While the best domestic European leagues like the Premier League and La Liga boast an incredibly high standard of soccer, the UEFA Champions League has always had a special place in the hearts of soccer fans who follow teams in Europe. Before every Champions League game, the Champions League anthem is played as the players from the participating teams walk onto the pitch and line up in front of the crowd. The anthem is so majestic that when it reaches the final line of its chorus, “The Champions,” it gives fans goosebumps, myself included. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the players standing out on the field — they must feel invincible.
One of the greatest soccer players of all time, Zinedine Zidane, said of the anthem: “magic… it’s magic above all else. When you hear the anthem it captivates you straight away. You just want to see what is going to happen.”
Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, was also full of praise. “When you’re on the pitch and you listen to the anthem you know it’s an important and special match.” His teammate at FC Barcelona, Luis Suárez, added: “even from the stands, from the outside, it’s incredible.”
The Champions League is not just the pinnacle of European club soccer, but also the ultimate stage for club soccer worldwide. This annual competition is where the top clubs from the best European leagues compete for the right to call themselves the best team in Europe that season. Every four years, the FIFA Club World Cup is played, where the most recent champion from each soccer confederation participates. The most recent Champions League winner represents Europe in this unique tournament.
The format of the Champions League is fairly straightforward. UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, organizes the competition. Entry is based on a team’s performance in the previous season in their domestic leagues. The first phase is the group stage. Thirty-two teams enter, and are divided into eight groups of four teams. During the group stages, in every group, each team plays the other three on two occasions — once at home and once on the road. The number of teams gaining automatic entry to the group stage is based on the country’s coefficient. Countries that have strong leagues and national teams have high coefficients, and as result multiple teams from these countries receive automatic berths. The top four ranked associations — currently Spain, Germany, England, and Italy — receive four automatic spots, filled by the four highest finishing teams in those leagues the season before. With 55 member countries in UEFA, for many countries, teams must go through a series of qualifying rounds just to earn their spot in the group stage. For example, Tottenham Hotspur FC, who finished fourth in the Premier League last season, automatically received a place in the group stage even though they were nowhere close to being ‘champions’ of the English league. On the other hand, the league champion from a weaker nation, like PFC Ludogorets Razgrad of the Bulgarian league, only entered the competition in the first of three qualifying rounds, which meant they had to play three two-legged matches just to reach the group stage. Ultimately, they were knocked out in the second round qualifying. While this allocation may seem unfair, teams from weaker nations are simply not good enough to compete with the best in Europe. Favoring the strong leagues ensures the standard of the Champions League is of the highest level possible.
The group stages begin in mid-September and end in mid-December. The second and final phase of the Champions League is the knockout stage, which begins in February, and continues until the beginning of June, after all the domestic leagues have concluded. Sixteen teams — the top two teams from each of the eight groups — qualify for the knockout stages. Each knockout stage matchup (except for the final) is contested over two games, with one match being played at each home stadium. The team with the winning aggregate score advances. If there is a tie, the team that scored more goals on the road qualifies for the next round. If the teams are still tied, then an extra-time period of thirty minutes is played. If the winner has yet to be decided, a penalty shootout is contested. In the round of sixteen, every group winner is randomly drawn against a group runner-up. Teams from the same nation cannot be drawn against each other in this round. After the round of sixteen is complete, another draw is held, where the quarterfinals are set, as well as the semifinals. In this draw, the country restriction no longer applies. The final is a single game, played at a venue determined before the competition begins. It is therefore possible, albeit unlikely, for a team to be playing the final in its home stadium. However, both teams are allocated an equal number of tickets for their fans, so it is not a significant advantage. The most recent case was when FC Bayern München played Chelsea FC in the Allianz Arena in Munich in 2012. Chelsea won the final on penalties, Didier Drogba scoring the decisive kick to break the hearts of the Bayern supporters.
The most successful nations in the Champions League are Spain, Italy, and England. Spanish teams have won eighteen titles, and come second on eleven occasions: Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona are responsible for all eighteen titles. Italian teams have amassed twelve titles and sixteen runners-up. English teams have also won twelve titles, coming in second eight times. Among Italian winners, AC Milan have won seven titles, FC Internazionale Milano have won three, and Juventus have been champions twice. The two most successful English teams are Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC, the former holding five titles and the latter with three titles to its name. Note that these statistics include results when the competition was called the European Cup — the European Cup has been around since 1955, but was rebranded as the Champions League in 1992. Teams from these countries have been successful because they have usually received the bulk of the automatic spots in the tournament, due to their high quality play.
