Business as usual in Champions League? Maybe not this season
By GRAHAM DUNBAR and STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writers
The usual pretenders topped their groups.
Nearly all of the top teams advanced.
Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski are the leading scorers.
Is it a case of business as usual in this Champions League?
While there seems to be an ever-widening gap between the biggest, richest clubs and the rest, there also appears to be more potential winners than ever in a last-16 lineup that sets up what could be a thrilling knockout stage.
A look at some things that stood out in group play:
MADRID ON THE WANE
The most dominant team in the 27-season Champions League era might be on the wane.
Real Madrid advanced as a group winner but lost home and away to CSKA Moscow and doesn’t have the same aura without Cristiano Ronaldo, who left for Juventus. The team is on its second coach of the season — a rookie in Santiago Solari — and is fourth in La Liga.
Madrid’s players have won four of the last five Champions Leagues and usually come into their own in the knockout stage in terms of game management and handling the pressure. That was when they had Ronaldo to rescue them, though.
It would be the 13-time European champion’s biggest achievement yet if it can pull through again.
All four of England’s representatives have advanced for the second straight season, even if two of them — Liverpool and Tottenham — left it to their final matches.
They have deep squads, increasingly the best and most sought-after coaches, and a sheer force of numbers — 25 percent of the remaining field.
Manchester City and Liverpool, in particular, should be among the favorites for the title.
Can City manager Pep Guardiola, the outstanding coach of his generation, end what will be an eight-year personal wait to win Europe’s top prize, and for the first time away from Barcelona?
Can Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp juggle contending in the Premier League with trying to reach a second straight Champions League final?
MIND THE GAP
The most successful leagues in (western) Europe are becoming more successful in the Champions League.
The big four leagues — England, Spain, Italy and Germany — have 12 representatives, or 75 percent of the total. Two more come from fifth-ranked Ligue 1 in France, plus there is Porto from the seventh-ranked Portuguese league. Ajax is a relative outlier from the 11th-ranked Eredivisie in Netherlands.
No eastern European team advanced. The most eastern team in Monday’s draw? Bayern Munich. Even the final is being played in Madrid, rather than Kiev last season.
The Champions League seems truly a western affair. Teams not challenging for their national title, like Manchester United and Schalke, advanced with a game to spare. Russia is the sixth-ranked league by club performances in UEFA competitions yet for the third straight year its top-seeded champion — Lokomotiv Moscow — failed to advance.
The round-of-16 lineup looks ever more like a Super League in waiting.
PRIZE MONEY SKEW
The on-field domination of the richest teams comes in the first year of a near-40 percent hike in UEFA prize money, with more designed to go to them.
UEFA and the European Club Association designed a format to distribute 1.95 billion euros ($2.22 billion) among 32 teams with a new element rewarding teams for past titles.
It ensured preventing what happened two seasons ago when Leicester, a newcomer banking lucrative British television money, earned more than eventual winner Real Madrid.
This season, Madrid was sure to earn 50 million euros ($57 million) from UEFA before kicking a ball.
Napoli is due a lucky break, and Shakhtar Donetsk is long overdue a home game.
Napoli had the most points — nine — of any team failing to advance after getting drawn in a group with Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool.
Napoli kicked off at Anfield on top of its group on Tuesday. After a 1-0 loss, Napoli had fallen to third, edged by Liverpool on a head-to-head tiebreaker of goals scored.
Five seasons ago, Napoli had 12 points yet didn’t advance because Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal also had 12 and better tiebreaker statistics.
With 30 minutes to play on Wednesday, Shakhtar was on course for the round of 16. Lyon tied the game and advanced instead.
The game was moved to Kiev, after Shakhtar’s previous two home games were in Kharkiv, due to martial law being imposed during the latest Russian aggression affecting Ukraine.
Shakhtar has also played in Lviv since last hosting a Champions League in its modern Donbass Arena in November 2013. Weeks later, Russian annexed Crimea and the Donbass region was affected by conflict between government forces and pro-Russia separatists that continues.
They are young. They are fearless. They have a point to prove. It would be some story if Borussia Dortmund manages to go all the way.
Like Liverpool last season and Monaco the year before, the Champions League likes to throw up a surprise story and Dortmund might be the new darling of Europe this time round.
Top of the German league by seven points, Dortmund also won its Champions League group and conceded a competition-low two goals in six matches.
Yet, Lucien Favre’s side is better known for its attacking flair, with players like Paco Alcacer and Jadon Sancho — bought from Barcelona and Man City — particularly standing out.
Dortmund has had to rebuild after selling star players such as Ousmane Dembele and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and it has been done wisely and boldly.
Five years after last reaching the final, Dortmund is a team to fear in the Champions League once again.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80