HomeFootballDon't be fooled - Madrid's Champions League success can't mask Spain's coefficient...

Don’t be fooled – Madrid’s Champions League success can’t mask Spain’s coefficient crisis

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Heading into this week’s Champions League quarter-final second legs, there was a lot of excitement in Spain about La Liga’s representatives.

Both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona held first-leg advantages in their ties against Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. Real Madrid’s hopes of adding to their record 14 European crowns, meanwhile, were very much alive after a thrilling 3-3 draw at home against Manchester City.

With Barca and Atletico already drawn in the same semi-final path if they reached the last four, it looked as if an all-Spanish final (as in 2000, 2014 and 2016) might be on the cards again.

It was reminiscent of the recent era in which La Liga clubs had dominated in UEFA competitions, with Spanish teams regularly winning the Champions League, the Europa League — or sometimes both in the same season.

But Tuesday evening brought a dose of reality, with Barca and Atletico both well-beaten. Wednesday’s penalty shootout win for Madrid at City means Los Blancos, once again, are the only La Liga side in the latter stages of Europe’s top club competition.

From 2006-2022, either Barca or Madrid won nine of 16 Champions League titles — more than clubs from all other countries combined.

Madrid won Europe’s premier club competition four times from 2014-2019 and another in 2022, while Barca won four trophies in 10 seasons from 2006-2015.

Atletico also reached the final in 2014 and 2016 — a four-year spell in which Diego Simeone’s team appeared able to beat everybody in Europe apart from Spain’s ‘big two’.

Other Spanish teams including Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Malaga all enjoyed deep runs in the Champions League during the 2010s. More recently, now-Aston Villa manager Unai Emery led Villarreal to the semi-finals in 2022.


Madrid’s 2022 triumph was their 14th in Europe (Javier Soriano/AFP)

For years, La Liga also dominated the Europa League. Sevilla have won the competition, previously known as the UEFA Cup, seven times this century, Atletico won it three times in 2010, 2012 and 2018, and Villarreal lifted it after beating Manchester United in 2021.

So it was no surprise that La Liga led UEFA’s country coefficient rankings for several years from 2013, opening up a wide gap over the second-placed Premier League, with Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 far behind.

At its peak position in 2019, La Liga had four teams in the top seven of UEFA’s club rankings, which are based on teams’ results in the five previous seasons of any of their competitions. Real Madrid were first, Barcelona second, Atletico were fourth and Sevilla were seventh. The top English side were Manchester City in sixth, while Arsenal were ninth and Liverpool were 11th.

This week’s events have brought home — cruelly in some places — just how far La Liga teams have fallen from that high point.

Barca’s 4-1 home defeat to PSG on Tuesday at Montjuic and 5-4 aggregate exit was painful for the Catalans, particularly given many at the club believed they had overcome their recent woes in Europe after eliminating Italian champions Napoli in the round of 16 and winning their quarter-final first leg in Paris.

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Since they last won the trophy in 2015, Barca have reached the semi-finals once — when they were humbled by Liverpool at Anfield in 2019 after winning the first leg 3-0. The last few years have brought embarrassment after embarrassment in Europe — including an 8-2 hammering by Bayern Munich in 2020, back-to-back Champions League group exits, and Europa League eliminations by Eintracht Frankfurt and Manchester United.

Barca’s financial meltdown has been well-documented and is far from over. Emotional meltdowns have become equally common, with this week’s collective loss of composure from Ronald Araujo, head coach Xavi and Joao Cancelo only adding to the list.

Atletico’s 4-2 defeat at Dortmund on Tuesday and 5-3 aggregate exit was almost as dramatic on the pitch, but the reaction from the rojiblancos was not so agonising. Some fans and pundits were upset at Simeone’s tactics and substitutions over the two legs, but most are realistic and accept their squad lacks depth and quality — especially in defence.

Then again, Atletico had the lowest budget of this year’s eight quarter-finalists (although Dortmund were seventh). In their first years with Simeone in charge, they punched well above their weight in reaching those two finals, but the club’s financial reality has bitten since then and they have not reached the last four since 2017.

