This season’s Champions League is richer and more lucrative than ever. As a competition club it has become ever more exclusive too, with 19 of the 32 teams coming from Europe’s top five leagues. But let’s be clear about one thing: There is much more to the Champions League than Real Madrid winning it every year and Sergio Ramos being Sergio Ramos.
This is a story about the little guy, the decadent, the where did they come from, and once-mighty clubs returning to the big stage after what feels like an eternity in the wilderness.
This is the Chaaaaaaaaaaampions. Here’s what you need to know about the competition beyond the obvious.
The games you won’t want to miss
Pencil Nov. 28 in the diary. Do it now. Get your red pen out and circle it round and round and round again. It’s the penultimate matchday of Group C, and PSG are welcoming Liverpool to the Parc des Princes. Thomas Tuchel is facing off against his mentor Jurgen Klopp in a game with the potential to end with a score reminiscent of the John Isner vs. Kevin Anderson Wimbledon semifinal as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani cross lightsabers with Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
Be still my beating heart.
Other box-office smashes include Juventus’ double-header (Oct. 23 at Old Trafford, Nov. 7 in Turin) with Man United, a game redolent in nostalgia not only for the ding-dong battles of the 1990s but for Ronaldo heading back to Old Trafford and Paul Pogba returning to Italy, where he might decide to lock himself in his hotel room and wait out the rest of the season. No respect, man. No respect. Sorry, Jose Mourinho.
The Ajax-Benfica clashes (Oct. 23, Nov. 7) are worth switching on, too. In fact, broadcasters should perhaps think about making the games available in black and white given the rich history of both clubs.
Then, just as winter begins to bite, there’s Galatasaray’s visit to Lokomotiv Moscow on Nov. 28. Fatih Terim and Yury Semin are the two oldest, wiliest managers left in the competition. To their credit, the game has not passed them by either. No disrespect, Jose. Honest: no disrespect. Both are in their fourth stints at their respective clubs and are improbably just as successful as they were in the cretaceous period. We salute them.
The longest of long shots: that’s right, Barcelona
Barcelona haven’t gone beyond the quarterfinals in each of the past three seasons. Does that make them worth a sneaky flutter? It’s incredible to think a team with Lionel Messi at its heart keeps checking out so early, especially when they were a game away from going undefeated in La Liga last year. New signing Arturo Vidal has his own theory as to why. Expect Sergio Ramos to give his response in the Clasico.
The same stage has proven a glass ceiling for Paris Saint-Germain under Qatari ownership, too. Might Thomas Tuchel finally take a sledgehammer to it? Considering how thin PSG have allowed their midfield to become, maybe calling them a long shot isn’t so crazy after all.
Joking aside, what we’re looking for here is another Roma or Monaco, an over-reaching gatecrasher. Napoli have the most successful manager in this competition calling the shots but then you look at their group, as well as how many goals they’re conceding lately, and it might prove a bridge too far even for Carlo Ancelotti. Shakhtar Donetsk impressed a year ago under Paulo Fonseca but are hamstrung by Ukraine’s long winter break.
Spurs won the toughest group last season and were the better team against Juventus for all but half an hour but still got knocked out. Have they learned from that experience? The draw has done them no favours this time either, and not signing anyone in the summer may count against them too. Inter certainly have the talent but rank as their own worst enemy at times. Young Boys it is then…
Ah, that’s where they washed up
Hello Dmytro, my old friend… There really is nothing like the Champions League to reacquaint you with players who briefly hit the big time only to then disappear to the far reaches of the continent. OK, maybe the Europa League and that new Cup Winners’ Cup reboot that the ECA are talking about. But hear me out.
Take the shaggy-haired Dmytro Chygrynskiy, once of Barcelona and a €25 million signing from Shakhtar at that, now marshalling the defence for AEK Athens. Meanwhile, Marko Marin’s eclectic club-hopping continues unabated with Red Star Belgrade providing the latest stamp on his football passport to go with those of Chelsea, Sevilla, Anderlecht, Trabzonspor, Olympiakos and Fiorentina.
The familiar face of Harry Potter enthusiast Vedran Corluka and his Deathly Hallows tattoo will take fans of Tottenham and Man City back every time they tune into Lokomotiv Moscow: they’ll also see Portugal’s Euro 2016 hero Eder running the channels up front.
And what of Guillaume Hoarau? You must remember him, right? The Young Boys striker’s last appearance in this competition was almost seven years ago when he came on to partner with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi up front against Dinamo Zagreb for PSG. Naturally he found the back of the net before blazing a trail to China, showing Lavezzi that the real money is to be made in the CSL, not in the French capital.
On a similar theme, the disappointment on hearing the news that Turkish Super Lig top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis had swapped Galatasaray for the riches of Al-Hilal hit hard. But at least there’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, to scratch that particular itch with Ajax, and Abel Hernandez, who swapped the Championship with Hull City for Champions League football with CSKA.
Some moves are just meant to be. Imagine pairing a team whose symbol is a bat with a goal-scoring superhero who identifies himself with a multimillionaire from Gotham City who has a passion for dressing up in a latex suit during out-of-office hours at Wayne Enterprises.
“Too good to be true,” said Valencia’s marketing department. “Wrong” came the reply from the recruitment team. A signal had been put out for a new striker this summer, and who else but Michy Batshuayi should rush to the rescue, completing a loan deal from Chelsea that’ll go down in marketing textbooks as the definition of peak synergy.
A bit like Aleksandr Golovin pitching up in Monaco, Batshuayi’s arrival in the paella capital of the world perhaps merited more attention than it received at the time. Here’s to him scoring more late winners like the one he put away for Chelsea at Atleti in the Champions League last season. Pow!
