In 2009, a subtle yet fundamental change was made to the UEFA Champions League, whereby the qualifying rounds were divided into two sections – one for champions and one for non-champions. The thinking behind UEFA president Michel Platini’s revamp of the qualifiers was that the group stage would contain more teams who had actually won their domestic leagues rather than giving fourth-placed finishers from the top leagues a cosy passage. Inevitably the idea had its critics, many of whom said it would only put more cannon fodder clubs into the group stage, but Platini’s plan to extend the olive branch of Champions League football to Europe’s middle-ranking leagues has worked exactly how he would have wanted it.
Towards the end of the previous decade, the Champions League was becoming a closed shop where one nation having three semi-finalists was almost the norm. Even when the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal were stumbling into fourth place in the Premier League, they would usually land a relatively straightforward qualifying tie against a team from Israel, Poland or Belgium and coast into the group stage, from where they would power on to the business end of the competition. Platini’s revamp meant that such teams were no longer granted ‘easy’ ties against the champions of mid-ranking nations, but would instead have to play a similarly-placed club from one of Europe’s top leagues. While English clubs have consistently passed this litmus test in each of the seven seasons since it was brought in, teams from France and Italy have not been so lucky. In fact, this year’s group stage will be the second in a row to feature just two Serie A clubs, something that is almost unthinkable given the Champions League’s openness to teams from the major nations in the 21st century.
Since the qualifiers were restructured into a ‘champions route’ and ‘league route’ in 2009/10, 27 teams have made, or are due to make, their inaugural appearance in the group stage:
2009/10 (7): APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Debrecen, FC Zurich, Rubin Kazan, Standard Liege, Unirea Urziceni
2010/11 (6): Braga, Bursaspor, FC Twente, Hapoel Tel Aviv, MSK Zilina, Tottenham
2011/12 (5): Man City, Napoli, Otelul Galati, Trazbonspor, Viktoria Plzen
2012/13 (3): Malaga, Montpellier, Nordsjaelland
2013/14 (1): Austria Vienna
2014/15 (2): Ludogorets, Malmo
2015/16 (3): Astana, Borussia Monchengladbach, Gent
While some of those debuts owe to surprise league successes (Unirea, Bursaspor, Otelul, Montpellier) and wealthy benefactors (Man City, Malaga), many of the clubs mentioned above are highly unlikely to have made it to the group stage were they not kept apart from teams who came third or fourth in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga et al. Hence the presence of the champions of Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Bulgaria, Sweden and most incredibly, Kazakhstan in the Champions League proper. While Astana, who made history last week when they overcame APOEL to reach the group stage, are the only groundbreakers in terms of being the first team from their country to get this far, others restored their nations to the top table after a long time away. Debrecen (14 years), Zilina (13), Ludogorets (8) and Malmo (14) all put their respective leagues back in the continental picture after lengthy spells away.
Another knock-on effect of Platini’s 2009 revamp is the renewed presence of some of these clubs in the Champions League group stage. BATE Borisov of Belarus first made it that far the season before the revamp, but with them being kept away from clubs from England, Spain, Germany etc, they are now in the group stage for the fifth time in eight years. APOEL have been in the competition proper on three occasions since 2009/10 and are the standard bearers for Platini’s democratic plan, having sensationally reached the quarter-finals in 2012 before losing to Real Madrid. No doubt the Frenchman will point to that extraordinary achievement and claim, not without some justification, that it would most likely have not happened if he hadn’t rejigged the qualifying rounds. Another beneficiary has been Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, now preparing for a fourth group stage appearance in five years, although they have failed to make any impact whatsoever upon reaching this hallowed threshold.
