Finally, some uncertainty! Although the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Ligue 1 winners have essentially already been decided—Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and PSG all have at least seven-point domestic leads—this year’s stacked Champions League field promises to tell us something we don’t already know. Who has the most riding on the knockout stages? The guys from Ringer FC each picked one player and one team.
Micah Peters: I might be oversimplifying, but I think the team that was assembled with European dominance in mind has to have the most riding on the Champions League, right? PSG, with all their über-rich egos, are currently 12 points clear and very bored at the top of Ligue 1. The Champions League isn’t the only goal; it’s the only real challenge. You don’t add Neymar for hundreds of millions of dollars after he kills you in the round of 16 if you aren’t planning to, at the very least, make it past that stage the following season. He’s there to dunk on the domestic league, and he’s there to help you make Kiev, regardless of how nuts he drives everyone.
Here is a tattoo that Neymar already has on his leg:
It’d be super embarrassing if Champions League success doesn’t happen at this point.
Peters: He’s already said that he’s most likely retiring this year, so this is his last chance to win his first Champions League title. (I gotta say, though, I still don’t think he’ll ever retire. The universe will achieve maximum entropy, and Gigi Buffon will still be there in perfect darkness, palming shots over the crossbar.)
There was a moment in last year’s Champions League final when I thought Buffon was going to get the club football send-off he deserved. Mario Mandzukic, defying gravity and reason, biked Juve’s opening goal into the top corner, and everyone went into hysterics. Then Real Madrid did the Real Madrid thing and scored three unanswered goals, and we had to watch Gigi Buffon cry. Whatever happens this time, I’d like not to see any more of Gigi Buffon crying. Thanks.
Donnie Kwak: It’s a day ending in y, which means that football pundits are embroiled in another “What’s Eating Paul Pogba?” debate. Some of the choicest bits I’ve heard and read since Manchester United fell to Newcastle United on Sunday:
- “Pogba remains an enormous frustration, manifestly talented and capable of the moments of penetration, but without an obvious role in a 4-2-3-1.” —Jonathan Wilson
- “Mourinho plays him as a holding midfielder, now you have to adapt and find the way to be efficient also when you don’t have the ball.” —Thierry Henry
- “He has that schoolboy-ish feeling of always wanting to be on the ball; the kid who, in the playground, when you are defending, is always looking to get free.” —Gary Neville
- “He does not look happy, does not flourish and there is no joy in his performance.” —Martin Keown
Pogba’s most recent bout of ennui could be due to his current deployment (as part of a sloppy two-man pivot with Nemanja Matic), or a nagging injury, or maybe it’s just February malaise. But Pogba’s first trip to the Champions League knockout round with United is a perfect opportunity to silence his many detractors. After all, it was his pivotal role in Juventus’s 2015 run to the Champions League final that pumped up his eventual record transfer fee.
If United are suddenly in need of goals in the second leg of a knockout tie, maybe Mourinho will remove Pogba’s handcuffs and thrust him into the roving, attacking role that suits him best. Most likely, he won’t. (We’re talking about José Mourinho, after all.) Either way, if Pogba does step up in Europe—as he did last year en route to winning UEFA Europa League Player of the Season—it will surely insulate him from criticism. At least until the weekend.
Kwak: Some fun stats about Juve: They’re on an 11-game unbeaten streak in Serie A and they’ve won their past seven matches in all competitions without letting in a single goal. And yet Juventus currently trails Napoli by a point in the Serie A table, putting the Bianconeri’s six-year jaunt as title winners in legit danger of ending.
Whether that puts more or less pressure on Juve heading into the Champions League knockout round is debatable. Regardless, their first competitive matchup against Tottenham doesn’t need much context to be the round of 16’s most interesting pairing. (If you’re looking instead for the most expensive matchup, head over to the Bernabéu.) Can Juve center backs Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia keep Harry Kane in check? Will Gonzalo Higuaín be enough to make up for Paulo Dybala’s absence? How long can 40-year-old Buffon keep doing this? Juventus has reached two of the past three Champions League finals and haven’t lost a home match in the competition in 23 games. If they can’t win the league, they’ll damn sure want the jug-eared trophy.
