Reputation Meets Reality in the Champions League

Everyone involved was taking the positives. In Dortmund, Chelsea’s Graham Potter was talking about a “step forward” in his efforts to solve the gilded thousand-piece puzzle he has been handed by his club’s new owners. In Milan, Tottenham’s Antonio Conte was happy his “trust” in a youthful emergency midfield pairing had been repaid.

Both were doing all they could to project an air of calm assurance. Conte, a man who could never be accused of bottling up his emotions, even used the word “relaxed” to describe his state of mind. Sure, Chelsea and Tottenham had both lost the first legs of their Champions League round of 16 ties, but that was nothing to worry about. There are the home games to come in a few weeks. Things will be better then. Wrongs will be righted. Everything is breezy.

Neither manager’s pose was particularly ludicrous. Neither team had played especially badly. Both sides might have felt just a little unfortunate to have lost. Chelsea, still feeling its way to a settled identity after its winter excess, created a raft of chances against Borussia Dortmund. Spurs, its squad winnowed by injury and suspension, had menaced A.C. Milan. Both had lost only by a single goal. Both remain firmly in contention to make the quarterfinals.

And yet, for all the legitimacy of those mitigating circumstances, for all the fine margins that separate victory from defeat and one interpretation of history from another, it is hard not to feel as if this sort of thing should not happen to the moneyed elite of the Premier League any more.

Kepa Arrizabalaga and Chelsea lost at Borussia Dortmund. But all is not lost. Yet.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Chelsea, in case you have forgotten, spent more on players in January than every club in France, Spain, Italy and Germany combined. A.C. Milan found itself unable to compete on salaries with Bournemouth, a team with a stadium that has a capacity of 11,379 people. Dortmund’s business model involves the annual sale of its best players to England.

Here they were, though, not just standing up to two of the best that the Premier League can offer but beating them. It may have been with home-field advantage, the backing of 80,000 or so bellicose fans, and it may only have been by the skin of their teeth. And it may not, in the end, mean much at all, should Chelsea and Spurs assert themselves in the return legs.

And yet still they beat them, the reality of England’s unassailable financial power not quite living up to the theory.

Two games is far too small a sample, of course, to draw any firm conclusions, but those defeats are part of a broader, more established pattern.

For years, as the Premier League’s wealth has grown — its television revenues more than twice that of its nearest competitor, its clubs the richest on the planet — the assumption among its clubs, and the fear among its competitors, has been that at some point it would be able to break the Champions League to its will. Its teams, stuffed with the choicest fruits the market has to offer, would leave the rest of Europe trailing in their wake.

It has not, though, quite worked out like that, certainly not as definitively as might have been expected.

Chelsea beat Manchester City in the 2021 Champions League final, one of two recent finals matching Premier League opponents.Credit…Pool photo by David Ramos

In the last five years, the Champions League has taken on a distinctly English inflection. Two of the finals in that time have been all-Premier League affairs, and there has been at least one English side (mostly Liverpool) in every final but one since 2018. And yet the long-anticipated wholesale takeover of the tournament has failed to materialize.

Perhaps it is no more than an accident of fate that no English team has won a Champions League final against a foreign opponent since Chelsea’s victory against Bayern Munich in 2012. But it feels significant that only once — in 2019 — has the full cohort of four Premier League teams all made it through safely to the quarterfinals.

The likelihood that this year will break that trend is minimal. Chelsea and Spurs might both be at only a slender disadvantage — and the absence of the away goals rule works in their favor from here — but even if they both recover to make it through, the chances of Liverpool’s overcoming Real Madrid remain slim.

There are a host of possible explanations for that. The most obvious is that money is not necessarily a measure of virtue: Just because England’s teams have cash to burn does not mean they always spend it well, as Chelsea is currently doing its best to illustrate.

Harry Kane and Spurs have work to do in the second leg against Milan.Credit…Marco Bertorello/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The most appealing, certainly in England, is that the very competitiveness of the Premier League is in itself a disadvantage; teams are so exhausted from domestic combat that they are prone to fatigue when it comes to Europe.

The most likely explanation, and the most simple, is that an unwillingness to succumb to economic logic is coded into the algorithm of a knockout competition. Financial might is likely to prove decisive over the course of a league season. Turn a competition into an arbitrary shootout, conducted over the course of 90 or 180 minutes, and what can seem like a chasm in terms of revenue streams suddenly manifests as nothing more than the difference in the technical and psychological capacity of two sets of players.

