Champions League’s Full English Another Staging Post in March of the Superclubs
Well, fancy seeing you here. For all the pep and vim, the high-energy caffeine-football combinations of Red Bull Salzburg, there was a feeling of certainty about Liverpool’s progress to the last 16 of the Champions League.
The ability of Jürgen Klopp’s team to win even when the opposition bring their A-game has been a feature of the season. A simple explanation, beyond luck and “LiVARpool” conspiracy theory, is that their base levels are just so high. This is a team of extreme qualities: physical strength, speed, attacking skills. They have more ways to win, more ways to wear you down, like a heavyweight champ who can dawdle through five rounds and still produce at any stage that lights-out right-hander.
At the end of which victory for Liverpool on Tuesday, combined with Chelsea’s defeat of Lille at Stamford Bridge, was significant in other ways. Four English teams out of four will enter the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League. It is a full house completed with a match-day to spare, making it three years in a row that no English team has failed to reach the knockout stages.
Even here there is a degree of uniformity. The same four teams, with the addition of Manchester United, have occupied the Premier League spots across that three-year period.
It is all part of a wider trend. Worried about the anti-competitive effects of a conference-style European super league, about the oligarchical giants seizing the means of production (sorry, Gazprom!), about the grabbing hands grabbing all they can? Don’t fret. We’re already there anyway. Well, almost. Eleven of the top 16 richest clubs in Europe are in that Champions League last 16.
Look down the Uefa rankings and the only missing faces are Arsenal, Sevilla, Manchester United, Roma and Porto, none of whom made it to the group stages, excluded from the top table by the pesky uncertainties of sporting competition.
The only real surprises in the post-Christmas lineup are the elimination of Ajax, ranked 21 in Europe, at the hands of Valencia, ranked 28; and the ousting of Benfica, ranked 20, by Zenit St. Petersburg, ranked 22. RB Leipzig are the only real outsiders, ranked 43 by Uefa and a fine example of corporate “disruption”, a startup team, brilliantly run and managed, but a piece of ambush marketing as much as a long-treasured sporting dream.
Does any of this matter? It is 28 seasons since European football set itself on this path with the abandonment of the old format. The chief effect has been the kind of economic common market Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn preached against, a feat of uber-capitalism whereby superclub corporations are born and stronger markets allowed to dominate the small and the weak.
There were 16 different flags in the last 16 of the final European Cup. That had fallen to 10 by 2015-16, to seven last season and even fewer this time. Ajax provided the perfect case study this season. Semi-finalists last year, a team built on good husbandry and good practice, but deprived instantly of their two best players by the Euro giants and demoted at a stroke to also-rans.
Again, does any of this matter? Perhaps not as much as it might at first glance. For one thing the Premier League has only really found its stride in the last two seasons. These cycles come and go, based more often in details and good management. The more remarkable part of the last quarter century is how competitive European football still is at that top end, how resilient it remains.
Plus of course a high-class football team is a thing of beauty however it comes into being. The transformation of Chelsea from dour oligarch’s trinket to exemplar of youth, parsimony and exuberant football has been an enforced act of alchemy. But the team who beat Lille featured eight different nationalities, three academy products and have been a joy to watch this season.
Similarly Tottenham have spent £120m, net, in the last four years, have been brilliantly well-managed and are shot through with homegrown players. Liverpool’s ascent provides a more salutary kind of model: enlightened management crossed with unanswerable finances and a powerful, geographically rooted sense of identity. You don’t have to be a financial juggernaut to dominate European club football but it helps if you’re also an exceptionally well-run football machine.
Of these three clubs Chelsea look the most vulnerable over two legs at this level, a team who attack with abandon and often defend the same way. The presence of José Mourinho at Spurs has been hailed as an elevation to instant European dark horse status, which tends to overlook the fact Mourinho has mustered one losing semi-final in the last six years.
Liverpool clearly have it in them to win this competition again, although it would involve pushing the boundaries: no English club has retained the European Cup since Nottingham Forest 39 years ago. No English club has ever done so while winning the league the same year.
Manchester City have perhaps the most intriguing route from here. City’s support may not be sold on the Uefa dream but their manager retains an obsession with this competition. The team will get stronger as Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sané return, as Fernandinho slips back into midfield, and as the focus narrows in spring. The poverty of their recent defending may suggest otherwise. But for various reasons City are perhaps the most likely English winners.
Getting there will be tough; but not as tough as it has been. Many of the traditional heavyweights look a little haggard. Barcelona still have the greatest club footballer of all time on their books. Juventus have the tools to beat anyone. Real Madrid are, as ever, Real Madrid. But right now Paris Saint-Germain are perhaps the team to beat, provided Neymar and Kylian Mbappé stay fit and functional; and provided they can find the right blend in front of a thrillingly powerful midfield.
Much can change before February. For now the Premier League can bask once again in its own good health; not to mention another full hand of four from four, achieved this time with a lack of jeopardy that speaks to the strength and depth, the high-functioning quality of the product.
The Guardian Sport