As we head into April the finishing line of the football season comes into view. It should be the most exciting part of the season.
Except in most of Europe it's not, and if the end of the season isn't worth watching then the rest of the season probably isn't either.
It's a growing problem in European club football and should be keeping UEFA awake at night. We might be spoilt in England with a competitive top division league where there are numerous potential champions but that's becoming rarer and rarer in Europe.
The Headline Stats For The Last Five Seasons
The last five years paint a worrying picture of league football increasingly being a pointless procession. That Armenia is the only European nation to have five champions in the last half decade may seem indicative of the problem but the low number itself is perhaps not too surprising.
What is more worrying is that 10 of UEFA's 55 member countries have had same national champions in every one of the last five seasons. You might straight away think of Juventus in Italy, but this is also a problem at the medium and lowest strength leagues too.
BATE Borisov of Belarus and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia are regular Champions League group stage participants but have also won the last 11 championships in their countries. Lincoln Red Imps have won the last 14 Gibraltar titles while across the border in Wales The New Saints recently won their sixth consecutive title nearly two months before the end of the season.
In effect this means those clubs' seasons really only matter in European competitions. However, Lincoln Red Imps and The New Saints rarely get past a single round and when BATE Borisov and Dinamo Zagreb do reach the Champions League group stages they end up being woefully outclassed. Yet participating in European football gives them money which helps them maintain their domestic dominance.
It's a vicious cycle and is starting to being replicated in even the strongest European leagues. Bayern Munich and Juventus are so way ahead of their domestic opposition that their seasons only really start to matter when the Champions League knockout stages begin.
The teams they come up against in those knockout stages are also becoming increasingly familiar. Leicester City are the only team in this season's Champions League quarter finals not to have reached the same stage at least once before in the previous five seasons.
The elite at all levels of European football are seemingly untouchable.
Knockout football a solution?
It means European football is increasingly starting to resemble American sports where the league almost seems to be used to give teams a minimum number of games and it is the playoffs where the real excitement and drama occur.
As we're told every time it's FA Cup weekend, upsets can happen in knockout games. The stats back that up. Whether it's because national cups are taken less seriously or they're less predictable, the variety of national cup winners amongst UEFA nations is much healthier. Only Lithuania has not had at least two different cup winners.
Half of the nations which have had the same national champions for the last five years have had at least four different cup winners. The idea might get scorn from the traditionalists but a NFL style playoff system might be what is need to breath life into some of Europe's leagues.
It might also be time for UEFA to drop their stance against regional leagues. They could do worse then look to handball where the biggest clubs from smaller nations will play half the seasons in regional leagues as well as their domestic leagues. That still doesn't solve the problem of noncompetitive national leagues but does allow big clubs from smaller countries to play competitors of a similar level.
Whatever the solutions there are undoubtedly too many clubs in Europe now that are too good for domestic opposition but are not good enough to be competitive in the Champions League or Europa League. European club football risks becoming not just boring but pointless.
Champions and Cup Winners
|NATION||NO. OF CHAMPIONS||TITLES IN A ROW||NO. OF CUP WINNERS||NO. CHAMPIONS + CUP WINNERS|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||3||1||5||8|
|Republic of Ireland||3||3||5||8|