Last weekend finally brought the conclusions to the European competitions some two and a half months or so later than had been originally planned and in quite possibly the most surreal circumstances we have ever witnessed. The competitions were eventually staged as two concurrent mini-finals tournaments running in Lisbon and Germany and while it was right and proper to finish them, the change in format made the actual match action different than we would normally expect.
In the secondary competition, the Europa League, it was Sevilla, once again, who won the trophy for the fourth time in seven years and the sixth time overall. Whilst in the Champions League Bayern Munich became the first team to win every one of their matches in a Champions League campaign, albeit in a shortened format, and claim their sixth triumph in European football’s flagship competition. Whilst the winners of the two tournaments may not have been too much of a surprise, the excitement generated by the one-off knockout format from the quarter-final stage onwards was pleasantly unexpected.
Once the Coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of football across the continent it became almost inevitable that to conclude the tournaments ahead of the 2020/21 campaign would require some hasty rescheduling. In the end both competitions were concluded during the space of a fortnight during a time when the clubs from the major European leagues would usually have been finishing off their preseason preparations and getting their seasons underway.
The ‘Final 8’ tournaments filled a gap in any football obsessive’s calendar by providing almost nightly action in the vacuum that was left by: the delayed end to the altered seasons, the absence of Euro 2020 and ahead of the pushed-back starts to the domestic campaigns. The matches also threw up some exciting clashes, some upsets and some near shocks.
Sevilla eliminating Manchester United in the semi-final was perhaps the standout result of the Europa League, although the Final itself which saw the Rojiblancos eventually win out over Antonio Conte’s highly-rated Inter team in Cologne, was a thrilling, topsy-turvy rollercoaster of a match that was eventually settled by an own goal from Romelu Lukaku.
The condensed nature of the knock-out stages of the Champions League meant that the teams involved had to go for it rather than opt for a patient attritional approach as they might have in normal circumstances. Who in their right mind could not feel for the underdogs of Atalanta, who hail from the Lombardi region of Italy that was ravaged by the pandemic, and a club so small that up to the lockdown had to play their home ties at the San Siro in Milan some 60 kilometres away, coming so very close to knocking out PSG only to have their hearts broken by very late goals from Marquinhos and Choupo-Moting?
Equally, despite being viewed with scepticism due to their energy-drink funded set-up, the fact that Red Bull Leipzig saw off the favoured (by your author certainly!) conquerors of Liverpool, Atlético Madrid, thanks to a winning goal from Tyler Adams who came through the grassroots of the ‘organisation’(sic) initially in New Jersey, added an element of likeability to this oft-derided club/ franchise (delete as appropriate according to taste-pun very much intended!).
Lyon overcoming Manchester City felt just, at least for those of us who view City’s avoidance of a European ban being more to do with legal shenanigans than innocence. It was however the third of the Quarter Finals played on the Friday evening that gave us the biggest shock to the established order of European football, not I hasten to add because Hansi Flick’s outstanding Bayern side won, or even the fact that the score was 8-2 in a one-off game, but because of the impact that the hammering is already having on the once-great Barcelona.
In the immediate aftermath of the match Barça’s head coach Quique Setien was relieved of his duties, while reports emerged that all but a select few players “los intransferibles”, reportedly: Marc-André ter Stegen, Clément Lenglet, Ousmane Dembélé, Nelson Semedo, Frenkie de Jong, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann… and of course one Leo Messi, were up for sale. Although it then emerged on Tuesday evening that so disillusioned with the (lack of?) direction of the club that Messi, apparently in tears in the dressing room after the defeat to Bayern, also wants out. The situation is confused, to say the very least, by legal wrangling over the validity of a €700 million buyout clause, if that clause were to be upheld that may well put the kibosh on the Argentinian’s escape plans. Having seen how these things tend to be handled in the modern football world, we should therefore all be expecting him to be running out at the Etihad or Parc Des Princes come the start of the new campaign!
The rebuilding job at the Catalonian super-club is simply massive as a result of: the seemingly haphazard approach to recruitment that has followed the decline of Barça’s golden generation (Griezmann and Coutinho to name but two underperforming high-cost signings), a number of players in their thirties on high wages with at least a year, if not several, remaining on their contracts (Piqué, Busquets, Suárez, Rakitić, Arturo Vidal, Jordi Alba et al) and spiralling debts heightened by a reported €300 million loss for the 2019-20 season alone.
Boldly (foolishly?) a former member of Johan Cruyff’s revered Dream Team of the late eighties and early nineties has stepped into the fray in the form of Ronald Koeman, although the presidential election scheduled in March next year may well see both current president Josep Maria Bartomeu and coach ousted as the favourite to win the presidency, Victor Font, has already suggested that his coach will be Xavi. Seven months to sort that lot out, good luck Ronald!
Already UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has been making some noises about a revision to the scheduling and structure of the Champions League based on the perceived success of the mini-tournament format. As entertaining as the shortened structure was, at least from the point of view of giving us some football to watch, it should never replace the tried and trusted two-legged affairs in front of partisan crowds, which is in many ways what gives European football its appeal. Thankfully barring any more global crises the established format is locked in contractually until 2024-25 and any reduction in the number of matches to be sold to broadcasters would hit UEFA where it hurts them the most, in the wallet.
However, the proven appeal of a tournament of one-off matches in a lull period in the football season may well give momentum to FIFA’s push for a 24-team Club World Cup taking place every four years, originally planned for launch in 2021. As we have learnt over the years if the footballing powers that be view something in the words of Del-Boy as “a nice little learner” you can bet your bottom dollar that it will more than likely happen.