WHEN Bayern Munich won the UEFA Champions League in 2020, it was fairly clear they were the best team in Europe. After their defeat in the quarter-final to Paris Saint-Germain this year, it is reasonable to ask if the French champions are a better side than Bayern. They are not, but it could be that PSG have finally fathomed-out what it takes to be successful in the competition and this time, they simply knew too much about the German club.
If you consider that Chelsea have made it through to the semi-finals and could well repeat their success of 2012, we have another case of a team making their way through the Champions League by good fortune and a canny approach. When Chelsea won in 2012, it was a marvellous moment for their fans, but by no means were they the best in Europe – in fact, in the period 2003 to 2012, Roberto di Matteo’s side were probably the least effective Chelsea line-up of the Roman Abramovich era.
Now that Bayern are out, the focus will move to Manchester City and their quest to deliver Pep Guardiola his first UCL title since 2011. Teams and coaches do not have a divine right to win anything, but City are a European champion waiting to be crowned – not unlike PSG. City can arguably make claim to being the best in Europe, but they need to make it official, starting with their quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund.
Throughout history, great or deserving teams have been denied their moment of glory. Leeds United, in 1975, needed to beat Bayern Munich in the European Cup final in order to seal their decade of consistency and agonising near-misses. As it was, the final, against a savvy Bayern, just added to the legend of Leeds United the bridesmaid.
The Champions League format, with multiple entrants from a single country and a prolonged group stage that favours the durable, and can facilitate the emergence of a good but not altogether great, team. When was there last a truly “great” winner? – Barcelona 2011 was probably the most recent. Since then we have had Chelsea, Bayern, Real (four times), Barca, Liverpool and Bayern. Although all were worthy winners in one way or another, either touched by brilliance or dogged determination, none will pass into history as one of the true giants. When Real recently won four in five years, it was because they had the resources and power to make it happen, not some secret elixir or earth-shattering method.
As in any competition, a team can be a “one off” that does their job properly and also exploits the draw. The World Cup has also witnessed this phenomenum – were Italy the best in the world in 1982 and 2006? Were Croatia the second best in 2018?
The knockout phase, which is really the true essence of the Champions League, can also produce a shock that deprives a team of its moment. In 2019, Ajax had beaten Juventus and Real Madrid before losing, in the dying seconds, to a Tottenham side that was – in hindsight – past its peak.
When we consider greatness, we want the champion club to be a standard bearer for either a style, a movement or collective brilliance. While dour, business-like teams are undoubtedly effective, they do not leave a gilded footprint on the game. Does anyone remember Nottingham Forest’s two dull victories as much as the achievement of reaching the final, Steaua Bucharest’s dogged resistance or a goal-shy PSV Eindhoven? But we do, with relish, recall Ajax 1971-1973, Benfica 1961-1962, AC Milan 1994 and that glorious final of 1960 when Real Madrid lit up Hampden Park.
Success today is based on fiscal strength, we shall probably never see a provincial club like Nottingham Forest win the Champions League again and it is almost a racing certainty that clubs like Bayern, Liverpool, PSG and Juventus will never be relegated in their domestic leagues.
Since 2004, the Champions League has been dominated by those clubs considered to be the wealthiest. The last time two teams from outside the accepted top 15 reached the final was 2003-04 when Porto beat Monaco. Barcelona and Real have won half of the 16 finals in that timeframe, Bayern and Liverpool two apiece. The financial clout of these clubs indicates that individualism and innovation has not been the defining feature, but size, money and influence certainly has. Hence, if the winner continues to emerge from the elite pack, it won’t necessarily be true greatness that wins trophies, but power and bulging wallets. Even if Manchester City don’t make it through, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the last four should provide firm evidence of the game’s modern structure.