By Rory Smith
For a while, it looked as if the closest thing this season’s Champions League would get to old-fashioned, soul-stirring romance would be the new-build team, plucked out of thin air and deployed as a rolling billboard for an energy drink manufacturer.
As Ajax proved last year, a compelling outsider adds a sense of intrigue that can burnish even soccer’s most exclusive competition: a new face among the old, carrying with it an air of revitalizing freshness, of raw joy, that improves the spectacle. At one point, when Ajax had fallen, and Red Bull’s Salzburg franchise, too, it seemed the only contender for that role was, in more traditional eyes, hardly a welcome one: RB Leipzig.
And then — thankfully, perhaps — Atalanta came along. Gian Piero Gasperini’s team had started its debut Champions League campaign with three straight defeats; after four games, it only had a single point. There would have been no great shame in that: In many ways, Atalanta’s triumph was being in the competition at all. Teams of its scale are told, again and again, that they ought to be happy to make up the numbers.
But by defeating first Dinamo Zagreb and then, on Wednesday, Shakhtar Donetsk, Atalanta completed a staggering turnaround and secured its place among the giants.
Gasperini’s players leapt on advertising boards to celebrate what would, even without the dramatic circumstances, have been a rare, admirable achievement: taking an unheralded, small-town club — its budget a fraction of that available to Europe’s cash-soaked elite, its squad made up of homegrown hopefuls and shoestring purchases, its stadium too crumbling to host games — into the last 16 of the Champions League.
It is as well, though, to look beneath the surface, not to grow dewy-eyed at how heartwarming it all is. In a certain light, Atalanta’s progress is no more stirring than Leipzig’s: It owed its place in the group stages only to the fact that UEFA, the competition’s organizer, was browbeaten into giving Europe’s four richest leagues four automatic spots each in the groups. Before that renegotiation, Atalanta’s third-place finish in Serie A last year only would have been enough to qualify for a playoff.
Its presence in the last 16 means that, for the first time ever, every team in the knockout rounds is drawn from one of Europe’s sanctified top five leagues: four apiece from England and Spain, three from Italy, three from Germany, and two from France. There is no Ajax, no APOEL, no Shakhtar or Zenit St. Petersburg or FC Porto to break up the procession of the powerful. The rest of the Continent is locked out.
That is exactly as it should be, of course, as far as the Continent’s monolithic clubs and megalithic leagues are concerned. It’s fine to let the others come along to provide a bit of entertainment during the phony war of the group stages, but once the real action starts — and the real rewards kick in — intruders are hardly encouraged.
This is the Champions League as they envisaged, the Champions League that they have built. Every time UEFA has to put the television rights for its prize competition out to tender, the clubs that drive much of its revenue start to talk, in stage whispers, about breaking away entirely, of forming their own competition, of keeping all of the money.
Every time, UEFA does what it can to placate them: hence the four automatic slots for Italy, a country that last produced a Champions League-winning team in 2010, and three for France, still awaiting a follow-up to Marseille’s controversy-tinged win in 1993. Every time, the Champions League resembles a little more the closed, continental league of the elite clubs’ dreams.
At the risk of sounding trite, it is worth wondering if those clubs — Real Madrid being the latest of them — should be careful what they wish for. After a while, even Midas realized that there are downsides if everything you touch turns to gold.
None of the traditional powerhouses, those teams who have dominated this tournament for a decade, look a picture of rude health. Barcelona staggered to the top spot in its group despite uncertain, tremulous form. Bayern Munich sailed through a much kinder pool, but its Bundesliga form has already resulted in the firing of one manager.
Real Madrid, dismantled by Paris St.-Germain and held at home by Club Bruges, could only finish a distant second behind PSG. Its city rival, Atlético, needed a win on the last day against Lokomotiv Moscow to be sure of a place in the last 16. All four are running through treacle in domestic competition, too.
The outlook is brighter for PSG — widely regarded as the fullest, deepest squad in Europe — and Juventus, until last week still unbeaten this season. But it is the Premier League that seems the coming force in Europe.
Chelsea qualified ahead of Ajax despite having written off this season as a year of building and mending. Tottenham was shredded by Bayern, fired its manager, and qualified anyway. Most important, in Liverpool and Manchester City, England boasts what most regard as the two best teams in the world and, certainly, the two most convincing contenders for the Champions League title.