like me, want a competitive Premiership, you may be in for a long wait, because with money and success comes power and like the quality of squad, the top clubs in the Premier League have it all, and they like things just the way they are.