UEFA Champions: The Obsession, Salvation, and Vindication, as Group Stage Comes Around
Over the years, the Champions League has become little more than a façade, a kind of cool-kids table of Europe’s bigger sides (not that they find it enough, as they continue to find ways to push out the little guys). The competition has ‘evolved’ from the glamour of a Russian roulette-esque form of knockout games with exotic teams to a sequence of seedings and consistent meetings of the same teams, led by an academic group phase. You could almost call it a fraud.
But the Champions League still has glamour. The competition still has its huge sense of appeal. European nights still come with nostalgia and excitement, and the anthem is – sorry Manchester City fans – still, one to evoke goosebumps and set pulses racing. Hence, why a few big teams still hunt for glory in it. It’s perhaps why a few teams enter every European season with an all-or-nothing mentality, whereby failure to land Ol’ Big Ears might make every other triumph seem a tad underwhelming.
For Barcelona, it’s been the case for a while now. Domestic success getting mixed with European disappointment, to leave them with a bitter end-of-season taste in their mouth. In 2018, they suffered that collapse in Rome, an evening that seemed to rock the Blaugrana to their foundations. So, at the start of last season, Lionel Messi promised to do everything to bring that lovely cup with the big ears to the Camp Nou. And it looked like they would, a 3-0 win over Liverpool in the semi-final first leg, and Barca seemingly had one foot in the final, and a chance for a first European trophy in five years loomed.
Except they would collapse again, a 4-0 defeat at Anfield meant their league success would once again matter little. Manager Ernesto Valverde has become the subject of some fan discontent over what is perceived as tactical naivety, and at this point Champions League success is not so much an expectation as it is a demand. European triumph might well be Valverde and Barcelona’s only vindication this season.
If European success would be vindication for Barcelona, for Juventus it’s become something of an obsession. Two final defeats in the past five seasons, last term the Bianconeri snapped up Cristiano Ronaldo in their seemingly unending bid to win a first Champions League title since 1996. But like many other campaigns since then, it ended in disappointment, a 4-3 aggregate defeat to Ajax – no thanks to a home loss against the Dutch side – in the quarter-finals did for them. Despite eight league titles on the bounce, something feels missing. Max Allegri has gone, and Maurizio Sarri has come into the hot-seat.
And there’s something telling in Juve’s seeming desperation to be kings of Europe again, as they looked to have adopted a rather short-term approach in a bid to bag that third European crown. The summer arrivals have been established – even the 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt – and the up and coming ones have either been let go, loaned out, or watching on from the sidelines. This has also led to a somewhat bloated squad, with some established names they wanted to let go still at the club. With a demanding fan base on their backs, and the presence of too many cooks, a potential to self-combust can’t be ruled out.
Speaking of self-combustion: Paris St. Germain. The French side have made it a habit of pooping the bed on the European stage; last season’s capitulation at home to Manchester United following the debacle against Real Madrid in 2018 and the calamity against Barcelona a year earlier. Their summer was littered with the will-he-should-he-shouldn’t-he kerfuffle surrounding Neymar and a potential return to Barcelona. That didn’t come off, and the Brazilian remains in the French capital, currently being subject to the ire of fans (as his first appearance of the season at the weekend showed).
But Neymar is still arguably PSG’s biggest asset on the pitch, and perhaps their key factor in them going much further in Europe. European success has been the missing ingredient in the PSG Qatari project, having never gone beyond the quarter-finals since the new owners arrived in 2011. Making a statement on the continental front is something PSG can’t seem to do, and that seems to be the area in which they’re judged, with the league title almost a given.
And the league being something of a given will just about explain why European success looks like the be-all and end-all for teams, including the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich. In the past five seasons in Europe’s top five league, those five teams (City, Bayern, PSG, Barcelona and Juventus) have won 20 of the 25 league titles available, while in that same timeframe, only once have any of those teams won the Champions League (Barcelona in 2015).
This perhaps explains why the Champions League has become an obsession, a sense of vindication and salvation. Because domestic domination has become quite routine, Europe seems like the only place where the success can still feel refreshing. This will also explain why the big boys continue to push for a revamp to the current format.
Club Brugge v Galatasaray; PSG v Real Madrid; Olympiakos v Tottenham; Bayern Munich v Red Star Belgrade; Shakhtar Donetsk v Manchester City; Dinamo Zagreb v Atalanta; Atletico Madrid v Juventus; Bayer Leverkusen v Lokomotiv Moscow; RB Salzburg v Genk; Napoli v Liverpool; Internazionale v Sparta Prague; Dortmund v Barcelona; Lyon v Zenit; Benfica v RB Leipzig; Ajax v Lille; Chelsea v Valencia
Kunle Ajao126 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not