On the eve of the Champions League’s real business returning, one of the managers most familiar with this end of the competition was asked how it might finish. Does Jose Mourinho agree that Bayern Munich and title-holders Real Madrid are the outstanding favourites?
The Chelsea boss was dismissive.
“I don’t agree, at all,” he said. “I don’t agree because the Champions League is a space for surprises.”
Mourinho is to a certain extent right, but his answer also points to a potential wrong of the competition in the future.
On one side - namely the very top end - it’s never been more difficult to predict a winner. The economics of modern football have ensured that there are now a group of around six to eight clubs so close in resources and thereby quality that almost anything between them is possible, with all of that only further skewed by the open nature of a knock-out competition.
It is one main reason why the trophy has not been retained since 1990.
It is also a reason why, on the other side, it would be a far bigger surprise than even Mourinho can envisage for a club outside that group to go and win it.
We are now well into the era of the super-clubs, and it requires a super-human effort for anyone else to break their dominance. Many might point to the exceptional examples of more financially constrained clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid in the last two seasons alone but it arguably only reinforces the argument, rather than diminish it, that they went so close but still couldn’t complete the job after sensational seasons.
Ultimately, the differences told, the margins mattered. Both struggled with the loss of key players and couldn’t replace them, both saw bigger rivals just about last the distance for last-minute goals.
You also only have to consider the sides they lost to, and the context of those conquests.
Bayern Munich and Real Madrid ended 12-year waits to win, with the two clubs understandably celebrating what no doubt felt like historic feats. At the same time, these were nowhere near the droughts endured before the victories of 1998 and 2001 - Real going 32 years, Bayern 25 - and are far likelier to be strong indicators of the competition’s future.
This is almost certainly set to be pattern: those six or so clubs ending much shorter waits every few seasons, essentially awaiting “their turn”.
It represents the final Americanisation of the sport, if basically structured in a different way to events like the Super Bowl, but finishing in a similar manner. Those modern economics mean the same group of clubs are almost always there, with their place in the competition virtually preserved, so providing them with a high platform from which to always at least compete.
It removes some of the sense of quest or epic journey from the competition. We are far less likely to see the kind of learning processes and long sights of the soul that the Manchester Uniteds of 1964-68 and 1993-99 went on, or indeed Ajax of 1966-71.
Manchester City’s ongoing adjustment to the competition is probably the closest modern equivalent to that, but that’s partially because their money and consequent entry to the competition are so recent. It’s also easier to see them winning in the way that Chelsea or Real Madrid eventually did, instead of Bayern in 2001 or even Barcelona in 2006.
Rather than a victory that represents the joyous culmination of a team’s cycle, the final step after a gradual rise, it is likelier to be one random campaign.
That is precisely what happened with Real and especially Chelsea. After so many seasons in which the latter’s best teams went so close, they eventually won it in one of the years when the side was at its worst. Although Chelsea obviously used their extensive experience of the competition to navigate that 2012 campaign, the luck of a knock-out also landed on them. The freakish elements of so much of their victory - from players like Leo Messi and Arjen Robben missing penalties to all manner of other events - reflected the fluke nature of it.
This was the kind of surprise that Mourinho is really talking about, but it is a surprise really only achievable by a handful of clubs.
The real wonder this season is whether Dortmund can defy everything by replicating Chelsea, or whether Atletico can do what even Jurgen Klopp’s side struggled with and take their sensational form into a second successive Champions League season.
Beyond that, Bayern are clear favourites, but their path can quickly be complicated by one bad match or all the big clubs crashing against each other. Thereafter, the way could easily be cleared for Mourinho’s Chelsea or Barcelona.
None of this is to bemoan the quality of the competition, which has probably never been so concentrated, never been so intense.
It is just that has come at a cost, a cost that only some clubs can afford.
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