As misnomers go, the ‘UEFA Champions League’ is up there with the biggest. Since its inception in 1992, ostensibly replacing the European Cup, it has grown into a behemoth which has subsumed all other European competitions. What was once the ultimate knockout test between the champions of each European league – a competition in the truest sense of the word – is now monopolised by the same wealthy elite.
What a shot in the arm for the very sense of competition – that word again – that two of Europe’s biggest, riches clubs have exited at the first hurdle. For the first time since 2005/06, the city of Manchester will not be represented at Europe’s top table beyond Christmas. Puritans and nostalgics, those yearning for the days a team could win their domestic league following an epic struggle could be out of Europe by September, will allow themselves a wry smile, reminded as they are of times where playing fields were leveller, and wealth dictated less.
Manchester City supporters, on the other hand, can be forgiven for feeling somewhat differently. In a cruel twist of fate, their debut in the competition coincided with the Champions League’s first real Group of Death since that which pitted Manchester United with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Brondby in 1998. Far from being assured of a place in the final-16 come the group draw, they were catapulted into the first group to spark any interest in aeons. Normally the competition does not begin in earnest until March. For the members of Group A, however, there could be found the nervous excitement and tension of which the group stages are normally bereft.
As is often the case in such tightly matched groups, fine margins eventually dictated qualification and elimination. With Napoli easing City into third spot, the City fans inevitably look to the head-to-head clashes with the Italian surprise-packages. Could they have been that bit more assertive in the opening game of their European season as the Neapolitans came to town? The match disappointingly drawn, was that raw, visceral ruthlessness which has characterised their domestic season missing that September evening? Others will point to a simple inability to defend near-post flicks in the return fixture. How galling it is to think that something so rudimentary could make such a difference at the highest level.
Alas, Roberto Mancini’s men drop into a competition which is not so much secondary as a complete irrelevance. Such is the Champions league’s contemporary morbid obesity that the Europa League is dismissed by Europe’s biggest clubs and players alike. Reserve teams are often fielded; crowds small and muted. Patrice Evra’s graceless comment that he is “embarrassed” at the prospect of playing in the competition does not help. Perhaps doing a little more to stop Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross to assist Alex Frei’s winning goal would have saved him from such embarrassment. Just a thought.
Praise Mancini, then, for his signal of intent in the aftermath of the Citizens’ exit. City, he claimed, intend on treating the Europa League as one of “two important trophies” to win in order to cap a successful season. A refreshing attitude indeed; one that echoes back to pre-Champions League excessiveness, acknowledging the fact that it is a trophy with names such as Real Madrid, Ajax and Juventus etched onto it. It may be at the back of City supporters’ minds right now, but by sticking to his word, Roberto Mancini may be able to breathe some unlikely life into a hitherto moribund competition.
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