Wed, May 28, 2003 - Page 20 News List

AC Milan eyes 6th Champions League title in Italian final

AP , MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

AC Milan chases its sixth Champions League title in today's first ever all Italian final while Serie A winner Juventus is after its third.

Whatever the result, European soccer's most prestigious competition has almost become an exclusive club. While interlopers such as Hamburg, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Red Star Belgrade have made it through the doors for an occasional visit, the membership seems pretty restricted to the elite.

Real Madrid has a record nine titles and lost to Juventus in this season's semifinal while chasing a 10th, Milan has five and then come three clubs -- Ajax Amsterdam, Liverpool and Bayern Munich -- with four each.

Madrid also holds the record for most appearances in the final -- 12. Then comes Milan with nine, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Benfica with seven and Ajax with six.

In this season's competition, the top clubs came to the surface once more.

Although Liverpool and Bayern Munich didn't make it, the eight quarterfinalists -- Madrid, Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Manchester United, Ajax and Valencia -- shared 25 Champions League titles and 146 domestic league championships.

No wonder Europe's big clubs have considered breaking away to form their own league.

When that became a real possibility in the late 1990s, UEFA responded by reshaping the competition entirely to satisfy clubs' demands for greater revenue.

Europe's soccer governing body came up with a format of two group stages with clubs playing each other on a round-robin basis. That meant many more matches and, therefore, the big bonus of massive income from TV coverage virtually week after week.

The format was to have 32 teams split into eight groups of four with the top two in each qualifying for a second round. The survivors were split into four groups of four who played another series of round robin games.

The top two in each group in round two advanced to the quarterfinal and the competition then continued as a knockout.

The result was that the two finalists would have to play at least 16 matches and that led to its own problems.

While the club owners appreciated the increased revenue from TV coverage, they weren't actually on the field. Coaches and also national team managers complained that it was too stressful for the players who risked injury and burnout while forced to play twice a week.

Italy, France, England and Spain went to the World Cup finals last summer with many players hobbling to Japan and S Korea with injuries or simply worn out after such a long season. None made it to the semifinals.

UEFA has now decided to change the format again so that the second round of games will be played on a knockout basis.

That could bring a change of fortunes to some of the outsiders to make it that far.

Playing one of the elite teams on a home and away basis is much easier than in a group format where the big teams can make up for one poor performance.

Because of economics, the competition is not likely to go back to its original format in the late 1950s when only the domestic champions and the defending titlist qualified.

But the return of a knockout from round two might lead to the likes of Arsenal, Lyon, Real Sociedad and VfB Stuttgart reaching the final next season and the exclusive club opening its doors to new members.

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