Well, none of that was supposed to happen. After the first legs of the Champions League quarterfinals, it looked like we were set for two days of dead rubber. Instead, we got two of the best matches of the season—if not the entire decade.
Winner: Real Madrid
They’ve essentially rendered this performative winners-and-losers exercise useless. Madrid win it all; that’s just what they do. Despite stuttering out of the La Liga title race before Christmas and finishing second to Tottenham in the group stages of the Champions League, Ronaldo and Real are now the favorites to win the European title for the third year running—especially after Manchester City and Barcelona were dumped out. For 30 minutes or so against Juventus, it looked like Madrid’s structureless “well, we have better players than you” approach was finally going to bite itself in the ass. Zinedine Zidane’s team never totally controls the flow of the game, and while plenty of teams would’ve tried to hold possession and limit the chances on either end, Madrid opted into an up-and-down first 60 minutes … and went down 3-0. It was a truly awful performance from the two-time defending champs, but it’s not like underlying quality has ever mattered in the past.
At 3-3 on aggregate, the tie is basically a coin flip—maybe with the odds slightly in Juve’s favor since they were away, and away goals count for more—but we know what Madrid does with coin flips: They call it right every single time. If, for some reason, you’re still not convinced of the club’s ineffable inevitability, then try to explain this: They blew a 3-0 lead at home … and still managed to win on a 98th-minute penalty against the opposing team’s backup keeper, who had to be subbed on for the starter, who was sent off for verbally abusing the referee in what is likely to end up being the final Champions League game of his legendary 24-year professional career.
Drama, drama, drama!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 11, 2018
Here's another look at the penalty decision in stoppage time and the red card to Gigi Buffon. pic.twitter.com/BJHJd7rP08
We knew Ronaldo would convert the penalty; we just should’ve known that everything before it was coming, too.
Ronaldo always delivers!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 11, 2018
His stoppage-time penalty denies Juventus the epic comeback bid and sends Real Madrid to their 8th straight UCL semifinal. pic.twitter.com/cZEqE5ubas
Loser: Rational Discourse
Manchester City are on pace to break the Premier League record for points in a season. José Mourinho’s Chelsea set the bar in 2005 with 95 points, and FiveThirtyEight projects Pep Guardiola’s side to end on 98. Meanwhile, Barcelona sit just seven games away from the first undefeated season in the history of La Liga. They’re 15 points ahead of Real Madrid, and FiveThirtyEight’s model doesn’t expect that gap to shrink by season’s end.
Yet, both City and Barça are miserable failures. As The Guardian put it, Guardiola’s team imploded “in self-immolating fury.” Not to be outdone, Spain’s El Mundo thesaurus-ed through the diatribes it directed at Ernesto Valverde and Co.: disaster, disgrace, humiliation. After a 3-0 loss in the first leg to Liverpool, City couldn’t muster more than a first-half goal, ultimately succumbing 2-1, and 5-1 on aggregate. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi and Barcelona arrived at the Olympic Stadium in Rome with a 4-1 advantage—only to be smited 3-0 by a perfectly smooth Greek god:
The rhythms of a domestic soccer season are directed toward fairness—everyone plays everyone twice, and that’s it—but with no designs on achieving any kind of exultant culmination. Since City and Barça have been so dominant in their respective leagues, their ultimate achievements were bound to underwhelm. They dominated and defined each season so thoroughly that the only truly memorable moments were when they slipped up. Both leagues were really over around New Year’s Day, and there’s nothing fun about five months of playing out the string. But just take it from the winner of the past two Champions League titles: “Personally I prefer to win La Liga, as the day to day is the most difficult,” Zidane said earlier this week. “I believe that is also what the players want.”
It doesn’t feel that way, though. It’s harder to be historic through 38 games in the domestic league than in the 13 matches it takes to win the Champions League, but European competition is designed to change the way we talk about things—by putting all of the continental leagues together and forcing each side to take its biggest swing before it’s too late. With a quick six-game group stage and just 180 minutes in each knockout round, there’s no time to regress toward the mean. It’s set up so Porto can embarrass the rest of Europe, so Germany can punt Spanish soccer into the sun, and so two of the best teams in the world never get a chance to re-create the dominance they’ve built back home.
Winner: Boston Billionaires (and Analytics)
There’s the wild emotion emanating from Rome and the continued ascendancy of the red side of Liverpool. But let’s not forget about the rich dudes who made everything possible. Here’s The Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson:
Two upsets 1,300 miles apart lit up European soccer’s most prestigious tournament on Tuesday night, one in Manchester and one in Rome. But the impact of those results, which stunned the soccer world, was felt by fans far beyond either city.
Specifically by a couple of Boston-based billionaires with a habit of buying sports teams: John W. Henry and James Pallotta.
Neither name is exactly chanted from the stands here in Europe, but without their investments, Tuesday night’s stunning results in the Champions League might never have happened. First, Henry’s Liverpool—the team he acquired in 2010 after helping to turn around the Boston Red Sox—knocked off the Premier League’s dominant force, Manchester City. Then, in Italy, Pallotta’s Roma stunned Spanish giant Barcelona, marking the club’s most significant result since he added it to a portfolio that also includes the Boston Celtics in 2011.
