Champions League: Heavyweights battle for Europe's most coveted cup as knockout stage begins
The storied heavyweights will decide who wins Europe’s most coveted cup. That is both the Champions League’s biggest strength and weakness.
And so, at last, after hibernation, the Champions League, the grand ball of European elite football, which claims to topple the World Cup in both quality and universal acclaim, returns.
On Tuesday, the current champions travel to Madrid, where the end of ‘Cholismo,’ Diego Simeone’s philosophy predicated on discipline, physicality and street smart, an anti-dote to possession obsession, has been predicted.
The hosts must overcome formidable opposition. Liverpool have not struggled with the strangling reality of elite football: how does one remain at the top?
And so, at last, after hibernation, the Champions League, the grand ball of European elite football, which claims to topple the World Cup in both quality and universal acclaim, returns. Where had it left off in December? With the monotonous group stages, which, more and more, resemble a procession, an elongated match-up between the gilded super clubs and those champions and vice-champions from the European periphery, who in the face of financial inequality, provide little intrigue to the pre-Christmas stage of the competition.
Perhaps, ‘competition’, in the plenitude of the word, doesn’t apply to the Champions League group stages. Bayern Munich, Manchester City, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus needed little application to ensure progress to the round of the sixteen. Admittedly, here and there, there was a bit of a plot and tension. In Group H, Chelsea, Ajax and Valencia were engaged in a three-way battle and, in Group E, Red Bull Salzburg were valiant against storied opposition in both Liverpool and Napoli.
Salzburg, however, were hardly a fairytale. Backed by capital from the global energy drink, the Austrians devised a successful strategy of signing and nurturing young players. It led to performant matches against the defending champions and Carlo Ancelotti’s team: a 4-3 loss at Anfield, and a 1-1 draw at San Paolo, results that don’t read like much of the Champions League’s contemporary anthology: Club Brugge - PSG 0-5, Tottenham Hotspur - Red Star Belgrade 5-0, etc.
German sister club Red Bull Leipzig did advance to the knockout round, where they can’t be considered an underdog. Italy’s Atalanta Bergamo, who eliminated Donbass club Shakhtar Donetsk, is the outsider in the predictable field of European giants. Out of the sixteen clubs, eleven were present last season at the same stage.
In fact, for the first time, not a single club from outside Europe's top five leagues have qualified for the knockout phase. There is simply no more room for Ajax Amsterdam, FC Porto, AA Gent, Dynamo Kiev and other second-tier clubs.
And so, the first-round mismatches and second-round line-up reaffirm that inequality has become entrenched in the European game. That disparity has choked competition at the top of the European football pyramid, revealing an odious adoption of global capitalism and a fractured continental landscape. In other words, football, ultimately, represents and dramatises society. Clubs, backed by oligarchs, Spanish banks, American capital or Gulf states, prosper; others are left behind.
At some point, a much-maligned Super league is inevitable. You could think of it as the knockout phase of the Champions League ad nauseam, but without the crunch of the elimination format and without the crescendo of two-legged blockbusters that imbue the European spectacular, almost paradoxically, with its core strength: that star-spangled, high-grade season finale that never fails to disappoint, perhaps discounting last season’s final. It is so good, because the dose is so limited.
This year’s final returns to Istanbul, which, inevitably, evokes memories of that dreamy May night in 2005 when Liverpool defied logic by clawing their way back into the match against AC Milan from 3-0 down before, in a final act of heroism, the Reds defeated their opponents from the penalty spot.
On Tuesday, the current champions travel to Madrid, where the end of ‘Cholismo,’ Diego Simeone’s philosophy predicated on discipline, physicality and street smart, an anti-dote to possession obsession, has been predicted. Veteran stalwarts Gabi, Diego Godin and Juanfran have been moved on, and players with a different profile – Portuguese prodigy Joao Felix and flamboyant French midfielder Thomas Lemar – must now rejuvenate Atletico.
The hosts must overcome formidable opposition. Liverpool have not struggled with the strangling reality of elite football: how does one remain at the top? On the back of last season’s European Cup conquest, Jurgen Klopp’s team has redefined domestic supremacy, turning the Premier League into an emphatic victory march. Above all, Liverpool’s high press has steered the overarching, or at least winning, philosophy in European football away from a possession-based game, by now almost an evanescent undercurrent of a time gone by.
Can anyone dethrone Liverpool? Obviously, Real Madrid can’t be discounted. Zinedine Zidane has returned as coach. During his first spell in the Spanish capital, the novice coach had surpassed all expectations. In no time, and under the constant pressure that comes with a role in the elite game, he transformed Madrid’s fortunes and moulded a team that conquered Europe in ruthless fashion. Yet, even at the end of his first Madrid spell, doubts lingered: his team never had the outlook of a true unit. They weren’t ‘galactic’ enough. You could level a similar criticism at Zidane’s Real 2.o: where is the collective endeavor? And yet, the Frenchman’s King-Midas touch remains. By a whisker, Madrid top La Liga. Against Manchester City, who for now remain part of Europe, his team should be marginal favorites.
That proposition also applies to Paris Saint-Germain, serial French champions and serial underachievers on the continent, in their tie against Borussia Dortmund and Norwegian teen sensation Erling Haaland. The Parisian club, owned by Qatar, have spent in excess of a €1 billion on top talent, but succeeded in little else than self-destruction. Their 6-1 elimination by Barcelona was followed by a 1-3 exit at home against Manchester United in slapstick fashion. Each season PSG fall at the round of sixteen, and each season they take parody to new levels. The arrival of sporting director Leonardo and Thomas Tuchel’s reasonable grip on his group of unruly star players, however, have reinforced the belief in the French capital that this season things will be different. Even Neymar has been playing well.
Bayern Munich and Juventus can’t be omitted from the candidates to reach the final. You get the picture. The storied heavyweights will decide who wins Europe’s most coveted cup. That is both the Champions League’s biggest strength and weakness.
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