It looks as if we are heading for an all-German Champions League Final at Wembley, as Bayern Munich demolished Barcelona 4-0 and Borussia Dortmund confirmed their group phase qualities by beating Real Madrid 4-1. Does this mean the Bundesliga is the strongest tournament in Europe? Anything but.
Yes, these are two excellent teams who invested wisely in stars and play some fantastic football. They have also dominated the Bundesliga to an embarrassing degree. Bayern Munich were already crowned champions of Germany in-between Champions League quarter-final ties with Juventus in April. They are currently 20 points clear of second-placed Borussia Dortmund with a goal difference of +75.
Many sides are runaway winners in their domestic tournaments, but the problem with Germany is when you look beyond the top two. Not only are Bayern 20 points clear of Borussia, they are also 28 points in front of third-placed Bayer Leverkusen and have almost double the tally of Schalke in fourth. It’s a two-team League, so no wonder Bayern and Borussia are so fresh reaching the semi-finals, as they can comfortably field a bunch of kids and still thrash the opposition.
Frankly, Barcelona and Real Madrid ought to be a lot fresher than they currently are at this stage of the season. While not as embarrassingly one-sided as in Germany, La Liga is also a completely unbalanced tournament. Barcelona are 13 points clear of Real Madrid and 15 ahead of third-placed Atletico Madrid. The next one down, the team going into the Champions League preliminary round, is Real Sociedad with a gap of 29 points from the leaders. The top two positions are guaranteed before the start of any campaign, so the others are just fighting for scraps behind them. Once again, Barça and Real can rest as many stars as they like and still comfortably secure victories on a domestic level. Perhaps they are more tired because, like Serie A, they have 20 teams rather than the Bundesliga’s more manageable 18.
In Serie A, the situation is rather different and although it makes this League much more intriguing over the course of a season, it is to the absolute detriment of European competitiveness. It is widely considered that Juventus have run away with this Scudetto, although their lead at the top from Napoli is only 11 points. They are 18 clear of third-placed Milan, but from there on it’s an absolute bear-pit. From Milan down, there are six sides within an eight-point radius, all of them capable of qualifying for Europe. These include Inter, who won the Champions League only three years ago, and Europa League quarter-finalists Lazio.
It has been clear for several years now that Italian teams cannot handle several competitions simultaneously. Inter only managed it in the year of the Treble by winning the title with a slender two-point gap over Roma in the final round. Rotating the squad in Serie A leads to dropped points, like Napoli last year who went far in Europe only to end up fifth in the League. Rotating the squad in Europe to protect Serie A status provides embarrassing results on the continent, such as Napoli, Inter and Udinese in the Europa League. Lazio managed to balance three competitions up until the end of March, then collapsed under the weight of a too-long campaign and look to be running on empty.
What is the key, then? Cutting Serie A down to 18 or even 16 teams has to be the first step. It is no coincidence that Italian football has struggled to make an impact in Europe since the League was expanded to 20 sides in 2004. From 1994 to 2004, there were seven Italian sides in Champions League Finals. From 2004 to 2013 there were only three. It may well make Serie A even more competitive within its own confines, but fewer games will keep players fresh, costs down and fans not suffering from fixture list overkill. It won’t solve everything, but it’s a good start.