Big Lang Theory: In praise of this season's Champions League


In the years before the Champions League, few would have imagined the glamour it would bring to continental football. Its appeal, of course, is largely the product of those twin evils, branding and television - after all, European competition existed before 1992, unlike English football, which only really shuffled out of the shadows with the advent of Sky television, or something - but what branding and what television it was.

Once upon a time, European matches looked the same as domestic ones: muddy, mulleted and moustached. The occasional aesthetic point of difference - the cavernously deep nets prevalent in Italy, the ticker tape, the unfurled toilet rolls - remained peripheral; incidental rather than central. The Champions League changed all that, drawing an audio-visual line in the sand between national humdrum and continental class.

Think of that theme tune. Now try to think of any other sporting event (not TV show) with its own music. (If you've actually managed to think of one, congratulations. Now return to the windy streets of niche sports.) The painfully repetitive lyrics may have been written by some multi-lingual but mildly amnesiac EU bureaucrat ("Ils sont les meilleurs! Sie sind die besten! These are the champions! Die Meister! Die Besten! Les meilleure equipes! The champions!" ...Yeah, we get ya, pall), but the truth remains: hearing just a couple of seconds of the song conjures up myriad images, every single one of them football related.

Visually, too, the Champions League is evocative, all shiny blue surfaces and STARS STARS STARS. The metaphor may not win any awards for complexity (it was aimed at football fans, after all), but by gosh is it effective.

For many, however, the magic seems to have waned in recent years. This can partly be explained by familiarity breeding contempt; the increased success of English sides in the last decade has made the competition more mundane. As our sides have found less and less reason to be fearful of the power of their competitors, so the jangling nerves of fans have dissipated. An away trip to Galatasaray, once reason for digging the rosary beads out of the attic, is now little more than an inconvenience. There's only so many times you watch Arsenal beat Olympiacos 6-0 before it gets boring - even if you're a confirmed, life-in-the-future-tense Gunner.

This season's competition, though, seems to have the whiff of a rebirth about it. Ignoring Manchester United's flawed but ferocious romp through Group H, English clubs are actually facing a genuine fight for a place in the round of 16.

Chelsea, whose oh-my-god-these-little-guys-are-amazing-oh-shit-we-just-conceded-again naïveté is making a generation of people start to question their long-standing hatred for the club, have locked horns with Shakhtar Donetsk (twice) and Juventus, producing three games that were more interesting than was their entire 2011/12 campaign. Arsenal, too, have been involved in some crackers, the 2-2 draw with Schalke ensuring that (hey, whaddya know!) Olympiacos still harbour realistic hopes of overhauling one of the two group favourites.

Manchester City's travails in Group D have been the cherry on the cake, proving that, every now and then, the best of the Premier League can still be humbled. Their games to date have been the footballing equivalent of watching leading Italian Paul McCartney lookalike Roberto Mancini banging his head against a brick wall for six hours - i.e. amazing. This is what we need from the Champions League: a sense of impending footballing doom; the notion that teams, squads, legacies even, can be torn asunder by one Ajax counter-attack.

Other continental powerhouses have also wavered: the Barcelona possession party was pooped by Celtic, Real Madrid almost came a cropper against Dortmund, and Juventus were held by Nordsjælland (me neither). With two rounds remaining in the group stage, only one club has guaranteed safe passage to the knockout stages, meaning there will be fewer dead rubbers this season than ever before.

The danger is back this year. And it feels great.


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