Preceded by a decade of near-impervious Spanish superiority, few could have conceived this term in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League revelling in such serene, and eminently commercially-courteous, unpredictability. Not least as Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain stormed to domestic eminence at such a formative stage of proceedings, anyway. Yet this is just the first factor in contribution to a season – as yet incomplete – of spoils, spurns and endless upset.
The accusation often lodged at the European administration’s form of competitive distribution, through their premier tournaments, states the favour seated in Western Europe’s economic powerhouses. Increasingly – as evident in the similarly American-funded Liverpool and Roma – these institutions may be bankrolled from elsewhere, yet since a late 2000s post-Soviet flurry (CSKA Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk) in the Europa League, and the interspersing, recently diminishing, Dutch-Portuguese forays, the continent defined by its omnipotent cultural gentrification has, without failure, apportioned its loftiest titles to those personifying these utopian ideals. As politically evident, though, this establishment is as equally prone to grand and irreversibly consequential complacency as it is loyal to a path of perpetual self-improvement. Only on momentous evenings at Anfield, the Stadio Olimpico, the Red Bull Arena and arguably the Stade Vélodrome did we not expect this to rear in the form of momentous tactical exploitation, however.
Nostalgia, inherently given the thread of logic-affirming results we have been subject to in the two tournaments in the past decade, bears a significant semblance over events; the tendency to depict possibilities as equal to the talent of Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade sides venerated with titles in the late 1980s to early 1990s and the historically implicating dissolution of Eastern European authority and, eventually, Communism itself, readily apparent. Intertwining political and social sentiments of the age present events with all-encompassing poetry, and while a kernel of truth exists within this comparison today, with the fracturing of European Union über-democracy, we must not be entirely constrained by such intensive rhetoric.
Even at this late stage, the permutations involved are rife and almost unprecedented. Only two prior European Cup finals have been played between any of the remaining Spanish, German, English and Italians representatives, with the Liverpudlian dynasty defeating both Real Madrid and Roma by narrow early-1980s margins; in 1981 an Alan Kennedy strike separating the Reds from Los Blancos, while the left-back also sealed a victory for the reinvented Merseysiders on penalties (more famed for the appearance of Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’) in the Italian capital three years later. Furthermore, while each appearing in a prior UEFA Cup final – Red Bull Salzburg in their pre-franchised Casino Salzburg iteration – only one of the remaining Europa League contestants has ever held aloft the splendid trophy of the continent’s second competition; Atlético Madrid in 2010 and 2012, against a spirited Fulham and outstanding Athletic Bilbao. Alongside Madrid’s two titles on the lesser stage, and recent finals appearances against inner-city rivals Real, in addition to Liverpool’s record count for all English teams, also stands Bayern Munich’s revered relationship with the competition (five wins from ten finals appearances) and Real Madrid’s unrivalled, imperious and otherwise superlative-defying mastery; La Duodécima, from 15 features over an era potentially now to be extended to 62 years, enshrined in footballing heraldry.
In previous runouts, however, the remaining, otherwise unmentioned, outfits – Roma, RB Salzburg, Arsenal and Marseille, when referring to both competitions this term – were consistently the historically inferior. Though boasting eminent chronicles of their own, including pivotal roles in tactical and administrative developments on their respective domestic stages for almost the entirety of the 20th century, before stretching even into the 21st, their talents have found scant prevail on the continental stage – an unsustainably funded Olympique in 1993 aside. Their shared return to prominence, with performances that excel each – purely based on stage reached, as opposed to the context of such a run – since 1984, 1994, 2008 and 1993 respectively, give rise, potentially, to a reminiscent force amongst all ambitiously-managed and administrated sleeping giants of the European game.
Nonetheless, results may have been entirely eschewed were slight fortune to be directed elsewhere. We will never know what may have happened had Leroy Sané’s perfectly legal late first-half goal stood against Liverpool at the Etihad, and nor will we dare to extend fascinations on Michael Oliver’s ruling of a divisive last-minute penalty decision in Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo’s favour against an enraged Gianluigi Buffon and Juventus. Had either Lazio or RB Leipzig not overcooked in the heat of battle, or CSKA Moscow’s charge at the Luzhniki Stadium not halted as Arsenal ramparts were erected, very difficult discussions could be had. Amongst this rhetoric, it is imperative to not how, while tactical innovation has emerged as few other seasons have seen, the chief radical practitioners (or at least the media’s sweethearts) – Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s RB Leipzig and Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli – have not graduated with the glory they may feel their squads deserve, while Real and Liverpool, and to some extent Bayern and Roma, have remained relatively steadfast within successful approaches, while aided by pivotal personnel recruitment; Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Cengiz Ünder the most blatant of such dealings.
