by Panos Bletsos
As the battle for domination in this season’s UEFA Champions League reaches its culmination, war of a different kind is raging in the backdrop. Ecstatic with the play on the field this campaign, we may have been too busy to notice that some of the tournament’s traditional teams might not shed their light onto the 2012-’13 competition at all. But what would that mean? A drop in quality or perhaps a breath of fresh air?
Before jumping to any hasty conclusions, let’s take a look at the facts. Although it’s still only April, the season has been brought forward due to Euro 2012, which means a significant number of places for the upcoming Champions League has already been allocated. And it isn’t looking pretty for some of Europe’s big guns.
A Special One, Indeed!
Top of the list, Chelsea. Runners-up only four years ago and Champions League regulars for nine years in a row, the Blues may have to settle with Europa League football for the first time since October ’02. And if history has to do with anything, Lampard, Terry & co. may still remember that they were then knocked out by unfancied Norwegian outfit Viking in the very first round…
First things first though, as Roberto Di Matteo’s men have it all to do if they are to claim England’s fourth Champions League berth via the Premiership. Chelsea hammered Tottenham 5-1 a few days ago to set up an enticing FA Cup final against Liverpool, but their cross-town rivals are still a point above them in the league – and fourth-placed Newcastle United an additional three further up. With four games remaining for these three sides, the Magpies’ visit to Stamforde Bridge on May 2 looks bound to be crucial.
And while five-time winners Liverpool will almost inevitably have to make do with a Europa League slot next season (after missing out on international football altogether for 2011-’12), Internazionale’s possible absence would be even more striking. Not only because they won the Champions League as recently as two years ago, but also due to their ten consecutive participations.
Coincidence or not, these are José Mourinho’s two previous clubs! And no matter what you may think, both of them have struggled to come to terms with his departure. The English have parted ways with six different coaches in four-and-a-half years and the Italians sacked four in less than two seasons! Nonetheless, Inter’s problems are bigger than that. Knocked out of both the Champions League and the Coppa earlier in the season, they are currently as low as seventh in Serie A and – with just five rounds of matches remaining - in severe danger of missing out on Europe altogether for the first time in 12 years!
With Italy missing one CL slot to Germany’s benefit this year AS Roma’s chances are also looking bleak, a case which also applies to a couple of Spanish high-profile clubs, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla. But perhaps the most intriguing shift of power is taking place just north of the border, across the Pyrenees.
Just 16 months ago Auxerre ended their Champions League campaign at the Santiago Bernabéu. They finished last season without even qualifying for Europe again and now they look all but doomed to go down, rooted to the bottom of Ligue 1 six points from safety with only five games to play.
Olympique Marseille have been CL participants for the past five years in a row and made it all the way to the quarters this season – but they won’t be there when the next one comes around. And there’s a pretty good chance their namesakes from Lyon will not be there either. Ever-present since the distant 1999-2000 version, Rémi Garde’s troops can only hope of clinching France’s third and last spot in the coming tournament, leading up to the play-off round. But to achieve that they’ll have to overcome a six-point gap between them and resurgent Lille, a deficit virtually rising to seven points due to the reigning champions’ vastly superior goal difference of +26 (compared to Olympique’s +9).
And there will be a few more notable absentees from other countries too. Norwegian powerhouse Rosenborg only finished third in last year’s Eliteserien and will miss out again (they recorded their 11th outing back in ’07-’08), as will Scottish fallen giants Glasgow Rangers, although not for sporting reasons.
So, who will be there when the next Champions League kicks off? Most of the remaining Europe’s top clubs have either qualified (Manchester United and cross-town rivals City, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, Olympiakos Pirea, Celtic, Schalke, Juventus Turin, Zenit, Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk) or come close to securing their berths, alongside several interesting newcomers.
I Have a Dream
Newcastle United are hopeful of a remarkable come-back after an eight-year absence, less than two years since regaining their top-flight status, big-spending Málaga are enjoying a three-point advantage in their effort to qualify for the very first time, while Montpellier will also be entering uncharted territory. In Italy Udinese are upping their tempo so as to grab a... third bite at the cherry and in Germany Borussia Mönchengladbach, beaten finalists of the ’76-’77 Champions Cup, are gearing up for an emotional reappearance, a long 34 years after their previous showing.
Are these changes merely symptomatic? Or do they mean that Michel Platini’s vision of redistributing Europe’s footballing power is drawing ever closer to its implementation? It’s too early to say, as we wait to find out the effects of UEFA’s revolutionary Financial Fair Play regulations. Until any large-scale changes are visible, let’s just enjoy the action. After all, that’s what’s it’s all about, isn’t it?
HAVE YOUR SAY...Who are the traditional teams in the Champions League that you think will miss out? What unfancied teams might make the jump into Europe's biggest pond? Talk all issues soccer on Soccer365.
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