After the emotion of victory, and the general chaos of the game, there was some unintentional clarity from Real Madrid’s most focused player.
“We started very well, pressing high,” Sergio Ramos said. “Then we went 2-0 up, but we conceded very quickly and found it difficult to keep going with our football, so the second was very even.”
In other words, inaccuracy created entertainment. By far the best game in the Champions League this week – Madrid’s thrilling 3-2 win over Inter Milan – came about because neither of the sides involved are close to their best levels. Their group has offered a rare sense of competitiveness to the opening round this season, to go with that of Manchester United’s. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had initially exposed the faults in Paris Saint-Germain and Leipzig, before succumbing to their own issues against Istanbul Basaksehir.
Both of these groups, at least, look like they might go to the wire and see some shock exits.
That would be out of sync with the entire recent history of the group stage, which has generally involved a series of processions. It has been a major problem in the competition, itself such a contrast to the exhilaration of the knock-out rounds.
That all comes because of a huge financial gap, that has only grown since the rise of the super-clubs around 10 to 12 years ago. The top sides at that point began to generate such revenues that it was almost impossible for anyone else to compete. This was most visible in those very group-stage games, with so many of them like Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Rennes this week.
That is pointed, since Chelsea were one of the few super-clubs able to operate with relative freedom.
As has been argued in these pages recently, it is possible all that money has temporarily led to a tipping point, with some of that exacerbated by Covid.
Many of the top clubs have too many big contracts, which has made players difficult to sell, and thereby prevented badly needed squad management. It has made too many teams too stale or too bloated.
This arguably applies to all of Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and – to a lesser extent – Manchester City. That’s over half the super clubs. Chelsea meanwhile still look a developing project, while United still don’t know what type of project they’re supposed to be.
Only Bayern Munich currently look at the kind of level you would expect of those clubs over the last decade, when every season saw around five or six of them at the very cutting edge of the game. It is possible that Liverpool could match them, but it remains to be seen whether Virgil van Dijk’s injury will affect them in the medium term, or they sign someone.
As such, the net effect is almost that this is the most erratic standard of Champions League campaign since 2006-07.
It is worth recalling the field at that time. Barcelona had so quickly fallen apart, and lost their drive. Chelsea were suffering Jose Mourinho’s first “third season”. Juventus had been punished by Calciopoli. In their place, Milan could barely finish in the top two of Serie A, which made them one of those vintage sides who seemed to raise it in Europe. It was fitting for the era they met a similar side in Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool for the final. A younger Manchester United had been dispatched in the semi-finals, illustrating they weren’t quite ready for the leap but were close.
Almost all the top sides had significant flaws. A lot like now.
It makes for a more open Champions League, and further illustrates how inaccuracy and error can lead to entertainment.