Money looms over Champions League

The sheer tension had brought Jose Mourinho to his knees. With no regard for his expensive suit pants or his ego, the man who once publicly proclaimed himself to be “special” rested his knees on the soft grass and watched three of his star players crack under the pressure and miss penalties. Real Madrid, the most expensive team in the world, didn’t win the Champions League last season. Bayern Munich prevailed on said penalty kicks after a pair of grueling semifinal games had failed to anoint an outright winner. And Chelsea, a scrappy outsider that eked out unsightly wins, in turn, beat Bayern in the 2011-12 final after another penalty shootout.

Such is the capriciousness of the UEFA Champions League, the world’s toughest and most prestigious club soccer competition.

Real Madrid will reprise its campaign to win its first European title since 2002 setting out on the physically bruising and emotionally draining nine-month slog anew. If it survives 13 games — a six-game group stage, three home-and-away elimination rounds, and a winner-takes-all final on May 25 in London’s Wembley Stadium — against Europe’s finest soccer strongholds, it can lift the big silver cup for a 10th time.

Typically, this brutal proposition has, not unlike baseball’s regular season, been ruthless at picking the contenders from the pretenders – the road is too long and too hard for any team to fluke through. Without the depth of the very richest and consistency of the very best, a team stands no chance of living to see the final.

This has always made for a top-heavy tournament, an exclusive pack of contenders relegating all others to filler status. Over the last eight seasons, five clubs — Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool and AC Milan — have combined to fill 21 of the 32 available semifinal slots. In that span, only four teams not considered European super clubs — Schalke 04, Olympique Lyonnais, Villarreal and PSV Eindhoven — have made it that far.

The Champions League is, in that sense, the antithesis of the NFL. A majority of NFL teams stand at least a fair chance of reaching far into the postseason. But by operating in a completely unregulated market — no salary caps, luxury taxes, roster limitations or any of the other mechanisms that ensure parity in the NFL’s single-entity structure — the biggest soccer clubs have made a habit of stockpiling talent and dominating competition.

Yet a combination of Europe’s sinking economies, rampant mismanagement and the arrival on the scene of billionaire sugar daddies promises a tournament that will be as open as any since the advent of free agency in soccer in 1995.

Shambolic Liverpool is a shell of its former self, and the five-time winners aren’t even in the tournament this season. The two Milanese institutions — Inter and AC — had to shed pricey stars this offseason in favor of cheaper alternatives, so dire are their financial straits in Italy’s flagging league. Any Spanish club not called Barcelona or Real Madrid is in perpetual danger of going bust, as only the “Big Two” are allowed to carry crippling debt without repercussion.

According to the head of the world players’ organization FIFPro, more than a third of players aren’t being paid on time or in full.

The status quo, meanwhile, has been shattered by the arrival of a second generation of angel investors looking for a vanity project. Since Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich turned Chelsea from perpetual also-ran into a world power, more oil money has flowed into the game from the United Arab Emirates (Manchester City) and Qatar (Paris Saint-Germain). City is already king of the hill in England, having won its first Premier League title since 1968 with a squad of the best talent money can buy. Well, the best talent PSG didn’t already buy, that is, because the French club has similar aspirations and both will vie for European glory.

They will have to overcome the traditional powers. Namely Barcelona, whose dynasty looks safe in the hands of new coach Tito Vilanova and will take aim at a third Champions League title in five years.

From England will emerge the usual powerhouses of Chelsea, Manchester United and perpetual bridesmaids Arsenal. Germany’s Bayern Munich is the continent’s most underappreciated side; Italy’s mighty Juventus is rebuilt after a bribery scandal ruined the club.

Europe’s soccer authorities, UEFA, are watching money-hemorrhaging clubs more closely than ever and have threatened to – and in a handful of cases already have – withhold prize money, meet out fines, or eject them from competition.

In the Champions League, in this year as much any, it’s all about the money. And, managing pressure – or it will bring you to your knees.