Unlikely saviours and inspirations have also emerged along the route. Sven Ulreich, now set to crown a potentially treble-winning season, could scarcely have considered playing much competitive football, let alone in the Champions League knockout stages, when Manuel Neuer was still at full fitness, while Patrik Schick’s meagre domestic returns would have put him in few fans’ line-ups in a do-or-die return leg against Barcelona, but the on-loan Czech forward played an instrumental role, and when called upon, the much-derided Dejan Lovren certainly delivered in an Etihad situation that threatened to descend into disaster. Each has profited from management that professes each of the everlasting values of competitive sport; Jupp Heynckes, the revelation Eusebio di Francesco and Jürgen Klopp each perfecting the art of man-management, particularly while refusing to resort to compromise on other competitive fronts. As Lovren and Klopp alike so eloquently outlined, and fed pundits with the cheap line in subsequent coverage, after their 5-1 aggregate triumph, the roll of the draw was fundamental to any aspirations the constituent clubs possess, and as Nyon’s dignitaries gathered on Friday in a procedure so short as to seem held more so in ill-feeling than devotion, the chips fell into irrevocable place.
It would have been a shock to very few had Real-Bayern, and less so Atlético-Arsenal, final clashes unfolded – if drawn in separate semis – given their long-term managerial and playing pedigree in the competition. Abundantly clear, as in repeated editions, has been the importance of a distinguishable nous on the biggest club stage known to European players; immediately evident to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, who remained tinged with home-grown youth, and to a degree naivety, in exit to the La Vecchia Signora of Turin.
Instead, Liverpool and Marseille will enter as favourites in ties against Roma and Salzburg, with titans of the continental sport awaiting their passage, though perhaps weakened themselves from potentially bruising elite encounters. Regardless of their draw, Real and Atléti were always to be made favourites when regarding their recent proficiency, but the story will be very different this time around.
Regardless, whether this can be deemed a vintage term in either competition rests entirely on future results. Such is the absolute ruthlessness of elite-level knockout football – only exacerbated by modern instant-gratification standards – that, while satisfied in a commercial respect with the financial rewards and the immediate plaudits, few involved in any eliminated club, however overachieving it is deemed, will be consolable in the immediate fallout, nor perhaps even into their following entry. With three of the remaining eight competitors yet to lift a major continental title in their competitive histories – Arsenal’s 1994 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup title against a high-quality Parma outfit aside, in manager George Graham’s final honour with the North Londoners – the opportunity for a new history’s foundation is tangible. All enter into their respective semi-finals as unfancied, and noticeably defective, institutions, however.
Firstly, while Roma will enter as the people’s victors, their domestic inconsistency and a heavy burden on an ageing, incomplete squad are not remedied by clinical outmanoeuvring of a peculiarly languid Barça. Surely expecting this season as one of adaptation for newly-installed, and an astute stint of relative minnows Sassuolo apart largely unproven, former player Di Francesco – not least as pricey youngsters Rick Karsdorp and Ünder were thrust into an unknown division and nation, Sassuolo talisman Lorenzo Pellegrino and Lyon’s Maxime Gonalons arrived with heightened expectation and Aleksandar Kolarov’s recruitment was overshadowed by Salah’s departure on the same day – even the Italian capital side’s ambitious American ownership would have taken heart from positive performances against group opponents Chelsea, Atléti and distant Qarabağ, let alone emerging from the stacked quartet as victors. Throughout their run, and in opposition to domestic tradition, however, home comforts – only aided by the genial Di Francesco – have proven instrumental; a 2-1 victory in the Azeri “City of Winds” aside, failing to achieve victory on their travels across Europe in UEFA competition, while their only sacrifice at home was an opening stalemate with Diego Simeone’s stuttering Rojiblancos, when all but one of their defeats in Serie A have been suffered at the Olimpico – Juventus expectedly the victors at the Allianz Stadium. Nonetheless, the side they line up against, though prolific, ever-improving under Klopp’s stewardship and arguably the most shackle-free of any remaining outfit, are far from a complete squad themselves, with Naby Keïta – unfortunate not to succeed in the lesser competition this term, after red-hot form – and surely another defensive pillar required on their route to emphatic operation, having allowed little time to stop for air in the mass recruitment drive since the German manager’s arrival.
