My thoughts on the Champions League have been fairly clearly expressed on here before, I would have said, but I have been slowly sucked into this year’s competition – possibly through osmosis. Partly it’s because I work with people with support Liverpool and Manchester United. Partly it’s just because it’s there – constantly being rammed down my throat as being the ULTIMATE SPORTS EVENT. So, this week, I’ve watched it, and I’ve arrived at a conclusion: the Champions League isn’t really very good, is it? I mean, I watched Liverpool – Barcelona on Tuesday night and Arsenal – PSV last night. I was up late on Tuesday night watching the highlights, and I’ve managed to catch all of the goals from last night’s match and concluded that, in the previous weeks of it, when I’ve seen odd bits and pieces if it, I haven’t actually missed very much at all. I’m saying this with a deliberately dispassionate viewpoint – I’m sure that if you support Liverpool or Manchester United, it’s all terribly exciting (actually, I’m not even sure about that – how excited can you get by two successive 1-0 wins against Lille?). In other words, I’ve tried, this week, to take my cynical hat off and enjoy the Champions League, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as the FA Cup, the World Cup or even the Premiership. Sorry, but it just isn’t.
Let’s have a quick look back over the week’s “action”. On Tuesday night, Liverpool lost at home to Barcelona but went through on away goals. I’ve long been of the opinion that away goals is a uniquely ridiculous way to decide a football match (if you score the same number of goals, you score the same number of goals – all that happens is that it makes home teams that have scored an away goal defensive rather than away teams). It’s as outdated a concept as catenaccio. Still, Liverpool squeezed through, largely as a result of some hideous defending by Barca in the first leg. Both teams, over the two legs, were mediocre. Meanwhile, Chelsea had to labour to overcome Porto, and were also the beneficiaries of some terrible goalkeeping. Valencia’s 0-0 draw with Inter was only really notable for the massive fight that I posted up a link to on here a couple of nights ago, and Roma beat a surprisingly moderate looking Lyon. Last night, Manchester United yawned their way to a perfunctory 1-0 win against Lille (a tie which was more or less sewn up by the first leg result, and Lille looked little more likely to score at Old Trafford than me and my mates would have done if we’d kidnapped the players, tied them up and gone out in their places), Arsenal finally proved one of the fundamental truths of football – that it doesn’t matter how prettily you play if you don’t win – in failing to overcome PSV Eindhoven (in spite of being gifted an equalizer through the medium of an own goal through Alex – who atoned for his error by scoring the goal to knock them out seven minutes from time), Bayern Munich beat Real Madrid 2-1 (again partly courtesy of a terrible defensive lapse – this time it came ten seconds in, and resulted in Roy Makaay scoring one of the fastest CL goals of all time) and, in the only truly engrossing match of the week, Milan finally edged Celtic out in extra-time, but not before the Scots had given them an almighty scare.
So, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Milan, Roma, Valencia, Bayern and PSV are the eight quarter-finalists. The only thing that I can conclude from this is that there is a dearth of talent in European football which borders on a crisis. I know that Italian football is going through a crisis of the sort that the English game went through twenty years ago, but where are the heroes amongst that lot? Louis Saha? Craig Bellamy? The forty-three year old Ronaldo? I’m sorry, but if Liverpool and PSV are amongst the best eight club sides in the whole of Europe, then European football is in a hell of a lot of trouble. Looking at the possible combinations for the next round and beyond, the only match that would seriously grab my interest would be if Liverpool were to draw Manchester United at some point. Then maybe we’d see some fireworks. Apart from that, though, there’s very little for anybody to get excited about. I’ve been downloading quite a lot of European Cup finals over the last few weeks – the Milan side of the early 1990s, the Liverpool team of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the Ajax and Bayern sides of the 1970s would all cut swathes through this lot.
I have occasionally idly wondered why ITV have managed to maintain the rights to show the Champions League for so long, and I think that I have an answer. In the current deal sees them sharing the rights with Sky, and the most likely explanation for this is that all concerned know fully well that they have to have it on terrestrial television to maintain interest in it. Frankly, no-one apart from the more dedicated supporters of those involved is going to fork out hard-earned cash for what we saw this week, and UEFA know this, so they stick it on a free-to-view channel at a time that is convenient for almost everybody and hype it to the hills. On the evidence of what I’ve seen this week though (and I’ve tried, really I have), if it was to vanish from our screens and onto a pay-per-view channel tomorrow, the rest of us wouldn’t really be missing very much.