Sunday, 25 May 2014

Champions League 2014: A Cruel Old Game

So the Champions League season of 2013-14 has now ended, marking the end of the wider football season throughout Europe. Real Madrid beat local rivals Atletico Madrid 4-1, although even knowing that the game went to extra time obscures just how heart-breaking that scoreline must be to Atletico fans.

I'll admit I didn't catch all of it. I was at an SF convention in Santa Clara (Baycon 2014, to be precise), so I arrived at the hotel shortly after kick-off and had to go to a writing workshop before the end of the match, although I did hang around long enough to see Real equalize.

Long story short, then, is this: Atletico scored relatively early on, hung on until about the 94th minute (the ref tacked on an extra 5 minutes), and then Sergio Ramos equalized, sending the game into overtime. I was pretty surprised to see the final score after my workshop ended - I wouldn't have expected Real's players to have that much left in them.

So, in keeping with previous blogs about the Champions League final, are there any lessons to be drawn from this year's big match?

Well, to start, my prediction from last year of an era of German dominance seems not to have come true. I'd suggested that because Bayern Munich had made it to two consecutive finals (and another in 2010), the German league was in the ascendant, replacing the English Premier League, which had pretty much dominated the final every year since 2005. It's hard to draw conclusions from a single match, but given how Bayern rolled over when confronted by Real Madrid in the semi-finals, I'm finding it hard to continue arguing that Germany has caught up to the English or Spanish leagues in terms of quality (with heavy heart, I'm forced to admit that the Italian league has clearly been overtaken by the Germans).

Let's not forget that Bayern's win against Borussia Dortmund last year, while emphatic enough, was still only against a local competitor - its two previous attempts at the Champions League final, against Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, ended in defeat. So, like I was arguing about English dominance two years ago, German dominance in the Champions League final comes with something of an asterisk.

On the other hand, there were two teams from Spain in this year's final, and three in the semi-finals (Atletico saw off Barcelona, much as they did in the league; Barcelona failed to catch a single break this year, as they also lost to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey). Moreover, Sevilla also won the Europa League, making it a very good year for Spanish football.

I don't know if this means we're in for a period of Spanish dominance, though. Atletico had an amazing year, but - without being as knowledgeable about Spanish football as the great Sid Lowe - I suspect they slipped into the breach caused by a Barcelona team that appears to be on the wane. Barcelona and Real Madrid are two clubs with extraordinarily deep pockets, which Atletico may not be able to match - they may find themselves consolidating much slower than their rivals.

I don't want to take anything away from Atletico's achievement, of course. The Spanish league was much closer this year than it's been in years, and Atletico did well to hold their nerve in the final few games and see off their rivals, particularly in the last couple of weeks of the campaign (in marked contrast to Liverpool, who could have won their first league title in years if it hadn't been for... Crystal Palace). If they lost in the Champions League final to Real, well... a tournament final isn't like a league match. You have to be able to keep running for those extra 30 minutes, and clearly Real Madrid has more stamina for that kind of thing.

So the lesson learned is that Real Madrid is still one of the giants of European football, but we knew that already. Bayern Munich may have run away with the league title in Germany, but they'll have to strengthen considerably to challenge Real next year. Barcelona is also going to continue to compete, although under their new coach they'll likely be in a rebuilding phase next season. It won't be as dramatic a rebuilding phase as Manchester United's, so Barcelona will surely continue to figure in the knockout rounds of the tournament.

As for the English clubs, I can't really see them storming the tournament next season - Manchester City's record isn't great, neither is Arsenal's, and Liverpool hasn't played in the Champions League since the 2009-10 season (and hasn't appeared in Europe at all since 2012-13). Chelsea is likely to be the best hope for England in the Champions League, but who knows what'll happen there? Jose Mourinho could be lured away, or Roman Abramovich could throw all his toys out of the pram and sack him, or any number of things.

In any case, we'll have some more clarity once the World Cup is over, and the clubs have settled in with new managers and players. But if a team outside of the Big 3 countries makes it to the final, I'll be very surprised.