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Heart Of Football

Best clubs, not just the richest, deserve Champions League spots

The beauty of Leicester City gatecrashing the Premier League elite is emphasised again this weekend.

Not merely did the Foxes visit Old Trafford as equals yesterday, but they also have the privilege (and the burden) of having to hold something back for the Champions League against FC Porto on Tuesday.

United's next opponents are Zorya Luhansk, a small club which grew under the patronage of Vladimir Lenin in Eastern Ukraine. Man United give the distinct impression that they feel out of their league against such minnows in the second-tier Europa League.

But thank goodness for merit. And thanks be that a Leicester still can win through to face the giants before, inexorably, the Champions League moves beyond the dreams of supposedly lesser mortals.

There are moves afoot to turn the Champions League into a self-elected league of "big" clubs who are, or were, the aristocrats of Europe.

It is a league coveted for ages by Silvio Berlusconi from the days when his AC Milan fielded such marvellous (imported) players as the Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit.


Bayern Munich's Philipp Lahm has championed the cause of representation for smaller teams in the Champions League. "All domestic champions," he said, "should have the chance to qualify." PHOTO: REUTERS

Van Basten, now 51, has just accepted the role of Fifa chief officer for technical development. The man who could win a game with a single shot gets his chance to be the game changer for a sport seeking to move with the times, by embracing, for example, new technology on the goal-lines and beyond.

This year, possibly for one season only, there are no Manchester United, no Chelsea, no Liverpool qualified for the big-money league in Europe. Rob Hughes

Intriguing, but not the nub of this story.

Uefa is not Fifa. The Champions League has already broken away from the old European Cup which, until 1992, was open only to clubs that won their league.

Champions League is a misnomer. Money talks in football, and as the "Champions" League expanded from 16 to 32 teams, the clubs that were biggest in global TV appeal - from England, Spain, Germany and Italy - expanded into the new format.

They should call it something else because, obviously, the fourth-best clubs in the big leagues cannot truthfully be called champions at the same time.

The Premier League stands out from the rest because, rare as it is, Leicester can rise to be the champion. And this year, possibly for one season only, there are no Manchester United, no Chelsea, no Liverpool qualified for the big-money league in Europe.

The self-elected top dogs are working to change that. The European Club Association, led by Bayern Munich's chairman and former player Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, has lobbied continuously for greater representation for the elite clubs reaping the elite money in the Champions League.

From 2018, they will get their way. The format of the Champions League will from then on guarantee that the top four leagues occupy half the 32 places at the group stage.

This, to me, looks like putting money before merit, making a kind of "forever league" for the richest.

It is already happening. We get a foretaste of tomorrow's world when three Spanish La Liga teams are slated to face three German Bundesliga teams in the group phase this week.

Dortmund v Real Madrid is a humdinger, with recent history.

Atletico Madrid v Bayern Munich is a repeat of last season's semi-final.

Borussia Monchengladbach v Barcelona is rarer, though Barca's goalie Marc-Andre ter Stegen is going back home against the club which made him and lost him when Barcelona came calling.

These are immense match-ups, diluted by the fact that they are group games. Each of the combatants could win or lose without immediate consequence. Each could qualify first or second, and meet again in the knockout rounds the same year.

Dortmund and Real Madrid met four times in the 2012-13 season. The Germans, then coached by Jurgen Klopp, beat Real 2-1 at home and drew 2-2 in the Bernabeu in the group stage before, in the semi-final, Robert Lewandowski shattered Real Madrid by scoring four times in the first leg.

Borussia couldn't hold either Klopp (now Liverpool manager) or Lewandowski (now Bayern Munich). In the Bundesliga, Bayern buys who it likes, even the top striker of the second-best team in the league.

A year after that, Real beat Dortmund 3-2 on aggregate.

They keep on meeting. Dortmund's form is a little scary, with four successive wins, 20 goals scored and two conceded, despite missing injured players like Marco Reus and waiting for confirmation that striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is fit to face Real on Tuesday.

The other, huge, Bundesliga against La Liga pairing is Bayern's trip to Madrid on Wednesday - five months after Atletico squeezed the German powerhouse club out on away goals last season.

For Munich, it's a chance to see if Carlo Ancelotti can coach Bayern to the Champions League title that eluded Pep Guardiola there.

It is an early test of Ancelotti's renowned European experience. Atletico has just drawn 1-1 at Barcelona, albeit with the loss to Barca of Lionel Messi, who tore a groin muscle during that game.

But Atletico in the Vicente Calderon cauldron can be indomitable. They won 25 of the last 30 European games there, and despite talk about Diego Simeone changing his attritional style in what is possibly his final season at Atletico, there was no sign of that against Barcelona last weekend.

Bayern disposed of Russia's Rostov 5-0 in the last Champions League game, following which Bayern's captain Philipp Lahm took a line very different to his club's.

"There has got to be the chance for teams like these, countries like these, to be involved," Lahm said. "That's how I see football."

Lahm has old-fashioned opinions. "All domestic champions," he said, "should have the chance to qualify for the Champions League. It's more interesting when Bayern play Real Madrid in the semi-finals than when there are 10 or 12 matches between them."

The future, led by Bayern Munich, will be more Rummenigge's vision than Lahm's. More an accountant's reckoning than a player's paradise.

Lahm will be gone by then. He plans to retire by 2018.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Best clubs, not just the richest, deserve Champions League spots'. Print Edition | Subscribe