Despite spending in excess of £500 million to assemble an all-star cast over the past five years, Paris Saint-Germain were comfortably eliminated from the Champions League at the first hurdle of the knockout stages.
While Real Madrid have won the past two titles, they’ve struggled for form in La Liga this season and are currently 15 points behind leaders, Barcelona.
With FC Porto, Basel and Beşiktaş all being comprehensively beaten in their respective first round ties of the first knock-out stage, the gap between teams from Europe’s richer leagues and the rest of the competition appears to be widening.
With a slender lead to take to Rome next Wednesday, Shakhtar Donetsk offer a glimmer of hope to bucking this trend. But is this just an exception to the new rule?
The Parisian dream
PSG have made no secret of their ambition to claim the Champions League title.
Smashing the transfer record last summer to bring Neymar to the French capital along with a loan for Kylian Mbappé which could prove the second-largest ever transfer fee, the Qatari-backed club believed they were putting the final pieces of their jigsaw together.
Already a dominant force in Ligue 1, the new additions have seen the Parisians romp to a 14-point lead at the top of the table. Failing to win only four (D2, L2) of their 28 league fixtures and winning 50% of their games by at least a three-goal margin, it’s clear that they are a cut above their domestic opponents.
Such is the clamour for the club to make a major impact on the European stage, Unai Emery’s failure to progress the club into the quarter-final stage of the Champions League looks likely to cost him his job.
Pushing for glory
Determining which of the league’s across Europe is the most competitive is a highly subjective topic.
Although Serie A looks to be going down to the wire this season, Juventus are favourites to claim their seventh consecutive league title, the last three all coming accompanied with a Coppa Italia trophy.
Elsewhere, La Liga and the Premier League are both currently topped by teams who are somewhat running away with it, boasting leads of eight and 16 points respectively.
All three of the league’s have one common denominator: competition.
As the richest league’s across Europe, there is more strength in depth of the standard played by the clubs below them. This additional competitive edge is believed to sharpen both the players and the teams who are constantly driven to reach a higher standard by their rivals.
The higher number of “blockbuster clashes” also serves to grow the players under high-pressure situations. Performing under pressure is something which can be improved upon through experience and players in these leagues are put in more high-intensity fixtures than teams like the Paris Saint-Germain’s of this world.
A Bavarian nightmare
Of the top-four European leagues identified by UEFA coefficients, the Bundesliga is ranked in 4th position, albeit marginally. There has, however, been an alarming drop-off for the German association this season.
With four of the seven German clubs who entered a European competition already eliminated, their decline is currently seeing them perform below the standards set by their French counterparts this year.
Bayern Munich may have impressive this season but they are the only German team to do so and now sit 20 points clear of what can almost be considered their league.
While this season may be too early for the effects of this decline to impact their displays in Europe significantly, it must surely be a concern if they remain unchallenged on domestic soil.
Too much of a good thing?
If a lack of competitive football does have a negative effect on a team’s performance, then surely the opposite must also be true to some extent. In not having any respite from competitive matches, could a more intensive domestic campaign cause standards to drop in the latter stages due to fatigue?
Pep Guardiola has long managed his team’s to a healthy lead affording him the luxury of being able to rest key players before crunch encounters. While this can have a small impact on domestic results towards the end of a season, it’s often of little real consequence with the title already wrapped up.
Many other teams in the modern game negotiate this risk by having larger playing squads at their disposal.
While clubs must name a maximum of 25 players in their Champions League squad for a campaign, they often carry more players in their ranks than this and can also play 'locally-trained players' from their academy in addition to their named 25 providing extra options.
The new order
With the same nucleus of teams competing the final rounds of the Champions League for a number of seasons now, there has been a feel of an unnatural order to the competition.
This season, the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham have proven it possible to break into this elite club in the upper-echelons of the game. Much of this can be argued to be due to the increase in quality currently being played in the English game after recruiting many of the game’s top coaches and managers.
This bodes well for the future of English sides: something reflected by the fact that of the seven sides to enter European competition this season, only Everton had been eliminated before March.
While money can certainly help bring success to a club, it’s by no means the only important factor necessary in a club’s make-up. For the likes of FC Porto and Monaco who competed in the final 14 years ago, though, they may need the stars to align for a similar meeting to occur at any time in the near future.
What do you think? Is competition a good thing or a bad thing for European success? Let us know by commenting below.