In the current edition of the Champions League, the first matches in the round of sixteen have already been played, and half of the return matches were played on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
On Tuesday, AFC Ajax shocked Real Madrid by dumping the defending champions out of the Champions League on the road. Despite Real’s 2-1 lead from the first leg in Amsterdam, they were knocked out by a clinical Ajax performance, which saw the Dutch team claim a rampant 4-1 victory in Madrid. Real have performed poorly all season long, and they are now out of all the cup competitions — and it’s only the beginning of March. Furthermore, they are nowhere near the top of the Spanish league. Their season is already over, and for a team that is used to winning trophies every year, that is simply unacceptable. Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence has proved very costly indeed.
In the other game on Tuesday, Tottenham Hotspur advanced to the next round, courtesy of a 1-0 triumph on the road against German side Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund is a great young team, but their immaturity and inexperience was clear to see, as they were easily swept aside by Spurs, who won the first game 3-0 at home in a 4-0 aggregate rout.
There were more shocks on Wednesday, with both games featuring plenty of drama. FC Porto beat favorites AS Roma 3-1 at home in a game that went to extra time, as the aggregate score was 3-3 following the end of 90 minutes, with both teams having scored a pair of road goals. Extra time was a cagey affair, as both teams were scared to lose the match. In the end, the Portuguese prevailed, thanks to a penalty kick awarded by the Video Assistant Referee in the 118th minute, which had reviewed an incident on the pitch missed by the main referee. This gave Porto the advantage with only two minutes remaining in extra time, and they held on to send the Italians home.
Even more dramatically, Manchester United overcame a 0-2 home defeat in their first game to win 3-1 on the road in France against Paris Saint Germain. United started the game in the best possible way, scoring in the second minute to give themselves a great chance. But they were pegged back by PSG in the twelfth minute, and for the next fifteen minutes it looked like the Parisians would score another. But United held firm, and crucially scored a second goal in the 30th minute, to make the score 1-2 at half time. The second half was evenly balanced, as United needed to make sure they didn’t concede again, but at the same time they had to score another goal in order to qualify. PSG created a few openings, but couldn’t convert them into goals. As the clock ticked on into injury time, the score still at 1-2, United needed a goal to reach the next round. On one of United’s final attacks, the ball was rolled into the path of Portuguese winger Diogo Dalot at the edge of the box by Marcus Rashford, and the former lashed a strike at goal. Initially, the referee awarded a corner kick, but VAR reviewed the call, and awarded a penalty to United instead. Rashford, the young English striker whose star has rapidly been rising in the last few seasons, opted to take responsibility to take the kick. The PSG players tried to delay the kick as much as possible in order to get in Rashford’s head, and kept on bickering with the referee. But the boy born and raised in Manchester stayed calm, and he duly dispatched the ball into the roof of the net to push United into the quarterfinals. The emotions were there for all to see — the devastation of the PSG players and the unbounded elation of United’s players, coaching staff, and fans.
The aggregate score was thus 3-3, but United advanced as they scored three road goals, trumping PSG’s two. And history was made, as prior to the game, no team in Champions League history (1992 onwards) had ever lost by two goals at home and still qualified for the next round.
PSG has a history of choking in the knockout stages, as happened a few seasons ago when FC Barcelona won 6-1 in the second leg to overturn a 4-0 first leg defeat in Paris. Still, nobody expected it to happen on this occasion. Crucially, though, manager Ole Gunnar Solksjær never gave up hope of a fightback. Following United’s first leg defeat at home, a reporter told him: “you have a mountain to climb in Paris now.”
Solksjær’s response? “Yeah, but mountains are there to be climbed, aren’t they? You can’t lay down and say ‘this is over’. We are going to have to go down there, believe in ourselves, play a good game, [and] improve from today obviously.”
And a mountain he did climb, thanks to a brilliant performance from every single United player involved. It is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that Solksjær only took the reins as caretaker manager last December. In four months and seventeen games, he has led United to fourteen wins, two draws, just a single loss (to PSG in the first leg), and one sensational comeback. He has done a truly magnificent job of turning around Manchester United’s season, following the sorry state of affairs under previous coach Jose Mourinho. It’s a wonderful time to be a United fan!
Next week, four more Champions League games will be played, which will decide the four teams completing the lineup for the quarterfinals. I predict that Manchester City will ease past Schalke, Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo will bounce back from a 2-0 first leg defeat to take down Atletico Madrid, and Bayern Munich and Barcelona will both qualify at home against Liverpool and Lyon respectively.
What happens after that is anyone’s guess, as the quarterfinal and semifinal draw is yet to be made. Once that is done, the title picture will likely become a lot clearer. For now, the only thing to do is to revel in the drama of it all.
Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up perfectly following Manchester United’s dramatic 1999 Champions League final win in injury time — coincidentally, or not, it was Solksjær that scored the winning goal that night. When a reporter asked him to comment on the game, the only words Ferguson could muster were: “Football, bloody hell!”