How are Germany and France upping the game?
The Premier League and La Liga are considered the two most high-profile domestic competitions in the world, due to their reach and star power. The Italian Serie A has been a traditional powerhouse of the continent for several decades. But they are conspicuous by their absence as the 2019-20 Champions League reaches its business end.
In the semifinals are two teams each from the Bundesliga – which for some fans would mean ‘Bayern Munich, and who else?’ – and the French Ligue 1 – derisively called Farmers League by some.
But dig a little deeper and one may find the unfamiliar semifinal line-up is not entirely a coincidence.
With six World Cup titles between them – including the most recent two – Germany and France are footballing powerhouses of the first order. That implies a steady flow of top-class home-grown young talent. Also, several promising players from outside the continent first make their name in these two leagues before moving on to England, Spain or Italy. And France and Germany – especially the latter – have never been short of managerial talent either.
How did Red Bull and Qatar Sports Investment money make a difference?
The Premier League, bankrolled by exorbitant TV deals, has been the richest, while the aura and pedigree of Real Madrid and Barcelona has ensured that La Liga has never been far behind.
But big money has started getting into the other leagues too over the last decade. Paris Saint-Germain’s takeover by Qatar Sports Investment has made it one of the richest clubs in the world, while RB Leipzig is owned by the Red Bull group.
Bayern Munich is the most dominant club in Germany, and apart from a vast fan base and steady revenue, also benefits from a strong structure and hierarchy. As for Olympic Lyonnais, they were the most successful club in France before PSG transformed itself.
Can the pupil outwit the master?
At 46, PSG manager Thomas Tuchel would be considered a relative youngster in top-level football, but he is 13 years older than Julian Nagelsmann, his opposite number in the Champions League semifinal.
To add intrigue to the contest, the present RB Leipzig manager cut his teeth under Tuchel at Augsburg, and was dubbed ‘mini-Mourinho’. Nagelsmann was on the books as a player but when injuries prevented him from taking the field, he was asked to do some scouting work on the opponents, which set him off on the path to full-time football management.
Tuchel himself had a curtailed playing career due to injuries, later working his way up the ladder with various Bundesliga teams before catching the eye of those outside Germany during his stint at Borussia Dortmund. He has been with PSG for the last two years, and has guided them to two league titles and a domestic quadruple in his second season.
Nagelsmann took rank outsiders 1899 Hoffenheim into the Champions League in the 2017-18 season, so no challenge would be insurmountable for him. PSG have the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in their ranks, and while sharpshooter Timo Werner has left Leipzig for Chelsea, there’s still enough flair and firepower in the youthful German side. Nagelsmann joined the club just last year, and has already exceeded expectations. But he wouldn’t want to stop here.
Leipzig is not the most-liked side in Germany, being a corporate-owned club, but they have been built from the bottom and know no fear. Nagelsmann has already seen off Mourinho and Simeone in this season’s Champions League, a remarkable achievement for a club formed only in 2009.
Tuchel, on the other hand, has managed what eluded his illustrious predecessors in the PSG dugout – Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc and Unai Emery. Despite the resources at their disposal since the Qatari takeover, the club routinely faltered when it mattered on European football’s grandest stage, often losing from seemingly unbeatable positions. Now that they are just two wins away from the title, Tuchel has a chance to write his name in the history books.
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Can Garcia match Flick when it comes to tactics and temperament?
The other semifinal will pit two managers who – when compared to those contesting the other game – could be termed veterans. Bayern coach Hans-Dieter Flick is 55 while opposite number Rudi Garcia is a year older.
Flick may be a relatively new name for the casual fan, but he has been a vital cog in German football for over a decade. With Joachim Loew, he shepherded the turnaround in Die Mannschaft’s fortunes. He was an assistant coach when they became world champions at Brazil 2014. Thereafter, Flick was a sporting director with the German football federation.
He then became an assistant to Nico Kovac at Bayern. When he took over from the latter in November last year, the club had fallen off the pedestal in the Bundesliga. Flick engineered a turnaround that not only saw them win the league with games to spare, but he has also put them in the Champions League semifinal.
If the one-sided nature of their Round-of-16 win over Chelsea was testimony to their usually high standards, the 8-2 demolition of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona will be talked about for some time to come. With Robert Lewandowski in supreme goalscoring form and Thomas Muller rejuvenated, it will take something special to stop this Bayern juggernaut.
Flick has seemingly found a way to get the best out of his star-studded line-up. The fact that he has interacted with several of the German players during his time with the national side can only work in his favour.
Garcia’s Lyon will be underdogs in the semifinal, despite getting the better of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus and Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Their manager is a veteran of over two-and-a-half decades through various clubs in France and Italy, and has also worked as a football reporter and pundit. Having managed sides like Roma and Olympique Marseille, apart from securing the Ligue 1 title in 2010-11 before his present stint, Garcia is unlikely to be found wanting in terms of tactics and big-match temperament.
Defeating more fancied sides shows that he can get his teams organised and make them tough to beat. Whether that will be enough to counter the Bavarian giants remains to be seen.
Could the Premier League be the next destination for these managers now?
The Premier League often gets a first-hand look at top managers during the Champions League, and big clubs come calling if they like what they see. Often, the lure of the most-watched domestic league in the world is too much to resist.
The manager who lifts the cup on August 24 may consider it job done at that club, and look for pastures new, choosing England for the next challenge. That will be in keeping with the script being followed for the last several years, labelling these managers as worthy successors of those who became super-coaches over their careers.
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While the top clubs in the Premier League often chase the biggest and most high-profile managers money can buy – that’s how the likes of Mourinho, Guardiola, Klopp, Antonio Conte, Ancelotti and Louis Van Gaal made it to England, resulting in hardly any home-grown managers in the top tier. But that’s not often the case elsewhere.
It’s inconceivable for a Premier League club to give a managerial break to a 28-year-old like Nagelsmann, who didn’t even have a stellar playing career. Clubs in France and Germany often look at managers who can get the job done, rather than the headlines they could generate.
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