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April 16, 2021

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Real stands alone against new order

UEFA is set to announce major changes to the Champions League next week but the make-up of this season’s semifinalists confirms the extent to which elite club football in Europe has already been transformed over the last decade.

Manchester City has gone beyond the quarterfinals for the first time since Pep Guardiola’s appointment as coach in 2016 and its reward is a last-four clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

It is a blockbuster tie and a rare meeting of the two clubs which have led that transformation of European football under the ownership of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, respectively.

State wealth from the Middle East has allowed PSG and City to upset football’s old order just as Chelsea to an extent did after being bought by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003.

The London club is also into the semi-finals, where it faces Real Madrid, the 13-time European champion which is the last one standing this season among the continent’s grand old clubs.

Real has dominated the UEFA Champions League over the last decade along with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. They have won nine of the last 12 European Cups between them.

Real was practically level with Barcelona as the club with the highest revenue in the world last season according to analysts Deloitte, and yet there is an argument that it is now the outsider among the semifinalists.

Zinedine Zidane has worked wonders with what a few months ago was a tired-looking team in need of an overhaul, its spine comprised of two 35-year-olds in Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric and a 33-year-old Karim Benzema. “I am proud of what we are doing but we have won nothing yet,” said Zidane on Wednesday.

Despite seeing off Liverpool in the quarterfinals, Real has been handicapped by a 575-million euro (US$688 million) revamp of its stadium while the pandemic has slashed revenues.

Chelsea, meanwhile, defied the economic impact of the pandemic to make the biggest investment in the transfer market of any club last summer, spending close to an estimated 250 million euros on new signings, including German stars Kai Havertz and Timo Werner.

Now it is in a first semifinal since 2014 as it looks to win the trophy for the second time after 2012.

Chelsea and Real have never before met in the UCL, which is what makes the tie so exciting. Yet those behind the plans to create a new format for the competition want to change that.

Juventus boss Andrea Agnelli has, in his role as head of the European Club Association, talked of the desire for the top teams to play each other more often.

Nevertheless, the changes UEFA is expected to ratify at a meeting this Monday mainly concern the group stage, increasing the number of clubs and radically altering the format.

In any case there are only likely to be more meetings in future in the knockout rounds between PSG and City, whose only previous UCL encounter came in the 2016 quarterfinals.

City won then and reached the semifinals for what remains the only time since being bought by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi’s royal family in 2008.

As it cruises towards a third English Premier League title in four seasons, PSG stands in its way in Europe. “It is the second time in the semifinals, so it is not history in the club, but we are starting to build it,” Guardiola told BT Sport.

Bought by the state-funded Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, PSG reached its first final last season and is determined to go one better with a team built around the two most expensive signings in history, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

“We are a top team now, with all respect for the other teams out there,” PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi warned this week, responding to suggestions the duo could leave rather than extend contracts which expire next year.

Only one of these clubs will make the final this time, but they will keep coming back, and it might only get harder even for the likes of Real to stop them.


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