Cold water from the continent: The Champions League first legs

FOR Premier League advocates, the first legs of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals must have been a huge disappointment. The chances of an all-England final look very remote now, although those that enthuse over the essence of European club competitions will be thankful – there is nothing so anti-climatic than a European final between two clubs from the same country. The smart money, however, is now on a post-Cruyffian final between Ajax and Barcelona. Far better than Spurs v Liverpool for TV broadcasters, one assumes.

Nobody should see the Champions League as an indicator of national strength, though. Naturally, some onlookers will couple progress in the competition (and there has been a step forward for England’s clubs) with the momentum of Gareth Southgate’s national team, but in truth there is little in the way of correlation.

Consider that Spurs started their tie with Ajax with just three Englishmen in their line-up (Alli, Rose and Trippier), while Liverpool had just James Milner. Ajax, by contrast, used six Dutchmen in London and Barca five Spanish nationals against multi-national Liverpool. Across the 44 starting players, only four were English. And still, the outstanding individual of the first phase of games was Lionel Messi, an Argentinian.

English clubs are in the advanced stages of the Champions League because they are wealthy, not because they represent the re-emergence of the national team. As many people have pointed out, English clubs have underperformed in recent years, despite their wealth and advantages. Before Liverpool reached the final last season, there had not been an English finalist since 2012 when Chelsea’s least effective team of the Abramovich era (until that point) surprisingly won the competition.

Group elimination used to be somewhat unexpected, but since Chelsea’s triumph in Munich, there have been five teams that have fallen at the first hurdle. More relevantly, in these seven seasons, there have been 13 last-16 losers, compared to just six in the seven years prior to 2012. Before this season, there had been just two semi-finalists in six years, versus five in the period 2005-2012. In three consecutive campaigns between 2006-07 and 2008-09, the English Premier provided three of the four semi-finalists.

So 2018-19 has been a year of progress, with all four entrants reaching the last eight. This has coincided with a slight decline at Bayern Munich (who may still win the German double in a year of transition), Real Madrid’s post-Ronaldo malaise and, we were told, a relatively ordinary Barcelona team comfortably winning La Liga. It was, apparently, supposed to be Manchester City’s year. City have, in two consecutive seasons, fallen to Premier League rivals – at least they can console themselves that a continental European team has not beaten them.

When the knockout stages began, Ajax were supposed to be the weak link, but after disposing of Real Madrid and Juventus, and taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg of the semi-final, they have shown the rest of Europe that they are a force to be reckoned with, albeit one that shall cash-in on their much-publicised talent. But why is Ajax’s renaissance such a surprise? With major clubs now employing scouting networks and recruitment specialists, why have Ajax been able to shock Real and Juve, for example? And why were Ajax considered to be the draw that everyone wanted? There are recent comparisons with Monaco, who were meant to roll over and allow the Premier clubs to beat them, but overcome Arsenal and Manchester City.

Ajax had to survive a second half barrage from Spurs, but in the first period in London, they were as superb as they had been in Turin. The ease by which they scored their winning goal should have left Tottenham’s defence more than a little red-faced. If David Neres had hit his second half shot better, the tie may have been all over, but Spurs still have a chance, although not many people will expect them to return from Amsterdam with travel brochures for Madrid in their holdalls.

Nobody should be too surprised that Barcelona have a 3-0 lead to take to Anfield. Firstly, Barca have made a habit of beating English teams in the UEFA Champions League and in all probability, their three-goal advantage will give them their eighth success in 10 years against Premier League sides.

In the past 20 years, Spain have won the Champions League 10 times, with seven of those victories coming in the past decade. Barca have won four of them, with three being against English teams (2006, 2009, 2011).

Liverpool also have a strong European pedigree, but most of that belongs to the 1970s and 1980s. Three finals in the 21stcentury represents a continuation of the club’s heritage, but it does look as though they have too much of a mountain to climb. Jürgen Klopp’s team played well at times and could have returned home with a single-goal defeat, but then there was Lionel Messi.

Messi’s second goal, Barca’s very decisive third, was so spectacular that you couldn’t help but applaud. Even the TV pundits were seen celebrating as the free kick sailed into the net, causing over-sensitive Liverpool fans to berate Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand for celebrating a goal against an “English” team. Liverpool’s line-up is almost as “English” as Barcelona’s, and the top clubs are no longer the property of English cities and towns. Lineker was just appreciating one of the competitions great moments of the season. How many people in British living rooms were jumping for joy in acknowledgement?

It will take a spectacular feat on the pitch and all the smoke bombs and strategic coach disruptors on Merseyside to put the wind up a Barcelona team determined to win the trophy with the big ears. It is unlikely to happen given Messi has his eye on winning the Champions League, but you can never dismiss the possibility of the unexpected with Liverpool.

What do the first legs tell us about the Premier League? It demonstrates some clubs do youth development better and place their trust in young players out of necessity as well as a desire for sustainability and structure. Tottenham’s game with Ajax reminded the north Londoners that without Harry Kane they are relatively blunt – it also confirmed their squad needs more bodies. As for Liverpool, it has been a long season and they might just be running out of steam. They could still end the season empty-handed – the UCL looks beyond them now and they are still reliant on City dropping points. Barcelona, meanwhile, have one trump card that will, in all probability, give them the trophy they are striving to win. A small, supremely talented matchwinner from Rosario, Argentina.

Photo: PA


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