Soccer / Champions League / Waiting for More

The group stage was long and boring, but this week Europe’s top competition began in earnest. After waiting for two and a half months, four games were enough to reveal that it’s hard to ask for more.

Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann
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Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann

1. It’s already a cliche, but last night proved it was ever so true: the real Champions League begins only in February. The group stage is long, often boring, and the form of the draw makes it unfair. The knockout stage, in comparison, is exhilarating, pitting the best players in the world against one another other.

We waited two and a half months for the Champions League to resume and the entree really opened an appetite for more. Four games, almost all of them in top speed, many goals (three a game), excellent soccer, and if next week Milan, Barcelona, Bayern, Arsenal and Schalke supply more of what we saw this week from Real, Manchester United, Dortmund, Shakhtar and PSG, then lovers of the game will be extremely satisfied.

2. The main arena was, naturally, at the Santiago Bernabeu. The game promised much and in no way failed to deliver. The tempo was breathtaking, there were endless opportunities for goals, Cristiano arrived to meet his mythological ex, scoring a wonderful goal while showing how a player with a much larger ego than Eran Zahavi should behave after scoring against the club that made him great. Opposite Ronaldo, David De Gea showed why he was bought, why the early criticism of his capabilities was premature and exaggerated, and why he is almost certain to become a fantastic goalkeeper. The rest of Manchester United’s defense also showed vast improvement.

Only Ronaldo

Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid should be very worried, specifically because Real played much better than United in most stages of the game. The inability to convert chances and the excessive dependence on Ronaldo, since the other strikers were rather weak, is very problematic. Higuain and Benzema, together, scored only once in Real’s last five games in Europe, and with all due respect to the beast of a player that Ronaldo is, the Spanish champions can hardly expect to progress if the other strikers fail to contribute goals.

The return leg at Old Trafford will probably be much harder and more balanced, and recent history should worry Real. After drawing 1-1 at home, Real has never progressed and even failed to score in away games this happened four times. These sorts of records are meant to be broken eventually, but in order for that to happen, Real must have other players, apart from Ronaldo, show up at crunch time. Mourinho, who spoke last night of even chances, is well aware of that.

3. Yet again last night, pundits and fans talked about the establishment of a European League. “How is it possible that Real and Manchester United haven’t played each other for a decade?” ask the proposed league’s supporters, many of them admirers of the capitalist system.

One must remember that there was an era when only champions played in the tournament, and Manchester United finished only second in the Premier League last season. It’s a good thing that top clubs participate in the competition even if they finished only third or fourth, but the wish to see a double rendezvous between Real and Manchester is also dangerous.

A European League might attract more attention and definitely cash but will kill off 90 percent of the other teams in the continent, supported by 50 percent of the fans. The current system is far from perfect, but it does have its balances. It can and should be improved, but a closed tournament of top clubs would be a disaster for European soccer.

4. Dortmund and Shakhtar also supplied a high-tempo game with goals and breathtaking action, while PSG proved it’s exciting character. The Champions League is back, big time. And that is cause for celebration, especially if it continues to supply such excellent games.

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal heading the ball during a Champions League round of 16 first leg soccer match against Manchester United in Madrid on Wednesday. Credit: Nimrod Glickman