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Has excessive game time hindered some of Europe's biggest clubs?

Man City, Barcelona and Juventus have been among the top sides to perform well-below expectations in the Champions League.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling reacts at the end of the Champions League quarter-final against Lyon.
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling reacts at the end of the Champions League quarter-final against Lyon.
Image: Miguel A. Lopes

IT’S SAFE TO say that not many people would have predicted at the start of the season that not a single team from all three of England, Italy and Spain would be represented in the semi-finals of the Champions League.

The biggest sides from arguably Europe’s three biggest leagues have all faltered on the big stage of late.

Instead, two teams from France and two from Germany will battle for glory, as RB Leipzig face PSG on Tuesday and Lyon play Bayern on Wednesday.

Of the teams left, RB Leipzig have never previously made it to this stage in their 11-year history. Prior to now, they were dumped out at the group stage amid their only other appearance in the competition during the 2017-18 campaign.

Though they have missed out on Champions League qualification on just three occasions in the past 20 seasons, Lyon have only reached the semi-finals once before in their history — in 2009-10, when they lost 4-0 to Bayern on aggregate.

Should they succeed where they previously failed and shock Bayern on Wednesday, the side — who finished seventh in Ligue 1 this season in controversial circumstances, and will need to win this year’s competition to qualify for any form of European competition next year — will be making their first appearance in the final.

The other French team left, PSG, have for years been branded as ‘chokers,’ but finally got past the quarter-finals this year after numerous unsuccessful attempts, reaching the semis for the first time since the 1994-95 campaign, a best-ever performance in the competition that ultimately saw them suffer a 3-0 aggregate loss to Milan.

Bayern Munich, therefore, are the only remaining team with real pedigree at this level, with five victories and five more runners-up appearances.

Should they prevail this year, they will draw level with six-time winners Liverpool, with only Milan (7) and Real Madrid (13) having more triumphs to their name.

A Bayern success would feel apt in a way, given that we are living in an era where football is widely regarded to be more predictable than ever. Three of Europe’s big five leagues have become laughably one-sided, with Bayern, Juventus and PSG all consistently winning their domestic competitions. In Spain, with one exception (Atletico Madrid in 2013-14), either Barcelona or Real Madrid have continually emerged as champions in the last 16 years.

The Premier League is currently the least predictable of ‘the big five’ and has been for some time, but even English football is struggling for a surprise factor more than ever — as evidenced by Man City’s record of 100 points in 2017-18, while Liverpool narrowly missed out on surpassing that achievement this year, with 99 points.

So how has this environment — where money increasingly dictates outcomes and there is a sense of inevitability about the wealthy clubs dominating — produced surely the most unpredictable Champions League semi-finals line-up in a long time, perhaps ever. There is often one surprise team, but the third-place Bundesliga team and the seventh-place Ligue 1 team is certainly a turn up for the books.

There is of course the argument that tournament football ensures there will always be a few unexpected results, while the fact that Uefa discarded the two-legged format this year post-pandemic increases scope for shocks.

Yet there is one other somewhat overlooked factor that seems to have made a significant difference: game time, or lack thereof in some instances.

Unlike the other four big European league, Ligue 1 came to a premature conclusion in March.

Lyon actually protested the decision which meant that — barring the unlikely event that they win this season’s Champions League — they would not be competing in any European competition next year for the first time in a quarter of a century.

It could be argued, though, that both PSG and Lyon were aided in Europe post-pandemic this year, as they were the only teams not returning to play in the competition on the back of a hectic domestic schedule.

And while the Bundesliga did return, it was the first high-profile European league back, meaning it finished on 27 June, giving their top sides plenty of time to prepare for the Champions League encounters.

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Compare that situation to the end dates of the Premier League (26 July), Serie A (2 August), La Liga (19 July), and it shows that the German teams had far more recovery time than their non-French rivals.

As a consequence, in contrast with last year’s all-English final between Liverpool and Tottenham, we are facing the distinct possibility of a first-ever-all-French final or a second-ever-all-German final — the first being Bayern Munich and Dortmund in 2013, which was also the last time the Champions League’s climax didn’t feature a team from England, Italy or Spain. That stat will be repeated this year for just the third time in the modern Champions League format’s history (the other being Monaco v Porto in 2004) and ninth occasion outright.

1991 and the end of the old European Cup, meanwhile, is the last year in which none of the semi-finalists came from Spain, England or Italy, as Red Star Belgrade defeated Bayern and then won the final against Marseille, who had overcome Spartak Moscow in the semis.

That was also the last year to feature no English teams after their long ban from Europe following the 1985 Heysel disaster. The next season, 1991-92, was the first with a group stage, and the Champions League was born.

France may be the reigning world champions, but their best players usually move abroad. Ligue 1 is often derided by outside observers. 

“FARMERS LEAGUE” wrote PSG’s Kylian Mbappe in a tweet on Saturday as he congratulated Lyon, in an ironic reference to an oft-used insult towards French football on social media.

Those in France who feared the decision to end their season early in April due to the health crisis would prove a major handicap for their clubs in Europe are being forced to revise their thinking.

At the time, a front-page headline in sports daily L’Equipe summed up the mood. “Like idiots”, it said.

PSG had played two competitive matches in five months before defeating Atalanta in their quarter-final. Lyon managed just one competitive outing in the same period before going to Turin and eliminating Juventus on away goals last weekend, and then stunning Pep Guardiola’s highly fancied Man City side on Saturday.

“It is incredible because we are the surprise team now. I don’t think many people expected us to get here,” said Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.

In stark contrast with Lyon and PSG, City played 12 matches in 40 days after the Premier League resumed in mid-June, before beating Real Madrid in their last 16, second leg.

Atalanta played 13 games in six weeks, while Spain’s representatives played twice a week between mid-June and mid-July.

Lyon’s players ran a combined nine kilometres more than City on Saturday. More importantly, those players will have come into the ‘Final Eight’ better rested mentally.

Similarly, Bayern ran just over nine kilometers more than Barcelona during their 8-2 rout on Friday.

Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin this week told AFP that the ‘Final Eight’ format would be a one-off, saying it was “impossible” in a normal year because of the crowded match calendar.

That’s not to suggest tiredness experienced by certain sides is the only reason for a series of surprise results and under-performing big teams, but it has certainly been a significant factor in giving European football a much-needed shot in the arm over the past few weeks.

Additional reporting by AFP

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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