RABBIL SIKDAR anaylses the teams in Europe’s top club competition and explains why there is no standout choice to lift the trophy come May
Is there anything like the Champions League? Even after all these years, of waiting for it to start up in the evening, nothing prepares you for the music.
Nothing can create the feeling of awe it does at watching Europe’s finest meet. Admittedly, the mystique it usually held around watching European giants we wouldn’t otherwise see has diminished with an increasing TV audience.
We know now what the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are like. But if the mystique has gone, the excitement has only just been ramped up.
For English teams it’s about sizing up to the rest and seeing where we stand. There is something intriguing in watching our best go up against the rest; and something fascinating too about how many English fans would happily support their rivals doing well in Europe over a foreign club.
English clubs, beginning from 2005 to 2012, were always in the finals or thereabouts. Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have been champions; Liverpool and Chelsea have appeared in two finals, United in three.
Then there are the countless semi-finals, particularly from 2007 to 2009 when at least three English teams would be in them. That dominance has recently stopped, giving way to a tide of Spanish supremacy. Barcelona have run rampant with four European Cups in the last 10 years and Real Madrid have won two.
There is the feeling of a clear emergence of two tiers now within the Champions League: the best, being Barcelona, Madrid, Bayern and Atletico Madrid and the group of teams just below them, Juventus, PSG, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund.
The giants in Europe have established a foothold that they don’t look like letting go of. Not with the English teams still seeming far away from challenging.
Barcelona have only twice been stopped from reaching the semi-finals since 2008, both times by Atletico Madrid. Both teams are determined to stop their fierce rivals Real Madrid from defending the trophy.
Barcelona this season have appeared more vulnerable, the midfield no longer as imperious and intimidating as before, especially with the blow of losing Andres Iniesta for the rest of the year and early parts of 2017.
Daniel Alves has gone in defence and, though the front line could carry them to glory again, this feels like a team with a magic trick the world has seen and grown used to. There is a greater balance to Atletico that makes them more likely this year. They knocked out Barcelona and Bayern last year and, when stirred into a frenzy, can be a rampant attacking force.
There is a variety to their play now too, greater speed and attacking aggression. And no-one knows how to defend quite like them too. Led by Anton Griezmann, Kevin Gamerio and Koke they are ready to challenge and go all the way this time.
Assuming they don’t run into Real Madrid, that is, for the fourth consecutive season.
There is something strange in how a league title and two European Cups is still not considered enough to qualify this particular team as a great one.
Perhaps it’s that they are in the same era as the great Barcelona side. This season, Madrid have appeared sluggish and uncertain, the transition and shift from Cristiano Ronaldo to Gareth Bale as the main man complicated by the Portuguese’s astonishing strength to keep defying time.
They never looked particularly great at all last year and don’t seem great this year, but remain deadly on the counterattack.
And perhaps more than Ronaldo and Bale, a midfield with Luca Modric and Toni Kroos is capable of winning any game.
And what of Bayern Munich? They leave a sense of unfulfilled potential, a great power never quite reaching where it’s supposed to be.
If Madrid are the aristocrats in Europe and Barcelona are the poets, then Bayern Munich are the machine. A super-powerful, extremely wealthy club, something perceptibly beyond being just another giant.
They often appear unstoppable, so complete throughout the team. Sensations are telling: Barcelona’s success spoke of serenity and beauty. Madrid’s spoke of history and fate, a club entwined with the European Cup.
Bayern created a feeling of unstoppable superiority, especially after beating Barcelona 7-0 in the semi-finals in 2013. The feeling after they won the trophy that year was that this was the beginning of an unshakeable dominance.
Except it never happened.
Barcelona and Madrid wrested back control and now it’s Bayern who can’t beat the Spanish sides.
Already this season, Bayern lost at Atletico and the feeling is that they need a competitive Borussia Dortmund in the league to help them maintain their intensity in Europe.
Beyond these four who are the other contenders? Manchester City last year reached the semi-finals and this season they could go further if Pep Guardiola’s pass-and-press style maintains itself throughout.
They had been largely impressive this season but as usual it’s how they fare against the bigger teams that will be telling.
Guardiola’s return to Barcelona saw him humiliated 4-0 and a recent winless run has thrown into doubt whether or not he can achieve success in Europe this season.
Borussia Dortmund have returned and, as usual, replaced stars with others. They’re not exactly a dark horse yet not entirely a giant but a team no-one will enjoy facing.
Others like Juventus will threaten as they inevitably do and in an age when Italian football is in steep decline, they have continued to resist and remain dangerous, a rock staying upright against the crashing waves.
PSG are not even impressing this season in the French league so what does that say about their progress in Europe which has so far been checked by huge underachievement?
It’s hard to identify a clear favourite this season. History suggests that Madrid won’t defend their title and that Atletico, creeping ever closer and stronger than ever, might see this as their year.
Bayern have Carlo Ancelotti at their helm and Barcelona have possibly the deadliest front trio in history. Between these four it’s hard to imagine anyone else.