Kieran Shannon: Restructured Champions League gives Messi and Barcelona a chance

With RB Leipzig, Atalanta, and Lyon still all in the mix, you’ve to go back to 2004 for a more unlikely quarter-final line-up.
Kieran Shannon: Restructured Champions League gives Messi and Barcelona a chance

If Lionel Messi can inspire Barcelona past Bayern Munich, it could be their season. AP Photo/Joan Monfort

Tonight, for the first time in precisely half a century, a European Cup/Champions League quarter-final cannot be decided on the away goals rule.

Because there is no away. Or at least there is no home. There is no second leg. It’s all on the night.

And in a way it’ll be all the better for that.

In recent years it’s hard to think of another competition in world team sport that has consistently produced the drama and quality of fare offered up by the knockout stages of the Champions League.

We’ve had United’s comeback in Paris; Spurs’ comeback in Amsterdam; the Spurs-City goal-fest back when VAR was a novelty that provided more drama than annoyance; the miracle of Anfield as a Salah-less Liverpool hit Messi’s Barca for four. And that was only the 2019 edition.

For sure a few other sports can quibble with such a contention.

Munster hurling, we hear you, especially after your 2018 edition.

Likewise fans of US college basketball where in the space of just a month, 64 teams play straight knockout and year after year unknown underdogs knock out the powerhouses of the sport.

Sadly, this year there was no March Madness — and with the way America has farcically mishandled the pandemic, there may not be one next season either.

But at least now in European club soccer we can savour a form of August Madness.

Between the Champions League and Europa League, we have night-in, night-out do-or-die drama.

And that, as the legendary college hoops aficionado Dick Vitale might proclaim, is awesome, baby.

There’s an argument that with the strong and rich only getting stronger and richer in European club football in recent years, it is incapable of providing such shocks and romance.

MASKED MARVEL: Paris Saint-Germain talisman Neymar arrives at the team hotel in Lisbon yesterday ahead of tonight’s Champions League quarter-final clash with Atalanta. For all their financial might, PSG have a tendency to hit the self-destruct button at the business end of this competition. Picture: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images
MASKED MARVEL: Paris Saint-Germain talisman Neymar arrives at the team hotel in Lisbon yesterday ahead of tonight’s Champions League quarter-final clash with Atalanta. For all their financial might, PSG have a tendency to hit the self-destruct button at the business end of this competition. Picture: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

PSG and Man City are two petro-dollar-fuelled clubs. Barcelona have won the Champions League four times in the past 14 years and can afford to pay one particular player over €1m a week. Bayern Munich have just won an eighth consecutive Bundesliga.

This is Atletico Madrid’s fifth time in seven seasons reaching the quarter-finals and twice in that time they’ve gone on to reach the final.

But this year’s competition has the potential to offer up plenty of intrigue and novelty.

With RB Leipzig, Atalanta, and Lyon still all in the mix, you’ve to go back to 2004 when Porto, Monaco, and Deportivo La Coruna reached the last four for a more unlikely elite eight line-up.

Real Madrid and Liverpool, the two clubs that between them have lifted the big ears the previous four seasons, are gone.

Atletico, for all their startling consistency in the competition in the Diego Simone era, have never had it translate into outright success. Were their persistence and sustained competitiveness finally be rewarded this year, it would be as welcomed and celebrated as Mayo ever getting their hands again on Sam Maguire.

Only Bayern and Barcelona have previously won the competition — and with the pair of them facing off on Friday night, just one of them can make it to the last four.

And with the identity of that €1m-a-week player being one Lionel Messi, and his side not expected to be able to cope with the athleticism and conviction of Bayern, an outright victory for him could provide the most glorious storyline of the lot.

This is where the one-leg nature of this year’s competition makes it all the more tantalising.

Over two legs it’d be hard to see a Man City being denied by a Lyon; Messi’s inferior supporting cast holding off Bayern; an Atalanta being able to withstand PSG’s firepower, despite the latter’s self-destructive tendencies in two-legged affairs. But with it being all on the night, all that changes.

Who would seriously bet against Messi producing one moment of magic and the rest of his team grinding it out and riding their luck to hold out, possibly being fortuitous enough to get on the right side of a big VAR call, to progress to the last four?

He did it before at the 2014 World Cup with Argentina. So did his inspiration and shadow, one Diego Maradona, in 1990, creating a goal against the run of play in a World Cup quarter-final against a fancied Brazil side.

Those two Argentina teams ultimately came up short to Germany in both finals, but this time there’d be no Germans in the final.

Nothing on the other side of the draw would daunt a Barca.

Ultimately no group of players left in the competition has more championship DNA and Champions League winning experience than this Barca side.

Not even Bayern. A bit like Real won Champions Leagues when they were losing La Ligas, Barca, for all their regression and challenges, could squeeze out one against the head here.

When you have the best player in the tournament, especially in a tournament structured like this, you have a chance. More than a puncher’s chance. And he is still the best player in this tournament.

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