And that, most often, is nothing more than a hairline crack. Dortmund and Milan and all the others might find the English clubs calling every year, seeking to extract another star from them ranks in exchange for a king’s ransom, but they know too that there will be another player along soon enough, that they will be able to replace and replenish. There are, after all, always more players.

There is something to celebrate and to cherish in that, a relief and a pleasure in the fact that wealth does not make a team — or a set of teams — invulnerable to misfortune or immune to the vicissitudes of fate, that European soccer has proved just a little more resilient to the Premier League’s supremacy than even its own clubs anticipated, that even now, money is no guarantee of happiness.

Red Letter Day

Historic English soccer club seeks new owner. Serious offers only. Inquire within.Credit…Molly Darlington/Reuters

Time for another addition to English soccer’s ever-expanding calendar of high holidays: alongside Cup Final Day, League Cup Final Day and the two Transfer Deadline Days, we can now reliably celebrate Soft Deadline for Investors to Submit Bids for a Major Club Day.

Like Easter, this one moves around. It fell in April last year, in the midst of the scramble to take Chelsea off the hands of Roman Abramovich. This time, Raine, the investment bank that plays the role of Hallmark for this particular holiday, has decreed that the Manchester United sequel should come as early as mid-February.

As of Friday, only one contender had gone public: Jim Ratcliffe, the British billionaire and one-time Chelsea suitor who seems to have remembered late in life that his real passion is for sports rather than chemicals, had confirmed he would bid. He was expected to face competition, though, from at least one “U.S.-based consortium,” as well as “private” bidders from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

That last prospect, of course, might have been greeted with caution, or even concern. The questions are obvious. How “private” could any bid emanating from a tightly controlled autocracy ever really be? What would be the implication for the integrity of both the Premier League and the Champions League, given the Saudi ownership of Newcastle United and the Qatari control of Paris St.-Germain?

Or it might have been greeted with a breathless frenzy, focusing exclusively on what Gulf ownership might buy for the club and its success “starved” fans: Kylian Mbappé, or Jude Bellingham, or (genuinely, inexplicably) a new monorail running directly from Manchester airport to a giant mall outside Old Trafford.

There are no prizes at all for guessing which description best fits the tone of much of the coverage, because there are no winners here. That serious questions over the integrity of the sport — let alone the issue of whether it is ideal that the Premier League should be a stage on which global power games are played out — should be so easily ignored thanks to the specter of yet more consumption, yet more acquisition, makes you wonder if the spirit of the whole enterprise has been lost along the way. The way you celebrate your holidays, after all, says a lot about where you are as a culture.

An Old Truth, Revisited

Stop us if you’ve heard this before but P.S.G.’s star-studded experiment doesn’t seem to be working. Again.Credit…Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

If the misadventures of the Premier League’s moneyed elite in the Champions League this week served as a reminder of one of this newsletter’s mottos — that there are always more players, no matter how many of them you buy — then the starting teams at the Parc des Princes brought another to mind.

On one side, of course, there was P.S.G., a team that is rapidly becoming a definition of insanity in and of itself. It is now perfectly apparent that building a team around Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé does not work, not at the elite level, not when all three of them essentially refuse to engage in any defensive effort. P.S.G. may yet recover from a first leg deficit to Bayern Munich, but this is not a side that can win the Champions League.

On the other was a Bayern team, its attacking line led by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The Cameroonian striker suffers, as many do, from the long shadow of the Premier League.

He has spent the better part of a decade and a half as a professional. He has built a steady, respectable career, one crowned unusually late by trophy-laden spells at P.S.G. and Bayern. To many fans, though, he will always be a curiosity: Hey, look at that, it’s that guy who played for Stoke City, except that now he’s in the Champions League.

That is a shame, because Choupo-Moting’s story is telling in a number of ways. It proves, as he discussed with the Times, the value of patience. The timing of his rise suggests a shift in what elite clubs want from forward players, and as a corollary perhaps highlights a deficiency in the academy system. That tends, after all, to produce what teams want now, rather than what they might need in the future.

Most of all, though, it illustrates that Choupo-Moting did not fail to shine at Stoke because of a lack of talent. Ability is often not what determines whether a move is successful or not. More important is whether the team, the style, the environment is right for a player to thrive. Choupo-Moting is evidence of the old truth that there is no such thing as a bad player, only the wrong context.

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