In contrast, Arsene Wenger’s campaign has been fraught with perils of a pre-emptive sacking. Seeing little of the desired distancing of worldwide 2016-17 season-long ‘Wenger Out’ calls with the much-exasperated signing of a two-year contract after FA Cup victory over Premier League victors Chelsea last summer, again the Frenchman will slip out of Champions League reckoning without success in this competition, rendering it as imperative to his security as the defeat of Peter Bosz’s Musical Youth – Ajax, with as equal a local notoriety for ‘passing the Dutchie’ as their melodic counterparts – was to José Mourinho a year ago. Drawing this resemblance, we begin to study how the Premier League’s barren dynasties are resorting to the tournament as a season-salvaging resort. Despite aforementioned Fulham revelations and Chelsea and Manchester United’s shared recent resourcefulness, it is largely left uncredited how – relatively – prolific the English have proven in recent Europa editions; if one were to favour any surviving outfit for the final, it may be advisable to resort to the Premier League’s representation this term. Then again, it is Arsenal.
While the Gunners may be afflicted by Wenger’s tactical inconsistency and a recurrent tendency – inherent of a lack of leadership, and a systematically stagnated domain – to be lulled into indecision, Salzburg are an outfit ever increasing in stock. The sister arm of locally-headquartered Red Bull’s expansion into Germany’s North-East, and under the ownership of the drinks franchise since 2005, their reputation is more common in operating under a transfer approach akin to many domestic champions in continentally oppressed nations; Sadio Mané, Naby Keïta, Kevin Kampl and Valon Berisha the most prominent successes of a buffet-like self-service of some of Europe’s most diverse young talent. Nonetheless, their subservience to the will of an ever-improving Leipzig apparatus has hindered their own aspirations; when gutted of their rising stars, impelled to reappoint and reconstruct, a task Southampton will be only too aware of the perils of in recent times as tempers fray. Regardless of their losses, it seems the buttressing of talent pools rarely deceives them, as the twelve seasons since their purchase have witnessed eight Bundesliga titles and a forgivable four runners-up finishes to the historic Wien dynasties Austria and Rapid, and also to the perpetually establishment-defying, and Red Bull-despising, Sturm Graz. Even in the face of questionable directorship has their prolific title spree been achieved; ten helmsmen assuming a responsibility in the vanguard of emphatic corporate ambitions, and only Giovanni Trapattoni, Huub Stevens, Roger Schmidt and Óscar García – one would hope soon to be followed by Marco Rose – securing longer than one season in the hot seat before performance-engrossed or externally-perked evacuation.
One would conceive Rose to be a strategic appointment solely in the interest of overseers Leipzig. He is, after all, a Leipzig native, and a former youth product, senior player and, for a short while, manager, of the city’s second largest club of a thriving scene –while encountering a post-reunification financial crisis known as VfB Leipzig, before reinstated by fans under previous moniker 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig. When headhunted by the various bilateral sporting directors of Red Bull, he spent time cultivating both Salzburg’s under-16, and with many of the same players under-18, squads before stepping into the recently malaise-ridden García’s shoes. Notably deprived of club record goalscorer and captain Jonathan Soriano after the Spaniard’s lucrative departure to the Chinese Super League and Beijing Guoan, Rose’s reign began with tumult, but has since reformed with near-impervious success; ousted by Croatians Rijeka in Champions League qualifying, their targets were set on Europa prowess and empowered by a first-place Group H finish ahead of Marseille, Konyaspor and Portugal’s Vitória. Once knocking out a recently resurgent Real Sociedad, and further so when adding an admittedly underwhelming Borussia Dortmund to their list of continent-wide scalps at the round-of-sixteen stage, UEFA’s remaining competitors would have been emphatically alerted of the Austrians’ proficiency. While all but confirmed of domestic honours, a 1-0 defeat to historic, yet Bundesliga-returning, LASK Linz sacrificed in preparation for a stunning four-goal overhaul of the deficit intensified upon them through Ciro Immobile’s 55th-minute strike at the Red Bull Arena would be fully rewarded; poetically advancing where ex-East German counterparts would falter when similarly thunderstruck by Rudi García’s free-flowing Frenchmen. Their appearance at this stage represents ambition, though perhaps artificially-cultivated, given full ratification, and to an extent, alongside semi-final opponents Olympique, investment – but pivotally investment with astute vision – rewarded with a tangible vision of glory.
