Since it succumbed to its own marketability and organized group stages and seedings, all but guaranteeing the continent’s financial heavyweights safe passage to its latter stages, UEFA’s Champions League has yet to be retained.
In the days of its unseeded, simple home and away ties, prior to the advent of 6-match groups, replete with theme music, fireworks, Amstel and a host of other sponsors, the Champions League trophy had proven a lot easier to hold onto. In the years 1971-1980 only 4 teams held the title, all of them having retained it at least once (twice in the cases of Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich). Conventional wisdom tells us that it was a competition far easier to win and retain in those years; only the champions of each league would be entered, for instance, while two of the more favoured teams could draw each other in the early rounds, opening the door for easier passage – given reasonably fortunate draws – into the latter rounds of the competition. Yet there were no second chances, as the group stages of the current version certainly allow for. Of the 16 teams competing this week and next as the tournament enters its knockout phase, only Manchester United and the two Madrid sides are yet to lose a match – though such a statistic does take on a cloak of redundancy as the two legged home and away affairs commence. Plainly, the group stage matches are instantly forgettable. Only now does the competition truly inspire.
Arsenal v Bayern Munich
This year’s defending champions are the formidable Bayern side who swept all before them last year on their way to a domestic and continental treble previously unprecedented in German football. Since Pep Guardiola replaced Juup Heynckes as head coach there has been little stalling of their momentum; 46 Bundesliga matches without defeat by last count. It seems a very long time indeed since Bayern were humbled 4-0 by a Messi-inspired Barcelona in 2009. Or since the preceding seven year spell without the Bavarians making a semi-final appearance. Finalists in three of the last four seasons, Bayern are the current kings of The Champions League. That they lost to Manchester City in their final group match spoils any idea of an entirely perfect season – that they did so having won all five of their previous matches, already assured of top spot in the group, perhaps goes some way to temper any ideas of a chink in the armour.
Nonetheless, such a result must hearten their forthcoming opponents Arsenal, as they contemplate the mammoth task of dealing with Müller, Götze and co over two matches. Arsenal did defeat Bayern 2-0 in the knockout stages last year, albeit in futile fashion having lost the home leg 3-1, but will take heart from that and also from their earlier victory in Germany this campaign against last year’s tournament runners up, Borussia Dortmund. Arsenal have certainly improved in the last 12 months – they remain in the battle for 3 trophies – yet so too have Bayern. The acquisitions last summer of Mario Götze and Barcelona’s Thiago – quite why the Spanish giants allowed him to leave must be explainable by someone – have strengthened them far more than the losses of Mario Gómez and Luiz Gustavo may have weakened them. Thiago in particular seems capable of dictating play in a midfield bursting with playmakers. That the idea of Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Martinez and Lahm (who he has now converted in his own image) felt somehow insufficient to Guardiola speaks volumes of his embarrassment of riches. In all probability he knew from working with the Spanish/Brazilian what a talent he was, and snapped him up for the conventional ‘bargain’ price of 25 million euros. That Mario Götze has adopted a makeshift central striker role – as they await the further signing of Robert Lewandowski – rather says it all about the quality of what must be the world’s greatest array of midfield talent in any one squad. Were Arsenal to pip a wasteful Bayern side over two legs it would be heralded as one of Arsène Wenger’s great achievements. And in fairness to the London club’s stellar season thus far, it would not be among the biggest shocks of European football history. Yet watching Arsenal’s capitulation 8 days ago at Anfield, with the memory of a similar capitulation to Manchester City some weeks ago still fresh, leaves the keen eye of many a serious spectator to suggest that in all likelihood Bayern’s more serious challenges will come later in the tournament.
Manchester City v Barcelona
But from where? Many would point to the eventual winners of Tuesday’s arguable tie-of-the-round, which sees Manchester City face Barcelona, as a potential challenge; in each case with interesting merit. Gerardo Martino’s charges, in particular, are an interesting study in the current season. Much maligned after their changing-of-the-guard mauling at the hands of Heynckes’ Bayern, serious questions have been asked of them for perhaps the first time in a number of seasons. Whereas defeats to Chelsea and Inter in previous semifinals were often met with hyperbolic cries of ‘crimes against football’ by their supporters, the extent to which Bayern were superior over two legs last April was not in any way flattered by the 7-0 aggregate score line. Perplexingly, rather than sign the central defender the entire football world seems to deem necessary, Barcelona spent the summer – and substantial, as yet unconfirmed amounts – acquiring the prodigious attacking skills of Neymar.
In the face of some uninspired performances this campaign, Martino’s argument has been that the side, unlike in previous years, were pacing themselves. Time will tell. But certainly if this past Sunday’s performance is any gauge he may just be onto something. Messi, Iniesta, and in particularly Cesc Fàbregas tormented Rayo Vallecano throughout the 90 minutes, culminating in a 6-0 scoreline which could have been a dozen and beyond. The tempo was there, the quick passing and movement, Iniesta’s ‘happy feet’. It was the Barcelona of a few seasons ago, the Barcelona of Pep; yet it was only Rayo. A far better gauge will come Tuesday night at the Etihad Stadium Manchester.
