THE UEFA Champions League is due a new winner and this season, clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will be hoping to join the elite band of European champions. The massive investments made in both clubs have been designed to lift the continent’s biggest club prize, but neither club has come close to winning the competition. However, in a season when clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are looking like they are on the brink of transition, PSG and City could finally seize the opportunity.
The Champions League last 16 draw paired PSG and City with Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid respectively. These are both tough ties, but there are no easy routes to the final. In fact, this season, for the first time, the last 16 is comprised entirely from the so-called “big five” European leagues. This underlines the polarisation of European football – in 2015-16, there were 10 different leagues represented in the knockout stages of the competition.
Furthermore, the roll-call emphasises the power in Europe unequivocally belongs to its richest clubs. Using Deloitte’s Football Money League as a guide, 11 of the Champions League’s 16 clubs are in the top 13 in Deloitte’s study. Another two are in the top 30 – only Leipzig, Atalanta and Valencia do not make the list. Notable absentees from the UCL are Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan.
It’s not always the best team in Europe that wins the Champions League and occasionally, the honour can fall to a team that just gets it right and applies great focus to the task. Chelsea in 2012 were a classic case – they won the title with their least effective line-up in the first phase of the Abramovich era. Winning on all fronts takes a very special team, hence the triple crown of UCL with a domestic double is a rare achievement. The last great team to win the UCL was, arguably, Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, who outplayed Manchester United, moving their manager Sir Alex Ferguson to claim Barca were the best team he had come up against in 40 years.
Manchester City, in the past two seasons, have been formidable in the Premier League, but they’ve yet to be compared to Barca 2011 or the marvellous Brazilians of 1970. This season has demonstrated City are not as invincible as people thought. They are beatable and they’ve lost four times in 17 league games. Their European form has been good, with four wins from six group games and 16 goals scored, four conceded. The past two seasons, ironically, have seen them lose to Premier League teams in the knockout phase, strange given their dominance at home.
City have yet to beat a major contender when it truly matters – between 2013-14 and 2015-16, they were beaten by Barcelona twice in the round of 16 and Real Madrid once in the semi-final. Since then, they have been eliminated by teams they should probably have beaten over two legs – Monaco, Liverpool and Tottenham. Admittedly, in the past two years, they have been fighting on multiple fronts, suggesting they may have to sacrifice something or realign their priorities in order to win the Champions League.
There’s no doubt City still have the players to perform in the latter rounds of the competition and a tie with Real Madrid will test their appetite. This is a clash between the club that is intimately linked with the competition and the manager who once managed their fiercest rivals and also won two Champions League titles in the process but it has been more than eight years since Guardiola last got his hands on the “cup with the big ears”.
Real Madrid are faring better this season in their second year since Cristiano Ronaldo departed. They’ve lost just once and are second in the La Liga table, despite constant rumours about the future of coach Zinedine Zidane and Welsh international Gareth Bale. As ever, Real is a hornets’ nest of intrigue and there’s an assumption a rebuilding process will gather momentum in January as some players are getting long in the tooth, but under whose management?
The tie, should City get through, will rubber-stamp their credentials as Champions League contenders. The Madrid-biased Marca newspaper has already thrown down the gauntlet for Guardiola by claiming he despises the UCL because he cannot win it. Moreover, the publication reminds City they have no European pedigree.
Recent comments by Guardiola have been interpreted as an admission that the all-conquering City team has reached something of a peak. His strange response to the derby defeat against United, claiming City may no longer be able to compete with the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid, seemed like a caveat or a signal that an era might be drawing to a close. If Guardiola leaves the club without winning the UCL, will it be an unfulfilled project? The Real Madrid tie will provide some answers.
While people may play down the importance of the Champions League, the vast outlay of cash is not just to secure domestic honours for City, and indeed Paris Saint-Germain. Interestingly, if you consider that City, PSG and Chelsea represent the age of inflated investment, only Chelsea have managed to win European prizes, one Champions League and two Europa Leagues. No matter how much money is thrown at buying success, the traditional giants of the game still pick up the top prize. Since 2003-04, Real and Barca have won four each, Liverpool two and Milan, Inter, Manchester United and Bayern Munich have all won one apiece.
PSG’s complete domination of French football has been almost embarrassing and the sceptics will never give them total recognition because their budget swamps the entire league. Even more so than Manchester City, PSG need European success to rubber-stamp their position amongst the crème de la crème.
PSG finished top in a group that included Real Madrid and beat them 3-0 in Paris. The ongoing debate over Neymar’s fuure – will, won’t he? – has clouded the season a little for the French champions, but the Brazilian superstar has said, “why would I want to leave?”.
Neymar strategically explained that his desire for a move was a reflection of an injury-riddled period at the club. “I am happy in Paris,” he told France Football. “This season, the objective is the Champions League.”
PSG have more options up front these days, with Mauro Icardi joining the club on loan from Inter Milan, a prudent insurance move should Neymar’s PR script prove to be the prelude to a lucrative move. Icardi has not only scored five times in the Champions League, he has 13 overall, two behind Kylian Mbappé. Edinson Cavani, who is now 32, is currently out of favour, but the Uruguayan international has almost 200 goals in less than 300 games for PSG – not a bad fellow to have in reserve.
There’s a lot riding on PSG’s last 16 clash with Borussia Dortmund. A defeat could spell the end of Thomas Tuchel’s time at PSG, if past failures are an indicator. This would surely add to the frustrations of the club’s owners, who crave UCL success. There have been reports of Qatar being interested in another club and that they were contemplating reducing their influence on PSG. Champions League success could quell that sentiment.
This then could be the year when new money finally takes hold of the Champions League. It may be the last chance the current cast gets to reward their middle-eastern owners, but it won’t be the end of the project, the deck chairs will be rearranged, more money will be spent, the dial of intensity will be turned up. The Champions League, after all, has become football’s Holy Grail.
The GOTP tip for the last eight: Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Valencia, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Tottenham and Barcelona. Current tip to win the trophy: Manchester City