Another outsider story ends in the Champions League -

Another outsider story ends in the Champions League

graphic of champions league ball from official logo

By J Hutcherson (May 3, 2022) US Soccer Players – While I’m not sure any of us should be nodding along with the idea that we’re watching the best club soccer has to offer in this edition of the UEFA Champions League knockout round, it’s certainly interesting. Liverpool, needing to reorganize to advance past Villarreal, once again stressed the level of difficulty at the highest level of European soccer. That’s supposed to be at least part of the point. In a season where the super club collecting an all-star team of players exited in the round of 16, it’s tempting to see this as a freewheeling version of the tournament even if the usual suspects end up in the final.

Liverpool’s return to form midway through the second-half at El Madrigal didn’t tell us anything new about the Premier League representative. How Liverpool scored the goals that eventually put away Villarreal 5-2 on aggregate were the same advantage plays we’ve seen throughout this season. Liverpool wins because they have the kind of quality throughout their roster that only a handful of teams can hope to match right now. With respect to what Villarreal accomplished in the Champions League this season, they’re not one of them.

This isn’t about super clubs understanding each other better than the bulk of teams in their domestic leagues. It’s not a slight return to what the super league concept might have right, at least in scope. It’s simply admitting that the teams with the biggest advantages that transfer money can buy are also the most likely to end up playing for the Champions League trophy.

European club soccer fought off a significant attempt at disruption over a year ago with the short saga of The Super League, but it doesn’t fundamentally change that competitive issue. Neither does whatever UEFA ends up doing with its Champions League revamp. Short of fundamentally restructuring European club soccer with the kind of cost controls that would invite European Union scrutiny, there’s only so much change that is reasonably possible. Past that, it moves into the realm of reinvention, like a super league without any domestic league obligations. Or a Champions League schedule playing out on Saturdays rather than midweek.

It’s a safe argument that those types of concepts would be very good for some parts of the game. What gets left behind might not matter from a competitive standpoint. It’s easy to look at a team like Crystal Palace that’s never qualified for Europe and stress the four points they took off of Manchester City this season. Had Palace known its place, City isn’t sweating Liverpool’s title challenge as much. Winning at City and drawing at home might change the arc of a title defense. Sub in a mid-tier super club in a closed super league, and is it really any different?

Regardless of what happens with UEFA’s reorganizing of the most lucrative club tournament in the world, it’s probably not going to assert some new concept of competitive balance. PSG was a disappointment in the knockout rounds. To a slightly lesser extent, so were Juventus and Bayern Munich. Status clubs losing early normally creates that impression, regardless of the realities of their situations in the moment. Juventus isn’t doing well in Serie A either. Bayern may have played itself to another Bundesliga title, but they’re not the all-conquering team they were a few seasons ago. Once again, this is relative to super club ambition, where it’s possible to win trophies and still disappoint.

That brings us back to Villarreal, the semifinal outsider that we haven’t seen since RB Leipzig and Lyon crashed the party in the belated 2019-20 edition. Given how easy it is to put together a 20-team league from the elite of European soccer, there’s not the same hegemony problem we might find in a North American sports league. Here, a dynasty takes all of the attention. In Europe, there’s enough space for multiple storylines. While that occasionally includes an outsider club making it all the way to the Champions League final, at least in the modern era the stronger team eventually wins.

What European soccer has so far avoided deciding is whether or not that’s alright both from a competitive and a business standpoint. Either of those options could change things. UEFA, could continue to alter squad and loan rules to limit the hoarding of talent. They could return tying players to clubs for the entire tournament. That makes roster building trickier. They could enforce meaningful financial regulations that can stand up to legal scrutiny, causing the game to necessarily adjust. It’s not so much creating more space in the top tier for other clubs to join as it is reasserting a level of competition that knocks strong teams out early and often. If that’s what any of the stakeholders really want, a question not answered last year by The Super League fallout and still open to interpretation as we wait to see what happens next.

J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at [email protected].

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Graphic courtesy of UEFA

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