Sunday, 4 June 2017

Champions League 2017: Spanish Domination

Well, that was obnoxious.

I'd been hoping, after the third goal went in, that Juventus-Real Madrid wouldn't be a rout, but gosh, were my hopes dashed. Juve had a good first half, but then at half-time completely forgot how to play football, stopped stringing together passes and got its impact-sub Juan Cuadrado sent off.

The hell of it is, I couldn't even get worked up about Sergio Ramos's dive by then. Real was already 3-1 up, and cruising toward a comfortable victory, so it's not like it changed the outcome of the game or anything. It was annoying to see, but strangely I got even more annoyed by the BT Sport announcers' moralizing on how "disgusting" Ramos's dive was. That said, it was nice to see English people's disgust being directed at the Spanish team for once, rather than the Italian one (not that I'm bitter).

It was very strange, though, to see Juventus so completely outclassed. You have to remember that they've already won their domestic double (league and cup), and did so against a chasing pack that's upped its game considerably. They also topped their group, undefeated, and saw off Barcelona in the semi-final. And yet, it's not like Italy's burning up European competition - Roma, which had qualified for this season's Champions League in third place, didn't make it out of the playoff round, and Napoli, despite topping its own group, got knocked out in the first playoff round... to Real Madrid.

Someone I was chatting with on Twitter pointed to the gulf in money between Juve and Real, which seems a little odd when you consider that Juventus benefits from some of the deepest pockets in Italy, and comes in tenth in Deloitte's financial league. On the other hand, Madrid is third, which means it rakes in almost twice as much revenue, and I guess that makes the difference?

Though I'm not actually here to rail about the evils of money in football. What I do find interesting is the continued dominance of Spanish teams, with Real making it the fourth year in a row a team from Spain has won the competition, as well as its own third win in four years, and its second win in a row (which is also the first time it's won back-to-back Champions Leagues since 1960).

I've talked often about winning streaks for various countries over the past few years. The main one was England's streak of sending a team to the final almost every year between 2005 and 2012. At the time I argued that England's dominance was interesting, but not really convincing, as the English team won only three of those seven matches, and always on penalties. This may be harsh, but at the time I found it significant that when a game was decided in open play, the non-English team generally won pretty decisively - see, for example, both times Barcelona beat Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011.

What makes this streak of Spanish dominance different is that it's pretty clearly Real Madrid's streak of dominance, with Barcelona being the only other winner during this time. Apart from last year, all finals have been decided within 120 minutes, with margins of 4-1, 3-1 and 4-1. And interestingly, Juve's the only non-Spanish side to have reached the final during this time, though it's then lost (handily) on both occasions.

When I wrote about the buildup to this game last month, I noted that some key players on both sides were getting a bit long in the tooth. I wouldn't say that was on show last night, particularly as Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals himself; but Real, at least, can take comfort from the fact that even if Ronaldo won't be there forever, the rest of the team stepped up pretty admirably to chip in goals and assists and key passes.

And this is perhaps where my friend's comment on Twitter comes into play. Real Madrid pulled in 620 million Euros in revenue in 2015-16, just a shade behind Barcelona and nearly 300 million Euros ahead of Juve. This makes for a substantial war chest to buy star players, and increasingly these star players seem to be going to Spain and nowhere else (with the exception of China, though there's a different dynamic in play there).

Even the teams we traditionally consider super-rich - Chelsea, Manchester City and Monaco, to name a few - are building reasonably strong teams but not necessarily attracting household names. Manchester United is an exception, having lured over Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the last few seasons, though it's not a coincidence that United is the top club on Deloitte's rankings. It's also worth noting that Schweinsteiger flopped pretty badly and that Ibrahimovic, while influential at United this past season, is also closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The idea that United - or City, or Chelsea, or Juventus - could attract players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Lionel Messi seems far-fetched in the extreme.

Again, I'm not complaining about money in football. What's more interesting is figuring out what next year's Champions League final will look like - even if a non-Spanish team gets there, it's hard to see who has the firepower to get past Madrid or Barcelona.