English Quartet Prepare for Drama on a Stage We Must Enjoy While We Can
The Champions League returns on Tuesday with Liverpool back at the stadium where they won their sixth European crown last year. Atlético Madrid will represent a formidable obstacle as Jürgen Klopp and his players attempt the unlikely feat of reaching a third successive Champions League final in addition to claiming a first English title in 30 years, though of the four English teams aiming for a place in the last eight it could be argued that Liverpool have been best favoured by the draw.
It is true that Tottenham’s opponents, RB Leipzig, have the least impressive European pedigree, but Julian Nagelsmann’s side are keeping Bayern Munich company at the top of the Bundesliga. Chelsea and Spurs find themselves pitted against the top two teams in Germany, while Manchester City must play Real Madrid, top of La Liga and with a very impressive European pedigree indeed.
In comparison Atlético are practically slumming it in fourth place in the Spanish league, though perhaps for that very reason Liverpool will be wary of Diego Simeone’s team, particularly as they gained an extra day’s preparation by playing on Friday night.
As cliched as it might sound there are no easy teams left by this stage of the competition, though José Mourinho is probably right in insisting that nobody should pat themselves on the back before reaching the quarter-finals. Though the Spurs manager has an excellent Champions League record, as does Pep Guardiola at City, Klopp and Zinedine Zidane have won the competition more recently.
The latter might be keen to show that Real can function just as well without Cristiano Ronaldo, but as recent winners and back-to-back finalists Klopp and Zidane have little else to prove in Europe, just a shared desire to keep up their record of success. By contrast Mourinho and Guardiola would like to show their Champions League prowess is still current – their last wins were in 2010 and 2011 respectively – and though Guardiola was being a touch melodramatic in suggesting a few days ago he might be sacked if he fails again in Europe, the outcome might be the same anyway thanks to Uefa’s two-year ban, announced on Friday night.
If City do not win the Champions League this season, they will almost certainly have a different manager in place the next time they try. While appeals could delay the sanction for long enough to offer the possibility of participation next season, the chances are that as a partnership City and Guardiola have just one more shot at their ultimate goal.
Though well-respected throughout Europe, City have never quite become the force on this stage that was anticipated when Guardiola was appointed and after Uefa’s ruling the pressure is now greater than ever. There was always going to be keen interest in their last-16 tie against Real Madrid, but City’s Champions League progress this season has just been promoted to the realms of unmissable theatre.
Chelsea have no such concerns apart from facing Bayern Munich, the club they beat in a Champions League final eight years ago when Frank Lampard was captain. In his present role the manager is at the start of his European journey, and arguably Lampard does not have as much to prove as Quique Setién, the Champions League novice now in charge of a troubled Barcelona, or even Hans-Dieter Flick, Bayern’s interim manager until the end of the season.
Yet at some point in the near future Chelsea will have to make up their minds about what is most important, progress in this season’s Champions League or qualification for next season’s. Tottenham are in a similar position, especially as they presently find themselves behind Sheffield United in the Premier League, and though the club would appreciate Mourinho delivering a top-four finish a European specialist who has already won two Champions Leagues with different clubs from different countries is bound to fancy a crack at becoming the first manager in history to go one better. While Spurs are an outside bet to reach a second Champions League final so soon after their first, their manager will not be short of motivation after his against-the-odds wins with Porto and Internazionale.
History is a big part of what makes the Champions League so attractive, which is why recent proposals to fundamentally alter its structure for profit-making purposes met with such opposition. Though the present format of the Champions League is imperfect, we ought to appreciate it for what it is – a contest between the leading clubs from different counties, as defined by the positions attained in domestic leagues – while we can. As such it is broadly recognisable as the old European Cup, even if the fact it is open to non-champions makes its title a misnomer.
The original concept of finding the best team in Europe from those pre-eminent in their own countries remains, despite the regular and rather tiresome breakaway threats from organisations more interested in running a closed shop. With change inevitable in a few years, this will be among the last editions of a now settled formula likely to be missed when it is eventually replaced by something clunkier.
Not missed as much as Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will be when they disappear around the same time, naturally, but the Champions League knockout stages – and perhaps just the knockout stages – have provided some top-rate entertainment over the years. Even with an irksome and predictable group stage, it is a fair bet that nostalgia for what we have now will kick in as soon as it is taken away. Perhaps a little earlier for Manchester City and their supporters.
The Guardian Sport