This was supposed to be when it really ramps up. Tuesday was scheduled to be the start of the Champions League quarter-finals, and the stage of the competition when it gets real, when it reaches its highest level and the big clubs smash against each other. As it is, we’re left to wonder what might have happened, and how those electrified nights might have gone.
When you do that, it’s impossible not to imagine the most intense of Champions League nights, which raises another thought. What might a best possible Champions League look like? What makes it a classic Champions League? What needs to happen? What do we expect to happen?
What are the vintage tropes of the competition that invigorate these nights?
Well, following on from our “structuralist” World Cup, we’ve decided to do the structuralist Champions League; the optimum possible version from all that has happened in its modern history.
Liverpool’s nous for the level is illustrated with an impressive run of wins, even if some of them require a few late hero moments in front of the Kop. They beat Leverkusen 3-1 home and away, before battering Besiktas. Inter’s lingering nervousness at the level is illustrated with some underwhelming early performances, although some classic grit sees them through.
One of those groups that becomes a three-way battle for second, after Milan claim a fine early win over Ajax in the most classic of fixtures to also ensure they claim top spot. Celtic put themselves right in it with one of their vintage big wins, as they beat Milan in front of a riotous Parkhead. Ajax draw there before beating Celtic at home in two end-to-end games where both sides know this is their chance. Lyon’s consistency, however, allows them to blindside both.
Yet another forgiving Real Madrid group that allows them to soar into the last 16 with heavy wins and goal gluts for individuals, although complacency does see them drop a defeat against CSKA Moscow. That isn’t enough to put the Russians ahead of a dogged Porto.
They’ve usually gone head to head in knock-out stages, having met three times at that level, but Chelsea and PSG here go head to head for first. They both win handsomely against Galatasaray and Spartak Moscow, before exchanging wins. Chelsea’s superior goal difference puts them top.
The sort of opening round that makes Juventus feel like this is finally their year, as they start slowly and look on the brink of going out, but brilliantly beat Atletico Madrid to leapfrog them and Monaco into first. The sense of destiny is unmistakable. Atletico’s dogged displays were enough to take them ahead of an energetic but unfulfilling Monaco.
Bayern thump their way through the group, qualifying with five wins from the first five. Valencia host PSV in one of those pulsating last-night matches, winning in the last minute in explosive scenes.
Real Madrid vs Lyon
Madrid’s fortuitous run continues, as they do the usual against Lyon for a 4-1 aggregate win.
Bayern Munich vs Arsenal
The last-16 pairing that has been played more than any other, with Arsenal and Bayern having met four times at this stage. They have all gone one way: Bayern’s, and usually in a commanding way.
Atletico Madrid vs AC Milan
A war of the battle-hardened defences, that goes to the death, and then to penalties. Atletico win out.
Chelsea vs Valencia
The type of last-16 win Chelsea made such a habit of at their height, just motoring past Valencia.
Barcelona vs PSG
One of the most frequent knock-out pairings, with the two sides having met five times after the groups, and it leads to a frequent feeling. PSG think they have broken a ceiling and at last cracked Europe, as they commandingly beat Barca 2-0 at home. Then, well, you know how this ends. It’s not 6-1. It is Barca reasserting the usual order.
Manchester United vs Inter Milan
A tense 0-0 at the San Siro sets up a raucous European night at Old Trafford. United look to be going out on away goals and lay siege in the last 20… until the last minute raises the roof.
Juventus vs Porto
Porto give Juve a game in the first leg, and take a 2-1 win, before the Italians ruthlessly display their power with a 3-0 victory.
Liverpool vs Borussia Dortmund
The sort of end-to-end tie that the away goal rule only energises. Liverpool draw 2-2 at Dortmund, but the Germans quickly storm into a 2-1 lead at Anfield. There follows the type of ferocious night that has created so much heritage in this competition. Liverpool storm Dortmund for a 4-2 win.
Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid
There was only one team Atletico were ever going out to. There’s only one team they ever really seem to go out. It is of course the team they have the greatest psychological complex about, and it plays on their mind as the game plays out. Atletico seem to be going through on away goals as the game reaches the 80th minute in the Bernabeu. They can’t reach any further. That’s when Madrid score, to show there’s only one team from the Spanish capital that really lords this competition.
Barcelona vs Chelsea
Barca have had a habit of meeting old rivals in the knock-out stages, which is why they make up many of the most played knock-out games. And the only team to have played them more than PSG in the eliminators are Chelsea, at six times. The Catalans have also made a habit of winning these ties - if after some tension. Barca’s possession goes from proactive to protective, as they just about see out an enthralling second leg at Stamford Bridge that sees a lot of cards.
Bayern Munich vs Liverpool
For all of Liverpool’s great conquests at this stage of the competition, the facts are that Bayern have had much greater consistency. They’ve gone further much more often. They show that here, with a 3-1 first-leg win. Liverpool respond in rousing fashion to go 1-0 up at Anfield. Just when they’re pushing for that clincher, though, Bayern hit them with that sucker punch of an away goal. The shock soon brings another. Anfield falls silent before rallying for a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone that you don’t quite see with a regular 3pm league defeat against a mid-table Premier League team. Then again, that’s because the legacy of the place has been built on European nights.
Manchester United vs Juventus
The team that Manchester United have always measured themselves against in the Champions League, but also the team that regularly beats them. This, after one of those long nights of the soul at Old Trafford, is ultimately the same. Juve narrowly beat United 1-0 at home, before going ahead early on in the return. United give everything in pursuit and hit back - but are always just short of getting level. One of those nights where the Italians show the level.
Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich
The quintessential Champions League game. The quintessential Champions League semi-final. These two giants have met more than any other two sides in the knock-out stages, drawn against each other on nine separate occasions - and a record five in the last four. Fittingly, their games have usually had the number of incidents to match. This is no different. A tie of sweeping football keeps swinging, as the outright lead changes five times for it to be 6-6 on aggregate going into the last 15 minutes. That’s when controversy so thrillingly consumes events, as Bayern’s goalkeeper appears to take a player down on the very edge of the area. After a long wait, and a lot of scuffling, a red card is issued. The sub miraculously saves the penalty, and the parry is desperately cleared. The ball immediately comes back for Madrid to score from what seems an offside position. There’s not enough in it, so that’s enough for Madrid. They go through.
Barcelona vs Juventus
One of those ties where it’s impossible to figure out how Barca went out, and failed to give us the long-awaited Clasico final. They played some of the competition’s best football, and were so often the better side. They just couldn’t seem to better Juve’s backline, thanks to one of those vintage displays of defiant defending. At 1-0 down from the first leg, Barca just couldn’t make the ball go in. It means, after one of those epic eternal clashes of defence against attack, Juve are in the final.
Real Madrid v Juventus
The ultimate Champions League final, and not just for the fact it has happened twice, or that it is a meeting of the most successful sides from two different major countries in the way the grand showpiece feels it is supposed to be about. This is also a match between the club that has won the most finals, and the club that has lost the most. It can thereby only go one way. An intense first half gives way to that feeling of inevitability, as Madrid just soar away. They, of course, are the ultimate champions.