Who can grab chance to gatecrash European elite?
The time to cause an upset is now, before new seeding system rewards the biggest clubs, writes Jonathan Liew
So, here we go again. “Again” being the operative word: as another Champions League season winches menacingly into motion – a rumble of tanks on the lawn, a splash of freshly poured Gazprom – the overwhelming sensation is not one of novelty, but familiarity. A great many twists and turns lie on the road to Kiev next May, but rarely has the start of a new campaign felt more like preamble, overture, a peremptory clearing of the throat.
As the group stage unfolds over the next few weeks, you may get the gnawing suspicion of having seen all this before. This is because you probably have. Nineteen of the 32 teams also contested last year’s group stage.
Barcelona and Juventus will meet twice more, making it five games in 29 months. Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund seems to come around more frequently than the common cold.
Increasingly, the Champions League feels like a television repeat, the same characters reprising the same storylines in largely reprised configurations.
Madrid’s stranglehold has also been a factor. After an ominously quiet summer, Real justifiably begin as warm favourites to win their fourth crown in five seasons, a dominance not glimpsed since the great Ajax and Bayern Munich sides of the 1970s.
In the toss and churn of elite football, Real’s success has been built on that rarest of gifts: stability. Ten of the players who took the field against Juventus in June’s final also played against Atletico Madrid in Lisbon in 2014. Alas, continuity is a luxury afforded only the very richest. For most clubs, success simply attracts the vultures: witness the wonderful Monaco team of last season, picked apart like carrion. And immediately beneath the serenity of the Real supremacy, a curious flux reigns. Bayern Munich have recruited shrewdly. Last season’s runners-up Juventus have strengthened. Atletico have settled personnel, but a new stadium to contend with. And it remains to be seen how Barcelona, under new manager Ernesto Valverde, will manage the indignity of seeing a star player ripped from their grasp.
For the first time in a few years, it feels like there is an opportunity to gatecrash the elite. And no club has tried harder or more brazenly to do so than Paris St-Germain, for whom the signings of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe constitute either a frightening statement of intent or a desperate attempt to immolate Qatar’s increasing international isolation and the trauma of last March’s 6-1 defeat to Barcelona in an inferno of retail therapy.
One thing is clear: there can be no more excuses. Losing the French title to Monaco was but a minor inconvenience when set against their spectacular implosion at the Nou Camp in March, and for club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Champions League remains “our dream, our objective”. It is why he set aside £365million to sign the world’s two best young attackers. “We have done everything to win this Champions League,” Al-Khelaifi said after the draw, which pits them against Bayern, Anderlecht and Celtic. “We are still not with the big, big clubs. But we are doing everything to get there.” Well, almost. A world-class goalkeeper, some cover at centre-half and a deeplying midfielder would make them a genuinely feared prospect.
Of the other second-tier clubs, Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and Napoli are also capable of going deep. And what of the five English clubs? Manchester City look best positioned, and kind draws have put Manchester United and Liverpool in the frame. Tottenham Hotspur have a shocking group to negotiate but will be immensely stronger for the experience.
Then we have Chelsea, who in many ways are the most intriguing of the lot.
Antonio Conte, their manager, has a curiously undistinguished record in the competition: just a single quarterfinal, in 2012. And there remains a suspicion that Conte’s breathless, exhaustive style of management is better suited to the weekly treadmill of a league campaign than the selective focus of cup football. A tough group, containing Atletico and Roma, may actually work to their advantage.
What about a contender from leftfield? Debutants RB Leipzig, fuelled by controversial energy-drink money, have put a few noses out of joint in Germany, and will have no compunction about doing so again. Keep an eye out, too, for Feyenoord: a team of few household names but a strong work ethic, a well-grooved style and one of Europe’s most promising young managers in Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
At this hazy outset, then, all is possibility. Enjoy it while it lasts.
From next season, the drawbridge is being pulled up still further, with even more places – and even more money – reserved for the top clubs from the top leagues. A new seeding system based partly on “historical success” will reward the biggest clubs for being big.
The sporting caprice of cup football will concede further ground to the commercial certainties of the closed shop. Continuity, after all, is a luxury afforded only the very richest.
Continuity: Real Madrid have won three of the past four titles with the same players