Champions League: The Grandest Stage in Club Football
“Die Meister! Die Besten! Les grandes équipes! The champions!”
Ohh, the goosebumps. No other event brings this excitement on Tuesdays and Wednesdays of all the days in the week. All those late-night fixtures (in India) and me being sleep deprived in the class or office the morning after. Yet every moment is a bang for your buck, for it is one of the greatest tournaments in the world. Biggest clubs, superstars and passionate fans. A football season is a gruelling year-long battle where even the ardent fans might miss a few league or cup matches. But boy, do they dare to miss a single minute of champions league action, I don’t think so.
This comes a bit late but the Champions League season finally came to a close after the unfortunate COVID break. We definitely were in for some surprises. Not just with the revised format of the knockout phase, but also the eventual results. RB Leipzig, a team founded in 2009 with no notable star power eliminated Tottenham and Atletico Madrid. Teamwork makes the dream work. Manchester City took care of the business against Real Madrid but ran out of tricks against Lyon who themselves made it look easy against Juventus. Bayern demolished Chelsea and Barcelona. They were the only club who came out stronger on the other side of the break. Bayern beat PSG in the final to win another treble after 2013. The first team to win all the matches en route.
I personally thought PSG can make Bayern have jitters with the two “Ferraris” upfront against Bayern’s high pressing defensive line. But these engines could not match up against the German convoy. It’s not saying much if you depend on the likes of Choupo-Moting to be a match-winner instead of your pricey mannequins upfront. 0 goals for Neymar and Mbappe in quarters, semis and final. PSG has never made it beyond quarters even after the influx of Qatar money which brought them a seat to the same table as European giants. Considering a relatively easy run in the knockout stages this season, I would not call this final run by PSG an improvement. Sure, if you spend close to a billion dollars, it finally looks good on the paper to at least get a medal, be it silver. But it still begs the question whether a collection of superstars can beat a coordinated team effort.
With most European leagues becoming more and more predictable every season, Champions League still gives us a fair share of David vs Goliath moments. Clash of the titans. As a human tendency, we always root for the underdogs. No one likes bullies. This is one of the biggest reasons why we have come to admire this tournament over the years. First, no other continent can match the standards of European football. Second, the history is full of occasions when the teams rise up even with all the odds stacked against them. When you continue to dominate in your own backyard, complacency kicks in. You forget that you can get your ass handed by the team next door you have been treating like chumps before the match. Because it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
Let’s revisit the memory lane. Cruyff brags about his dream team and gets taken to the cleaners by AC Milan in 1994. The next year, this AC Milan team loses to a very young Ajax squad with an 18-year-old match-winner in Patrick Kluivert. But wait, this Ajax squad then loses to Juventus next year. Ohh, this gets even better. Borussia Dortmund faces Juventus in 1997 final. Making the finals itself was a big deal for the BVB, but they dethroned Juventus to become the champions. 2004, even a blind person would have picked Manchester United and Real Madrid to make it out of the semis. But it was rather the destiny of the underdogs, Porto and Monaco to make a claim with Porto eventually sealing the deal. That entire Porto team would cost less than the Barcelona or Madrid bench.
Who can forget the 2010 Inter Milan with a treble winning season on the coattails of Sneijder. Cut to 2012. Chelsea was hovering around mid-table in the league and had no way to qualify for CL next season unless they could pull a miracle. To make things worse, they had to face a prime Barcelona in the semis. They were left with a bad taste in their mouth against this Barcelona in 2009 but got their revenge this time. To make it that much sweeter, they beat Bayern in the final in a dramatic fashion to become champions and secure CL berth for the next year. You thought Barcelona had their share of upsets. Next season, against Celtics, Barcelona dominated the possession, piled up shots on target and yet lost 2–1. In the same season, Borussia Dortmund thrashed a star-studded Los Blancos 4–0 to make the final.
If all these don’t feel much, remember Aston Villa, Celtic, Feyenoord, Nottingham Forest have all won this trophy. Yeah, the same Aston Villa who celebrated avoiding the relegation on the last day of the previous season like winning a trophy and the same Nottingham Forest who is currently playing in the second tier English league. Seems like great stories for them to tell their great-grandkids.
Don’t we love some drama and emotion? The group stages make for some mouthwatering fixtures, but it is the knockout stages where the best separate themselves from the rest. When the stakes are high and the chances are slim, it’s better to go all-in. With the exception of the final, the two-leg structure of the knockout stages has provided some interesting highlights over the years. It has the possibility of keeping you on the edge of your seats with your eyes wide open in the wee hours of the early morning. Nothing is certain till the final whistle. You could brag and celebrate a goal just to end up in tears the very next moment.
