By Ben Hayward
The ancien regime reigns supreme. Barring unforeseen upsets of dramatic proportions, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester United with all be crowned champions of their respective leagues this term and the days when a team from outside the established elite could break through and secure a title triumph in one of the continent's choice competitions appear to be firmly in the past. In fact, they may never return.
Barcelona lead La Liga by 13 points from fierce rivals Real Madrid, first and third in Uefa's co-efficient rankings and the two wealthiest teams in the whole of Europe. In Deloitte's latest annual rich list, published in January, Madrid came out top with over €500 million earned in 2011-12, with Barca in second with just under half a billion brought in over that period. No other Spanish side was in the top 20 and the big two's closest challengers at home, Valencia and Atletico Madrid, accrued little more than €100m in the same season. Malaga, meanwhile, a team hoping to upset the top two in Spain with an ambitious plan in place, are now set to be hit with a European ban which will likely lead to the disintegration of their playing squad - and the subsequent demise of their promising project.
In Germany, Bayern top the Bundesliga by an unprecedented margin of 20 points from Borussia Dortmund, and will be crowned champions this weekend if they beat Hamburg at home and BVB fail to win at VfB Stuttgart. The Munich side seem set for a period of domestic dominance as well, with Pep Guardiola arriving as coach this summer and a healthy European co-efficient ranking which sees them separate Barca and Madrid at the top of Uefa's seedings. Club coffers are also in great shape, with the Bavarians bringing in €368.4 million in 2011-12, according to Deloitte, making them the fourth-richest club in the continent.
|WE MAY NEVER SEE THEIR LIKE AGAIN...
| ABERDEEN (1979-85)
|Under the brilliant guidance of Alex Ferguson, the Dons won four Scottish leagues, a European Cup Winners' Cup and a Uefa Super Cup. Impossible to imagine now.|
| DEPORTIVO LA CORUNA (1993-2004)
|After winning promotion in 1991, Depor went on to secure nine top-three finishes in Primera, winning the title in 2000. The Galicians are now last in La Liga.|
| HELLAS VERONA (1984-85)
|They called it 'the miracle' even then, but it would be unthinkable now. Little Verona stunned Serie A in 1984-85 with a shock Scudetto. They are currently in Serie B.|
| NOTTINGHAM FOREST (1977-80)
|Led by the brilliant Brian Clough, Forest claimed the First Division in 1978, and then won back-to-back European Cups. They are now in England's second tier.|
| WOLFSBURG (2008-09)
|Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga as recently as 2009, but that squad has since disbanded and they have more recently been forced to fight relegation.|
In Italy, meanwhile, Juventus have officially recovered from demotion to Serie B in 2006 and the long road back to the top. That the Turin-based club would return to Europe's elite, however, was never in doubt. Juve have more fans than any other club in Italy, fulsome financial backing, a brand-new stadium and potential to become even stronger in the next few seasons. Still recovering in terms of their Uefa co-efficient after several seasons spent lower down in Serie A prior to last term's Scudetto, Juve are only 10th in Deloitte's rich list. But back among the cream of the crop in Europe, earnings will improve, as will the club's co-efficient in the coming campaigns, particularly as they are about to clinch a second straight title at home (they are currently nine points ahead of second-placed Napoli) and are in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time since their 2006 demotion for their role in the Calciopoli scandal.
And it's not just Europe's top leagues, either. In France, nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain lead Ligue 1 and are arguably the country's biggest club, thanks to the significant outlay from Qatar Sports Investments. In Scotland, meanwhile, Celtic have taken full advantage of Rangers' demotion to the fourth tier for financial meltdown by storming to a 15-point lead over Motherwell in the SPL, stripped of their only real challengers for the trophy. In Portugal, traditional giants Benfica and Porto are doing battle for the SuperLiga, while Olympiakos lead the Greek championship by 16 points, Anderlecht are on top in Belgium and Galatasaray look likely to edge out Fenerbahce and Besiktas in Turkey. Elsewhere, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord fight it out for the Dutch Eredivisie. The biggest clubs are in control across the board - all across the continent.
Uefa's Financial Fair Play regulations are supposed to create more of a level playing field, with sides forced to spend within their means instead of racking up huge debts in order to fund short-term gain. Those rules, however, hand a considerable advantage to Europe's richest clubs, who will be able to continue spending their impressive income while others will not. Teams like Barcelona, Madrid and Manchester United will be required to manage their finances more responsibly than in recent years, yet their remarkable revenue from gate receipts, shirt sales and sponsorship, image rights, lucrative pre-season tours and television deals will allow the elite to keep buying big. Under the FFP laws, the rich will get richer - and that seems to be how Uefa want it.
Co-efficient rules also aid the continent's top teams. The Champions League has been designed to allow access to most of Europe's biggest clubs, ensuring maximum exposure and mega money for those lucky few. Failure to qualify for the competition these days is considered a disaster for many sides across the continent. Valencia, for example, will be forced to sell several of their finest footballers should they miss out on next season's competition. Others just below the elite, such as Roma, Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, suffer a little more each season without coveted Champions League money, and must either be extremely well run (like Spurs) or part with their best players (as Atletico have done in recent years and will again when Radamel Falcao likely leaves in the summer to clear debts).
|EUROPE'S ELITE | The 10 richest clubs
|Real Madrid||€512.6m (£430.8m)|
|Manchester United||€395.9m (£332.7m)|
|Bayern Munich||€368.4m (£309.6m)|
|Manchester City||€285.6m (£240m)|
|AC Milan||€256.9m (£215.9m)|
These days, though, most teams consider the Europa League to be a second-rate consolation competition or an unwanted distraction, with many clubs not even fielding strong sides because the financial rewards do not make it worth their while, when they are better off focusing their energies on Champions League qualification instead.
So it may be some time before we see another Nottingham Forest, a Hellas Verona or a Deportivo La Coruna - teams that worked their way up to the top on a relative shoestring and rocked Europe's elite. Today, Uefa's priority appears to be merely financial, and some of the romance, mystique and magic is lost as the ancien regime's grip on the game looks set to grow even stronger in the coming years.
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