UEFA Champions League: And then there were eight

THE NAMES in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League may be familiar, but nobody can accuse the competition of lacking some variety. This season’s last eight showed a five team change on 2019-20’s last eight which continues the trend of a 50% churn on the previous campaign. Yes, they are all part of the elite, but at least there is a reasonable chance of a different name being etched on the trophy in Istanbul.

There are six past European champions among the eight clubs, only Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, two of the new money representatives, have yet to lift the prize they crave. But both are edging closer to success, Manchester City are back on song and gunning for a quadruple and PSG lost in the final in 2020. Both may still be kicking themselves for not doing better last time as the competition looked open and unpredictable. Bayern Munich, who beat PSG 1-0, look like favourites this time and the quarter-final pairs those two teams from the Lisbon final.

Bayern cannot repeat their treble of last season as they were surprisingly beaten by Holstein Kiel in the DFB Pokal, but they are on top in the Bundesliga and four points clear of RB Leipzig. They have also won the FIFA Club World Cup. Bayern have a mature team and their leading scorer, Robert Lewandowski, is having another exceptional season, scoring 42 goals in 36 games. PSG, meanwhile, are back on top of Ligue 1 after their 4-2 win at Lyon. They face Lille this weekend, who have been setting the pace in France, but now they are level on points with PSG and worse off on goal difference. The game at Parc des Princes is going to be very decisive in the race for the Ligue 1 title. PSG also recently beat Lille in the Coupe de France recently.

PSG have been playing without Neymar, but Kylian Mbappé has netted 30-plus goals. PSG’s financial clout has resulted in a squad that has one of the highest percentage of foreigners (74.2%) and a very low level of club-trained players (8%). It’s a similar story at Manchester City, who have 77.6% expatriates in their squad and just 5.2% of home reared players.

City have been in exhilarating form since making a shaky start to 2020-21. They have won 16 of their last 19 Premier League games and have already booked places in the Football League Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals. People are talking of multiple trophy wins once more. They have also benefitted from the emergence of England’s Phil Foden, who is realising his potential as one of City’s most valuable players. 

City will face a Borussia Dortmund team who will include one of the hottest properties in world football in Erling Haaland, who has scored 33 goals including 10 in the Champions League. It is looking increasingly likely that Dortmund will have to sell Haaland soon as the clubs are queuing-up to buy him. BVB also have England’s Jadon Sancho, another current transfer target, and the slightly over-hyped Jude Bellingham, so there’s plenty of fresh legs in their line-up.

Real Madrid and Liverpool meet in a game that doesn’t look quite as glamorous as it would have done a year or two ago. Real still rely too much on ageing stars like Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos. Although they are nowhere near as dangerous as they were when a certain number 7 played for them, they may still have enough to beat a Liverpool side who have really misplaced their mojo in the past few months. 

Jürgen Klopp’s team have lost eight of their last 13 league games and scored just 12 goals in the process. Considering they had lost just once in their first 16 Premier fixtures, their slump is strange and largely unexplainable, although fatigue and fitness have played their part. 

As well as a lack of goals, the form of players like Trent Alexander-Arnold has suffered and he’s now considered only a fringe possibility for England’s Euro squad.

Chelsea sacked Frank Lampard in January and brought in Thomas Tuchel, who had been let go by PSG. Since then, Chelsea have tightened their defence and kept eight clean sheets in 10 games. They may still be waiting for their plethora of summer signings to show their full worth – Timo Werner in particular – but Chelsea are looking solid and capable, as their two-legged victory over Atlético Madrid demonstrated. 

Porto will have a big say in this tie, however, and they also impressed in the round of 16, disposing of Juventus on away goals. Porto won the double in Portugal last season, but they are 10 points behind leaders Sporting Lisbon this time. Porto may not have the depth of talent of the other seven quarter-finalists, but Chelsea would be wise to be wary.

The last eight have 62% of the world’s 50 most valuable players in their ranks, according to KPMG Football Benchmark’s valuations, and 52% of the Guardian’s top 100. This not only shows the power of these clubs, but also highlights how the crème de la crème gravitates towards a small number of elite institutions.

Some, such as PSG and Manchester City are desperately hungry for success it aches, but it shows how attritional the Champions League is and confirms that all the money in the world cannot guarantee silverware. The margin between the capabilities of the top superstars and merely very good players is not as significant as the cash differential of their valuations. 

Since 2003-04 when Roman Abramovich rolled into London town, the winners of the Champions League have largely been old money names from the European Cup’s past: Liverpool, Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich. The only other winners have been Porto (also winners in 1987) and Chelsea, the only “new money” winners. These teams are in combat with opponents of a similar calibre, which means the likelihood of disappointment is always going to be very high. 


Photo: Flicker – “Pete” – Public domain CCO-1-0

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