The Champions League forms the premiere competition of European football and in this case all the top clubs of the continent compete in it. Most of the sides like to assert their domestic dominance into Europe or merely getting into the tournament is deemed huge success for clubs. Champions League is also the hot bed of displaying some of the world’s biggest talent fighting for one of the biggest honor of their career. But with the growing demand of Champions League football, many other teams are taking the turn to assert their authority in Europe causing major troubles to the regular powerhouses of the contest. The 2022/23 Champions League group stages showed football is allowing new forces to thrive than constricting itself to only the wealthy autocrats.
This has spelt worries to the clubs almost synonymous with Champions League football season after season and for many, a decade. It has been so impactful that they have failed to get into the knockout stages of the competition altogether. Instead, those clubs have joined forces with the Europa League, the second biggest club competition in Europe, fueling its excitement level and a chance for them to hide their failures. This season Europa League will have more major players in the knockout phases than the Champions League showing the increase in competition in European football.
Paired in a group with Premier League giants Liverpool, Napoli and previous season Europa League Finalists Rangers, Ajax fancied the second berth for qualification in the Champions League. However, nobody knew Napoli will be this good in Luciano Spalleti’s second season there. They topped the group ahead of the Reds and inflicted the biggest-ever loss for the Eredivisie holders at Amsterdam in the competition beating them at Naples as well. Ajax also lost twice to Liverpool with their six points coming in the wins over bottom-placed Rangers who conceded 22 goals in the group stage anyway. They finished third in their group in the Europa League spot with 11 goals scored but 16 conceded. It is fair to say Alfred Schreuder has not been able to replicate his predecessor, whom he was also assistant to at the club, Erik Ten Hag’s swashbuckling Ajax sides in the Champions League at all in his first season at the club.
For sure, Sevilla are the record holders of the Europa League and often parachuted down to the competitions from the Champions League in recent seasons. But this season’s ambition was different which was hampered by the disgruntled transfer dealings the La Liga side underwent in the summer selling their star center-back duo without bringing a proper replacement in. It has been so devastating for the side that they are in a surprise relegation battle in the league currently, a huge downturn from their fourth-placed finish last season with the best defensive record. Sevilla picked up just a point in the first three group stage games of the Champions League, conceding seven goals and managing to score only once costing Julien Lopetuigi’s job to be replaced by former manager Jorge Sampaoli. The Argentinian could not save Sevilla’s Champions League season at the end of the group stages fearing the prospect of even exiting the Europa League early, the competition they are the undisputed masters in.
The Turin giants will no longer celebrate a ninth straight season in the knockout phases of the Champions League after an underwhelming group stage in which they only collected one win and only sealed the Europa League spot over bottom-placed Maccabi Hafia, the same number of points, on the virtue of a better goal difference. Juventus saw this coming for the last couple of seasons because of their non-strategic planning in squad building and poor football on the pitch because of a complete mismatch between the players and the tactics of their manager, Maximiliano Allegri. A shadow of their past, having Benfica and a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain team in the group caused them to falter in all of the games against the pair even losing away to underdogs Maccabi Hafia, the first UCL victory in 17 years for the Israeli side. They managed to score only nine goals allowing 13 strikes to hit their net in a forgettable period in the competition. Allegri’s men have lost dominance in Serie A too, trailing league leaders Napoli by 10 points with uncertainty remaining over their Champions League participation next season. As a case, winning the Europa League could be their gateway to return back to the competition although this tournament this season is also boasting sides sustaining a lot more quality than them.
If Barcelona thought pulling economic levers amid financial risk in future to secure high voltage signing of Robert Lewandowski and Jules Kounde will replace their horror of missing out on the knockout of the Champions League, they were wrong by a bigger stretch of the imagination. For the second consecutive season, the Catalan outfit will try its luck in the Europa League. The elimination from the UCL group stages could have tasted more bitter than last season with a refurbished squad this time around if their group did not contain Bundesliga dominator Bayern Munich and Italian giants Inter. Plus, everyone acknowledges big signings won’t guarantee equal success on the pitch and that the club is still recovering from their stuttering seasons of financial doldrums with Xavi needing time to get his tactics through. Barcelona only managed to win the double-headers against Viktoria Plzen lacking the big club mentality to suppress the other two. Nevertheless, they are going strong in La Liga challenging for the title with rivals and champions Real Madrid and it is left to see their ambition in the Europa League after being eliminated from the last 16 stages by eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt last season.