Relentless attacking, paranoia and blind luck: How the Champions League unravelled itself into glorious chaos

Adam Hurrey

At what point do we become desensitised to the twist? How many more times can Rio Ferdinand manhandle a fellow BT Sport pundit in celebration of a tie-turning 94th-minute goal? How did we get here?

The unfolding chaos from Anfield to Amsterdam this week should not, perhaps, have been that much of a shock. Similar scenes of heads-gone, defences-down, histrionic-back-page mayhem were seen last season after the climaxes to Juventus vs Real Madrid, Roma vs Barcelona and Roma vs Liverpool.

In 2016/17, we had Monaco and Manchester City locked in a battle to see who could throw more caution to the wind and, still the mother of all Champions League turnarounds, the duology titled “Barcelona 6-1 Paris Saint-Germain (agg: 6-5)”.

Once again: how did the Champions League so gloriously unravel itself?

Attack, attack, attack

The man himself might not quite be prepared to accept it, but we find ourselves firmly in the post-Mourinho era. The 2003/04 Champions League, pick-pocketed expertly by the Porto side that propelled their manager to the elite level of European attention, just happened to be the lowest-scoring edition in a decade. The 2005/06 competition boasted the fewest goals-per-game in the last quarter of a century (2.35) with its knockout stages mustering less than two goals on average per match.

Since then, Champions League goalscoring has been on a steady ascent: the last three seasons are the most prolific in the tournament’s history, and the knockout-stage goals-per-game average is in a similarly healthy state.

Mourinho’s recent demise, from treble-winner at Inter in 2010 to his 2015 Chelsea burn-out and then his powerless Old Trafford misery has played out to a backdrop of committed, attacking football across the continent.

The pragmatists aren't quite extinct yet, but it will take something revolutionary to reverse the crowd-pleasing, heart-stretching, sponsor-delighting, broadcaster-fuelling current trend of aggressive attacking and counter-attacking.

The paranoia of the narrative

Update your proverbs: 3-0 is now the most dangerous score in football.

Amid the heroism and bottling of this week’s semi-final deciders, there lies a fascinating case study in two-leg football psychology.

Setting aside Jurgen Klopp’s muted optimism before the second leg against Barcelona on Tuesday, not to mention the overwhelming Anfield atmosphere as one goal turned into four, there is a peculiar paranoia that seems to afflict teams protecting a comfortable first-leg lead as soon as they concede a glimmer of hope early in the second.

Rather than brush it off and play their own game, Barcelona dissolved into a visible, alarming state of self-questioning - the sort of panic that you very rarely see in a one-off game.

That exposes the unique challenges of a two-legged tie. The job might seem done after the first 90 minutes, but then the analysis - 50% post mortem, 50% prognosis - kicks in. Suddenly a 3-0 lead become the most unlikely of sitting ducks and, no matter how impressive they might have been in building that lead, the favourites become stealthily consumed by their own inertia.

Complacency? Not quite: just confusion.

Europe's identikit contenders

Crack east-European outfits, Turkish banners politely welcoming you to hell, riot police in the tunnel, two-star hotels, death-trap pitches, gruelling 12-hour journeys by plane, train and automobile: all relics of a footballing past.

The European Cup simply isn’t a voyage into the unknown any more, and a monthly subscription can grant you access to Viktoria Plzen’s corner routines from the last five seasons if you can be bothered to worry about them. All the stadiums are broadly the same, everyone’s playing on lush, semi-artificial Desso Grassmaster surfaces now and a private jet can have you safely back to Melwood or Enfield before the morning newspaper headlines are being printed.

In summary, the geographical and cultural playing field, for better or worse, has been levelled out. That favours those endowed with the most enduring variable - money - but when the cash cows play each other, the traditional home-away dichotomy finds itself suppressed: after all, is it that daunting for Tottenham to enter the Johan Cruyff Arena?

While there are plenty of footballing factors that can turn a tie one way or the other, two-legged ties - aesthetically, at the very least - can feel and look simply like two straight shootouts. Away-leg heroics shouldn’t be the tall order they might have been in any other decade.

Good, old-fashioned twists of fortune

Recency bias might compel us to declare this week - which began with Vincent Kompany scoring from 30 yards, continued with a Liverpool ball boy flicking a V at Lionel Messi with the sort of brazen confidence you only get from beating Barcelona 4-0, perhaps peaked with Ajax’s fairytale footballers arranged in a tableau of despair on their own turf, and might even have room for dessert with the Europa League semi-finals - the greatest week football has ever seen.

But there is an age-old footballing ingredient that played its venerable part over the last 48 hours: sheer, blind luck.

Twists of fate come in various degrees of obviousness: Hakim Ziyech pinging a 78th-minute shot off the Spurs post brought an immediate sigh of relief, but the mortal significance of Ousmane Dembele squandering the chance for a fourth Barcelona goal at the Nou Camp last week didn’t really become clear until Trent Alexander-Arnold took a quick corner at the Kop End six nights later.

Luis Suarez’s off-the-ball kick to Andrew Roberton’s calf muscle was arguably the flap of the butterfly’s wing to the 122-second hurricane that was Georginio Wijnaldum’s two tide-turning goals. Only a Roberto Firmino hamstring was the difference between Divock Origi scoring a goal to take Liverpool into the Champions League final...or watching Barcelona cling on from the bench. A hat-trick for Lucas Moura? All hail Harry Kane’s dodgy ankle ligaments.

Perhaps Mourinho is locked in his Kensington basement, scrawling out the code for Joseball v2.0, ready to make Europe’s idealists tear their hair out in frustration once more. Until then, enjoy the dizzying heights of three goals per game, the Champions League letting it all hang out.