The story of Astana making it to this year’s group stage is another triumph for Platini. The club from Kazakhstan, appropriately enough, was founded in 2009, the same year as the historic overhaul of the Champions League qualifiers, and won its first national title last autumn. They actually came close to reaching last season’s Europa League group stage, advancing through three qualifying rounds before losing to Villarreal. This year though, they have seen off Maribor, HJK Helsinki and APOEL Nicosia to take their place among the continent’s elite. Even accounting for the champions of ‘lesser’ countries being kept to one side of the draw, Astana’s qualification for the group stage was most unexpected. Two of the three teams they defeated were in last season’s group stage – HJK the exception – although their manager, Stanimir Stoilov, has experience of taking teams to this phase of the Champions League, doing so with Levski Sofia for the first time in their history in 2006.
Astana’s tale has made the Champions League qualifying overhaul a worthy move from Platini. I, for one, would far prefer to see league winners from the likes of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Cyprus have a go in the group stage than a 3rd or 4th place team from the traditional top leagues. APOEL’s progress to the last eight shows that such a team can be far more than mere filler when it comes to the group stage and the achievements of that club, BATE, Astana and a few others has, most crucially, given hope to the majority of champions in Europe that they can follow in their footsteps. For instance, Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce were this season one step away from being the first club from their country to reach the group stage.
Astana will most likely find the challenge of Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Galatasaray far too difficult, but for them, success has already been obtained. They have done Kazakhstan proud and it is only right that clubs like that can realistically aim for the promised land of Champions League group stage football. I haven’t agreed with everything Platini has done in his eight years as UEFA president but he most certainly got it right with this overhaul of the Champions League qualifiers six years ago. I already look forward to seeing who next year’s Astana will be, or indeed if the Kazakhs can become a more regular presence in the competition proper.
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Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Juventus: Three talking points from Wembley
Tottenham bowed out of Europe against an experienced Juventus side.
Tottenham Hotspur crashed out of the Champions League after Juventus produced an inspired fightback to progress to the quarter-finals. The in-form Son Heung-min had put Spurs 3-2 ahead on aggregate shortly before the interval, but two goals in three second-half minutes changed the complexion of the tie.
First, Gonzalo Higuain stabbed home the equaliser before Paulo Dybala completed the comeback with a delicate finish. Harry Kane hit the post in the dying moments, but Spurs’ exit at the hands of last season’s runners-up was confirmed as they failed to score a second goal. Here are three talking points from Wembley Stadium..
Max Allegri outfoxes his Tottenham counterpart
So poor were Juventus in the first half that they were fortunate to be only one goal behind on the night and still in the tie. There was no indication of what was to come, as Max Allegri’s side transformed the match in the second period. At the final whistle, the Juve boss headed straight down the tunnel instead of venturing on to the pitch to celebrate with his players. But it was his tactical switch that paved the way for their victory.
With an hour on the clock, on came Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, who injected much-needed pace and guile. The visitors changed formation and suddenly they were getting in between the lines, with Dybala becoming much more effective. Within minutes, Juve were 2-1 ahead and in their element. Once in front, they managed the game brilliantly and didn’t look like conceding. Mauricio Pochettino, who could only stand and watch it all unfold, had been outwitted by the master.
Future looks bright despite heartbreaking exit
Disappointment may be the overriding emotion for all involved at Tottenham right now, but once the dust has settled they should look back at their Champions League adventure with pride. For this was the season they arrived as a major force on the European stage. Victories over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in a group they topped were huge fillips and evidence of their continued progress under Pochettino.
Spurs were unlucky to be drawn against a club of Juventus’ pedigree in the last 16 and it was the Italians’ knowhow that paid dividends in the heat of the battle. The hosts looked a little naive, but the experience will benefit them in the future. Tottenham are odds-on to finish in the top four and thereby qualify for the Champions League again next season. Should Pochettino be given the funds to invest in his squad this summer, the club’s fans can look forward to more nights under the spotlight.
