Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/3/2019 (764 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is the world’s most popular sport’s most popular club competition. This season, however — and the past few days, in particular — the UEFA Champions League has been something more than a "main event," as proclaims its anthem’s lyrics, for showcasing "les meilleures équipes," the best teams.
Those teams — the ones that expected to progress to the next stage of the competition — are dropping out faster than Claudio Ranieri changes jobs, quicker than Manchester United gets over Jose Mourinho and more spectacularly than Lasse Schöne converting a free-kick from an impossible angle. And there’s another week of round-of-16 second legs to come.
Now, part of what makes the Champions League such a spectacle is the occasional possibility of an upset over the course of a home-and-away tie. And there have certainly been some jaw-droppers down the years — APOEL’s stunner on penalties over Lyon in 2012; Inter Milan’s collapse at Helsinborg in the 2000 qualifiers; and Deportivo La Coruna’s sensational comeback against AC Milan in 2004, to name a few. But such results have typically been few and far between, which is what makes the ongoing tournament so remarkable.
Where this grandest of stages is generally set for the biggest, most affluent sides and expensive players to showcase themselves en route to a magnificent, glitzy final — this time around, the Champions League is altogether unpredictable, erratic even. It’s anything but "une grande réunion." They should change the anthem.
Not even the buffering of DAZN’s unreliable broadcasts can detract from this volatile marvel, although each of Roma, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid would surely prefer to hit "reload."
Just four days after a disastrous 3-0 loss to Lazio in the Derby della Capitale, Roma, having edged Porto 2-1 in the first leg of their round-of-16 encounter, lost 3-1 after extra time in the return match at Estadio do Dragao on Wednesday — a defeat that, combined with the humiliation of a 7-1 trouncing by Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia, cost manager Eusebio Di Francesco his job. Ranieri, barely a week after his Fulham exit, will take control of the Giallorossi for a second time. Monchi, the now-former Roma sporting director, also departed Stadio Olimpico after threatening Roma fans on the way back from Portugal.
But even that meltdown paled in comparison to PSG’s Wednesday implosion at home to Manchester United. The moneybags Ligue 1 outfit, which seems to find new and impressive ways to crash out of the Champions League each winter, brought a 2-0 aggregate lead back to Parc des Princes, where they promptly and perhaps predictably squandered it against a makeshift United side that took a full half to sort out its right flank and was forced to hand a debut to a 17-year-old. Injured PSG striker Neymar had an Instagram conniption before whirlwinding down to the tunnel, where he had to be restrained. Club owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi reportedly kicked in a door.
"Les grandes equipes?" More like "Les ayant droit," although "the entitled ones" doesn’t jive quite as nicely with UEFA’s Handel adaptation.
Then there was Real Madrid.
The reigning back-to-back-to-back champions of Europe had picked up a 2-1 victory away to Ajax in the first leg of their round-of-16 clash, but trailed 2-0 at the Bernabeu after just 18 minutes. It never got better, and by the time Schöne twisted his tight-angle free-kick past Thibaut Courtois, Los Blancos had long been exposed as a slow, tedious, inarticulate mish-mash of individuals sufficiently satisfied with prior successes and ripe for a dismantling by an opponent as technical, eager and up for the occasion as Ajax. It all boiled over in the dressing room after the match, when club president Florentino Perez, blaming the players for the failure, was challenged by captain Sergio Ramos, who was subsequently invited to leave the Spanish giants by its chief executive, according to AS. Ramos countered that he’d be happy to depart, so long as his contract was paid out. The two have since reconciled, but their quarrel revealed the knife-edged tension at Madrid, which, following a pair of recent Clasico losses to archrivals Barcelona, are experiencing the worst period "in the history of the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu," or so says partisan mouthpiece Marca.
"These are the champions" no longer. But who will be the new ones? Given the tremors of the this past week, there hardly seems a solidly reliable forecast.
Barcelona, with Lionel Messi scoring almost a goal a game (it’s such a ho-hum pace from him that it doesn’t even merit Ballon d’Or discussion, or something) should probably be installed as the Champions League favourites. But after a 0-0 draw at Lyon, a score draw at Camp Nou would see them join Roma, PSG and Real Madrid on the tournament sideline. Stranger things have happened, as recently as three days ago.
Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 aggregate advantage over Juventus certainly isn’t safe, especially with Tuesday’s return match in Turin. Juve, however, will have entered the series expecting to progress, so its halfway upset already. Liverpool and Bayern, meanwhile, are knotted 0-0 after the first leg at Anfield. The Reds, finalists this past year, are certainly the stronger team on paper, which means they’ll probably go out on penalties on Wednesday.
Ahead 3-2 after beating Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Manchester City would seem the safest bet to go through to the quarter-finals, as it’s all but inconceivable that Die Königsblauen, fifth from bottom in the Bundesliga, will be able to get any sort of result at the home of the Premier League champions. Not even Ajax’s victory in the Spanish capital was as improbable, so it probably won’t happen. Right?
Most other years, in most other Champions League campaigns, this and most of the other round-of-16 ties would be uninterestingly straightforward. But not this time around.
No, this is the Champions League in which nothing can be taken for granted, where "Die Meister, Die Besten," the masters, the best, aren’t always what they seem — or are at least more vulnerable than they’ve been in the past.
This season’s "main event" is a can’t-miss extravaganza of the unexpected, of euphoria, of despair. And there’s so much more to come. Which, no doubt, means additional experiences of unexpected ecstasy and startling misery before the trophy is presented and the anthem played a final time.