This season's Champions League group stage provided football fans with the thrills one has come to expect from Europe's elite competition. While a fair few groups had clear winners, there were also those that went to the wire. With Leicester City, Arsenal and Atletico Madrid stepping up to top hard-fought groups, and Borussia Dortmund setting a goalscoring record to lead a group that included an unbeaten Real Madrid, the excitement certainly was not lacking. With the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 set to take place on Monday, there are several engaging clashes that could be on offer.
However, this year brought about an interesting shift in the usual power dynamic fans are used to observing in Europe. The mighty Bayern Munich were trumped by Atletico and minnows FC Rostov, while Barcelona were pipped by Manchester City, and holders Real Madrid were troubled by Legia Warsaw. As the dust settled, a fair few teams were left stranded in spots to which they are unaccustomed. However, this only serves to show that there's a real firecracker of a competition coming up, and spectators should be delighted.
Since the 2010/2011 campaign, the past six seasons have had only two occasions where a team that did not top its group managed to make it to the semifinals. These teams were Real Madrid in 2012/13 and Juventus in 2014/15. While Juventus defied all odds to even reach the final, in either case the eventual winner of the competition was a team that had led its group. The Jose Mourinho-led Inter Milan, who did not play the most attractive brand of football, were the last team to emerge victorious in the final despite not topping their group. This evidently signifies that the most well-established sides in Europe have monopolised the competition to such an extent that it usually just comes down to the same three or four teams slogging it out for the title.
With the emergence of new power players like Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund, this monopoly has been shaken up, and this season may just make significant leaps towards ending the big-name dominance once and for all. In the domestic leagues, we can already see disruption of power structures.
Much like the Marxist idea of the uprising of the impoverished class, it is teams who in the past have taken solace in merely surviving that have challenged for (and won) titles.
Only in this case, it was money rather than a uniform class consciousness that brought about the inevitable downfall of the ruling powers. Whether it's Leicester City in England or RB Leipzig in Germany, teams are now showing that a little money and a lot of spirit can propel them into the record books. Teams like AC Milan, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Inter Milan, who all have rich histories filled with European success, are not even in the Champions League. However, besides the fans of these clubs, not many are complaining.
Official measures like Financial Fair Play did very little to ameliorate the condition of smaller clubs by levelling the playing field. Some clubs faced minor inconveniences over a transfer window or two, but the punishment was generally bearable and the long term effect was marginal at best. However, a steady influx of funds through billionaire investors and ridiculously expensive television rights deals have given more clubs a fighting chance to achieve greatness. If one particularly looks at clubs like Leicester and Leipzig, it's shrewd transfer business combined with tactical acumen that has pushed them to reach for the stars and even get their hands on it. While Leicester's momentum has come to a screeching halt in the Premier League, their performances in the Champions League suggest they are preserving their energy for European dominion. Just like with the Premier League last year, neutrals especially will have a personal stake in the Foxes' success this season, and will be hoping they achieve the impossible yet again.
Traditional big names like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have already dethroned from their comfortable positions at the top of their groups, and will most certainly face an uphill battle to enter the semifinals. The aforementioned statistics indicate history has not been kind to second placed teams, so an early exit for either of these clubs should not be a shock, not according to history at least. However, the sheer might of the clubs that have found themselves in unkind positions could eventually result in a break from the statistical patterns that dictate the competition. It would thus be fair to argue that while once clubs strived to top their group in order to avoid an early exit, the general elevation in the level of competition this year has thrown all these careful considerations out the window. However, the first placed teams will still take solace in the fact that they will have the home advantage in the 2nd leg of their last 16 match. A team like Arsenal especially that has been repeatedly eliminated in the Round of 16 due to poor group stage showings coupled with horrible draw-luck, will feel an existential dread setting in. They may think, "is there any point topping a group if we will still be handed a last 16 exit by Bayern?"
A peculiar combination of excitement and nervousness will be felt by all the teams, while mouth-watering potential last 16 clashes like Barcelona versus PSG/Bayern or Arsenal versus Bayern/Real Madrid already have both fans and neutrals eagerly awaiting the Round of 16 draw.
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Updated Date: Dec 09, 2016 10:07:04 IST