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Lionel Messi scored in Barcelona's comfortable 2-0 victory against Dinamo Kiev.
Lionel Messi scored in Barcelona's comfortable 2-0 victory against Dinamo Kiev.

No room for Champions League minnows

Competition's group stages are formatted to look after the bigger fish, writes Andy Mitten.

Barcelona and Sevilla did as expected on Tuesday night in the Champions League, comfortably beating teams whose only aim was to reach the group stage. Barca beat Dinamo Kiev 2-0, while Sevilla destroyed Glasgow Rangers 4-1 at Ibrox, yet so predictable are they, the group stages have been heavily criticised.

The Champions League encapsulates glamour. It is an advertiser's dream. The European competition's popularity is unsurpassed globally, with big matches regularly attracting television audiences in excess of 500 million. Multi-nationals like Ford, Sony and Mastercard swear by it, while new sponsors like Italy-based bank UniCredit have seen their profile soar by association, even though consumers in huge markets like the UK, France, Scandinavia and Iberia cannot use its services.

The Champions League succeeds as a marketing dream precisely because it was set up by marketing men, but danger lurks in that predictability which the biggest clubs and big name attractions crave. By Matchday Six, more than half of the teams already know their fate. The same argument could be levelled at any domestic league, yet attendances in the Champions League tumble much faster for insignificant games because there is seldom any history or rivalry between the competing teams.

Tuesday's results did throw up some surprises such as Fiorentina's 2-0 win against Liverpool, but the competition is formatted to safeguard the elite. It was not always so. When Barca last met Kiev in the Champions League in 1997-98, the Ukrainian champions won 3-0 at home and - staggeringly - 4-0 in the Camp Nou, thanks to a first half Andrei Shevchenko hat-trick. In 1992-93, Barcelona were the reigning European Cup holders and were knocked out 4-3 on aggregate in the second round by CSKA Moscow.

Such has been the gradual drift of wealth towards the Western European giants, similar results would be unimaginable today. The Ukraine league is wealthy and two of its strongest teams, Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk, met in the semi-finals of last season's Uefa Cup - a second tier competition for second tier footballing nations, stocked with teams that failed to overcome the big names in the Champions League.

It is also the only competition where teams from major footballing nations like Germany and France are likely to see success, such is the hold which the English, Spanish and Italian clubs have on the Champions League. No club from outside Europe's three strongest domestic leagues has reached the semi-final since Holland's PSV Eindhoven in 2005. Just seven clubs from those three countries have dominated. Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea and Liverpool, Milan, Arsenal and Villarreal have occupied the 16 semi-final spaces in the past four years. Giants of yore like Bayern Munich and Ajax find they have a glass ceiling. Bayern, with their four European Cups, 60,000 average crowds and a home in the richest city of Europe's biggest economy, admitted as much after they were swatted 4-0 like an annoying fly by Barca last season.

The possibility of a Porto versus Monaco final as in 2004 seems more remote than ever and while Uefa president Michel Platini is well-intentioned to pursue equality through sporting rather than commercial excellence, his job is virtually impossible when the two are so closely intertwined. He wants to reduce the number of English and Spanish teams in the Champions League from four to three, but he will meet opposition.

It is refreshing to see names like Rubin Kazan (Russia), Unirea Urziceni (Romania), APOEL (Cyprus) and AZ Alkmaar (Holland) alongside far bigger names in this season's group stages after Platini oversaw the re-formatting of the final qualifying stage to give lesser lights a better chance. Rubin held Inter Milan 1-1 and Unirea drew with Stuttgart by the same score on Tuesday, but the chance of either progressing beyond the group stage is limited.

When the power lies with the big teams and not Uefa, the European governing body can only push so far when the finances of clubs like United are geared to reaching the final stages of the Champions League every year. There is one striking anomaly. Real Madrid have been unable to go beyond the last 16 for the last five years. amitten@thenational.ae

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