Champions League preview: Why Liverpool and City are streets ahead of European super clubs in transition

There has been a huge change in European football recently, one confirmed by last season’s two continental finals

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 16 September 2019 07:38
Champions League group stage draw

Around Anfield and Melwood, they’re already well aware of the change in atmosphere. It is something that Napoli will sense on Tuesday. There’s just a greater assurance around Liverpool.

They’re no longer aiming for the top, merely buoyed by hopeful excitement they’re going in the right direction. They know they’re there.

It is not a cockiness, but it is a confidence that can only come from the greatest confirmation in the game. This is what winning the Champions League does. This is what all of Europe is striving for.

The wonder, going into a new season proper, is whether less of Europe than ever can actually win it.

It does feel like there’s been a change in European football, too, confirmed by last season’s finals. The continent is finally feeling the full influence of all that Premier League money. England’s top two, Liverpool and Manchester City, feel a level above everyone else in Europe as well as their own country.

Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are currently undercut by periods of transition which could see them face a bit more difficulty, but then the same is true of much of Europe’s top tier.

All of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid are attempting reboots, to varying degrees of necessity, and varying degrees of execution.

None currently look near the level of Liverpool or City.

The more compelling element to all of this is that some of them are really going all in in order to get to that level. Juve’s transfer business has perhaps been the most eye-catching of the summer, not least because of the young talent they’ve been willing to sell. It illustrates how they’ve really put so much on Cristiano Ronaldo to finally deliver this trophy.

As regards the other dominant star of this era, Barca were so willing to keep Leo Messi content that they embarked on extravagant pursuit of former teammate Neymar, to go with Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong.

It was a move of such scale it would changed the landscape of the super-club tier even further - which was one reason why it collapsed. It was almost too big to happen.

As it is, Neymar has indicated to PSG that he is willing to knuckle down, to work alongside the other future great in Kylian Mbappe to move towards finally winning that first Champions League. This is another elusive element of the competition. The French champions are probably closest to either Liverpool or City in terms of overall level of squad and the application of an actual idea. The reason they haven’t won it - or even got past the last 16 of late - is not, however, down to quality.

PSG continue to frustrate

It is down to something more intangible, that really elevates the Champions League as a competition.

It is its great contradiction. The competition exists to crown the greatest team on the continent, but isn’t designed to do so.

That’s just the nature of a knock-out competition. One bad day, or even one bad moment, can detonate an entire season of excellence. Blind luck and basic chance have as great an influence as concerted quality.

City and Guardiola know this only too well.

City are desperate to win the Champions League

Real Madrid know the other side only too well.

It is why, although Liverpool and City are currently so much better than the rest of the super-clubs, it may not mean that much. A single bounce of a ball can render it all irrelevant.

It is this uncontrollable chaos, especially when sparked by collisions of the biggest clubs, that has made the Champions League the most spectacular of sports competitions over the last few years; that has made it high-class high-tension prime-time drama; that has made it the pinnacle of sport.

The only problem is that you have to wait to get close to peak for all that.

The huge split in resources at the top end of the game has created a huge split in the Champions League structure, where the entirely predictable group stage almost feels a different event to the wildly unpredictable knock-out stage.

There are so many engaging questions to this season but we’re likely going to have to wait a while to see any of them answered.

It does feel like you could fairly confidently pick the top two to come out of each pool, in a way that seems so much more predictable than previous seasons. The only exceptions are perhaps Zenit St Petersburg’s group and Chelsea’s.

The latter contains Ajax, who do at least represent the hope of surprise given what they did last season. That should at the very least inspire upwardly mobile clubs like Club Brugge.

Ajax upset the odds last season

As predictable as the group stage is, there is generally always one team that upsets the order, that changes the atmosphere.

It maybe appropriately foreshadows the drama to come, and reminds that the realities of right now can become lies by May.

That’s just something else this competition does. That’s the prize everyone considers so worth the wait.

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