The Curious Case of The Champions League Quarter-Finals
Here’s a fun statistic for you. This year’s Champions League semi-finals will be the first to not feature any teams from England, Italy or Spain since the 1991 European Cup, when Red Star Belgrade, Olympique Marseille, Bayern Munich and Spartak Moscow were the last four standing. And here’s another fun fact for you. Since in 1990 Liverpool were still banned from European competition, this is the first time that all three of these countries have ever had all of their representatives knocked out of the Champions League before the semi-finals. It’s been a strange year, hasn’t it?
On Friday night, Barcelona didn’t so much come undone as explode all over our television screens. The first thing to say is that it’s entirely possible that this year’s Bayern Munich team is just really, really superb. After all, they put seven goals past last year’s runners-up, Tottenham Hotspur, in the group stages of the competition last autumn. But it’s worth taking a brief look at why this should have happened last, because the manner of Barcelona’s collapse was so very spectacular.
It feels entirely plausible that Barcelona didn’t adapt well to playing in an empty stadium. In the Camp Nou, with 98,000 shrieking Catalans on their backs, a familiar atmosphere may have been enough to draw the focus of the players back in. An empty Estádio José Alvalade however, is a different matter. All that shouting and the only thing you hear is yout team-mates and your own voice bouncing back off the concrete of the stands. It’s easy to see how, even if only subsconciously, a player’s mentality may slip back into “training ground mode” once the score between the teams starts to open up. And should that happen, it may be very difficult to get one’s mind back in time to rescue proceedings.
The Barcelona team contained, amongst others, Arturo Vidal, Gerard Piqué, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, so it’s hardly as though they were short on either talent or experience, and whilst it’s possible that the ageing profile of this team could have been a factor at the end of such a lengthy season, it feels as though, in a broader sense, something is going on with these knockout stages that isn’t explained by the normal factors that differentiate winning teams from losing ones. In France, Ligue Un hasn’t resumed and was the first major European league to shut up shop earlier in the year, while the Bundesliga was the first to resume once the lockdown started to ease.
And then last night came Manchester City. There is, of course, a degree of mirth to be found in City’s inability to get past the quarter-finals of the Champions League, especially if viewed through the lens of the more paranoid end of their fan base’s UEFA-related conspiracy theories. But their match against Lyon last night has largely been seen for what it was, a fairly abject capitulation against a Lyon team which only finished their truncated 2019/20 season in seventh place in Ligue Un. Yes, there were controversial decisions last night – more on those shortly – but none of those detracted from the overall impression taken that Manchester City deserved to be eliminated from the competition on the basis of their performance.
With every passing season, the heat on Pep Guardiola over this grows a little. It’s now been nine years since a team of his made the final of the Champions League, and he hasn’t got past the quarter-finals with Manchester City in four attempts. It’s common nowadays to blame this on his tendency to overthink his formations for these matches. In some respects, Guardiola teams are like incredible football factories. They wear their opponents into submission with long periods of pressure and agility. But there’s a problem with this, as well. Such a system is fragile, and when the margins of error are thin they can just hit a wall. Too much automation, as aircraft manufacturers have found over the years, can create as many problems as it solves.
None of this is to say, however, that Manchester City weren’t a little unlucky last night, not that you’d get that feeling from this morning’s headlines. Moussa Dembele’s first goal showed up how daft the current interpretation of the offside rule while there was also grounds for thinking that Aymeric Laporte may have been fouled in that passage of play. But there were also individual mistakes. Raheem Sterling has form for blazing the ball over the crossbar from close range, while Dembele’s second goal came about as a result of some uncharacteristically timid goalkeeping from Ederson.
So what you end up with is a combination of factors. Manchester City made a couple of critical individual errors, and were a little unlucky with a crucial decision or two, whilst the team was again set up with a tactical plan that seemed more concerned with what the opposition mught do to their players than with what theirs may have been able to do to the opposition. Such conflations may not come around very often, but they have come around frequently enough in recent years to knock arguably the strongest team in Europe out of the competition before their time every year since Guardiola took charge of the club on the implied understanding that he would bring European trophies to The Etihad Stadium.
In a broader sense, the Champions League is a very different tournament this year because of the restrictions surrounding it that are in place. These one-legged quarter-finals have left a last four with an unfamailiar flavour to it, and we may wish to reflect upon this. Two-leggeed knockout matches are a hangover from the early days of European competition, when players were less familar with travelling, facilties were less standardised, and flights tookk considerably longer than they do now. Such contributing factors towards home advantage have diminished over the years, and it’s easy to believe that the biggest clubs still tolerate these two-legged fixtures (when they spend the rest of their time caterwauling about fixture congestion) because it gives them a second chance should a conflation of events conspire against them over the course of ninety minutes in a one-off match.
On this basis alone, don’t expect that to be retained, once all of this is over.