Madrid stand alone against the new order among Champions League semi-finalists

Paris (AFP) –


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

Manchester City have gone beyond the quarter-finals for the first time since Pep Guardiola's appointment as coach in 2016 and their reward is a last-four clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

It is a blockbuster tie and a rare meeting of the two clubs who 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 are also into the semi-finals, where they face Real Madrid, the 13-time European champions who are the last ones standing this season among the continent's grand old clubs.

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

Madrid were 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 they are now the outsiders among the semi-finalists.

Zinedine Zidane has worked wonders with what a few months ago was a tired-looking team in need of an overhaul, their 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.

- Chelsea get return on investment -

Despite seeing off Liverpool in the quarter-finals, Real have been handicapped by a 575 million-euro ($688m) revamp of their 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 they are in a first semi-final since 2014 as they look to win the trophy for the second time after 2012.

Chelsea and Real have never before met in the Champions League, 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 chairman Andrea Agnelli has, in his role as head of the European Club Association, talked of the desire for the biggest teams to play each other more often.

- Abu Dhabi v Qatar -

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

From the last 16, at least, the tournament is set to be unchanged.

In any case there are only likely to be more meetings in future in the knockout rounds between PSG and City, whose only previous Champions League encounter came in the 2016 quarter-finals.

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

As they cruise towards a third Premier League title in four seasons, PSG stand in their way in Europe.

"It is the second time in the semi-finals, 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 their first final last season and are 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.