Friday, February 16, 2018

The Champions League resumes

The Champions League resumes.

It feels a little churlish to have grown up in the 'terrace generation' of the 1970s and then look forward to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, given that I grew up understanding it as a cup for champions alone, as it still says on the tin.

However, in 2018 I was delighted to see the planet's premier club competition spurt into action again after the winter hiatus. January is a dead month in Europe in more ways than one, a turgid, virus-plagued icy slog after the lights of the Christmas period are packed away, the festivity forgotten and the summer is still hidden over the horizon.

Without the joyful injection of meaningful football, life is always a little grey and pallid so anything soccer-related is a welcome fillip right now.

There is no international football to get your teeth stuck into yet and even in a World Cup year, the 'Coupe du monde/Mondiale/Mundial/WM' is a long way off.

Some players changed clubs in the transfer window to get noticed in the run-up to the final squad announcement, but for most international-class players the World Cup is still at the back of their minds right now.

While the domestic leagues are wearily getting back into gear after the Christmas recess (outside of England that is), the domestic cups afford only slim pickings.

In England the biggest story seemed to be that megabucks Manchester City might get some of their stars crocked when playing in such lesser tournaments, more proof that the Champions League and Premier League have sucked the lifeblood out of domestic football.

Across the continent, Champions League money has created several domestic hegemonies but those same dynasties from the minor leagues have been caught in a no-man's-land of dominating at home but failing abysmally in Europe.

Porto's 0-5 and Basel's 0-4 home reverses to English clubs were proof enough of that. Those sort of scorelines should not be happening in the knockout stages but there are big inequalities even among the elite.

While Liverpool's erratic league form and lack of recent Champions League pedigree suggest they are unlikely to lift the trophy, they could equally make the last four and should not be underestimated.

Man City however look ominously good on all fronts. Pep Guardiola's magic powers are not confined to the playing fields of England and his side must be a candidate for the final now.

City have never won the competition before of course which makes talk of them being an unstoppable force a little unfair. In five years' time we might think differently of course. With the relentless buying power of their Emirate owners showing no signs of slowing down, a blue conquest of Europe seems inevitable.

Tottenham's rise is just as exciting and supporters nervously expect a famous night at Wembley in three weeks when they host Juventus, with whom they drew 2-2 in Turin.

Last season's finalists were humbled on their own patch having been so impregnable for so long, although Spurs' double concession in the first ten minutes was a reminder they still have things to learn at this level.

Rather like Monaco last season, Tottenham's exciting crashing of the party could lead to a feeding frenzy of its stars in the summer unless the club pull out all the stops. Dele Ali, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane will soon be weighing up staying part of an exciting project or earning more at one of the two Spanish giants or PSG.

Reports of Real Madrid's death have been exaggerated as they breathed late fire to defeat PSG 3-1 at home, although the second leg will still be a stiff test as the French have an away goal. Neymar, supposedly wishing to move to the Bernabeu, performed a surprisingly boorish audition and was lucky not to have received a second yellow card for an obvious act of simulation.

Chelsea v Barcelona is the pick of next week's ties and it would be a surprise if the Blues and their beleaguered coach can pull off a famous victory over the Spanish league leaders.

A blaugrana win could still mean half the quarter-finalists English, but talk of an all-Premier League final are premature as they could draw each other in the next round.

The two Spanish giants are still in the field and we should never write off Bayern Munich, who have the relatively modest obstacle of Besiktas to overcome.

The bookies currently rate Man City as favourites, closely followed by Bayern, Barcelona and Real.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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