Milan are champions of Europe while their city rivals Internazionale have laid claim to the Scudetto in emphatic fashion. Just who, exactly, is on top?

The issue is more wide ranging than that, of course. There are two competitions that are composed of teams from different areas of the previous season's league tables. The Champions League of course is contested by the cream - and that is where we shall start.

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Milan were confident of winning the tournament as England celebrated their triumvirate of superclubs, a response dismissed by some via law of averages and others who saw in Manchester United's demolition of Roma an unstoppable force. Perhaps United did not do enough to stop Kaka, believing themselves capable of sweeping aside the Rossoneri: well, we all know what happened over the two legs.

Image credit: Imago

United proved to be the best team in England over the season - six points ahead of Chelsea by the end - and were undone by a Milan team that will finish third or fourth in Serie A. When you add on the eight points that they were docked at the beginning of the campaign, they would simply have been guaranteed third position, still a massive 25 points behind champions Inter: not all that strong domestically for the top dog in Europe.

Does that mean that Italy's league is once again the best? Perhaps not. Inter came a cropper - albeit on the away goals rule - at the hands of Valencia, the fourth team in the Liga title race and completely out of it until a recent surge in form, if only four point off the summit with three matches left to play.

Image credit: Imago

Valencia were just knocked out by Chelsea, the winners of the previous two Premiership titles and second this time around. Now we might be onto something here: the three English teams in the last four represented the top three in the domestic championship, surely a measure of strength?

Well... Liverpool had 21 points less than the Red Devils after the conclusion of the bread and butter, as it is so often called by apparently sincere managers while others such as Rafa Benitez openly rest key men ahead of midweek action. Again, hardly the form of the best club on the continent; plus they famously won it in 2005 alongside a fifth-placed effort, remarkably below rivals Everton in the Prem.

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Benitez obviously values the Champions League above the Premiership, while perhaps Chelsea leaned that way this year as they sought continental recognition; Man Utd were unfortunate but desperate for domestic success first and foremost. Rafa's policy paid off for him.

The Spanish dailies claimed their own niche of success with three teams in the UEFA Cup semis and both finalists. However in the big one holders Barcelona were eliminated by finalists Liverpool earlier on and Real Madrid, who are joint-top with the Blaugrana in that ongoing title race, lost out spectacularly to Bayern Munich, only fourth in the Bundesliga.

Sevilla, who retained the UEFA Cup on penalty kicks, are right there in the reckoning for the title and bring a measure of authenticity to the argument, but look at the others: Espanyol, who were so close in Glasgow, are 12th in the table and Osasuna, slayers of Werder Bremen in the semi-finals, 14th. Throw in the mantle of 'The title no one wants to win', true until very recently as the top three threw away points willy-nilly, and it doesn't look too clever on the Iberian peninsula.

Image credit: EFE

Milan did not face a Spanish side on their path to Athens and merely disposed of Scottish champions Celtic - no disrespect to the SPL, but it is not rated in European terms - and a relatively poor Bayern side. The redemption came against Manchester United.

What we can conclude ultimately is that the European success stories are too often lived by clubs on the fringes of their domestic titles at best: a classic cup format, in fact. The uncertainty in the final stages is exciting and not unlike the old knockout format in some respects, yet then all the protagonists were champions and often headed for another title. The distribution of achievement is good in a competition such as the FA Cup; but in Europe, we want to witness the champions and runners-up of each country going head to head, not first versus fourth and 12th versus seventh.

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This is unlikely to change a great deal even under the UEFA stewardship of Michel Platini, who has advocated a reduction in those qualifying for the CL from the top leagues.

We can console ourselves with the acceptance that under the current conditions, we are unlikely to move to a European-wide league, which would surely kill off interest among many fans who simply do not have the funds or inclination to watch their team play in Italy one week, France the next. But the 'Champions League'? The name is erroneous: not only were there no champions in Athens, but no one even close to being so.

In my opinion Inter are the true champions, as are Manchester United; and in Spain at least the title is now all-important, especially for the old rivals from Catalonia and Castilla.

Jonathan Symcox

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