While Henry and Pallotta have provided stable stewardship to each club, they’ve also both pushed back on soccer’s tendency toward Luddism and ushered in an environment that’s at least not openly hostile to analytical thinking. Henry first faltered with the 2010 appointment of Damien Comolli, who was suggested to him by none other than Billy Beane. As Liverpool’s director of soccer, Comolli tried to revamp the team with data-driven purchases of players like Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll. He built a team of seemingly undervalued assets—except there was one big issue: “[Comolli] had probably assembled the best possible players for a crossing strategy,” Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski write in the latest edition of Soccernomics. “The problem is that as we learn more about match data, we discover that crosses from open play are a poor way to score goals.” Liverpool struggled, and Comolli was fired in 2012 and eventually replaced with Michael Edwards. Since then, the club’s continued improvement has coincided with three consecutive summer signings—Sadio Mané in 2016, Mohamed Salah in 2017, and Naby Keita this year—that were lauded by the analytics community.
As for Roma, they got to Salah before Liverpool did, and rode his 15 goals and 11 assists last year to a Champions League place before selling the Egyptian last June. (Liverpool could, of course, sell him for four times the price they paid.) Luke Bornn is now the vice president of strategy and analytics with the Sacramento Kings, but up until last April, he was previously the head of analytics for Roma. And maybe most importantly, the club recently hired Monchi, who built sustained success at Sevilla despite always selling his best players. He is the closest thing the sport has to Beane, and his shit is working in the playoffs.
So, as this week’s results suggest, the old tropes remain true: Numbers are bad for the sport and Americans know nothing about soccer.
Loser: Philippe Coutinho
The Liverpool players saying hi to Coutinho pic.twitter.com/JCXQU2x0sw— FootyYapper (@FootyYapper) April 10, 2018
I told you guys this move would’ve made more sense in the summer! But hey, if Liverpool pulls this off and wins their sixth Champions League trophy, Coutinho will still get a medal sent to Barcelona. That is, only if Jürgen Klopp wants him to.
Winner: Marcelo’s Ability to Compartmentalize
Marcelo: "It was a clear penalty. Obviously what happened to Barcelona was never going to happen to us, because we're Real Madrid."— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) April 11, 2018
Should, uh, someone tell him about what happened when Barcelona and Real Madrid met at the Bernabeu earlier this season?
Loser: Sergio Ramos, Pick-Up Artist
Sergio Ramos for leader of our defense. No one can replace him.— -CR7 PAAJI- (@Kakarla07) April 11, 2018
We clearly miss him today lol pic.twitter.com/Dl7MgoaeN4
So Sergio, what do you do when someone asks, “Are you hitting on me?”
Winner: Gianluigi Buffon
Sure, he’s gonna end his career without a Champions League trophy, but damn:
Buffon last March: "When they ask me how my last game will go, I tell them I don't think about that stuff. Maybe I'll close out like Zidane, giving someone a headbutt..."— Paolo Bandini (@Paolo_Bandini) April 11, 2018
Maybe Zidane cost France a World Cup when he tried to implant his forehead into Marco Materazzi’s chest, but here’s a counterpoint: He’s a god for that, and it’s what we remember about the 2006 World Cup. No one talks about that legendary trophy-lifting Italian team, who, mind you, drew with the U.S.! No, they talk about how a 34-year-old Zidane turned back the clock, won the Golden Ball, and ended his career on his own terms.
Barring some incredible finish to the next two rounds, Buffon attempting to swallow referee Michael Oliver whole and then quite literally handing the baton to his successor-in-waiting, Wojciech Szczesny, will be the defining moment from the 2017-18 Champions League.
After the match, Juventus manager Max Allegri said, “To cry right now is useless.” Buffon, however, is likely going to retire at the end of this season. He’ll have won every trophy—except this one. So Gigi, please cry all you want:
Buffon on tonight's ref Michael Oliver - "The referee has a trashcan where his heart should be."— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) April 11, 2018
(It was a penalty, though.)
Loser: Sevilla and Bayern Munich
To paraphrase my colleague Michael Baumann: If neither of these teams tried, then I don’t have to either. Plus, injured Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal didn’t even watch his team play Sevilla. And he was at the game!
Former Juventus player, Arturo Vidal, is not happy with Cristiano Ronaldo penalty... during Bayern-Sevilla pic.twitter.com/p0ViVTxGsD— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) April 11, 2018
As for the second legs? It’s bleak. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Manchester City have a 7 percent chance of overturning their 3-0 deficit, while Juventus, Sevilla, and Roma each have a 2 percent shot at advancing to the next round. This surely won’t help Liverpool fans sleep easy for the next five nights, but as for everyone else: Don’t cancel that dentist appointment on Wednesday afternoon.
Don’t read me; read Micah Peters. On Tuesday, he wrote, “Soccer is the fucking best.” Two days later, he’s as right as he’s ever been.