Tuesday’s soccer news starts with the latest version of a recurring question. Which of the Champions League round of 16 participants have the most to lose in this season’s Champions League? The other way to put that is to ask which team is playing with the most pressure. In a normal season, that might not be the same thing. In this one, like a lot of things, that’s tough to call.
Since around this time last year, that’s been the situation across world soccer. The pandemic hiatus and eventual resumption in Europe’s big leagues and the Champions League concluded seasons. It didn’t necessarily tell us all that much about the competitive situation. It’s hard to be a spoiler during a global health crisis, something that’s becoming clear with the Premier League’s newfound parity and the dominant clubs not so dominant in Spain, Italy, and France.
Where that leaves the established super clubs and their would-be rivals is at issue. Any season conducted without fans and the normality that brings unlikely to provide answers. With all due respect to clubs on the rise like last season’s semifinalists RB Leipzig, their situation is categorically different from Barcelona, PSG, and Liverpool.
Barcelona’s financial situation is drawing so much interest in part because it could quickly become the story for multiple clubs across multiple leagues. Those clubs may not have Barca’s payroll, but they also don’t have its ability to produce revenue. PSG has a big payroll and its own squad issues in a season where they’re not dominant domestically. Barcelona isn’t either, with Atletico leading La Liga.
Liverpool’s slide is most noticeable now, but they’re coming off a disappointing Champions League. Since they were one of the teams that finished last season’s round of 16 before the hiatus, there’s no pointing to that as an indication of this season’s issues. Liverpool exited to Atletico on March 11. Post-hiatus, Atletico lost its single-game quarterfinal 2-1 to RB Leipizig.
It’s hard to point to any of those three as leading the list of teams with the most to lose by not advancing. Add in the likes of Lazio, Sevilla, Atalanta, Gladbach on the wrong side of what look like mismatches. It’s hard to talk about any team navigating the group stage as a surprise, and none of these really fill that role. What would be surprising would be Gladbach knocking out Manchester City, Lazio beating Bayern Munich, Porto advancing past Juventus, and Atlanta ending Real Madrid’s Champions League season. “Surprising” is, of course, relative to the scale of this strange season.
What that leaves are a handful of clubs with the weight of expectation. The ones that would feel it the most if, like last season, outsider clubs take half of the semifinal spots. It might be worth the reminder that Real Madrid and Juventus didn’t make it into the bubble in Lisbon to see out the tournament last season. While Real Madrid exited to what most saw as a strong Manchester City, Juventus lost to Lyon. So did City in the next round before Bayern Munich ended Lyon’s run 3-0 in the semifinals. Those games should resonate for Real Madrid and Juventus more than City based solely on expectation.
Every season, Juventus and Real Madrid are supposed to challenge for the Champions League title. Barcelona may have crashed out the worst in the quarterfinals, but at least they were there and lost to the eventual champions. That’s where the pressure already is this season. We’re not going to hedge with a pick one between the two. With Barcelona’s issues playing out in public, Real Madrid can’t afford a slip at this stage. Atalanta knocked out Valencia 8-4 in last season’s quarterfinals before exiting to PSG. They’re currently 6th in Serie A, leaving no excuses for Real Madrid.
The Independent’s Miguel Delaney points to underdog teams capable of disrupting the Champions League. SI’s Jonathan Wilson on Bayern’s trophies and the last time to find that much success. The Wall St Journal’s Joshua Robinson profiles USMNT and Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie. ESPN’s Jurgen Klinsmann points to Bayern defending its title.
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