It is traditional, at this stage of the Champions League season, to have a good moan: it's always the same clubs, we whine; I like knockout matches, we blub. This season's edition, for connected reasons, has been different on both fronts.
Firstly, and obviously, it's not all the same clubs. Recent winners Porto and Manchester United are out. The Bundesliga champions are out; the Ligue 1 champions are out; the Premier League leaders are out. Though perhaps indicative of La Liga's problems rather than Champions League progress, only two Spanish clubs remain.
The places of Porto, Manchester United, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Lille, Villarreal and Valencia have been taken by first time qualifiers APOEL, Zenit St Petersburg, FC Basel, Napoli and second time qualifiers CSKA Moscow. Also through are the former powerhouses, thought spent, of the nineties, Marseille, and noughties, Leverkusen. While Olympique Lyonnais always qualify, they had never done so having gone into the second half of their final game requiring a five goal swing in their favour until they beat Dynamo Zagreb 7-1 (in Croatia) last night - with hindsight suspicious, but it was fun at the time.
In part, this shift may be indicative of a wider change in Europe's eco-political landscape. 2018 World Cup hosts Russia have been on a generally upward trajectory in recent years, and both their qualifiers won the (then) UEFA Cup in the middle of the last decade. It is also partly explained by the increasing efficacy of Michel Platini's manifestoed rule-tweak which made it slightly easier for teams from historically lesser nations to compete. It is as a result of this rule (we'll call it Minnows Law) that, for example, Basel did not have to win a play-off to enter the group whereas Arsenal and Bayern did. Minnows Law also accounts for the presence of teams like Otelul Galati and the absence of more renowned sides like Udinese and Twente in the group stages. Apart from the obvious congruence between a higher concentration of minnow in each group and the resultant qualification of a surprising number of minnows, Platini's tweak does not directly explain the incredible progress of APOEL who had to play in all but the very first qualifying round (which contains only four teams) and ended up winning their group.
When viewed in a wider context than that provided by this season's list of unlikely qualifiers, though, Minnows Law does seem to be successful. Champions League experience, as I wrote on Tuesday in relation to Manchester City's predicament, needs to be gained cumulatively. 2011-2012 was, for example, FC Basel's fourth Champions League Group Stage campaign and they evidenced the progress you would expect to correlate with their increasing experience. It hasn't happened immediately, Platini became president at the start of 2007, but Minnows Law seems to be having the desired effect: good news for the likes of BATE Borisov, who have played in two post-2007 Group Stages and are five points clear at the top of the Belarusian Premier League with three games remaining.
A cumulative effect of this trend, and one which speaks to the second complaint traditional leveled at UEFA's flagship competition, is that the individual games which make up the group stages have become, or are at least becoming, more difficult.
As a caveat, the fact that clubs like BATE and Basel are becoming increasingly competitive at Champions League level is likely to have a resultantly negative impact on the competitiveness of their domestic leagues. Coupled with incoming FInancial Fair Play legislation, perennial Champions League qualification (English football at least suggests) shall ensure that domestic leagues become increasingly monopolised by clubs enjoying the dual benefits of qualitative experiential and quantitative financial gain that perpetual exposure to the Champions League ensures.
What this means for the Champions League, though, is that, in effect, qualification from the group is, increasingly, secured by superiority in head to heads. The fates of the two Manchester sides bear this out.
Effectively, the failures of both United and City to qualify can be traced to individual fixtures. United, clearly, should not have lost to Basel last night but they certainly shouldn't have drawn with the Swiss side at Old Trafford - where they were two goals to the good at half time. Had they won either of those games they would have been through. Such is the brilliance of Walter Mazzari's Napoli side that it would be obtuse to claim that City should have beaten them, but the fact is that had City won one of their ties against the Italians then they, too, would have been through. By way of contrast, Arsenal emerged from what was ostensibly a tougher group than that which kyboshed United by virtue of claiming four points each from their fixtures against nearest challengers Marseille and Dortmund. Arsenal, in effect, achieved aggregate victories over the stronger teams in their group. Neither City nor United managed to do this and so they went out*.
*As a corollary to this, City (as much as the stat that they are only the third team to earn 10 points in failing to emerge from the group) are, for the reasons outlined above, not unlucky to have dropped into the Europa League with a points total which exceeds that of, for example, group winners APOEL. Given that Villarreal were entirely pathetic throughout and earned no points, City's wins over them (as well as those of Napoli and Bayern) can be discounted. This means that City only won one big game, against an already qualified Bayern, and drew one big game, at home to Napoli. On aggregate, they drew 2-2 with Bayern (where the Germans fielded a second string for the second leg) and lost 3-2 to Napoli. That this wasn't good enough is not, then, ‘unlucky' but inevitable.
Apart from all that, this season's Group Stage contained some straight-up, face-lickingly good games. Both Milan-Barcelona ties fall into this category, as do those between Arsenal and Dortmund, Manchester City and Napoli, the second Manchester United Benfica game and Marseille's late, great comeback at Dortmund. What's not to love?