United comeback against Juventus in 1999. Barcelona comeback against PSG when Neymar still played for Blaugrana. No one gave them a chance after 4–0 defeat yet they could harness their experience to overcome the deficit by winning 6–1. However, the tables would turn for Barcelona when Roma and Liverpool would give them a taste of their own medicine in the following years.
The entire 2018–19 campaign saw teams dig themselves a hole only to climb it later. Ajax against Madrid, youth prevailing against the Ronaldo less CL hattrick squad. Juventus against Atletico, did you count Ronaldo out in the 2nd leg, Simeone? United against PSG, the look on Neymar’s face when VAR won us the winning penalty. Ajax against Juventus, youth continuing to haunt Ronaldo and company. Tottenham against City and Ajax, Pochettino making his dream run to the finals.
You better think twice about showing off after the home match before the away team strips you of those rights on their turf. Just imagine the nerves and the nail-biting experience if these would happen in the final. Ohh wait, we already have that.
1999 United vs Bayern. 2 Beckham corners in the stoppage time took United to the promise land. Fergie Time has always worked for us.
2005, Miracle of Istanbul. 2000s AC Milan was a force to reckon with. I don’t know what was the half-time talk in the Liverpool dressing room but it surely helped as Liverpool came back after trailing 3–0 to take the game to penalties and win the trophy.
2012, everyone thought Chelsea has had enough after beating Barcelona but they didn’t want to fall short like 2008. That Drogba header from a tight angle, Robben’s penalty miss in extra time and a couple more misses from Bayern made Chelsea the champions of Europe.
2014, Madrid Derby. Atletico could smell the victory until a set-piece cross by Modric found Ramos at the other end to head an equaliser in 93rd minute. Real Madrid scored 3 more in the extra time to win the La Decima.
Greatest players of their generation have graced European football at a certain point in their career. They do not shy away from the competition but want to challenge the best players to claim their rightful place amongst the legends. This makes for an interesting showdown on the biggest stage of club football. Zidane vs Beckham, Henry vs Ronaldinho, Kaka vs Gerrard, Ronaldo vs Messi, Lampard vs Giggs, Drogba vs Robben, Casillas vs Buffon, Iniesta vs Pirlo, Ramos vs Van Dijk. These are few of the many gladiatorial battles over the years on the Colosseum of club football one would pay fortunes to watch.
Even with the team performance, these individuals provide a glimpse of their genius and talent to mesmerise the audience and leave with a desire to want more. Yet no one has been more dominant than Messi and Ronaldo. Countless goals, hat tricks and moments of sheer brilliance in the knockout stages. They have helped their team won 8 of the last 13 finals. With these 2 players heading towards the latter half of their career, the next generation has shown a promise with their ability to carry the torch forward.
This competition deserves and demands the best out of the players individually and collectively. Some teams have been successful on multiple occasions while the others are still figuring out the best strategies. We have seen squads change over the years. The ones who we used to cheer on our TV have started making their way into coaching and punditry. A squad rebuilding takes years but something which takes even longer is to shape the culture of the team. This isn’t an overnight process. It takes years of hardship to figure out a recipe for success which can be handed from generation to generation. That culture is imbibed in the youth players out of the academy. These players become important role players and in some scenario, superstars. With inspiring hard-fought runs by Atalanta, Dortmund, Lyon, Leipzig, Roma and others in recent years, it is an example of hard work and grit prevailing over the big-budget teams.
Another crucial factor to the squad rebuilding requires looking out and picking the right talent in the market. Not just make a hole in your pocket but rather spend wisely. Even with one of the greatest coaches at the helm, Manchester City has been banging their heads on the doors of the semi-finals but to no avail. No other club has seen more success domestically in the last decade than City and PSG after a significant splurge by the new ownership. All Hail the Middle East! At least these clubs could achieve domestic success, United have been shambolic, to say the least. But are we forgetting Madrid who notoriously started the Galacticos culture. Or Barcelona who have been splashing out ever since for the partners in crime up front with Messi. Or Bayern who have hollowed the competition by signing their best players.
There are multiple factors why they have been successful, especially in the champions league, contrary to clubs like United City or PSG. They are able to hunt the sharks out there due to their bigger brand names. They weren’t successful right from the word go but had to find their groove over a few seasons. But once they did, treble and consecutive champions league victories, all became a reality from a possibility. With a lot of activities still to happen in this transfer market, the teams would try to build the ideal squad to give it their best shot this season.
Being a fan of this sport, we are never short of the footballing action during the season. A new season starts again with high expectations from the fans. Race to top 4 is a new norm for the teams looking for any silver lining in the year. Even though it’s the top teams competing to lift that silverware, it’s more than a dream for the others to just participate in this event. With everything said and done, we can expect another competitive campaign in this seasons with an equal proportion of flare and dazzle. You might end up on the losing side or ride the glory till the end. One thing is for certain, Champions League will always offer a lot to cherish as a fan of this sport.