A record-breaking group stage has proven that the majority of this year’s contenders are better in attack than they are in defence
Jurgen Klopp was rightly delighted that Liverpool sealed top in Champions League Group E with a scintillating 7-0 rout of Spartak Moscow on Wednesday but, as the German coach noted afterwards, there is still a 50-50 chance that his side will draw one of Europe’s elite in Monday’s draw for the last 16.
“In the knockout stage, there are always only strong sides, but this year it’s quite special,” he pointed out. “I don’t think it’s very often you can face Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the last 16 if you win the group. And Juve!
“That’s quite interesting. [Chelsea boss] Antonio Conte said it yesterday: there are no easy opponents left.”
That is undeniably true. The strength of this season’s last 16 is best illustrated by the fact that Atletico Madrid (runners-up in both 2014 and 2016), Borussia Dortmund (finalists in 2013) and Napoli (one of the best footballing sides in Europe) have been consigned to the Europa League after finishing third in their respective groups.
Meanwhile, Monaco, the Ligue 1 champions who reached the semi-finals last year, finished bottom of their pool.
Naturally, the principality’s struggles can be attributed to the loss of several key players, including Kylian Mbappe, who couldn’t resist the temptation to go to Paris and play with Neymar.
A forward line of Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani is the main reason why PSG are the bookmakers’ favourites to win this season’s Champions League but, as we saw in Munich on Tuesday night, they are far from infallible.
And that is the point: while some sides are clearly stronger than others, there are 10 possible winners in the most open Champions League ever. That is a most welcome development for a tournament dominated by Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich for the past five years.
Real are bidding for a third successive triumph – which would see them emulate Bayern Munich’s feat of winning three European Cups in a row without playing particularly well.
However, while Cristiano Ronaldo boasts an ever-expanding record collection that would even impress the staff at ‘Championship Vinyl’ and the Portuguese has now decided to score almost exclusively in the Champions League, Zinedine Zidane’s men still only finished behind Tottenham in their group.
Of course, we have been here before: Madrid were bettered by Borussia Dortmund in the group stage last year before going on to become the first team to successfully defend the title in the Champions League era – but their Liga struggles suggest a side on the slide.
Real’s decline has enabled Barca to re-emerge as the dominant force in Spain thanks in no small part to the novel decision taken by new coach Ernesto Valverde to implement a sound defensive structure – but the loss of Neymar and Luis Suarez’s mojo means that, going forward, the Blaugrana are more reliant on Lionel Messi than ever before.
Bayern, like the Blaugrana, have also been buoyed by a change of coach. After losing games – and the will to train or even live – under Carlo Ancelotti, the Bavarians have been dramatically reinvigorated by the return of Jupp Heynckes, as so thrillingly underlined by their 3-1 win over PSG.
As a defiant Thomas Muller declared afterwards, “We are still FC Bayern. Of course, PSG had chances. But there was never the feeling that a super team was controlling the match. Paris had no magic potion.”
Indeed, Bayern banished the myth that PSG are unbeatable. This is a collection of supremely talented footballers but they are not yet a team.
“When we try to do everything on our own, it doesn’t work,” midfielder Adrien Rabiot admitted.
Things could change, of course, if Unai Emery is given a say in team selection but if there is to be a new winner, it is more likely to be Manchester City for the simple reason that their wealthy owners not only have the money but also the sense to allow their coach do his job.
Pep Guardiola appears to be edging ever closer to realising his dream of a team of 11 midfielders and the purists would certainly rejoice if their favourite footballing philosopher managed to win the trophy without Messi in his team.
The pragmatists, though, will be cheering on Jose Mourinho, who, unlike Guardiola, never lies and, unlike Guardiola, never attacks strong opposition. Then again, why play pretty football when one can simply bludgeon an opponent to death with a monstrously powerful Manchester United squad that is already evoking memories of the Inter team Mourinho led to glory in 2010?
The Nerazzurri, of course, were the last Italian winners of the Champions League, which is primarily because Juventus are as adept at losing finals as they are at winning Serie A titles.
It is now 21 years since the Bianconeri last lifted the game’s premium prize and there are doubts that their brilliant but ageing backline is still strong enough to carry them all the way to Kiev.
Tottenham, by contrast, have an impressive defence still in its prime, as well as a creative midfield and a world-class forward in Harry Kane. Spurs can beat anyone – as they proved by ripping Real apart at Wembley.
Doubts remain, though, over whether Mauricio Pochettino’s side have sufficient strength in depth to compete in Europe while at the same time keeping up with the top four in England.
Chelsea are in a similar predicament, much to Antonio Conte’s frustration. The Blues boss wanted a string of world-class reinforcements during the summer and he received but a few.
As a result, in spite of Eden Hazard’s wizardry and N’Golo Kante’s omnipresence, Chelsea still look short on cover in key areas.
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Liverpool, of course, have a total absence of quality in defence – this is a side for whom 3-0 is a dangerous lead. Luckily, though, Klopp arguably has more attacking options available to him than any other coach in the competition: Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino all started against Spartak on Wednesday – and to devastating effect.
It was, therefore, hardly a coincidence that only PSG (26) scored more than the rampant Reds (23) in the most prolific group stage the Champions League has ever seen (306 goals). The good news is that the knockout stage could be just as entertaining.
With a last 16 made up predominantly of sides who are better going forward than backwards, there is no obvious winner and just guarantee: there will be goals. And lots of them. As Klopp says, it’s going to be quite special.