We live in disquieting times. The old global powers are in disarray. Uncertainty abounds. It all just feels … unsettled.
Oh, just to be clear, this is in reference to soccer.
The group stage of the UEFA Champions League ended on Wednesday. And on paper, it looks like it’s all transpired just about as you’d expect. All of the big clubs advanced. Also: Manchester United – barely.
But look more closely and a curious picture emerges. For the first time in eons, we look ahead to Monday’s round-of-16 draw – to be played starting Feb. 12 – without any major favorites seizing the narrative. Almost halfway into the club season, this doesn’t look like this will clearly be anybody’s year.
This continental campaign remains wide-open.
And that’s fairly uncommon. By this point, there are usually two or three teams who have announced themselves as clear frontrunners. Because the oligarchy of Europe’s superclubs is such that interlopers in the semifinal stages are rare. And the last time a non-megaclub lifted the big cup was back in 2004, when Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto caught everyone by surprise. Before that, it was Ajax in 1995 – which, in fact, was still a juggernaut back then.
Indeed, last year, it was surprising that Roma made it to the semis. And Roma was the 24th-richest club in the world, per the Deloitte Football Money League. The gap between the super-rich and everybody else is bigger than ever.
But scan the rosters and resumes of the pre-season contenders, and issues abound.
After Real Madrid’s four European titles in five years, unprecedented in the modern era and matched only by the 1956-60 Real run, the dynasty is now surely over. The club didn’t adequately replace Cristiano Ronaldo, or really replace him at all. And it still hasn’t addressed the inexorable aging of its golden core. Five La Liga losses probably doom a domestic title challenge and an early managerial change didn’t produce much of an upgrade in the inexperienced Santiago Solari. What’s more, Real somehow managed to lose twice to last-place CSKA Moscow in the group stage – the last of which was a hapless 3-0 hammering, which wasn’t excused by the B-team run out.
FC Barcelona has finally solved some of its depth issues and cruised through a difficult group without a loss. But then there are also signs that things aren’t coming quite so easily as they once did, as the peerless Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez age and require more rest.
Barca’s total expected goals at this point of the season is far lower than it’s been in years – as is Real’s.
One of the big stories of this season. Barcelona and (especially) Real Madrid are worse than they’ve been in a decade. Opens up the Champions League like crazy. pic.twitter.com/Tg3tkMiEpN
— Michael “Chopsy Mug” Caley (@MC_of_A) December 12, 2018
And after Barca managed to go a full four league games without a win, the Spanish title race promises to be closer than expected with Sevilla and Atletico Madrid right on Barca’s heels, a mere two points back. That won’t help Barca in Europe, where it’s come up short every year since 2015.
Atletico, meanwhile, the losing finalist in 2014 and 2016 and now very much a superclub in its own right, seems to have the credentials to make another run at the final. But then it took a disconcerting 4-0 beating at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in the group stage. And the Colchoneros’ tepid league form – only seven wins from 15 games – suggests an inability to score enough goals in the moments that matter.
Bayern Munich is in much the same boat as Real. It allowed too much of its team to get too old before rejuvenating and has, by its own dizzying standards, fallen off a bit of a cliff. It now sits fully nine points behind leaders Dortmund in the Bundesliga. While Bayern won its group, it had immense difficulty earning a pair of ties with Ajax, which may be young and exciting, but shouldn’t really trouble the German juggernauts.
Then there’s Paris Saint-Germain, which remains all-in on winning in Europe following half a decade of dominance in France. But PSG lost its group stage opener to Liverpool and won just one of its first four games, setting off all sorts of alarm bells in the French capital. Thomas Tuchel’s team pulled it out in the end, even winning the group, but the evidence of its early form is hardly convincing.
So on to last year’s runners-up, Liverpool. The Reds managed to lose all three of their away games at Napoli, Red Star Belgrade and PSG. That’s not a good omen before the knockout stages, where math dictates the impossibility of advancing very far without solid away results. What’s more, Liverpool is locked into a titanic Premier League title race with Manchester City that will likely go the length of the season and drain all kinds of energy.
City, then, is in the same boat. Its group stage wound up being fairly comfortable, in spite of an opening loss at home to Olympique Lyon and a few late-won results. And while City has uncommon – and perhaps unprecedented – depth, there’s a reason no teams from the glittering Premier League have won the Champions League in six years. And that only three reached the semis in the last five seasons. It’s hard to compete on both fronts when your domestic league is so grueling, offering nary an easy game. And that soaring title race sure doesn’t help.
What about Juventus? Well, Juve lost twice in the group stage, once to Manchester United and once to last-place Young Boys, albeit after qualifying. That said, the Old Lady is running away with the Serie A once again, promising an astounding eighth consecutive title. And after runs to the final in 2015 and 2017, this side plainly has the experience to do it again. Also, it has Ronaldo. Then again, its central defense is old and slow, there are issues in midfeld and no Italian team has won in Europe since Inter Milan – Mourinho again – did it in 2010.
Still, that leaves Juve in much better shape than Mourinho’s United, which only clawed its way through to the knockout stages and is very far removed from being a viable contender. And of the other clubs qualifying for the last 16, only Dortmund and Porto gave a real statement in the group stage. Both teams won their groups, but Dortmund is incredibly young and Porto largely untested, putting big question marks behind their candidacy.
In the end, the group stage is a pass-fail kind of exam. And all the big teams passed it. What they did, or didn’t do, in the first half of the season will be largely irrelevant come February. It’s nevertheless remarkable how little foreboding there is about what the business-end of the tournament might look like in the spring.
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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