LIAM MACKEY: Don't expect shocks - only the  strongest survive in the Champions League

2016 will go down in football history as the year of the underdog. Leicester City led the way with their against-all-odds Premier League title success while, at the European Championship finals, there were the table-turning heroics of Iceland and Wales to warm the heart and, when it came to the crunch, Portugal finally ending their trophy drought by beating hosts and hot favourites France.

Closer to home, there was that unforgettable night in Tallaght when Dundalk stunned Champions League regulars BATE Borisov with a 3-0 win, a result upon which the Lilywhites only narrowly failed to capitalise when going out of the competition against Legia Warsaw, with the group stage tantalisingly close.

But that’s the Champions League for you. 

It’s not regarded as Europe’s elite club competition for nothing, its essential exclusivity reinforced last May when, in stark contrast to all the shocks and surprises being thrown up in the rest of the football world, the glittering prize returned to the Bernabeu for the 11th time in the history of Real Madrid.

Another measure of how hard it is to win the trophy, even for some of the most well-equipped clubs in the world, is that when Real take on Sporting at home tomorrow night, they will be embarking on a mission to become the first team to retain the title since, under the old and much less demanding knock-out format, an exceptional AC Milan side claimed back to back European Cups in 1989 and ‘90.

Not that the line-up in the group stage for 2016/17 is lacking in romantic components, however, with Leicester and Rostov appearing in this exalted company for the first time, and Celtic returning to the top table after an absence of three years.

The Russian side were shown no charity in the draw, being obliged to take their first bow at this level in the Allianz Arena this evening against Bayern Munich.

How to put a positive spin on that one? To be fair to him, Rostov’s assistant coach Dmitri Kirichenko gave it his best shot. “I believe it would have been more difficult against Barcelona than against Bayern,” he declared.

Celtic will be entitled to a view on that, since it is their no less daunting fate to have to open their Group C account in the Nou Camp tonight.

It might be of modest encouragement to Brendan Rodgers side that Barca tripped up in La Liga at the weekend, although their shock 2-1 defeat to newly promoted Alaves at the Nou Camp might have had something to do with the fact that, on the back of international commitments and injury concerns and doubtless also with the Champions League in mind, Luis Enrique chose to start the game with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta all cooling their heels on the bench.

That Celtic were missing striker Leigh Griffiths for the return of the Old Firm on Saturday hardly belongs in the same bracket.

Nor, when it comes to taking on Barca, is it really of any use trying to read something meaningful into into a facile 5-1 thumping of an enfeebled Rangers, however much that will have delighted the faithful who had suffered more than a few gut-wrenching moments already this season as Brendan Rodgers’ side stumbled their back into the group stage of the Champions League.

Celtic will be again without Griffiths tonight and, while Barca are always curiously prone to coughing up a goal, you suspect that, even with Moussa Dembele going into the game on the back of the first Old Firm hat-trick in forty-three years, the Scottish champions will have more than enough on their plate just trying to hold onto the ball for a minute at a time against the Catalan pass masters on their sacred turf.

For Leicester City, the bonus in qualifying for the Champions League is that they have avoided the giants first time out, Group G pitting them against Porto, Copenhagen and, in tomorrow’s opener in Belgium, Club Brugge. 

It’s just as well too since, as Liverpool’s 4-1 win suggested at the weekend, Leicester are acutely feeling the loss of N’golo Kante, a player whose pivotal contribution as the hinge between defence and attack was never going to make replacing him a straightforward option.

Spurs, who open their campaign at home to Monaco tomorrow, can also be grateful that they have dodged the top guns and, as a result, should feel reasonably confident of securing one of the two qualifying berths in a group containing CSKA Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen, along with the side which finished third in the Ligue 1 last season.

As for their north London rivals, Arsenal, this will be the club’s 17th consecutive season in the Champions League, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Arsene Wenger taking the helm.

That’s an admirable model of consistency which, as long-suffering Gooners know only too well, also doubles as a case serial underachievement, something which is unlikely to change this year even if Arsenal and a transitional PSG – who clash in Paris tonight – should emerge from a group also containing Basle and Ludogorets.

The bigger picture here is the problem shared by all of England’s representatives in the recent history in this competition: the cruel exposure of the shortcomings of the self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’ when it’s required to move up a level of sophistication and go head to head with the best that Europe has to offer.

The result is that the concept of ‘Brexit’ has long been a reality in the Champions League. Since Manchester United and Chelsea contested the final in Moscow in 2008, the only English winners have been the west Londoners, in 2012. Otherwise, the trophy has gone to Spain five times, with Italy and Germany claiming one apiece.

If that is to change in 2017, then the Premier League’s best hopes probably reside in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, especially since the early evidence is of a side fully buying into the manager’s patented combination of pressing and possession. 

The club’s mandarins had long courted a man who has twice won the Champions League with Barcelona but, for all the pleasure that will have been obtained from a perfect start to the domestic season, crowned by Saturday’s impressive victory in the Manchester derby, success in the Premier League won’t taste half as sweet at the Etihad if City can’t replicate it in Europe, beginning with tonight’s home game against Borussia Munchengladbach.

Yesterday, the man himself claimed - rather worryingly, if he wasn’t deliberately trying to lower expectations – that even he is baffled as to why England has had to learn not to expect in Europe.

“I would like to know why,” said Gaurdiola. 

“We are about to find out. Schedule, games, intensity. I am going to try to discover and help English teams to stay there. When I see Liverpool, Chelsea, United, Tottenham, they are all at the level to play in the Champions League. No doubt they have the quality. I would like to know why. It is the same system. It is physical. Maybe I will answer if in February and March we have no more energy.”

Hardly what his employers would have wanted to hear, when it’s Cardiff in May which should be the point and purpose of the whole exercise. And where and when it’s highly unlikely that any underdog will have its day.

Sure, we’ll get the odd surprise and maybe even a proper shock or two along the way but, when the record shows that when it comes to the last men standing in the Champions League, only the very strongest survive.


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