It surely speaks volumes that another trio – the aforementioned Marseille, Liverpool and Roma – are each upheld by American finance, and not the funds of a politically ominous (arguable, given commander-in-chief Trump’s warmongering sentiments) or economically hyperactive states. The decisions to invest in such historically poignant clubs was not one taken lightly by Boston Celtics co-owner James Pallotta, the Boston Red Sox’s John W. Henry and Tom Werner or ex-L.A. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, in the ancient Italian capital, on the industrial Mersey or along France’s resplendent Riviera respectively, and the rewards for their bravery, and willingness to take heed of defeat, are evident for all. Though perhaps coincidental as each narrowly staggered through relentless ties to their semi-finals, it is nonetheless revealing that these are the only forces that challenge the partly fan-owned continental monarchies of Germany and Spain in the Champions League, and, in the fallout of the Europa League draw, who threaten to upend Salzburg’s divisive corporate appeal.
It goes without saying, regardless, that those who emerge from a titanic two ties in Munich and Madrid, and surely if Atléti can rid themselves of customary – relative – late-season capitulation, there is no denying the old guard of the honours they project such authority over. Nonetheless, their frailties – the most evident, and perhaps alarming, especially to the former duo, of Zidane, Heynckes and Simeone’s lauded reigns – must be laid bare if they are to be remedied, and unflinching expectations delivered upon. Though far from the outstanding iterations of Guardiola, Ernesto Valverde’s appointment – loaded, on the surface, with achievements fixated on the prefix -re, but in practice challenged more with innovation than atonement – proved sufficiently inspirational to exploit Madrilenian malaise, cited around tactical stagnation. Amidst Zidane’s dedication to a 4-4-2 that delivered all five pieces of the domestic, continental and global silverware jigsaw for Real, and Simeone’s reliance on many of the same figures that have delivered him prior success – evident in the re-recruitment in recent seasons of Fernando Torres and Diego Costa – innovators, led by Valverde but also featuring those such as Valencia’s Marcelino, Real Betis’ Quique Setién and Villareal’s Javier Calleja, though not blessed with exorbitant squad depth, have for some considerable length of the league season been enabled to profit. In many more respects, the course of La Liga 2017-18 never did run smooth; historic centrepieces Deportivo La Coruña and Málaga all but condemned to recently familiar relegation, while Girona – similar to the Andalusians in their part-Qatari ownership, while the most recent City Group acquisition – are in much closer proximity to Sevilla, in a post-Jorge Sampaoli slump, than anyone involved in the club could have perhaps dared to believe after they arrived as Segunda División champions, in just a few of the season’s intrigues.
Despite the lofty achievements of both Zidane and Simeone’s tactics – learned, the products of individuals who have encountered both the World Cup’s latter stages and the depths of domestic football – it is revealing that neither opted to enact overt shifts as Valverde assumed Luis Enrique’s Catalonian mantle, or even in response to Barça’s early prodigiousness. The temptation to rest on one's laurels, or deride them as doing so in relativity to the ever-evolving trends of the sport, is a much-debated virtue or hindrance amidst this. Their dogma, for Zidane in its first major test, was however largely persevered throughout, and in the late, but most pivotally-timed, unfolding of competitive involvements they will feel their decisions fully vindicated, with quality shining through.
It would surprise few this summer if Florentino Pérez reneged on the transfer policy that has defined much of former Castilla boss Zidane’s tenure, with the Frenchman’s youth-professing recruitment yet to bear fruit. These semi-finals may be pivotal in such a respect, with Roma’s goalkeeper Alisson Becker, set to relegate Ederson to Brazilian understudy at the World Cup, reportedly a summer target after Zidane himself hesitated on a January approach for Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, and of course David de Gea remains on the club’s radar. With James Rodriguez potentially sold for maximised profit with his value to Bayern only too evident in sealing the Bundesliga title by early April, Gareth Bale is returning to form, and Zidane will hope also fitness, at a pivotal stage, but Karim Benzema has experienced a barren term and may have his nine-year starting certainty ruefully relinquished if Pérez, more potently, has his interest perked by clinical continental striking, most notably from Serie A. Following his own meagre recruitment process in the past twelve months, Simeone will also require significant financial backing, albeit with few placed to condemn him it; Torres confirmed in his departure, while Antoine Griezmann’s past two seasons of endless rumour may finally be acted upon, so requiring offensive attention.
