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Imagining a Return to Champions League Romanticism

Results have been wildly askew in many European leagues this season. Let’s hope the unpredictability continues in the continent’s marquee competition and gives us another 1991 Red Star Belgrade or 1995 Ajax.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If we can conclude anything from football’s recent round of results, it is that the sport has been sent back in time, very possibly to the 1980s. After all, that’s the decade when we last regularly saw the kinds of outcomes that we are seeing so far this season. Then, as now, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, and Aston Villa were playing expansive, successful football near the top of England’s first division. Then, as now, AC Milan and Napoli were looking like legitimate title threats in Italy. Then, as now, Rangers were front-runners in Scotland and beating Celtic in the Old Firm derby, and La Liga was in a period when it was not a dominant European force. There is no reason to assume that the UEFA Champions League is immune to this time vortex, and so we may have to expect similar upheavals in this contest over the coming months.

Looking at the groups, several of them do have an unmistakably nostalgic feel. Ferencváros are back at a stage that they last reached a quarter-century ago. Dynamo Kiev’s games against Juventus conjure memories of Alessandro Del Piero’s stunning strike against Kiev in the 1997-98 season, the final thrilling act in the Italian side’s ballet on ice against the Ukrainians in their quarterfinal matchup. Ajax’s pairing with Liverpool is a throwback to the first time the two teams met, in 1966; though, even in this most unpredictable of seasons, it is unlikely that we will see the same scoreline. Having said that, we cannot be entirely sure. We have already seen two sets of variables—the absence of fans and the severe disparity in fitness levels—that have seriously distorted the balance of competition as we know it. To that, we are now adding the logistical migraine of safe long-distance commuting during a pandemic. It is the first Champions League tournament in recent memory in which the true prize will not be a huge silver trophy but the grand total of zero new coronavirus infections.

As we return to the contest, too, it is striking to see how sharply the fates of last year’s finalists have changed from just a few months ago. Bayern went from looking invincible in Lisbon to frail against Hertha Berlin and overwhelmed against Hoffenheim. Paris Saint-Germain have been unstoppable in the French league for several years now, but they sit second in the table so far this season and have already lost twice—to Lens and to loathed rivals Marseille. An additional factor is that financial constraints brought about by the pandemic have prevented most of the wealthiest teams from raiding their competitors of their talent as they usually do. The net effect is that the chasing pack has an unprecedented opportunity to catch up.

If we learned anything from the last edition of the Champions League, it is that the teams who are most adventurous in attack are the ones who will prosper. This is a warning most of all to Atlético Madrid. The Spanish side find themselves in a group with Bayern Munich, and so Diego Simeone will have a good chance to get a very early and very close tactical look at the defending champions. Atlético’s meeting with Bayern is the most historically resonant of all. It was Bayern who, in 1974, denied Atléti the trophy in devastating fashion, scoring a last-minute equalizer to force a replay and and then winning that match 4-0. That was Bayern’s first triumph; they’ve since claimed the same throne five times, with Atléti waiting to sit on it just once. Since then, Atléti’s failures in this competition have mainly been characterized by a refusal to go wild—in these uniquely lawless badlands of COVID-zone football, it is the wildest teams who will win out.

If football is indeed traveling back in time, then perhaps the group stages will be more intense than usual, and maybe we will see huge names fall before the knockout stages. For such upsets, we should keep an especially careful eye on groups B, D, and H, where Atalanta, Borussia Monchengladbach, and RB Leipzig lurk in wait for the recent giants of the European game. In some cases, too, this is the last chance for ambitious upstarts such as Borussia Dortmund to win a title before the economic realities, thus far suspended by the presence of the pandemic, descend once more and result in the sale of their prize assets. This season therefore presents, if you like, a Last Dance for certain squads to grab glory before the chaos subsides: The question is who will emerge as its Red Star Belgrade, that swashbuckling outfit who strode to the European crown in 1991, or the similarly swaggering 1995 Ajax. Let the battle commence, and let us see who will be courageous enough, and old-fashioned enough, to seize the romance of the moment.