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It’s Win or Go Home at the Champions League

Europe’s premier soccer competition adopts an element of March Madness with a new knockout format, allowing for exciting new possibilities—and no margin for error

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is a fitting tribute that, within a few weeks of the death of the great composer Ennio Morricone, the men’s Champions League has produced a series of ties that he might have proudly set to music. In football’s own version of the spaghetti Western, eight teams will meet in Lisbon for an epic standoff, with each tie to be decided by a single match. This format has been forced upon the teams by public health concerns around the pandemic, but maybe this is as it always should be. What is more thrilling, what is more supremely gladiatorial, than a contest on neutral ground between the continent’s elite teams? A contest in which you wake in the morning having dreamed that you might be a champion, and by the evening you are going home?

This format—a simple knockout, instead of having games played home and away—has one other key aspect, which is that the Champions League has effectively become the World Cup. In such a set of circumstances, the team that claims the trophy is not necessarily the most accomplished, but rather the quickest on the draw. Supporters of Brazil at the 2010 World Cup will doubtless recall with horror the quarterfinal against Holland, in which their team—that had been, until that point, proceeding with serenity towards the final—was eliminated thanks to two goals in 15 minutes. Holland’s chief gunslinger that day was Wesley Sneijder, who found the net twice and eventually dragged his disjointed but resilient team to a title showdown against Spain.

Looking at the sides left in this tournament, the chief gunslinger is, of course, Leo Messi, with his Barcelona team in significantly more disarray than Sneijder’s Dutch side. Sadly, there are far too many times this season when Messi has been called upon to not only load but to also manufacture his own bullets: The sole consolation for him is that he is probably the only player in the world good enough to do both. Strangely enough, the upcoming game against title favorites Bayern Munich may suit him. Rather like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, Messi will stroll into town as an elder statesman whom everyone believes to be hopelessly outmatched, which is precisely when he is at his most dangerous.

If Messi is firing away from a place of desperation, then he will not be alone. Manchester City and Atlético Madrid have had a tortured relationship with this tournament through the years, the latter most dramatically so—the things that Atléti have suffered in their quest for this trophy are nothing less than traumatic. Twice, in 1974 and 2014, they have been denied glory in the dying moments of the final; in 2016, they lost in penalties. After their victory against Liverpool at Anfield in the Round of 16, Atléti appear as resolute as ever, and more decisive when it matters. The financial strength of City and Atléti means that they will always be a contender in these late stages, but the question is how patient Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone are prepared to be. Success for them would mean the culmination of years of work: It would be the vindication of millions of pounds and euros spent precisely for this purpose. It would also be the end of years of frustration for both coaches on Europe’s greatest stage, and one wonders how much more of that frustration they can bear.

While we are on the subject of grandiose footballing projects, we must mention Paris Saint-Germain. Thomas Tuchel’s team are pursuing the Champions League with a degree of obsession not seen since Lord Sauron sought the Ring of Power. To paraphrase the great wizard Gandalf, PSG are seeking this trophy, seeking it; their every thought is bent on it. It is arguable that, given the weakness of their domestic league, this is the best chance they will have in years to win it. PSG are so dominant in France that they often find themselves unraveling against the very best opposition; they are like a heavyweight boxer who spends months smugly sparring against local amateurs, then suddenly finds himself in the ring with peak-era Floyd Mayweather. Too often, they are simply untrained for the scale of the fight. On this occasion, though, they just have to unleash their firepower one encounter at a time, and they are as formidable as anyone in Europe at that.

PSG’s key problem is that they are about to encounter Atalanta, who are as freewheeling a folk hero as the legendary Doc Holliday. Atalanta, who scored almost a hundred goals in the Italian league this season, are not only the critic’s choice, they are the sentimental favorite. They’re a medium-sized club with a stadium with a capacity of just over 21,000, and they hail from Bergamo, the region of Italy most affected by the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. Given their resources, their presence at this stage feels like some strange and inspiring defiance of natural and financial law. They complete a trio of teams, along with RB Leipzig and Lyon, who are largely overlooked as possible winners of the whole thing. Were any of these outfits to leave Lisbon with glory, it would be by far the most spectacular thing that any of these clubs had achieved (in the men’s game, at least, with Lyon women having made the Champions League trophy their own in recent years).

Although this season’s conclusion of the Champions League arrives in its most unfamiliar form, perhaps this will end up feeling like its truest self. Why, after all, should a fight to the death take place over two legs? Isn’t there something far more romantic about the whole affair being settled before sundown? Isn’t there something profound about the gladiators watching their foes retreat from the arena until just two remain? Maybe it’s especially fitting that football’s version of the spaghetti Western—a genre of movie drawing on multiple cultural influences—will end in a spectacle that appears to straddle two great cities. For while the men’s final will take place in Lisbon, it will truly have the spirit of Rome’s Coliseum: Before hauntingly empty stands, these warriors will have their chance—like the cowboys and Spartans of old—to become eternal.