26 August2020

What can we learn from the strangest of Champions Leagues?

It will go down in history as the strangest of Champions League finals. The biggest event in modern sport was for once directly watched by so few people. The key moments from a Champions League final are naturally replayed more than most fixture over the years, so these will now always be documents of how strange football was at this time as much as Bayern’s win.

That’s of course if it is only this time. We don’t know how long the Covid-19 situation is going to last, and it is the continental game that suffers most in football. The virus has made the very idea of cross-border travel so logistically problematic. It is entirely possible the game requires similar adaptations in future. If so, this period has at least represented a road map.

t also feels a bit reactive to immediately declare this format superior. It really shouldn’t be forgotten that the Champions League latter stages have over the last few years offered some of the most sensational football ever seen, particularly through the comebacks that two legs allow. There’s a strong argument it’s the highest level football has ever reached, and feels a stretch to say these finals got close to that, let alone surpassed it. There’s also the problem that the return of fans would offer far too many logistical issues for any one city to host a Champions League last eight. It would have to be stretched over cities in one country. It feels the only way we see these finals again is through the effects of Covid-19 – which no one wants.

A panorama of the Estádio da Luz - Champions League Final

If we are not necessarily entering a new era in terms of structure, though, we may well be entering a new era in terms of star. The absence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from the semi-finals for the first time since 2005 feels far more relevant than the absence of English, Spanish and Italian clubs for the first time since 1991. The latter feels a mere coincidence of results and the draw. Manchester City could just as easily have got through in another season. The former seems a reflection of their advanced age, as well as the first steps in a post-Messi/Ronaldo era. Younger players are ready to rise.

That in itself points to how the great duo reflect a growing issue between superclubs. This final between old money and new money, after all, did feel a marker in how we’re moving into the second stage of that era, too. It is by now undeniable the Champions League has become the preserve of the superclub. The eliminations of Atalanta and RB Leipzig ultimately only illustrate this further. What is intriguing is how decisive differences are developing between the superclubs themselves. They all have money, but not all have the same types of ideas or identies, or even teams. Those performing best – like Bayern Munich, like Liverpool, perhaps like Chelsea – are those with an efficient profile of squad, all gathered together because they fit into a clear way of playing. Those that are ailing are those with bloated squads, and a lot of experienced players on huge contracts that are hard to get rid of. That doesn’t allow quick adjustment, or even speed.

Messi and Ronaldo are two players you would of course always want, but they are reaching the stage where the sheer size of their contracts are fostering other issues. They are an extreme example of a general problem. Barca, Juventus, Manchester United, Real Madrid and even City, to a degree, are all trying to make their squads sleeker. It is increasingly important because it allows their teams to play sleeker football. One reality the finals made clear is that the German school of pressing now rules the game. Reclaiming the ball has become much more influential and decisive than retaining the ball. Better to follow the dictum of trying to win it back within five seconds than only creating a chance after 15 passes.

Source www.independent.co.uk