Champions League

Why defending a Champions League title is an impossible job

2016-12-05
No team has defended a Champions League crown successfully since 1990 and that seems likely to continue

The European Cup was born in the 1955/56 season, with Alfredo Di Stéfano’s Real Madrid side claiming a 4-3 victory in an entertaining final against Stade de Reims. Real would be practically invincible over the following few campaigns, winning the same competition for the next four seasons.

They beat Fiorentina, Milan and Stade de Reims in the next three renewals before an emphatic 7-3 win against Eintracht Frankfurt, with Di Stéfano helping himself to a hat-trick. However, Ferenc Puskás stole the show with four goals, and many wondered when the dominance of the Madrid side would end.

These kind of winning runs were commonplace during the next few decades. Internazionale of Italy claimed consecutive triumphs in 1964 and 1965, while Ajax announced themselves on the European stage when claiming European Cups in 1971, 1972 and 1973.

Straight after the Dutch team had seemingly become the best team in the continent, Bayern Munich won the next three renewals, and that was followed by a six-year winning run for English clubs. Liverpool doubled up in 1977 and 1978 before Nottingham Forest followed suit.

However, retaining the European Cup (soon to be known as the Champions League) was becoming an increasingly difficult task, and Milan’s back-to-back victories in 1989 and 1990 was the last time that this feat has been accomplished.

Why can’t any team defend their Champions League title?

Real Madrid are the latest team to attempt the seemingly impossible task of keeping hold of the Champions League trophy for more than one season. Zinedine Zidane replaced Rafael Benítez at the Santiago Bernabéu last term and enjoyed a favourable draw as Los Merengues ended up claiming victory against Milan in the final.

However, the plain fact is that Real are attempting to achieve something that hasn’t been done since Milan in 1990. For 26 years, some of the best football teams in Europe have failed to retain their crown, and there has to be something in the fact that no champion can maintain their former standard.

The fact that the Champions League is a cup competition featuring a knockout format from the last 16 onwards means that teams rely heavily on the draw. Winning their group only provides immunity from meeting another section winner, though the quarterfinal is an “open draw” where teams from the same country can also meet.

Real Madrid look likely to go through to the last 16 stage of the 2016/17 Champions League as runners-up, which could mean a pretty lethal match-up in the first knockout phase. Perhaps the slight advantage for Zidane’s men is that they can’t face the likes of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla, with Spain having the strongest hand in the competition right now.

Another reason why teams struggle to defend their Champions League title is that the competition is very stiff. When Milan, Bayern Munich and Ajax were achieving their previous dominance, they were often head and shoulders above the other teams on the continent.

However, football is now a big-money affair, whether we are talking about England, Germany, Spain or Italy. The world’s best players are spread evenly throughout the various clubs and that leads to close match-ups.

Knockout football is also different from a league format where each team plays home and away against the other sides in the division. Certain sides are more suited to two-legged affairs where they might keep things tight in the first leg and find a way to win when they get the opposition in their own backyard.

Will there be a Champions League stranglehold in the future?

Recent history would suggest no, though while the Champions League is a competitive affair, it’s fair to say that there’s an imbalance in the way that money is distributed and generated across Europe.

The Spanish league boasts the twin powerhouses of Real Madrid and Barcelona. They are uniquely funded clubs who aren’t going anywhere in a hurry, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez and Neymar all residing at one of these El Clásico clubs.

Atlético Madrid and Sevilla are the other two Spanish teams competing in the 2016/17 Champions League, and Atlético have an impressive recent record in the competition, but for how long can Diego Simeone continue to weave gold out of straw at the Vicente Calderón?

If we look away from Spain, there is the English Premier League and German Bundesliga where we might also find future winners. Between 2005 and 2012, there was at least one club from England that made the Champions League final, with the exception of 2010 when Internazionale beat Bayern Munich.

Since Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalties at the Allianz Arena, no Premier League side has featured in the grand finale, though the recent TV deal struck with Sky Sports and BT Sports suggests that the good times could return.

The English challenge looks real

Pep Guardiola

José Mourinho has been managing on and off in England for several years, though the recent arrival of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City hints at future success for the North West club, even if the Spaniard was unable to win the Champions League with Bayern Munich.

Mourinho himself could engineer a United Champions League success, providing he doesn’t fall out with his playing staff, while the presence of Antonio Conte at Chelsea and Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool also provides evidence that English clubs are attracting some of the most decorated and talented coaches in world football.

We have Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea for whom money is seemingly little object, with the arrival of Paul Pogba at Old Trafford proving emblematic when it comes to the amount of revenue being generated in the English Premier League.

There are also North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham jostling for position, with Arsène Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino hoping to make their teams into European challengers.

Arsene Wenger

We have a small pool of teams from Spain and England who could be reaching the business end of the Champions League for the next few seasons to come, while France has Paris Saint-Germain, who are afforded the same amount of spending power as any other club in Europe.

Beyond that, the main challenge comes from Germany, though it’s only powerhouse Bayern Munich and the likeable Borussia Dortmund who can probably hold a candle to the best teams in Europe. In Italy, it is Juventus who are the only side demonstrating that they have the stomach to compete with the European elite, though their financial clout is not what it was.

We’re talking about ten clubs who will compete for major honours over the next few years, and so the law of mathematics suggests that if you draw numbers one to ten out of a hat over and over again, it’s unlikely that the same number would come out twice in a hurry.

The domestic distraction can have an effect

Football teams don’t just compete in the Champions League every season. Competing in Europe is a part-time exercise compared to the domestic trials of aiming to win silverware. Every season, Barcelona and Real Madrid are battling it out to win La Liga, and this can never be sacrificed in an attempt to be crowned kings of Europe.

As we reach the business end of the Champions League every season, we also have the final few months of the domestic seasons all over Europe, and there is often a fixture pile-up, especially if a side is chasing a treble or even quadruple by virtue of being involved in a cup competition.

It naturally follows that a reigning champion of Europe continues to be a pretty strong team capable of challenging on several fronts, and that can often lead to a particularly quick downfall where a domestic cup and Champions League exit can occur within the space of a week.

There is also the high-pressure aspect of European Cup matches. One slip can be fatal when deciding the outcome of a tight Champions League affair, while it’s not uncommon to see the matches decided by spot kicks, which is exactly what happened in the 2016 Champions League final, where Real Madrid beat Atlético on spot kicks.

The ideal scenario would be for a team to put aside their domestic campaign to concentrate on European commitments, though it’s a constant juggling act for football managers, who need to assess injuries and fatigue, not to mention a bulging fixture list.

An impossible job?

As a slogan for a sports brand might say, nothing is impossible. Defending the Champions League is plausible even if no team has done this for 26 years, though maybe this is the season that Real Madrid buck that particular trend.

However, it is always unlikely that a team will defend their title. No team is ever odds-on to win a football tournament like this, and there are so many other teams lining up to take them on and win the Champions League for themselves.

As mentioned, we might expect English teams to re-emerge as serious pretenders to the crown, with the twin threat from Germany proving real for seasons to come. Juventus and PSG might suffer from the lack of competition within their own domestic leagues, leaving the Spanish teams to also lead the way.