The "big five" pull off first European clean sweep

The Champions League has witnessed it’s first-ever clean sweep for the “big five” European leagues, something that has never before happened in the history of the competition in its current format. There will be no Benfica or Porto in the knock-out stages, no Galatsaray and no romantic run to match last season’s from Ajax. For the first time, there will be no representative from outside the increasingly powerful quintet of Spain-France-Italy-England-Germany in the last 16. In reality, the evolution of the tournament from the European Cup (which involved just the league champions of each participating country) to the Champions League (which involves teams finishing up to fourth and occasionally fifth domestically) has served to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots. That is how we are where we are today. And still the richer clubs are pushing for a European Super League so that they needn’t bother with the trivialities of domestic league football, to the accompaniment of nose-wrinkling from traditionalists.

The Champions League is European football’s blue ribbon event but it being marred by small, incongruous details. A friend of mine sent me a screen shot of a linesman in the Madrid-Brugge game with a belly more suited to other festive-seasonal pursuits and I wondered to myself what tests he had to go through to get there. At the Metropolitano we watched Lokomotiv keeper Anton Kochenkov step off his line to meet Kieran Trippier’s penalty, allowing him to divert it onto the post. But the officious trill of VAR was nowhere to be heard. And at more than one ground (at PSG for example, brought along by the visiting fans) there were flares in the stands. Water was used to add some zip to some pitches, a practice that is no longer carried out here. These are small blemishes but ones on a product that goes to great lengths to paint itself as the model of perfection.

Seven out of seven for Spain in Europe

That aside, Spain has done well in Europe this year and we are starting to pull away the Premier League in in terms of UEFA coefficient. Our four Champions League representatives have all gone through, overcoming periods of difficulty along the way. They all have gone from potential disaster to triumph and will be in the hat for the draw on Monday. And in the Europa League, all three of Sevilla, Espanyol and Getafe are through to the knock-out stages. The first two had already secured first place in the group before the final round of fixtures. Getafe went down to the wire on Thursday night, in the rain and wind, against tough opposition in Krasnodar, who pushed them all the way. But in the end Spain managed a clean sweep as well, with seven out of seven teams still left in Europe.