Then remains the anomaly that is Bayern. Their season, though culminating in a possible treble, began with ignominy and descended into sacking, albeit treatment Carlo Ancelotti was hardened to, given exits at Chelsea and Real soon after grand accomplishment. Niko Kovač recently announced as Heynckes’ permanent replacement, in what will surely be the club icon’s final of four managerial terms – over 30 years on from his first appointment – their platform could not be better positioned for the perfect bestowal. An outfit that have certainly evolved since their last final appearance – in 2013 – with a spine of stalwarts Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger and strikers Mario Mandžukić, Claudio Pizarro and Mario Gomez deserting Heynckes with ageing of their own, their qualities are multifaceted, and imperious on the domestic stage; albeit against competition dampened by a ransacked Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen’s inconsistency and Leipzig’s unprecedented multi-competition burden.
The impressively resilient Croatian Kovac, the first of his nationality to take control at the Allianz Arena – at least in its modern capacity, after the Zagreb-born duo of Zlatko Čajkovski and Branko Zebec led the club through the 1960s – and arguably with this appointment the most prestigious coach to emerge from Yugoslav dissolution, could scarcely be in greater opposition to Heynckes’ tactical solidarity. His Eintracht Frankfurt side, characterised by his own slick, confident appearance, have lit up an otherwise mediocre Bundesliga season with their high-risk chiefly 3-4-3/3-4-1-2 reliant philosophy, and trail only behind Heynckes’ revival of James Rodríguez at the creative heart of a dynamic and direct 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-1-4-1 Bayern for the major achievements of the division this term. Such is the depth of talent in Bavaria, Kovač would have ample ability to replicate his Frankfurt policies at the summit of German football but could also tinker with his predecessor’s approach along numerous other pathways.
Against a Real side that have exhibited defensive vulnerabilities at various stages of the season, with the naivety of Achraf Hakimi, Jesús Vallejo and Theo Hernández as understudies evident in disappointments in almost every competition entered, the omnipotence of Messrs Lewandowski, Robben, Ribery, Coman and Rodríguez – who under UEFA jurisdiction is perfectly obliged to turn out against Zidane, with whom his relationship is no small secret to be fraught, and Real despite only being on loan to Bayern for now – could prove overwhelming. Nonetheless, we have learned never to discount a Cristiano Ronaldo-fronted squad, and never to position them as underdogs; when under apparent pressure, the Portuguese forming the most astute of contingents in the global game alongside Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Bale, while Isco – the best we have ever seen him, in an ominous spectre for all of Spain’s upcoming World Cup opponents, also – will enact a tantalising rivalry with Arturo Vidal and Javi Martínez. The supporting cast present enough fascinating battles of their own, with the tactical flexibility of either side raising the prospect of a tie that will live long in the memory.
Even if Klopp and Di Francesco, in contrast, are unlikely to break ranks from tangibly dissenting – free-flowing in the former’s case, and more direct in the latter – 4-3-3 policies, and the clash of classically continental 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 systems, within ambitious and confidently-planned Marseille and Salzburg institutions may go right down to the wire – in distinct opposition to their escapology acts against Leipzig and Lazio – the diverse range of tales encapsulated within these ties may be sufficient to satisfy the thirst of a decade’s staple of Spanish-Germanic, and occasionally Italian, arid dominance. No continental status quo has been upended, nor any kingpins culled in favour of emergent empires. Those who remain, as ever, are fully merited in their surviving ambitions, UEFA’s stock, in fact, will only rise with the expansion, or more correctly repopulation, of their relevance in five of seven distinct European metropoles, and the individual FAs whose representatives have profited – not least the English – will view events as intensely encouraging. It was only inevitable that, given the endless strive for evolution, the continent greeted new monikers, icons and brands onto its most prestigious stage, and if it is to remain at the forefront of the global club game, this instrumental factor must be heralded and further pursued. Various means are required to achieve such glory, and from unfolding silverware distribution much will be studied and many ideals redrawn – never to remain stagnant. UEFA, yet again presiding over events that, while assuring its subjects of inspiration through innovation intrinsic to each club, capture a continent, and indeed the world – yet again demonstrating how mastery and romance will always shine through.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!