As 32 clubs prepare for the start of the Uefa Champions League group phase on Tuesday and Wednesday, they do so against the backdrop of an ugly European footballing storm brewing in the not-too-distant future.
The European Club Association (ECA) announced earlier this week that the Champions League would undergo some changes from the 2017/18 season. ECA chair Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described these as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
Among the most contentious ones were the allocation of four guaranteed slots in the group phase to the four top European leagues (Spain, England, Italy and Germany) and a redistribution of income.
The latter would see the successful clubs generating even more money than they have been. Had the same formula been used this year, Real Madrid would have received €135 million (R2.1 billion) for winning the competition.
Rummenigge’s announcement received mixed reactions, with the head of the European Professional Football Leagues Lars-Christer Olsson saying: “UEFA has gone to bed with a limited number of clubs.”
He added that the new rules would turn the competition into a closed shop for superrich teams.
The Group of Death is undoubtedly Group C, where big-spending Manchester City and Barcelona are being challenged by Borussia Mönchengladbach and Scottish champions Celtic.
Having failed to win the Champions League during his stint with Bayern Munich, new City manager Pep Guardiola will be under pressure to deliver.
They begin their campaign against Mönchengladbach at home and will do so without four-time African Footballer of the Year Yaya Touré.
Making their first appearance in the competition are Premier League champions Leicester City, who were drawn into a group with Porto, Copenhagen and Club Brugge, whom they face in Belgium in their opening match.
The defending champions Madrid should have few difficulties in escaping Group F, where their major opponents are expected to be Borussia Dortmund.
The Germans travel to Poland for their clash against Legia Warsaw, while Real face Sporting Lisbon in the Bernabeau stadium.
Real’s city rivals Atlético have been drawn into a group with Bayern Munich. The Spaniards, who managed to hold onto highly-rated manager Diego Simeone, are away at PSV Eindhoven in their first game, while Bayern take on FC Rostov at home.
The other Bundesliga club involved in the competition, Bayer Leverkusen, have received a tough draw as they take on CSKA Moscow, Tottenham Hotspur and Monaco, while former champions Juventus face Sevilla, Olympique Lyon and Dinamo Zagreb.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, meanwhile, received a boost ahead of the Gunner’s match against Paris Saint-Germain, who will be without injured Ivorian defender Serge Aurier for the match in France.
The other two teams in the group, FC Basel and Bulgarian club Ludogorets, face each other in Switzerland.
The final group sees Benfica, Napoli, Dynamo Kiev and Turkish champions Besiktas in Group B.