DID you know that no Italian side has won the Champions League since Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side back in 2010? Or that no French side has lifted the European Cup since Marseille’s hugely controversial triumph back in 1993, when they were later charged with match-fixing, banned from participating in European football the following season and relegated to Ligue 2? Rangers fans will not need reminding.

In fact, no French side has even contested a final since then, and yet, UEFA have seen fit to reward Ligue 1 with three automatic qualification places for the increasingly ludicrously titled Champions League. Italy, despite their own almost decade-long failure to produce a side capable of winning the tournament, have four automatic places.

Even England, the land of mega-riches and the home of the current European champions, hardly have a stellar record over the last decade. In fact, before Liverpool lifted the trophy in June, the last English side to do so was Chelsea back in 2012.


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On Wednesday night though, UEFA finally got the outcome they had been stacking the deck over the past decade or more for, as the last 16 of this season’s Champions League was finalised. For the first time ever, all of the sides in the knockout phase of the tournament come from Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues.

When we say big five, what we really mean of course is that England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are the five richest leagues on the continent. The new order of things, where money is king, has now been fully established. The ranks have been closed, the so-called lesser lights have been sent packing, and along with them has gone much of the intrigue from this season’s tournament.

For those clubs at the top of that European order, they will rest easy with this notion, smugly contented like Smaug sitting atop his pile of gold. All the time unaware, it seems, that they are diminishing the appeal of the tournament in the process.

I wrote last season about how Ajax had given the kiss of life to the Champions League for me with their stupendous run to the semi-finals, and I would wager that was the case for many other football fans.

Their ultimate reward of course was to have their best players plundered in the summer, with Frenkie De Jong going to Barcelona and Matthijs De Ligt heading to Juventus, lending a sense of demoralising inevitability about their exit at the group stage on Wednesday night after defeat to Valencia.

What it leaves is a harrowing vision of what the future may hold, with the so-called elite clubs carving out the exclusive league they have long wanted, while the rest are left squabbling for the scraps from the table.


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It would be easy to blame UEFA solely for this mess, but while they have adopted a decidedly supine stance against the wishes of the mega-clubs, the continual threat of a breakaway tournament puts the governing body in a difficult position. Football has long been a mirror of society, and it appears that it isn’t immune to the unrelenting tide of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

The closest thing we have to a fairytale story this season comes from Atalanta, one of Italy’s more unfancied outfits, who produced a remarkable comeback from losing the first three games in their section to qualify for the last 16.

I can’t help but wonder though if that would have been at all possible had they, as the third best team in Serie A last season, first had to negotiate four qualifying rounds, as the Scottish champions were forced to.

Having beaten Lazio – a team currently five points clear of Atalanta in Serie A - twice in the Europa League this term, Celtic will rightly wonder on what sporting grounds were the Italians given a golden ticket to the chocolate factory. UEFA though seem only too happy to satisfy the entitlement of the continent’s Veruca Salts, and the gluttony of the Augustus Gloops.

The ray of light for Scottish sides of course is the showings of both Celtic and Rangers in the Europa League so far this season. I am writing this in Cluj prior to the final group games taking place, but regardless of whether Rangers have joined Celtic in the last 32 or not, they have given Scotland a decent fist of securing that all-important 15th place in the co-efficient table.

With that, comes the potential for two places in the Champions League qualifiers in season 2021/22, as well as a further team having access to the Europa League qualifiers. Without it, Scotland will be marginalised even further, with our champions potentially not even guaranteed access to Europe’s consolation cup in the near future.


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It might be that we never again see a club from one of the smaller leagues even reach the latter stages of the Champions League, but for the long-term appeal of the tournament, UEFA better hope the likes of a Celtic or Rangers, a Porto or Benfica or perhaps an Ajax or a Feyenoord can again find a way to break through that glass ceiling.

Otherwise, like our dear old friend Smaug, they might find that lying on a bed of gold brings its own discomforts.