In normal times, when the Champions League draw is populated by some of the most senior figures in European football, there is usually a warning regularly uttered at the event. That is, as enticing as the last-16 line-up can seem, it is impossible to put too much stake in it because so much can change in the two months until the actual games.
That is never going to be truer than this season.
We already have a situation where none of last season’s champions are leading the tables in the five major domestic leagues - the first time that has happened after this many games since 2003-04, and before that, 1996-97.
As with so much in football right now, this is going to be an especially unpredictable Champions League knock-out stage. The usual rules just don’t apply.
It is right now a hugely enticing Champions League draw, of course. There are a series of genuinely engaging ties, and one blockbuster.
That blockbuster - Barcelona-Paris Saint-Germain - is usually a pairing so frequently picked out that it can be tedious, but the specific context of this season makes it so compelling all over again. The Catalans face their greatest crisis in a generation, with so much uncertainty surrounding the greatest player in generations in Lionel Messi. Paris Saint-Germain, up against the club who they have previously had such a complex about, have the opportunity to reduce Barca to the same kind of trauma they had in 2017. Neymar and Kylian Mbappe can meanwhile really announce themselves as the game’s greatest.
The other ties don’t quite have the same stakes, but do have many elements that nicely set the stage. Perhaps the most balanced fixture is Atletico Madrid-Chelsea, that involves a clash of philosophies on a few levels, as well as the return of Diego Costa.
RB Leipzig against Liverpool meanwhile might be the liveliest clash, with a lot of frenetic running into open spaces. Much will also be made of Jurgen Klopp again facing another philosophical successor in Julian Nagelsmann.
Atalanta meanwhile have a real chance to upend Real Madrid, while Borussia Monchengladbach should fancy their chances of at least putting it up to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s team don’t currently look like any closer to ending his long drought in this competition. He actually looks further away than ever.
Much of that, however, is based on the most current form.
By the time these games come around, all of these clubs will have played almost six months of the most gruelling season ever seen in the modern game. It won’t be so much survival of the fittest, as perseverance of the least injured.
Absences are going to play a greater role than ever before.
That particularly runs counter to the modern super-club era, which has been based on extreme concentration and maximisation of talent. That is one other reason we have had so many trebles and doubles.
It therefore looks quite likely that this Champions League season could return to something like the era just before the rise of the super-clubs.
That was between 2002 and 2007, when you might say the competition was repeatedly won by the “wrong champions”. It was actually rare that title challengers - let alone actual title winners - lifted the Champions League.
Consider the league finishes of its finalists across that time.
- Milan 2002-03 - third
- Juventus 2002-03 - first
- Porto 2003-04 - first
- Monaco 2003-04 - third
- Liverpool 2004-05 - fifth
- Milan 2004-05 - second
- Barcelona 2005-06 - first
- Arsenal 2005-06 - fourth
- Milan 2006-07 - fourth
- Liverpool 2006-07 - third
The average position of the finalists was third.
From the outside, it certainly looked as if Champions League runs better suited sides that weren’t weighted by title challenges, and were freer to save everything for Europe. It’s also difficult not to link this to the ongoing adjustment of European clubs after the very expansion of the competition. You only have to look at weary the international tournaments of 2002 and 2004 seemed, too, when many top players went in fatigued to allow so many upsets.
The game in general was adjusting to be stretched too thin, until the economic expansion from all of this gradually gave the top clubs the means to cope: the money to accumulate super squads.
The unique nature of this Covid-constricted season, however, has been too much for those squads for the first time.
It means this very much looks like a Champions League campaign campaign that could favour those struggling in their title race.
The usual rules may not apply. The competition may favour the best team even less than normal. Bayern Munich and Liverpool may well be exhausted, or too stretched by domestic challenges. Sevilla may have the best possible chance to recreate the Europa League successes in the one that matters most. Their rivals, Borussia Dortmund, may at last have an opening of their own. Juventus may enjoy their big chance, just when they slump domestically.
It may actually end up making many of these ties even more enticing.
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