The knockout stage of the Champions League makes up for the turgid borefest of the group stages before Christmas. Don't get me wrong, I watch the group stages like everyone else, but due to the seeding involved it's not really geared towards any kind of upset. The only blip, to use Govan Toolmaker terminology, was when Manchester United failed to qualify a few seasons ago. Since then, and before, it has been a case of the big fish "easing" their way into the knockout stage. Perhaps groups of three, with the winner qualifying would make things more interesting. I'm not so sure the big clubs would go for that though.
In saying that, the quarter-finals also unfolded according to the script. Porto played better than Manchester United in the first leg, especially in the first half and were favourites to progess after drawing 2-2 at Old Trafford. In the return leg we saw the functional "Euro-United" kill the game after Ronaldo scored from about forty yards out. Ho-hum.
Villarreal, without Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla, didn't really have a chance against Arsenal at The Emirates and were dispatched with ease.
The Barcelona/Bayern tie was settled in the first leg and the match in Germany was an exercise in damage limitation from Jurgen Klinsmann's side.
The match of the round was at Stamford Bridge. Crash! Bang! Wallop! as Alan Partridge might say. It wasn't really exciting because at no stage did Liverpool lead on aggregate. I've heard a lot of Liverpool fans speak of their pride in the team, but the reality is that they blew a two goal lead. Their second two goals were scored when even their manager had given up the ghost, having earlier substituted Torres and Mascherano.
So with Liverpool out, this year's "Big Four" is Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester United. That's about right, I think. It's really any three of the Premiership four and Barcelona. So really it's a European "Big Five."
I don't think the Premiership itself is miles ahead of the rest of Europe, because the teams outside the top four are unremarkable. The top four is like a cartel. They also dominate the F.A Cup and the League Cup. Spurs fans and Portsmouth fans should consider themselves lucky that they have had the opportunity in the last couple of years to have snatched some crumbs from the cartel table. So, no Premiership teams outside the cartel are qualifying for the CL. The same four teams qualify each year and know Europe inside out. They dominate the competition because they qualify year after year. If say Aston Villa qualify next year they could possibly struggle with the extra demands. When Everton managed to break in, they were eliminated before the group stages. The cartel can ease their way past the group stages, and due to their annual experience, the knock-out stages aren't a great unknown. This domination reflects the cartel's hegemony within the Premier League, rather than the overall strength of the league.