Having spent a couple of seasons finding their feet, City are beginning to look more comfortable in the continent’s elite. The 3-2 victory in Munich (for all Bayern’s prior qualification) represents the single defeat inflicted on the German side in some 11 months. Manuel Pellegrini’s City have inflicted 4, 5 and 6 goal beatings on top English sides this season, and have certainly added to a squad which seemed ill-equipped mentally – if not in terms of ability – for success at this level 12 months ago. The idea that they can ‘get at’ Barcelona’s defence in a similar fashion to Bayern is not a hard one to envisage. Yet one should not be quick to assume they will be able to assert such superiority over their opponents in the upcoming double header. While Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham have been simply blown away at the Etihad Stadium this season, Barcelona are something else entirely. A vibrant City, in full flow and – perhaps crucially, with Sergio Agüero (who will miss Tuesday’s tie) could arguably prove too much for anyone. But one suspects a resurgent Barcelona may have a little too much for them. At the very least, too much of the ball for them. Both United and Tottenham were unable to retain possession of the ball against City. Arsenal are forever prone to such defensive self-destruction as they illustrated against Negredo and co in December. One finds it hard not to contend that Martino’s side will be better equipped and more talented than any previous sides City have played host to this season.
Though this is a tie which will split opinion greatly, perhaps further emphasizing the idea that the greatest days of the competition are always its two-legged affairs, the good and bad of the group stage always forgotten, the mind of this observer steers towards Barcelona acquiring what they will deem a ‘manageable’ score to take back to Spain, progressing in a couple of weeks. Understated and distant second favourites they may be this year, the impression is clear that it is the holy grail of Champions League success the Catalans crave most this season. Whether they can contend with Bayern – or with one or two others – will be interesting to discover, but in Messi, along with Madrid’s Ronaldo, they have one the competition’s outstanding match winners. City’s day of Champions league glory will surely arrive. But one suspects their involvement this year will not reach much further than March.
This week’s other two ties seem rather more open and shut. While Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid give the appearance of tiring under the strain of prolonging a tilt at pipping their city rivals and Barcelona for the La Liga title, they should have far too much for this season’s AC Milan side, currently a sorry bunch who represent the illustrious Champions League history of that club in only the colour of their jerseys. Those who remember the 2004 side of Kaka, Shevchenko and Maldini, or can go a decade further back to recall Donadoni, Savićević and Massaro, might want to switch the channels during this one. Diego Costa may be finding himself increasingly-tightly marked and deprived of space in Spain but one wonders quite how Rami, Zaccardo and co will manage to deal with him come Wednesday evening. Mario Balotelli’s wonder strike last Friday night to seal a 1-0 win over Bologna did little to paper over the cracks of what in truth was an insipid display.
Bayer Leverkusen v Paris Saint-Germain
It is perhaps a sad fact that more often than not progression to the upper echelons of European football no longer calls for the development of exceptional young talent as it did in the days when Celtic, Steaua Bucharest and Ajax were competing for the awards, but now hinges on the wooing of an owner prepared to part with exorbitant sums of money in order to acquire such ready-made talents as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva. Borussia Dortmund of course provide the current exception to such a claim but one suspects that the Mario Götzes and İlkay Gündoğans of the world may be contenders for Champions League silverware long after the Dortmund fans have had the chance to take such success for granted.
Nonetheless, the emergence (or re-emergence) of Paris St Germain as a footballing powerhouse has brought excitement, increased competition, and another league into the business end of European club competition. Whereas only a few small years ago it seemed the English and Spanish sides would combine to dominate for the foreseeable future, this year’s semifinalists could conceivably yet comprise four nations, harking back to the old, almost forgotten days of the ‘European Cup.’ That may perhaps be too romantic a notion, but PSG are genuine contenders for the title this year. One can’t help but feeling that, had they edged their way past Barcelona a year ago – as they so nearly did – they may have been far better equipped to deal with what lay in store for them in Munich. Five points clear atop France’s Ligue One, with a wealth of attacking options and an experienced defence, the French Champions should not be overlooked among the favourites this year, and should make light work of a Bayer Leverkusen side who started the season in good form but have stalled lately, and on Saturday struggled to defeat against an improving but less than spectacular Schalke side. Certainly less than PSG who, if the draw is as kind in the next round as it was for this one, may be surprise contenders to bar Bayern’s path to another unprecedented record of back to back Champions League wins.
Football predictions are always fraught with danger, but pushed to call the matches – in the spirit of any serious fan – this observer expects comfortable aggregate wins for Atlético and PSG, Bayern to have far too much for Arsenal to contend with, and Barcelona to prevail through a serious two-legged test against Manchester City. Whether any of the other three can seriously challenge the current champions however, will perhaps be illustrated best by what inroads – if any – Arsène Wenger’s charges can make into the Bavarian’s midfield dominance.