In-form Son strikes again for Spurs
The South Korean, who was given the nod ahead of Erik Lamela in the starting line-up, vindicated his selection with the opening goal at Wembley. Son had already gone close to breaking the deadlock and was causing Andrea Barzagli all sorts of problems with his marauding runs. There was more than a touch of fortune about the goal, which rebounded off his left leg and wrong-footed veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon, but it was no less than the Spurs forward deserved.
Son came close to levelling the tie in the latter stages but, ultimately, it was to be neither his nor Tottenham’s night. With 16 goals in all competitions this season, the 25-year-old is making a big impression. He was the home side’s most potent attacking force, upstaging both Kane and Dele Alli at Wembley. Son has finally established himself in the starting XI and Spurs fans will hope he can continue to ease the goalscoring burden on Kane.
Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge
Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.
A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.
However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.
Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…
Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends
But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.
That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.
As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.
Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.
The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.
Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.
Third time lucky for impressive Willian
The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.
But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.
It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.
He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.
Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.
Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.
It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.
Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?
Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say
It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.
Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.
Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.
However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.
A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.
Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.
It could be the decisive moment.
Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Three talking points from Estádio do Dragão
Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Estádio do Dragão, as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dismantled Champions League opponents Porto.
Sadio Mane plundered a hat-trick as Liverpool produced a five-star performance to thrash Porto and virtually seal their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes before adding two more in the second half which, coupled with goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, made it a hideously one-sided affair at the Estádio do Dragão.
Porto offered precious little resistance during the 90 minutes and were completely outclassed by a Liverpool side bursting with confidence.
The return leg at Anfield in three weeks’ time will be nothing more than a formality to confirm the Reds’ place in the last eight.
Here are three talking points, as Jurgen Klopp’s men sounded a warning to the European elite…
Mane emerges from the shadows of Salah and Firmino
Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ has been a member short since Philippe Coutinho’s big-money switch to Barcelona in January.
But there has been no sign that the Reds’ form is suffering as a result. If anything, they look stronger by the game.
By his own high standards, Mane has had a relatively quiet campaign thus far and been overshadowed somewhat by the exploits of Salah and Firmino, both of whom were also on the scoresheet against Porto.
But the Senegalese forward returned to his dazzling best on the European stage to help Liverpool take total control of this last 16 tie.
Although he had a helping hand from the Porto keeper for his first goal, which really should have been stopped, Mane took his next two with great precision to round off a sensational evening for the visitors.
Klopp will be delighted that the former Southampton man proved to be so influential in arguably their most important game of the season.
Free-scoring Liverpool will take some stopping
It is not just Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League that have drawn widespread praise, but the amount of goals they have scored in the process.
No club have netted more than the Reds, with the five they bagged in their first knockout fixture since 2009 leapfrogging them above French giants Paris Saint-Germain.
It is now 28 goals in total for Klopp’s free-scoring charges, whose attacking weaponry proved too hot to handle for their Portuguese opponents.
As they showed against Sevilla in the group stage, Liverpool’s defensive frailties can sometimes undermine them.
And when, as expected, they line-up in the quarter-finals, they are likely to face a side with much more to offer in attack than Porto did.
However, new signing Virgil van Dijk, who made his Champions League debut for the Reds, should bring stability and leadership to the back line.
On this evidence, they look like viable contenders for the main prize.
Klopp’s reign is delivering the goods
When Klopp joined Liverpool in the autumn of 2015, many Liverpool supporters believed he would bring them immediate success.
The gregarious German is still yet to win silverware at Anfield, but there is no denying the club are taking significant strides forward under his management this season.
Some of the money they received from Barcelona for Coutinho has already been reinvested into the squad and more high-profile arrivals are likely to follow in future transfer windows.
Liverpool remain prone to suffering off-days against lesser opposition, perhaps more so than any of their main domestic rivals, but they possess the armoury to blow away teams of the highest quality.
Even Manchester City, the runaway Premier League leaders, recently succumbed to the Reds’ attacking might.
As always, the proof will come at the end of the season.
But under Klopp, Liverpool are playing an attractive brand of football that is illuminating Europe.
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