Zlatan! Ronaldo! Messi!
You can’t blame RTÉ Sport for firing off the big guns to salute the return of the Champions League.
“It’s back!” the station’s trailer all but shrieks though, given how the old European Cup has long-sinced metamorphosed into something much closer to a protracted, near season-long affair, “It’s hardly been away!” might be, if not quite so dramatic, then a good deal closer to the mark.
In any event, when we think of the great Champions League nights, it’s games from the cup rather than the league part of the equation which tend to stand out. As for the opening night, I suspect most people would struggle to recall that, just twelve months ago, Zenit St Petersburg won 2-0 away to Benfica, Barcelona edged out Apoel at the Camp Nou 1-0 and — oh, be still my beating heart - Liverpool beat Ludogorets Razgrad 2-1, thanks to late goals by Mario Balotelli and Steven Gerrard (remember them?). Even the biggest, most eye-catching results of, in Uefa’s bland patois, ‘Match Day 1’— Bayern Munich 1-0 Man City 0; Real Madrid 5 Basle 1; Borussia Dortmund 2 Arsenal 0 —turned out to mean little enough to each of the winners in the long run.
Mind, there have been occasions when the first night was almost the best night. Never shy about fanning the hype themselves, Uefa helpfully listed a few opening classics on their website this week, among them: from 1997, Newcastle 3 Barcelona 2 (yes, children, you read that right); Manchester United 3 Barcelona 3 (1998), Hamburg 4 Juventus 4 (2000) and Bayern Munich 2 Deportivo La Coruna 3 (2002).
But ahead of the new Champions League season, the dubiously designated ‘classic’ which really caught my eye was a rather more prosaic but perhaps ominous affair from just two years ago, when Chelsea surrendered a goal lead before going down 2-1 to Basle at Stamford Bridge.
Afterwards, Jose Mourinho conceded that his team had lacked “maturity and personality” and, he was even forced to admit, “shakes a little bit”.
Yet, offering further proof that the opening night can be an unreliable straw in the wind, Chelsea recovered from that shock reversal to not only top their group in 2013 but go on to reach the semi-finals where they finally found Atletico Madrid too hot to handle.
Flash forward just 24 months, however, and there’s no way anyone will be dismissing it as a blip should the currently embattled Blues suffer another shock to the system in the form of anything less than a win against Maccabi Tel Aviv in west London tomorrow night.
At once instantly familiar in terms of personnel yet totally unrecognisable as the defending Premier League champions, Chelsea’s brutal start to the new season has caught just about everyone by surprise and, especially, those of us who envisioned Mourinho merely having to keep things ticking over if his team were to take up where they left off.
To explain their staggering collapse in form, everything from a truncated pre-season to a too easily distracted manager has been cited, yet no one explanation has really been sufficient to account for the debilitating virus which appears to have drained away the quality, hunger and self-belief of Hazard, Costa, Fabregeas, Matic, Terry and Ivanovic — all of them dependable class acts only a few short months ago.
And so along comes the Champions League to offer either a lifeline or yet another jagged reef. One thing’s for sure: the cause will be rather more complex and intractable than just opening night nerves should Mourinho and Chelsea fail to at least steady the ship against the Israeli champions.
And along too comes the Champions League to pose a much more familiar question: Will the real Manchester City please stand up? Maximum points from five games have made them the early title favourites at home though, a bit like Chelsea last year, it’s pretty obvious that, with plucky Leicester currently their nearest challengers, they are already benefiting from the various frailties afflicting their nominally biggest rivals.
They may also, as it happens, be helped by problems besetting their aristocratic opposition at the Etihad tonight, with last year’s beaten finalists Juventus — clearly missing Tevez, Pirlo and Vidal — doing a passable imitation of Chelsea on the home front by opening the defence of their Serie A title with just one point from nine.
As for Manchester United and Arsenal who start their campaigns off, respectively, away to PSV tonight and away to Dinamo Zagreb tomorrow, nothing we have seen from either club so far this season suggests they have it in them to return English football to the brief eminence in Europe it last enjoyed when Chelsea lifted the trophy in 2012.
If, for the Blues in particular, it’s been a long way from there to here, then at least they can take some small consolation from knowing that — with Europe repeatedly a graveyard for English ambitions rather than a promised land — none of their Premier League fellow adventurers is in any position to gloat.
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