The most glamorous tournament in club football, as the Uefa Champions League likes to think of itself, stages its annual appetiser on Thursday afternoon, the draw for its group stage. Amid the familiar red-carpet rituals, many old habits will be broken.
The European Cup, as it still gets called, has one important novelty, a fresh title-holder in Manchester City. It has notable absentees among the challengers. As the names of clubs are drawn from bowls into their eight groups of four, there will be no mention of usual regulars such as Liverpool, Juventus, Chelsea or Ajax, who all fell short of qualifying.
For the first time in two decades, the competition’s starting grid has no place for either of the two players who left the 21st century’s biggest mark on the competition.
Lionel Messi, four times a winner, and Cristiano Ronaldo, with his five gold medals, both now play outside Uefa’s orbit. As that illustrious pair keep distant watch on how a new Champions League season unfolds, they cannot help but think the equivalent North American and Asian tournaments they, as figureheads for Inter Miami and Al Nassr, are involved in are moving in closer step to Europe’s Big Cup.
They are entitled to ask how long, in the changing landscape of club football, the Uefa Champions League, a huge global broadcast phenomenon, will keep its status at club football’s summit? In the summer of 2025, an expanded Club World Cup, with 32 teams involved, will be launched. The various continental tournaments being played out in the coming season represent chances for more clubs, from more corners of the game, to be part of this ambitious, Fifa-run show.
It is plausible that a 38-year-old Messi could be there in 2025, in his Miami jersey, if he continues to lift the performances of the Florida club in the way he has done since joining in July.
Ronaldo last week helped Al Nassr through the Asian Champions League play-offs, giving the Saudi Arabian club their shot at the continental crown and with it an opportunity to join Al Hilal and Urawa Red Devils, the last two Asian club champions, in the enlarged, 2025 Club World Cup.
So much for the medium-term horizon. At Thursday’s draw ceremony in Monaco, clubs such as City, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona will focus less on the fact that, because of the increasing attraction of club football in the Gulf and the US, they approach this European Cup having waved goodbye to the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Karim Benzema, Neymar – all in the Saudi Pro League – and Sergio Busquets, now in Miami. Their concern is potential group stage hazards that can impact even on so-called superclubs with favourable seedings.
Madrid, the European Cup’s all-time most successful club and winners for the 14th time in 2022, could end up in a group with both City and AC Milan. All three were semi-finalists in May, but because of the seeding system that favours champions from the leading domestic leagues and ranks the rest according to performances in Europe over a longer period, Milan are in lowly Pot 3, and Madrid, runners up in La Liga last term, in Pot 2.
Man City 1 Inter Milan 0: Champions League final ratings
Among the "outsiders" in Pot 4 – the lowest seeded clubs – are Newcastle United.
Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and AC Milan could all end up caged into a group with upwardly-mobile Mapgies. Only two teams can progress to the knockouts.
Newcastle’s last outing in the Champions League was in a losing pre-qualifier 20 years ago. For Union Berlin, also in Pot 4, there is no precedent at all. Their climb from the second division in Germany to last season’s fourth place in the Bundesliga has taken four short years, and their presence, like that of a Newcastle transformed since 2021 by Saudi Arabian investment, speaks of shifting spheres of influence in elite club football.
With both Union and RB Leipzig in the draw, half of Germany’s contingent come from what, a generation ago, was part of East Germany, then a separate nation in the sporting shadow of the wealthier West.
City must start as favourites, albeit mindful that a key factor in the enduring appeal of the Uefa Champions League is an element of unpredictability: almost all its winners fail to repeat their success, year on year. Since 1990, only Real Madrid, with their sequence of three triumphs from 2016 to 2018, have retained the title.
Fatigue, as City’s manager Pep Guardiola keeps warning, is often an enemy to the holders because they are required to take part in more competitions because of their achievement.
One of those is the Club World Cup, still a short winter tournament for this year’s edition, but soon to turn a great deal larger – and keen to outshine Uefa's Champions League for glamour and truly global reach.