It is barely three months since that oddly antiseptic Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham. A match that was dead as soon as Moussa Sissoko had committed an unfortunate handball in the opening seconds was a crashing anticlimax after a knockout stage that had been the greatest show on Earth.
Liverpool’s comeback against Barcelona, Lucas Moura’s winner for Spurs against Ajax, VAR as a dramatic device when Manchester City were denied Raheem Sterling’s winner against Tottenham; these are moments that flow readily back to the forefront of the mind. Forget Game of Thrones, Succession and Peaky Blinders, this was appointment viewing that could not be missed. And could not be watched on delay. This was football played at its apex. The modern Champions League is not the cagey, defensive game of yore. The safety catch is released as teams go for the throat.
But that’s the knockout round, as opposed to the sterility of the group stages which kick off again this week. Chelsea v Valencia, Napoli v Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund v Barcelona, PSG v Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid v Juventus are not a bad set of showpiece fixtures but then again these are the opening salvos and in a few months it will probably be a test of memory to recall what happened in them.
Though the Champions League is not yet the super league that many tout as a grim future, it is nowadays engineered so that the aforementioned fixtures become routine while few of the names that can contribute to the post-Christmas fun miss out on qualification. There is only one ‘group of death’, as revealed during the draw when Slavia Prague’s delegates could not stop smirking when their team drew Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona.
Six big days out to come, six large paydays, too.
If anything, the Champions League group stage has become like the FA Cup’s earlier rounds, something of a jamboree for the minnows with clubs like Club Brugge, Atalanta, Red Bull Salzburg and Red Star Belgrade enjoying their brief moments among an elite that is ever more a closed shop.
As the bookmakers’ odds suggest, the rest ought to be plain-sailing for the big clubs with those minnows serving as cannon fodder on the route to the last 16. Time, then, to consider who has a chance of winning the whole thing once the preliminaries have been played out. And it is impossible not to consider Manchester City. By now, they should probably have won it under Pep Guardiola but his three seasons so far at the Etihad have not yet seen them surpass Manuel Pellegrini’s feat of reaching the semi-finals – and losing to eventual winners Real Madrid – in the last season before the Catalan genius took the reins.
Guardiola still has an asterisk against his name, one that denotes his inability to win the tournament without Lionel Messi in his team, or Xavi or Andres Iniesta for that matter. Notwithstanding this weekend’s defeat at Norwich after a couple of other wobbles during his team’s start to the domestic season, he has conquered English football. Last season, Liverpool had the best mathematical campaign in their storied existence but still could not wrest the title from City. That record of 198 points over two seasons may never be beaten.
But Europe has exposed Guardiola’s frailties, his capacity to overthink things. VAR may be the scapegoat for that quarter-final defeat to Tottenham last season but the real reason for City’s failure to progress was a poor, oddly under-amped, performance in the first leg in North London and then a series of defensive meltdowns during that ludicrous 4-3 win – but exit on away goals – in the second leg.
In his rather passive-aggressive manner, Guardiola has waved away questions over his team’s defending but they are gathering, and especially so in the absence for six or seven months of Aymeric Laporte, who had quietly become City’s defensive lynchpin. Nicolas Otamendi’s loss of faculties at Norwich was not a good sign, and neither was a disturbingly casual performance from John Stones, back from injury and set for a run in the side while Laporte is absent. Oleksandr Zinchenko is a player of obvious footballing qualities but his suitability to play left-back is now a leading question among City fans. He is less than a defender of consummate safety,
By the time February and the knockouts come around, Guardiola is likely to have ironed out those problems but with Liverpool in such imperious form at the moment, it may well become a one-shot deal for City.
And there is the chance it is Guardiola’s last chance to win it with City, for two reasons.
First, a reverse in the Premier League may hasten his exit to call up the previous evidence of his decision to walk away from Barcelona once the challenge of Real Madrid became too much in his fourth season there. And then there is the prospect of Uefa sanctions, with City’s fate – and future participation – still to be revealed from the ongoing investigation into their adherence to financial fair play regulations. There is a possibility that City may be banned from the competition in what is supposed to be the last year of Guardiola’s contract.
The pressure, then, is on for City while Liverpool have a chance to go for a seventh European crown and without the psychodrama their English rivals may be going through. England’s other entrants are Chelsea, in the midst of a rebuilding job and probably looking too callow to repeat the success of 2012 when Frank Lampard was running the midfield. And Tottenham’s chance may well have been and gone in Madrid in June with Mauricio Pochettino unable to refresh his team as he would have liked.
For either Liverpool or City, the Champions League does look a very winnable tournament, with Lionel Messi proving unable to carry a Barcelona in transition last season and PSG and Bayern Munich less strong than in recent years. Real Madrid look especially troubled, with Zinedine Zidane’s future at the club he took to three consecutive European Cups less than assured; if there is to be a narrative that comes from this week it may well be how his team gets on against PSG, with their fixture on Tuesday a potential signpost to the exit.
Waiting in the wings? Jose Mourinho, of course.
Beyond that, those who expect much from the group stages are probably on a fool’s errand. Still, the knockouts will make up for all of that. Roll on February and March.