For all that we have achieved as a species, from the printing press to the pyramids, we still haven’t been able to top the creation of the UEFA Champions League.
It looked as if this pinnacle of human ingenuity might be stolen away from us after European football was suspended due to the spread of COVID-19, and many of the season’s most compelling storylines with it.
Now, however, there is light at the end of the tunnel… club football’s most prestigious competition will be played to completion, and even better, it’s set to take place as a sequence of winner-takes-all matches from 12-23 August.
With the remaining Round of 16 ties set to be settled the weekend before the tournament gets underway, we’re due an unorthodox but intriguing tournament which will bring closure and order to a chaotic European season.
No two-legged ties? No Timo Werner? No problem – just sit back, relax, and enjoy the madness of a truly unique, possibly once-in-lifetime tournament.
Here are all the reasons why (other than the obvious), it will be so unforgettable…
Way back when ‘Fortnite’ was how long it took to recover from a Graeme Sounness reducer, Europe’s top continental competition had a slightly different dynamic to it.
It wasn’t unheard of to switch on the European Cup final and see clubs from outside of Europe’s best leagues like Malmo, Club Brugge and Panathinaikos taking part, with the lack of a group stage meaning that the cream did not necessarily rise to the top.
With two-legged ties removed from the Lisbon ‘mini-tournament’, we could see a similar effect, with Atalanta or Leipzig only needing one good performance to remove Bayern Munich or Barcelona from the competition, and shake up the European hierarchy once and for all.
Of the twelve teams left in this year’s tournament (yes, we are including Chelsea, stranger things have happened in the last four months than them pulling off a miraculous reversal), seven have never won it, half have never reached its final, and two are making their very first appearance in the competition’s quarter-final stage.
With that in mind, there’s a pretty decent chance that at least one of the teams which ends up in the final will be there for the first time ever, and the FA Cup-style format of the tournament only heightens the chance of a really weird final.
If you’re a team like PSG or Manchester City, it’s an amazing chance to break the European hoodoo currently plaguing your club’s reputation, while for Atalanta or Napoli this opportunity may never come again. If you thought Spurs vs Ajax was a tasty semi-final, wait until Marten de Roon is going up against Ethan Ampadu.
There’s been a real sea change in Europe of late, with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid one of the last truly pragmatic sides in the Champions League.
As a result, the competition is now jam-packed with sides who enjoy attacking with abandon, from (most probably) Hansi Flick’s swashbuckling Bayern Munich side, where Thomas Muller floats about the pitch while Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry twist the opposition full-backs inside out, to Atalanta, who commemorated their return to Serie A by a 4-1 obliteration of Sassuolo.
Potentially adding Manchester City, who are not quite home and hosed yet, to that mix, alongside a Leipzig side who play some of the most free-flowing stuff in the Bundesliga, and you’ve got one of the most high-octane knockout stages the competition has ever been responsible for.
The Champions League already does the invaluable job of pitting some of the finest players in football against one another, and every match is a crucible of competitive intensity where legacies are on the line.
This year could decide how Kevin de Bruyne, Robert Lewandowski and especially Lionel Messi are perceived by generations decades into the future, and with so much at stake any healthy rivalry between these elite athletes often spills over (and I haven’t even mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo yet).
Add to that the fact that they’ll likely be living in bio-secure Olympic-village style accommodation for over a week?
The players will have exchanged so many hostile glances at the hotel gym that they’ll be itching to settle any old scores by kick-off. Just imagine your fury when Thibaut Courtois has taken the last deck chair by the pool.
Why does it feel like Pitbull should be coming up with an exclusive song for this tournament in partnership with a soft drinks company? Is anyone else wondering if there’s an official wallchart?
Once-in-a-lifetime high-stakes football in the middle of summer is that rarest of pleasures, and the fact that there’s a host city for this year’s Champions League only serves to bring it closer to the feeling of watching Sweden vs Uruguay in the sun.
Short-term cohesion and tactical surprises will be key, while those of us watching at home will be learning about unfamiliar sides and a lot more about Portgual (especially if Ally McCoist is on comms). Hopefully, they bring out a sticker album for this one…
Erling Braut Haaland’s group stage hattrick, Club Brugge almost taking Real Madrid all the way, that bonkers game between Ajax and Chelsea… imagine if all of this stuff was just wiped from the annals of history?
It’s been a formative competition for so many players, from Idrissa Gana Gueye, to Alphonso Davies, to Josip Ilicic, and to render their achievements null and void would be tantamount to a footballing crime.
Restarting football has been an arduous and strange process at times, and the whole affair has undoubtedly suffered from a lack of supporter involvement. But the continuity that all the hard work put into resuming football has provided will not go unnoticed, and means that the best moments of this season, and the excitement that is still to come from the next, will be preserved as best they can.