At Liverpool, the thinking has already shifted, and Jurgen Klopp’s staff have been considering whether to change preparations to prioritise the Champions League. There’s much more to that than just switching attention. Many others, from Real Madrid to Juventus, have been wondering the same. Clubs like Leipzig and Atalanta meanwhile sense rare opportunity.
There is a trend here, of course, since none of these clubs are close to the leaders in their domestic leagues. The rationale is that there might be a change in the trends of the Champions League, where it doesn’t necessarily reward the best in the major leagues, or in Europe.
The return of club football’s greatest competition may well see a return to something we haven’t seen for over a decade – where it favours also-rans rather than, well, champions.
That last 10 years has after all seen the decisive rise of the super-clubs. As has been discussed on these pages a lot, around nine clubs reached a level of wealth that put them on a plane of their own and permanently on the Champions League podium. The competition became dominated by doubles, trebles and one famous three-in-a-row. The common theme was that, when the wealthiest got it right, they had the resources to go the distance in everything. They could compete on all fronts.
The teams that have won it in that time have generally had a strong argument to genuinely be considered the best, or close to the best, on the continent. Liverpool winning it after finishing second in the 2018-19 Premier League was a prominent example of this, given how close they went, and how many points they accrued. It felt as if the European run was simply part of the form firing the domestic run.
That kind of surge was much more infrequent in the first eight seasons after the competition’s landmark 1999-2000 expansion, to include third- and fourth-placed sides. The evidence in those first few years of the millennium suggested that domestic title chasers were struggling with the dual demands, and many more European games. Most clubs struggled to balance a title challenge with a Champions League run.
More often than not, the winners came from outside the top two of the five major leagues. It happened in six of those eight seasons.
Milan finished third and fourth when winning it, Liverpool fifth, while that spell also brought the last time – Porto 2003-04 – when a side from outside those major leagues altogether claimed it.
The relevance to all this is that we may see a reversion now.
Just as title chasers struggled with the calendar in the early 2000s, many major clubs are suffering the same problems now, amid the most congested schedule European football has seen in the modern era. The reality is we haven’t even seen the full effects of that, and they will likely only become apparent as the season wears on. April could see a lot of stumbles.
Many clubs have been wrestling with precisely this challenge, which is why there is much more to it than just shifting attention from the domestic title to Europe. Staff have had to consider the conditioning science behind it all. Those closing in on a rare title, like Atletico Madrid, or enduring a close race – like Juventus – might struggle to spread their strengths.
Manchester City have so far found the best balance to this, with Pep Guardiola having already instructed changes to their approach.
The question of whether they can sustain that adds that extra edge to these knock-out stages. Because, along with defending champions Bayern Munich, City have recently looked a level above everyone else in Europe.
If you were following the logic of the last decade, and this season’s form, this should finally be Guardiola’s time to win the trophy again. It almost feels like it’s “due”.
The tantalising issue is that so much of this season hasn’t followed logic, and that feels like it’s going to be all the more skewed by the wild swings of knockout football. There’s also the problem that most of Guardiola’s failures in this competition haven’t been down to physical fatigue or quality, but psychology. It is accepted wisdom now that he has developed a neurosis about the Champions League, that has led to some questionable decisions.
There have been occasions when it has felt Guardiola – generally one of the best managers in history, and a genuine football genius – has actually served to lessen his side’s chances through changes he wouldn’t otherwise make.
If City are so much better than everyone bar Bayern and maybe Paris Saint-Germain, it could add a whole other level of pressure to that.
And if it really is a reversion to the trends of the early 2000s, it may again serve those clubs suffering the pressure of perpetual crisis in the league.
Many players at Milan at that time spoke about how the Champions League music was a “release” for them, and brought something different out in their performance. Perhaps that could be the case with Barcelona? Chelsea might well have a great opportunity, as they find fine form too late for a title challenge.
The situation with venues will meanwhile add a literal sense of displacement, causing further distortions. Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach will play their home legs against Liverpool and City, respectively, in Budapest; Atletico Madrid will play their home leg against Chelsea in Bucharest. As has become an old point by now, it’s not like their own stadiums will feel the same anyway. But this adds a new twist to that.
The sad truth that the absence of crowds is never felt more than on big European nights under lights. This is what really makes the magic, where crowds really contribute the most. It’s just the atmosphere of these nights.
This is also the first time we’re feeling this, given last season’s necessary compromise in Lisbon for the knockout stages.
This is usually football’s most wonderful time of the year. It will instead feel as strange as everything else, and that may foster some strange results. The thinking may have to shift.