When the Champions League draw is made on Monday it will contain, as Jose Mourinho said, the usual suspects.
Gone are those unglamourous Balkan and Scandinavian teams, the likes of Ludogorets Razgrad and Malmo, who add novelty to the competition, and whose presence helps retain the votes that sustain Michel Platini’s Uefa presidency, but who no sponsors actually want to see progress.
Gone, too, are the clubs from the low countries, such as Ajax and Anderlecht, who have a European heritage, but whose TV markets are too small to support the financial machinations of the Champions League
Instead we have 11 clubs from the big four: La Liga, Bundesliga, Premier League and Serie A. The latter is a bit sickly at present, and has only provided Juventus this time, but remains a core player not least for its political influence. Indeed, for the last five seasons these four leagues have filled at least nine and sometimes 12 of the 16 knock-out places. The quartet have also produced every finalist for a decade.
Chelsea player ratings vs Sporting
Chelsea player ratings vs Sporting
1/10 Petr Cech
With Chelsea already through as Group G winners, Thibaut Courtois was given the night off and Cech made just his fourth start of the season. He could do nothing about Sporting’s goal but did produce a good save from Islam Slimani’s powerful second-half header. 7/10
2/10 Cesar Azpilicueta
Switched to right back to accommodate Filipe Luis and had a comfortable evening. Booked late on. 7
3/10 Kurt Zouma
The 20-year-old defender impressed after coming on as a substitute against Tottenham and, playing alongside Gary Cahill at centre-half, did well again here. 7
4/10 Filipe Luis
Has found opportunities limited since moving to Stamford Bridge last summer and will struggle to break into the Chelsea side ahead of Azpilicueta. 6
5/10 Cesc Fabregas
Played further forward in the No10 role and put Chelsea ahead from the penalty spot after eight minutes. 7
6/10 Jon Obi Mikel
Put Chelsea 3-1 up with just fifth goal in eight years and his first since January. Did will alongside Matic in midfield. 7
7/10 Nemanja Matic
Chelsea missed Matic against Newcastle and the Serbia international, who has become a key player for Jose Mourinho, was a commanding presence in midfield. 7
8/10 Mohamed Salah
Had a rare opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho but did little and was substituted after 70 minutes. 5
9/10 Andre Schurrle
Scored his first goal since September to double Chelsea’s lead in the firs half, but then his weak header was punished by Jonathan Silva for Sporting’s goal. Replaced by Ramires after 73 minutes. 7
10/10 Diego Costa
Still looking for his first Champions League goal. Had a quiet evening. 6
Making up this season’s last 16 are the two moneyed French clubs, PSG and Monaco, plus Porto, Basel and Shaktar Donetsk. The latter is funded by Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Basel has long benefited from patronage by the part-owners of pharmaceuticals giant Roche Holding AG, Porto have won nine of the last 12 Portuguese titles - and are the last club outside the big four leagues to win the Champions League.
Eleven of the 16 reached this stage last season. Three of the others have only been absent from it for one year while Basel were in the last 16 in 2012. Monaco, due to a financial crisis (now solved by a Russian billionaire), have not been in the last 16 since 2005, but they were regulars in the opening years of the 21st century reaching the final in 2004.
In short the Champions League knock-out stages – where the competition ‘really starts’ according to Mourinho - has become something of a closed shop. Occasionally a Celtic, Copenhagen or Apoel Nicosia will sneak in, but usually it is the same cluster of clubs. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Arsenal make this stage every year. Borussia Dortmund and Paris St Germain have made the last three, Bayer Leverkusen three of the last four, Schalke, Milan and Chelsea four of the last five.
In the last five years 34 clubs have appeared in the last 16 (from a possible 80). By way of contrast in the same period 30 clubs have appeared in the 20-team Premier League - and only three of those teams can change each year.
Nineteen of that 34 have come from the big four leagues. Of the 54 national associations in Uefa 40 have not had a representative in the last 16 for at least five years. Many of those are in the east – this season Shakhtar are the only team left in the Champions League that are east of Munich.
This monopoly is only likely to deepen. Uefa’s Financial fair Play initiative has deviated so far from the original intention due to lobbying by the major clubs that arguably its main function now is to preserve the established order. It is increasingly difficult for an oligarch or sovereign wealth fund to buy a club and propel them to the top table by dinting of massive investment, as has been done at Paris SG and Manchester City. Some will argue that is a good thing, but it means we will increasingly have the same few clubs, from the same few countries, dominating the later stages of Europe’s premier competition while the rest watch on television.Reuse content