There are really two UEFA Champions League seasons – fall and spring. Or rather, there are three, since the summertime qualifying rounds comprise two full months and five rounds of eliminations.
But it’s the chasm between the mid-September to mid-December group stage and the knockout stages, beginning in mid-February, that’s particularly stark. A soccer season is long, and during that two-month layoff from continental competition, while domestic seasons mostly carry on, a team’s outlook can change entirely.
The first stage of the European season, then, is almost entirely inconsequential to who will ultimately lift the trophy, or even reach the latter stages, at other end of the year. All that really matters is still being in it once the action returns, as it will on Tuesday and Wednesday. Even seeding isn’t particularly important – with first-place group stage finishers going up against a team that finished runner-up in the round of 16 – because the balance of power could have shifted entirely.
What’s more, the group stage was a largely predictable procession, sending all the usual suspects through to the next phase. The only mild surprises were that last year’s semifinalists, Ajax, lost out in a three-way tussle with Chelsea and Valencia in Group H, and that a reloaded Inter Milan was knocked out in a group with Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. But then only two teams can advance, and both of those groups had three strong clubs in them.
In fact, Dortmund is a good example of the incoherence between the first and second halves of the European season. Late last year, it was in a swoon, slowly fading from a wide-open Bundesliga title race. But in January, it signed the much-coveted teenaged striker Erling Haaland. And since then, Dortmund has won four of five league games while averaging a staggering 4.4 goals per game. Haaland scored eight of those 22 goals. That makes the German outfit far better equipped to compete with Paris Saint-Germain and its shaky defense in the round of 16.
The Parisians, once again out to win their first Champions League title, are a much different-looking side going into the knockout stages. That’s because they have a healthy Neymar this time around, who was injured for the business-end of the European campaign the last two seasons. This time around, he missed much of the group stage, only making one start and one substitute appearance, but should be ready to return after a minor rib injury. He further reinforces a side that had been imperious in the group stage.
Real Madrid is a much-solidified side since we last saw it in Europe, winning its five La Liga games since then and taking over first place. Opponent Manchester City, meanwhile, was firmly knocked out of the Premier League title race – freeing it to focus entirely on Europe – and then rocked by a two-season European ban, starting next year, for violations of the Financial Fair Play regulations. How that affects its frustrated efforts to lift the Champions League remains to be seen, either galvanizing a club under acute pressure to win now, or inducing a collapse.
Atalanta, too, has stabilized since somehow escaping the group in spite of losing their first three games and tying the fourth. But they’ll nevertheless feel worse about their chances against Valencia, which has now fully turned its season around under Albert Celades, climbing to seventh place in La Liga.
Atletico Madrid probably liked its chances against Liverpool better back on Dec. 16, when the draw was held. Because it’s been on a dreadful run the last month, winning just one of five in the league, as calls for once-untouchable manager Diego Simeone’s head are getting louder. And its chances against defending champions Liverpool were already looking grim before Jurgen Klopp’s Reds got the benefit of a two-week break – even if it meant sacrificing the FA Cup – and haven’t lost a game with their full first team since Sep. 17.
Chelsea would probably have liked to look different following the winter transfer window. Frank Lampard’s young side needed several reinforcements to keep competing on several fronts but got none. Especially in the face of a veteran-laden Bayern Munich that hasn’t lost in any competition since completing its 6-0-0 rout of the group stage and has reasserted itself atop the German league.
Meanwhile, Lyon’s rocky season continues after a brief resurgence once Rudi Garcia took over for the out-of-his-depth Sylvinho. But then star forward Memphis Depay was injured and out for the season and it all came apart again with no wins from their last four. Yet opponents Juventus are hardly at their best either, slumping with two losses out of four and relinquishing the Serie A lead to Inter Milan for the first real, honest-to-God Italian title race in eons. Manager Maurizio Sarri is under pressure and very much needs a deep run in Europe to save his job.
Then there’s Tottenham Hotspur. And, well, what to make of Spurs? Since Jose Mourinho came in on Nov. 20 they’ve been up and down. Recently, they won none of four and then three in a row. But they remain a flawed side that was already overdue for a reboot and another run to the final feels like a long shot. Yet RB Leipzig is in something of a swoon, regressing after spending five straight matchdays atop the Bundesliga, possibly improving Spurs’ chances.
Napoli fired Carlo Ancelotti the day after its final group stage game – a 4-0 win over Genk, no less – and replaced him with Gennaro Gattuso. He proceeded to lose four of five before beating Juventus in the next game. His side remains mired in mid-table and entirely unpredictable. Which is fitting, because Barcelona has changed managers since the group stage as well, canning Ernesto Valverde while the side was in first place, and installing the underqualified Quique Setien. And since then, Barca has been scraping out narrow results, looking unsure and unconvincing.
It all adds up to knockout stages that have few clear favorites besides Liverpool and matchups that are just about impossible to prophesize.
The Champions League is back. And it’s a whole new year.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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