Does Barcelona, PSG and Manchester City's Champions League capitulations highlight positive football's limitations?
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Miracles only exist in fairy-tales. The bad guys in movies would tell you this. Even the Premier League fans started growing a pessimistic skin after witnessing the English sides struggle to make it big in the UEFA Champions League since Chelsea’s 2012 underdog tale.
A notion indicating English football’s downfall had started to develop. Even after spending millions, being the most competitive league in the world, the teams struggled against European elites. However, the tides have been turned. If this year’s Champions League knockout stages-probably the most memorable in this decade- proved anything, the English are rising once again.
For the first time ever, the UEFA Champions League as well as the UEFA Europa League finals will be contested between Premier League sides. During the group stages, little could anyone perceive this would happen. Barcelona and Juventus were odds-on favourites to comprise the finals. Paris Saint-Germain were flying high, while Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City looked ruthless.
Fast-forward six months and two improbable English teams are in the finals. How the tides can turn in the short space of time. The Champions League moved from harsh reality to an attractive paradise for the English sides in the space of months. However, those who fell prey to their miracles are equally responsible for being dragged into their own nightmares.
It all started with the defending champions themselves. Ajax displayed total football in its purest form to overwhelm Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. The Los Blancos didn’t know what hit them. They couldn’t even react before the world-class youngsters knocked them out with some beautiful blows.
A day later, Manchester United turned back the clock thanks to PSG’s perennial choking ability. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stated that mountains are there to be climbed after the first leg, many laughed at his giddy optimism. However, ninety-six minutes mixed with abysmal defending later, United were the last one laughing. Neymar’s shocked expressions in the sidelines told the whole story.
Not as dramatic as United’s, yet Liverpool and Spurs also silenced doubters by sending the German giants packing. Even after being warned to forego European ambitions, the stubborn Jurgen Klopp went into a difficult second leg high in confidence. Virgil Van Dijk and co routed the underwhelming Bavarians, handing them their first loss at home all season.
Not to be outdone, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs side exposed a young Dortmund’s defensive prowess with cunning tactics. Spurs pounced on their overzealous demeanour, teaching the kids a lesson with swift attacking football. Two clinical performances destroyed BVB’s momentum, inevitably triggering their Bundesliga downfall.
While Juventus also joined the party with a stunning turnaround against Atletico Madrid, they boasted the Champions King in Cristiano Ronaldo scripting their story. The English sides didn’t, yet Liverpool still went onto recreate nightmarish déjà vu for Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. Spurs’ experience finally came good to sink the fighting Ajax side. However, when it comes to the European elite, certain patterns are developing indicating their flaws.
Complacency is a destructive trait if followed through. Barcelona, PSG, Bayern Munich learnt this the hard way. Moreover, gone are the days for strong will-power. These European top sides barely have players with fierce mentality to see out storms anymore. Unfortunately, even three-goal leads don’t mean anything anymore. Nowadays, players crumble under pressure too easily. Managers don’t have any disaster-management techniques, being the reason for such big teams conceding so many.
As the beautiful game gets more attack-minded, the art of defending dies a slow death. Defensive managers get the long stick of mockery, yet their pragmatism prevails in any circumstances. However, in this Champions League edition, the English sides’ hard-work triumphed over everything. When it comes to technique, the traditional giants tower over others. Yet, only an exclusive class represented by Liverpool and Spurs possesses the perfect mixture of heart with brains.
The need for mental fortitude is ignored in the modern era. A warrior-like mentality which the Italian teams once preached is invisible these days. Tactics often go out the window as players operate in their own accord. Much can be learnt from the way Klopp or Pochettino synchronized strong mentality with fearless attacking football.
Sheer belief and hard work triumphed over technical genius in Europe this season. The times they are changing. A gravity shift has been triggered with the change in guard. Now, time will tell whether or not anyone can display similar work-rate to stop the brimming English revolution.