Real Madrid players celebrate a goal against Celtic in the Champions League. / REUTERS

The lone survivor

Real Madrid are the only Spanish team left in the Champions League after others failed to qualify

Rob Palmer
ROB PALMER

The inquisition in Spanish football is in full flow as the realisation sinks in that La Liga will have just one club competing in the knock-out stages when the UEFA Champions League reconvenes in the spring.

The reason Real Madrid is the only representative is down to lack of quality, naivety and a degree of honesty in sticking to the Financial Fair Play rules.

It's difficult to comprehend the situation as this is the first time it has happened since the conception of the modern Champions League; even Portugal has more clubs making plans for Tuesday and Wednesday European football.

Now we understand why the presidents of the gigantic clubs are calling for a Super League to protect their financial interests.

Atlético, who are usually one of the most feared opponents in European football, won't even be competing in the Europa League after finishing bottom of their group. They'd fully expect to finish above at least two of Brugge, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto.

Sevilla were drawn into a demanding group with juggernauts Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, so third place isn't an embarrassment. They'd cashed in on their two outstanding centre-backs with Jules Koundé joining Barça and Diego Carlos heading to Aston Villa over the summer.

Coach Julen Lopetegui lost his magic touch and Jorge Sampaoli has inherited a team that is closer to relegation than the top four.

Sevilla will feel more comfortable competing in the Europa League with the likes of Real Sociedad and city rivals Real Betis.

Thursday night football was once regarded as a joke among elite teams. In early 2023, Arsenal, Juventus, Manchester United, Roma, PSV and FC Barcelona will be in action in the Europa League.

It's the second successive year that Barça have dropped out of the top competition that is the Champions League. They could cite a tough group containing Bayern Munich and Inter Milan as the reason they finished third.

But truthfully, the current team just isn't good enough to dine at the top table. The old guard of Piqué, Sergio Busquets or Jordi Alba are a little past it and the exciting youngsters aren't yet mature enough.

Cynics would argue that an investment of 144 million euros in the summer should buy success. The moneymen would tell you that six Premier League clubs spent more and four from England made the cut. The 3-3 draw with Inter illustrated their naivety in the big games. Barça are paying for the reality of meeting the stringent Financial Fair Play rules insisted upon by the Spanish authorities.

It would be interesting to see if the English Premier League would still have four representatives, or whether Paris Saint-Germain could flourish if the rules were so stringently followed.

So it's up to Real Madrid to fly La Liga's flag. They are a team that is seamlessly transitioning. The senior players are still going strong, while Fede Valverde, Vinícius Júnior, Éder Militão, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni continue to develop into true world-class talents. You wouldn't bet against them retaining the European title.