CL Debate: Juventus Out, Liverpool Out – Is The Gap Closing In The Champions League?

As the shocks continue to roll in in Europe’s blue-ribbon club competition, Goal.com’s KS Leong wonders if the continent’s elite are starting to lose a bit of their luster…

The rich get richer, the strong become stronger, while the poor get poorer. That seems to be how football works these days as Europe’s top dogs continue to grow in leaps in bounds, signing one megastar after another or poaching emerging young talents from smaller clubs in order to compete with their fiercest rivals on and off the pitch.

But some of the unfancied sides in this season’s Champions League refused to follow the script.

The biggest shock of all so far has been Liverpool, who didn’t even have the dramatic nous to be eliminated from the competition on the last day of the group phase. The Reds, unlike Europe’s other big guns, didn’t have much to spend during the summer, but at the same time, they succeeded in maintaining the core of the group from last season that did so well, bar for a certain Xabi Alonso.

But even then, with the club’s pedigree, an experienced manager like Rafa Benitez and some of the best players in the world at his disposal, you would think that they could at least push their qualification hopes until the last matchday.

Juventus were equally abysmal all round, and they splashed out to sign the likes of Felipe Melo and Diego. They only managed two wins in Group A, both unconvincing 1-0 victories over the poorest side in the section, Maccabi Haifa. The Old Lady were still expected to qualify for the knockout stage at the expense of another behemoth, Bayern Munich, but their miserable campaign was compounded when they were demolished 4-1 at home by the Bavarians, despite needing only a draw… despite scoring first.


Diego shields his eyes away from Juve's horror show

Milan, on the other hand, stumbled across the finish line in the end, eventhough the final Group C standings would show that they have a comfortable looking two-point cushion over third placed Marseille. They were held at home by the French outfit and over the two meetings with minnows FC Zurich, collected just one fortunate point.

Fiorentina, the “fourth” team in Serie A last term, are the ones who are providing all the thrills from Italy, both in terms of results and performances. French sides, Bordeaux, inspired by Yoann Gourcuff and Lyon, who are assembling a new generation of septuple-chasing stars, have also been impressive, while Marseille weren’t far behind either, although they will have to fly the French flag from the Europa League from here on out.

The Russians are also leading a resurgence of their own. Rubin Kazan have become one of the darlings of the competition this campaign after shocking mighty Barcelona not once but twice, first winning at the Camp Nou before holding the reigning European kings to a stalemate at home. Not many teams in the world can prevent Lionel Messi and co. from scoring.

Barca could yet join Liverpool and Juventus in the Europa League or worst still, out of Europe all together, and so can Inter. It’s not a scenario you would’ve imagined happening a few years ago, or even last season.


Stylish Mou and Pep have failed to turn on the style

CSKA Moscow, meanwhile, came close to upsetting Manchester United at Old Trafford, but quietly flew under the radar after an opening day setback against Wolfsburg to qualify for the last 16 on the last matchday, eventhough the Germans had been the favourites to progress.

Speaking of the devil, United haven’t been all that convincing either. After escaping embarrassment at home against CSKA, they did eventually stumble in their own backyard on Matchday Five against Besiktas, although Sir Alex Ferguson fielded his version of “the kids” having already bagged qualification to the next phase.

Romanian fairytale side, Unirea Urziceni are on the verge of becoming the only competition debutants this season to qualify for the last 16. They might not have had the toughest of groups, but when you consider that they have only ever been playing in Romania’s top flight for only four years, Rangers, VfB Stuttgart and even Sevilla must seem like Goliaths to them.

Even Arsenal were in a spot of bother. In fact, they were caught between a rock and something else altogether five minutes into the tournament after going behind 2-0 at Standard Liege, only to crawl back to win 3-2. But on Matchday Three, they were held at struggling Dutch side, AZ, another club playing in the Champions League-proper for the very first time, although they did participate in the old European Cup once before.

Chelsea were one of the more convincing of the perennial favourites heading into the final round of games, securing passage to the last 16 by Matchday Four and topping the group in the penultimate round, but a 2-2 draw at home to APOEL on Tuesday night put a blemish on their excellent run. And they fielded quite a strong team, too, against the Cypriots.

Real Madrid, despite all the criticism levelled at them and the incessant spotlight being focused on the Neo-Galactico project, were the only team who didn’t fumble against lesser opposition, beating both FC Zurich and Marseille twice. They failed to beat Milan in both encounters, but that’s not really a disappointment when you take into account that the Italians were the seeded team and Madrid were in the second pot during the group draw. Even then, the Merengues – along with the Rossoneri – had to wait until the final day to book their ticket to the round of 16.


Madrid had the last laugh in the end

Once upon a time, Europe’s underdogs would have all these hideous statistics and records stacked up against them, stats like the biggest defeat, the longest winless run, or the longest losing streak.  They were unflattering figures that prompted questions to be raised about whether or not the smaller teams should be allowed to compete in the Champions League.

But now, in a blink of an eye, the tables have been turned and the question that begs to be asked is: is the gulf between Europe’s traditional giants and the chasing pack diminishing? Or are the superpowers of the continent simply taking their elite status for granted? Or maybe it’s just the old adage that anything can happen in football.

KS Leong, Goal.com