THIS COULD be the year in which one of the clubs that has had its eyes on the UEFA Champions League for the past decade could finally lift the trophy they all covet. With Manchester City reprieved from a two-year ban, which had greater implications than an absence of UCL football, they can go into the closing phase of the competition more relaxed, and one might add, in good form.
Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are well placed to go all the way. The draw for the Lisbon shoot-out has been kind to PSG, who probably cannot believe their luck in avoiding the “big berthas” of European football. With the greatest respect to Atalanta, Atlético Madrid and RB Leipzig, PSG have landed in the weaker half of the draw. In theory.
As for City, they have a tough route, but they are well equipped to deal with Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern and Barca. Pep Guardiola hasn’t won the competition since 2011, if he fails this season, it will be a decade at the earliest since he last became European champion – and he’s supposed to be the best coach in the world.
Waiting their time
This competition is what the inflated investment in both City and PSG was all about in the first place. As it was for Chelsea, who took eight years to win the trophy Roman Abramovich longed to take to Stamford Bridge. Unless you are Real Madrid, the Champions League does not come around too often for most clubs.
Traditional giants have often had to wait their time – Barcelona didn’t win their first European Cup until 1992, while Juventus have won the competition just twice. The Milan duo, AC Milan and Inter, have not won the cup for 13 and 10 years respectively. Manchester United last won it in 2008 and Benfica, the first club other than Real to be champions, have been waiting 58 years. Bayern Munich, one of the favourites this year, have not had their hands on the trophy since 2013.
The frustration for both City and PSG is that nobody is going to let them walk through the competition and in the latter stages, everyone wants to win, even the outsiders who could pull off a shock in knockout football. You can have all the money that oil can give you, but the differential in quality between a € 50 million and a € 100 million player offers no guarantee of success. If it did, then PSG and Manchester City would have won the Champions League by now. PSG’s owners were said to be getting tired of a lack of European success, but as Bayern Munich and City have discovered, hiring the best coach on the planet doesn’t mean you are automatically a serial winner. And repeatedly winning the Champions League doesn’t earn you the title of best coach – witness Zinedine Zidane.
It’s the luck of the draw, as the old cliché goes. PSG will be mightily relieved they don’t have to play Real Madrid or Barcelona, teams that have knocked them out of the cup in four of the last seven years. There was a school of thought that PSG had an inferiority complex when it came to meeting clubs of the stature of the Spanish duo, encapsulated in the spectacular collapse in 2016-17 when PSG went to the Camp Nou with what looked like an unbeatable four-goal lead. The 6-1 defeat was the beginning of the end for coach Unai Emery and suggested a certain fragility within the PSG side.
Nowhere with Neymar
After four seasons of quarter-final exits, culminating in that 6-5 aggregate defeat against Barca, PSG have fallen at the round of 16, perhaps signalling the club was flat-lining, even though Neymar had come on board. The fact is, Neymar’s time in Paris has not yielded what many people anticipated. It might have given the the club profile and confirmation of their financial muscle, but the big prize has eluded them and Neymar has drifted out of contention for the personal accolade he craved, the Ballon d’Or.
The danger is they will underestimate the teams in their half. RB Leipzig are ambitious and have a plan, as well as money, Atléti are entering a period of transition, Atalanta have outperformed and are free-scoring and should not be overlooked. On paper, it should be PSG’s time to reach the final, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work out how it should.
When did they last win the cup?
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In the other side of the draw, it really is a clash of the titans. Manchester City should account for Real Madrid, but the 13-time winners are more confident than they were before the lockdown. They have to beat City by two clear goals in the second leg of the round of 16. City will probably face Juventus in the last eight and will then encounter the winners of Barcelona and Bayern. Frankly, whoever gets through that combination deserves to win the UEFA Champions League.
Again, it could be a matter of self-belief. City’s European pedigree is limited but they certainly have the talent to win. Guardiola is desperate to win the competition again, after all, even he has expectations placed upon him by his employers. Abu Dhabi expects a Champions League and it is now four seasons since Pep walked into the Etihad. Like PSG’s repeated failure, does Guardiola hit a psychological brick wall?
Since leaving Barcelona in 2012, Guardiola’s record in the Champions League is full of drama and unexpected results. In three of six seasons, a Spanish club has knocked out Pep’s team, with a demoralising 4-0 defeat by Bayern Munich at home to Real in the 2014 semi-final, a clumsy away goals defeat for Manchester City against Monaco followed by the Liverpool debacle in 2018. Even in 2018-19, they made a mess of two legs against Tottenham in the semi-final. City have won six trophies in three seasons under Guardiola, but somehow, in the Champions League, things happen.
It’s the same problem PSG have had to some extent – they are so desperate to be European champions yet every opponent in the latter stages has the same goal. This year, the draw and the disease could make it different and PSG and City may not have a better chance to win the cup in this strange and surreal 2019-20 finale.