European élite brought crashing back to earth

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The Independent Football

"The Fall of the Gods" read the headline in the Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday morning following Milan's astonishing, unprecedented Champions' League capitulation at the hands of Deportivo La Coruña. But the sound of stars falling from the firmament deafened the whole of Europe.

"The Fall of the Gods" read the headline in the Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday morning following Milan's astonishing, unprecedented Champions' League capitulation at the hands of Deportivo La Coruña. But the sound of stars falling from the firmament deafened the whole of Europe.

It was not just the holders. Never before have the leaders of Serie A, La Liga and the Premiership been knocked out of the competition in just 24 hours. Even more amazingly, in each case, Milan, Real Madrid and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal all held a clear advantage in their quarter-final ties.

And with the Rossoneri, in search of a seventh title, there was even the indignity of suffering their heaviest defeat in Europe in 40 years and becoming the first team to lose a three-goal advantage.

Little wonder L'Equipe, in referring to Monaco's triumph over Real Madrid the evening before, said simply: "In these moments, football suddenly seems to become pure again and you run out of superlatives."

There is a wide-eyed excitement about the four clubs who have made it into the semi-finals. Many fans would agree with the verdict of L'Equipe ­ again ­ that a "refreshing wave" has washed over the competition.

It certainly engulfed the G14 ­ the influential coalition that lobbies on behalf of Europe's wealthiest clubs and is the standard-bearer of the Champions' League. It is a group which, confusingly, is comprised of 18 clubs, including all four defeated quarter-finalists.

In one blow, their élite status has been sacked. The only G14 representative left holding its head above water, and counting the Swiss francs (the currency of the competition) is Porto, hardly the richest or most fashionable member.

But the Portuguese league leaders are also the only ones in the final four who have been European champions, in 1987, before the Champions' League started. The manager, Jose Mourinho, who won the Uefa Cup with Porto last season, summed up the mood of the semi-finalists when he said: "We believe we can beat Deportivo, Deportivo have beaten Milan so they believe they can beat us, Chelsea have beaten Arsenal and think they can beat Monaco, but Monaco have beaten Real Madrid and will believe they can beat Chelsea." It is that wide open.

A look back over the semi-finalists in the 12-year history of the Champions' League is revealing. For the past two seasons all the teams in the final four have come from the G14 group, and that has happened in three other seasons as well.

Indeed only five clubs have ever, previously, gate-crashed the party: Leeds United (2001), Dynamo Kiev (1999), Monaco (1998 and 1994) and Panathinaikos and Nantes (1996). In fact it is the first time that at least one from Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Milan have not reached the semi-finals. So to have three non-members in one year is truly remarkable ­ even considering the newly rich status of Chelsea.

The reasons why appear simple. Didier Deschamps, the much-coveted coach at Monaco, who has even been linked to Chelsea, his former club and semi-final opponent, is clear. The new format ­ abolishing the second group stage which was introduced in 1999 ­ has made a difference. "We still don't have as big a squad as some of the other big clubs, and if we'd had two group stages it would have been too hard for us, too many matches," he said.

It is one reason why Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was bitterly disappointed. He also has a smaller squad, partly through choice, and believed the changes would benefit his team.

Walter Pandiani, the Deportivo striker, offers a more contentious reason for the upsets. The winners wanted it more. "Football has changed a great deal," the Uruguayan said. "The team that gives everything on the pitch is the one that will gain the victories. It is no use having the better players or saying you are the favourites before the game."

Certainly, the beauty of moving quickly to the knock-out stages is that more upsets can happen ­ as both Manchester United and Juventus would testify from the previous round. It means, for example, that there is less time to rectify errors.

Who would have thought, for example, that defenders such as Milan's Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta would have blundered so decisively as they did against Deportivo? In fact one of the curiosities of this year's competition has been the fallibility of Italian defending ­ as both Arsenal and Chelsea can testify ­ especially after last season's imperious progress. One team has picked up that mantle ­ and it has an Italian coach, of course.

Chelsea have conceded just one goal away from home in six ties and have now been made favourites. But, in this most amazing of years, there could just as easily be a rematch of the 8-3 group-stage game between Monaco and Deportivo last November. Who would have thought then that both clubs would make it this far?

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