Those regular early exits from Barca and Atletico have led to them slipping down UEFA’s club rankings — Barca are 11th, Atletico 12th. Both could be overtaken by Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen in the coming weeks.

While their domestic rivals have slipped off, Real Madrid have maintained their lofty standards and sit third in the club rankings. They were outplayed by City at the Etihad for long periods but found a way to stay in the tie before the experience and composure of long-serving players such as Lucas Vazquez and Nacho told in the shootout. They have now made the Champions League semi-finals in 12 of the past 14 years — an unprecedented run for any club.

That is a pretty phenomenal achievement and evidence of Madrid being well-run during Florentino Perez’s second spell as club president from 2009. But they are not the ideal standard bearers for La Liga given their regular rows with the governing body’s president, Javier Tebas.

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In terms of UEFA’s country rankings, Spain has been either first or second since 1998, but its advantage over other countries has slowly disappeared over the past few years.

UEFA use a five-year period to calculate their coefficients, meaning shifts take place slowly. In 2018, Spain had 106.998 ranking points — having built a huge lead over England, which was second with 79.605, and Italy, in third, with 70.653.

The Premier League leapfrogged La Liga into top spot after Chelsea beat Manchester City in the final in Porto in 2021. England has gradually pulled away since then, while Germany and Italy have been catching up on Spain and look set to overtake it based on current trends.

They could even overtake Spain in the coming weeks given how poor La Liga’s record in the other UEFA competitions was this season. Real Betis finished third in their Europa League group behind Rangers and Sparta Prague and were beaten 2-1 on aggregate by Dinamo Zagreb in the subsequent Conference League play-off.

Villarreal topped their Europa League group but were then hammered 4-0 by Marseille in their round of 16 first leg and went out 5-3 on aggregate. Osasuna were eliminated by Club Bruges in Conference League qualifying.

Madrid making the last four was at least a welcome boost for La Liga’s ranking, along with City and Arsenal’s quarter-final exits. Spain has 15.312 points so far this season. France has 15.250, England 16.875, Germany 17.214 and Italy 18.428.

But results over the next weeks could see Spain drop further down the overall rankings, possibly even if Madrid go on to win a 15th Champions League/European Cup. UEFA gives the same coefficient weight to wins in each of its three competitions, so Spanish clubs will be looking anxiously at how teams in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Greece do in the closing stages of the Europa League and Conference League.

The introduction of a fifth Champions League spot for the top two leagues in the coefficient rankings was announced in May 2022. It was welcomed in Spain as good news — on historic form, La Liga should regularly have a fifth team in the top tournament.

But it is not working out that way at all. It will almost certainly now be Italy and Germany that benefit. Without the points from Madrid’s run this year, La Liga would be in danger of finishing behind leagues in Belgium and the Czech Republic. That might seem a distant danger — but instead of adding a fifth Champions League team, on current trends, Spain is in danger of losing its fourth slot in the competition.

La Liga teams’ poor performances in Europe have exacerbated the financial gap to the much richer Premier League. Better results from Italian, German and French sides are generating resources and helping them catch up.

Making the semi-finals would have at least earned Barca and Atletico an extra €20million ($21m; £17m) in prize money and TV revenues — and both clubs could really do with the money. Meanwhile, Madrid will be celebrating again as they gain a bigger share of UEFA’s ‘market pool’ broadcasting revenue.

And there is more bad news for La Liga.

Recent failures in Europe for most Spanish sides have been covered up by unlikely wins, such as Real Madrid’s 2022 win after several comebacks and Sevilla’s Europa League success last campaign when they were battling relegation at home.

But it is now undeniable that La Liga no longer dominates as it did a decade ago.

Not being able to compete with the Premier League is understandable given the gap in resources, but being overtaken by Germany and Italy — and possibly even the Czech Republic or Greece — should be a wake-up call for everyone involved with the game in Spain.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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