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Chaos and comebacks: Champions League proves the ultimate in sporting drama

Down and out. Ajax players react after the final goal. PHOTO AFP

Amsterdam, Netherlands | AFP | After all that, why exactly would you want to change it?

Just as moves are being stepped up that threaten to change the Champions League into more of a closed shop than ever, along comes the drama of this week at Anfield and in Amsterdam of a sort possibly unmatched in sport.

On Tuesday, Liverpool stunned Barcelona 4-0 to overturn a three-goal first-leg deficit and go through to their second straight Champions League final.

Twenty-four hours later, Tottenham Hotspur came back from three goals down on aggregate at half-time in their second leg against Ajax to reach their first ever final on away goals.

When Lucas Moura found the net to complete a hat-trick in the 96th minute, the unbridled joy of the Spurs players and fans was in cruel contrast with the pain of the Ajax players, who slumped to the floor in disbelief.

“It was overwhelming. I watched in my life so many football games but I can’t remember many like this,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Tuesday.

That is because there have not been many to match it, certainly not in the Champions League. Not until recently anyway.

Deportivo La Coruna’s comeback from losing 4-1 at AC Milan in the 2003-04 quarter-finals had long been a one-off in the modern era, but in the last two years we have become accustomed to such drama.

In 2017, Barcelona lost 4-0 at Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 first leg, before winning 6-1 in the return. Last season, there was Barcelona’s own collapse against Roma.

This season, there were several more, notably Manchester United losing 2-0 at home to PSG only to go through on away goals thanks to a last-gasp penalty awarded after a VAR review.

UEFA rushed forward VAR’s introduction into the competition from the knockout phase this season, and Video Assistant Referees have only added to the drama, not least when Tottenham edged out Manchester City in the quarter-finals.

That apart, the regular sight of two teams going for the jugular makes for chaos on the pitch, and there is an element of unpredictability about these contests just when the financial advantage enjoyed by the biggest clubs has made so much about the modern game so predictable.

– Ajax provide hope –

Meanwhile, Ajax have provided hope to clubs who are underdogs in the modern context. Their lack of financial might means they should no longer really be able to come this far.

Their brilliant young squad will now be broken up, just as happened to Monaco’s semi-finalists in 2017.

A bit of variety is a great thing though in the decade prior to this season, over half the total slots available in the semi-finals had been taken up by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Yet the competition is still skewed to favour the biggest and wealthiest clubs.

Ajax have had a great run, but if they don’t win the Dutch title they will enter next season’s competition in the second qualifying round in July.

UEFA changed the format of the competition ahead of this season to give the top four teams in Spain, Germany, England and Italy direct access to group stage.

Those clubs want more and more of the power and the money, though, which explains the moves to try to reform the competition post 2024.

A new-look tournament would reportedly feature four groups of eight teams in a pool phase, with the top six in each group qualifying for the following edition regardless of where they finish domestically.

“Fans ask us for more European games. And from 2024 the new format will allow that,” Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu told The Guardian.

Aside from the damage that would cause to domestic leagues, there can also be too much of a good thing.

“At the moment we have only ideas and opinions,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin insisted this week, saying “no decisions have been made”.

The power of the Premier League is a problem for leading clubs on the continent, and here we are with two English teams in the final.

Yet, after events on the field this week, it is hard to see how the Champions League in its current format can be improved.

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