x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

European nouveau riche are ready to usurp Champions League elite

A clutch of teams across the continent - flush with financial investment - are ready to follow in Chelsea's footsteps and upset the old guard in the Champions League, writes Ian Hawkey.

Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg bought Brazilian forward Hulk, above right, for €50m.
Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg bought Brazilian forward Hulk, above right, for €50m.

There is a topsy-turvy look to the opening phase of the Uefa Champions League, which tomorrow begins its 21st season since rebranding and reshaping itself from the old, simpler European Cup.

When the champions of Spain, England and Germany find themselves corralled in the same group from the outset, you are bound to wonder if matches that might normally be anticipated as semi-finals have not somehow slipped into the wrong place in the calendar.

The Primera Liga, the Premier League and the Bundesliga are officially and statistically the strongest domestic competitions in Europe.

Uefa's complex system of coefficients - seedings - measures them as such, so it is a little bizarre that Borussia Dortmund, the champions of Germany in 2012 and 2011 find themselves having to negotiate their way past either Real Madrid, the Primera Liga holders or Manchester City, the Premier League title-holders, merely to reach the last 16 of the Champions League.

Which is not to forget Ajax, the four-time winners of the European Cup, and the last winners of the Dutch Eredivisie, against whom Dortmund begin their campaign.

That fixture is a classic in itself, Germany versus the Holland, plenty of noisy Ajax supporters in Dortmund's atmospheric stadium.

Yet it is almost the undercard bout on tomorrow's menu for Group D, the so-called "Group of Death".

Real, in poor form this season, against City is a compelling contest, not just because it is England versus Spain, the countries who have supplied most Champions League finalists this century, but because it is a club with long tradition in the contest to find the continent's best team versus a newcomer to that elite.

City's lack of experience in the Champions League - and Dortmund's marginal participation in it in recent years - are the reason why they entered the group as third and fourth seeds, in spite of coming from prestigious, successful domestic leagues.

And for that, Uefa need not apologise but point to one of the great virtues of their emblem tournament: it imposes unique tests on its participants, and again and again shows that while dominating your own territory is a useful habit when you take on teams from abroad, the capacity to thrive in Europe needs distinct skills and temperament.

Sometimes it looks as if you need decades to acquire them. Although the competition's format has altered radically with the introduction of group phases, its hierarchy is not so unlike what it was in previous generations.

Real chase a 10th European Cup, having won six in the 1950s and 60s. Most of the European champions of the last 20 years - AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Ajax, Inter Milan - had a knack of success in the European Cup grafted on to their in the DNA in the 1960s and 1970s, or, in the cases of Barcelona and Porto, in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

But Chelsea last May showed that heavy, modern investment can launch a club to the top of Europe.

Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League but first, for the only time in their history, in Europe.

In nine years under the ownership of Roman Abramovich they have spent over €1 billion (Dh4.8bn) on recruits. Three Premier League titles and now the Champions League trophy are the reward.

City, in the four years since Sheikh Mansour began to transform that club, have spent over €500m. But they have been relative misers this summer compared to other institutions who will attempt to gatecrash the VIP section of the glamorous Champions League.

Take Paris Saint-Germain, whose first Champions League fixture for eight seasons, at home to Dynamo Kiev could feature the combined talents of Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi, a quartet on whom in the last 14 months PSG's Qatari investors have spent €130m to bring in. That is part of an overall spend over the past three transfer windows in excess of €250m.

Middle Eastern money has hoisted Malaga into the Champions League for the first time in their history, although the long-term commitment of their owner Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, from Qatar, to a project that featured heavy spending on new recruits in 2011 but not in 2012, is in some doubt.

Nonetheless, Malaga, who have started the season strongly, are upbeat about their debut group game, if apprehensive about the quality of their first opponent.

Zenit Saint Petersburg are the visitors to the Costa del Sol, armed with the most expensive striker of the last transfer window, Brazil's Hulk, signed from Porto, and their new costly midfield enforcer, Axel Witsel, bought for €35m from Benfica.

Only Chelsea and PSG splashed out more money than Zenit in the summer where new money talked very loud indeed.

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