Chris Ryan: Not much is hanging in the balance here other than Chelsea’s status as a big club in Europe. Roman Abramovich is still rich, and money can still buy trophies every couple of seasons. But an early exit in the knockout stages would signal the end of yet another cycle of the chaotic West London club. During the Abramovich era, Chelsea has won nearly every trophy there is to win in club football, and yet they never really made the leap to the level of Bayern Munich, Manchester United, or Barcelona. And now PSG and Manchester City have financially eclipsed them. Their transfer policy is opaque, their two best players—Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois—will probably leave this summer, and they just bought Olivier Giroud after being linked to Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch. Chelsea! Peter Crouch!
Chaos is the normal state of affairs, exemplified by the team’s ability to regularly attract and subsequently alienate elite managerial talent. Antonio Conte is the 12th full-time Chelsea boss this century, and there will probably be a 13th after this season.
The new boss is rumored to be Luis Enrique, most recently of Barcelona, the club Chelsea is facing in this first knockout round of the Champions League. This was supposed to be the season the Blues re-established their European credentials. Instead, it looks like they will be lucky to qualify for next year’s tournament. Ten years ago, Barcelona and Chelsea would be the marquee matchup of the CL program. Now Chelsea looks like little more than cannon fodder.
Chelsea will probably be back in Europe’s most prestigious club competition soon enough, but does anyone really think they have staying power at this point?
All of England
Ryan O’Hanlon: Forget about Real Madrid, the two-time defending champs. Of the past 28 Champions League semifinalists over the previous seven seasons, a grand total of—[smudges screen to see whether that’s actually an “eight”]—nope, that’s really a “four,” huh? Yes, just 14 percent of the semifinalists in Europe’s premier club competition have hailed from the Premier League since 2011. Despite having more money and more good teams than anywhere else, England’s struggled to make any kind of impact at the absolute highest level of the game. Explanations abound—the billions of TV dollars are handed out too equitably, the top-to-bottom competition is too good, there are too many games, and randomness is a bitch—but this is the year the narrative changes.
At least it should be. Although the Premier League has only four automatic Champions League places, the league has five teams in the round of 16 thanks to Manchester United slipping through the back door marked “Europa League.” Blind chance suggests we’ll get at least one British team, as do more precise probabilities: FiveThirtyEight gives Manchester City (53 percent), Liverpool (31 percent), Tottenham (22 percent), and United (20 percent) at least a one-in-five shot at reaching the final four. City has already lapped the field back home, and the next few months of weekday nights will tell us just how impressive of an achievement that actually is. If this isn’t the year England takes over Europe, then it might be time to petition the FA for a name change.
Virgil van Dijk
Ryan: Speaking as a Liverpool fan—which, honestly, I am always speaking as—Porto makes me a little nervous. They are the West Brom or Swansea of the European elite, and those are the teams that give Liverpool fits. Virgil van Dijk was bought precisely to handle situations like this—to clean up, lock down, and steady the ship. Scoring the game-winning goal in the FA Cup against Everton has earned van Dijk a season’s worth of goodwill from fans, but make no mistake: He is there to make sure Liverpool don’t lose games to teams like Porto.
O’Hanlon: You want proof that time doesn’t move in a straight line? Take a look at this:
At 30 years old, Messi has hit that rare inflection point that few athletes ever do: He’s the best soccer player of all time and right now. Most historic moments don’t feel that way without the benefit of hindsight; no one knew how important, say, the Watergate burglary was until enough days and weeks and years had passed for all its context to settle into place. But with Messi, we’re watching someone accrue all of that historical importance in real time, with each passing game. Each little thing he does could end up being the thing you decide to tell your grandkids about. There’s an underlying momentousness to every goal (he’s got 20 this year, most in La Liga), every assist (10, same), every dribble (126, yep) that almost—I said almost—make his games too emotional to watch. But we have to watch because we’ll never see anyone like him ever again. There’s plenty of drama to be mined in the Champions League this year, but everyone else is competing with each other. Messi’s playing another game altogether; he’s playing against himself.