Let’s face it, you never see defeated footballers crying bitter tears at the end of UEFA Champions League quarter-final second legs. It’s a regular occurrence at World Cups, of course, and that’s one of the reasons why competing for your country at the four-yearly festival of football remains the ultimate achievement. In essence, it means so much more to so many more people.
Yet, in terms of pure footballing quality, the UEFA Champions League now represents the gold standard of world football. While the emotion is deeper and the pressure is greater at a World Cup (you get one chance every four years if you are lucky), the Champions League is the most reliable barometer of footballing greatness. If you’re good enough, you’ll play in it. At the World Cup, you can be George Best and never set foot in it.
The Champions League kicks off again this week and promises much, as usual. Multi-national teams of footballing talent, schooled in playing together on a daily basis, will always combine to greater technical effect that single-nation sides that play together no more than seven or eight times a year. In many ways, the reduced pool of talent available to, say, Portugal when compared with top clubs means the challenge is all the greater for, say, Cristiano Ronaldo to lift an entire country. Greatness isn’t just about scoring five goals against Espanyol – or even a winner against Bayern Munich.
However, it’s undeniable that a George Best, alive and playing at his peak today, would feature in this season’s Champions League. And for that reason, the Champions League is the bellwether of footballing technique. This season’s tournament kicks off this week with some mouth-watering ties.
In Group A, the fascination revolves around whether Paris Saint-Germain can trouble 2014 champions Real Madrid – and whether Shakhtar Donetsk, football’s displaced club, can make life difficult for either. Malmo are making up the numbers, but they do have the pleasure of welcoming back Zlatan Ibrahimovic. On Tuesday, Madrid and Paris should both start with home wins against the Ukrainians and Swedes, respectively.
In Group B, VfL Wolfsburg, shorn of Kevin De Bruyne, featuring Julian Draxler could do anything: win the group, scrape through, or crash out. Frankly, the same could be said of Manchester United, a team likely to take a frightening pounding on the continent at some point this season. This isn’t the United of Ferguson, this is a very-expensively assembled shambles. That said, the memo to Europe is likely to take a little longer to arrive there than it has in the rest of England. On Tuesday night, United should have enough to win at PSV Eindhoven, while Wolfsburg might find CSKA Moscow awkward opponents in Germany. The Russians could be a serious threat to the more fancied sides in this relatively even pool.