Which of Shakhtar’s Brazilians is next to break out?
I’m glad you asked, especially now that Marlos is playing for Ukraine and Fred has followed Elano, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa, William and Alex Teixeira in heading for pastures new. Taison, so-named after Iron Mike “the ear-biter,” is still around, and in keeping with tradition, four highly regarded Brazilian prospects joined in the summer.
Look out for Fernando in particular: He’s a fleet-footed teenage winger from Palmeiras who is already leaving Ukrainian defenders for dust with his frightening speed.
Away days just became terrifying again
Legs are trembling. The noise is deafening. It feels like the dressing room walls are closing in and when you walk out on the pitch the stands seem to reach for the sky. This is a better year than most for atmosphere in the Champions League, particularly in Group C.
The crowds at Napoli’s San Paolo last season drew parallels with those in gladiatorial arenas. Man City players will presumably get flashbacks of their bus winding its way to Anfield through thick plumes of red smoke, projectiles testing the integrity of the glass. But nothing compares with Red Star, who will host Liverpool, Napoli and PSG. Their tunnel to the pitch is like something out of “Saw” as the red graffiti on the walls could easily be mistaken for smeared blood. Watch this video and try not to break into a cold sweat.
Elsewhere, Galatasaray are back, which means Hell returns to the Champions League calendar and with it the prospect of Hall of Fame fan choreographies like this 3D one of Fatih Terim pointing the way accompanied by the spine-tingling Braveheart soundtrack, not to mention the one with a 30-foot-tall Rocky Balboa emerging from the crowd ready to knock you out. “Lyon, you ain’t so tough.”
AEK Athens have qualified for the first time in 12 years, so expect a light show and the kind of Greek chorus that Aeschylus would be proud of. Roma’s Stadio Olimpico is extraordinary for volume too while the San Siro, the Scala del Calcio and one of the seven wonders of the football world, is on the venue list again as well — and about time.
The managers are terrifying too
Take your pick. There’s Paulo “Zorro” Fonseca at Shakhtar and the Young Boys coach, Gerardo Seoane, who dumped his old team, Luzern, via a WhatsApp message after working wonders with them in a six-month spell.
Then there’s Porto hero Sergio Conceicao, who turns news conferences into karaoke jams and jokes about having signed Obama.
Oh and Ajax purist Erik ten Hag, who upped sticks to coach Bayern’s second team just to be close to Pep Guardiola. Then you’ve got Pavel Vrba at Viktoria Plzen, the home of lager, who won a bet with a local brewery to buy the crowd a beer when he qualified the Czechs for a major tournament.
CSKA boss Viktor Goncharenko puts young upstarts Julian Nagelsmann and Domenico Tedesco to shame, having made his managerial debut at this level when he was 31 with BATE Borisov.
Mark van Bommel has ditched his “bad cop bad cop” routine with Nigel de Jong, deciding to step out of the shadow of his father-in-law Bert van Marwijk and go it alone as a coach with PSV. He’s someone you wouldn’t want to become embroiled in a touchline spat with. Just one of the 100 facts that even the CIA doesn’t know about Mark van Bommel.
But you’re probably right. It’s hard to look beyond Jose Mourinho, particularly when it’s one of those seasons. Again, no disrespect.
Best player you’ve never heard of
Known as the Mitroglou Award since 2014, it’s harder and harder to surprise the Football Manager and YouTube generation with a no-name player. These guys probably know what Amin Harit, Pietro Pellegri, Frenkie de Jong, Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar eat for breakfast. Talking up Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Under is so 2016. As for Timothy Weah, well, it was written in the stars.
So where do we go? Down to Benfica II, perhaps, in the hope that Jota, the star of Portugal’s U-19 European Championship winning side, breaks through. How about Marius Mouandilmadji, the Chad striker whom Porto’s famous scouting network somehow discovered banging in goals in Cameroon last year?
Still not niche enough for you? OK, why don’t we settle on El Fardou Ben, the Comoros international who almost humiliated Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert on their debut in charge of Cameroon? He’s already scored six goals in the Champions League this season and is responsible for Red Star’s return to the competition for the first time since they were defending champions in 1992. Have that!
Oh, and who has the best kits?
This title has not been designated since 1992 when it was retired after Sampdoria’s run to the final. Anyone who has a problem with that should leave now because nothing ever has or ever will come close to the blucerchiata. In this regard, they are European champions for life.
But imagine if we un-retired it for one year and one year only. PSG think they’re in with a chance, hoping Jordan’s cool rubs off on them. But look at the concessions they’ve made just to be friends with MJ: The Eiffel Tower has been replaced by the Jump Man! And anyway: If you’re going to flirt with the NBA, do it the Juventus way.
On the negative side, clearly the pressure got to some of our contestants. How else can you explain Atleti’s third shirt, which looks like someone left a turquoise sock in with the whites? Napoli followed up the camouflage and denim styles of recent notoriety with a Panther-patterned home shirt and snake-skin goalkeeper kits. If I were a serpent, I’d shed it immediately.
Inter literally had Milan Skriniar sculpt one of the pieces from their latest collection out of marble. No wonder he had to have laser eye surgery. It’s just a shame the technology wasn’t around in Michelangelo’s day.
Personally I’m a sucker for subtle historical detail that contextualises a club. For instance, the line down the middle of Galatasaray’s third shirt is the Bosphorus strait, while the chainmail effect on Roma’s home jersey is styled on the armour that gladiators like Maximum Decimus Meridius used to wear in the Colosseum. It’s impossible not to be entertained by it.
Given how glorious Roma’s third shirt is — a map of the Eternal City is faded into the golden background — let’s allow them to keep Samp’s title warm at least until the Bacicia is back smoking his pipe in the Champions League again.