The Champions League has gotten off to a strange start after a series of upsets. Are these results the new norm for a tournament loaded with money-rich clubs?
The Champions League’s group stage opened Tuesday with a series of jaw-dropping upsets that sent shockwaves across Europe.
After the first night of action, the scoreboard read:
Inter Milan 1, Slavia Praha 1
Lyon 1, Zenit St. Petersburg 1
Valencia 1, Chelsea 0
Red Bull Salzburg 6, Genk 2
Napoli 2, Liverpool 0
Ajax 3, Lille 0
RB Leipzig 2, Benfica 1
Dortmund 0, Barcelona 0
Out of the eight games played on the first day of matchday one, there were five upsets. The remaining three games features teams that were evenly matched. The upsets that stick out most: Napoli’s win at home against defending champions Liverpool, Barcelona’s scoreless draw on the road against Borussia Dortmund and Valencia’s narrow victory against Chelsea in London.
What do these results tell us? Some may argue that it’s too early to see any trends for this season. Nonetheless, these upsets do highlight a trend that has been developing in the Champions League the past few seasons. That is, that Europe’s premier club competition is no longer dominated by the traditional heavyweights. The days of a few wealthy clubs, like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, battling for the title each spring could soon be coming to an end.
Instead, this is a tournament that features the very best teams across Europe. And these clubs are increasingly spending more money each summer to bulk up their rosters. How else can anyone explain how Liverpool and Tottenham wound up playing in the final (Ajax, it’s worth noting, reached the semifinals) when sides like Juventus and Barcelona had been the pre-tournament favorites?
It was just a few years ago that the Champions League had appeared to be mundane. Real had won three straight titles, an impressive run to say the least, and the fun seemed to be gone. There was talk of a format change. Something needed to be done. The big clubs, in turn, have wanted to hang on to power for years by proposing the creation of a continental tournament that would assure them a spot each season and make domestic leagues nothing but secondary competitions.
Instead, that’s when the upsets arrived last season. The money-rich sides like Real Madrid, PSG and Bayern were all eliminated in the round of 16. That was followed by even more upsets, including the surprise eliminations of Juventus and Manchester City in the quarterfinals.
At the time, Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone summed it up this way: “All the opponents are difficult and that’s what we’re seeing in the Champions League. It doesn’t surprise me because all the teams have improved and there’s a lot of competition. People who watch little football are more surprised by these results; those who watch more are less surprised.”
Napoli’s win against Liverpool on Tuesday at the Stadio San Paolo may have been a bit harsh in terms of the final scoreline, but it had been an upset in the making. Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti, a veteran of pressure-filled European nights both as a player and coach, started all the right players, including veterans like Dries Mertens.
“Liverpool are the favorites, they are champions of Europe,” Ancelotti said before the game. “They have gained greater confidence and have grown even further since we last met. But Napoli have made steps forward as well.”
It was the Belgium star who scored the opening goal (on a controversial penalty-kick call), but it was Fernando Llorente’s strike in stoppage time that put the game away. A late sub, the former Spurs star and late arrival to Napoli on the summer transfer market was brought in for just such occasions. It’s the 34 year old’s experience in the Champions League that Napoli want from him.
The move worked for the Serie A club against Liverpool. It could also work against future opponents, especially when teams meet in the knockout stage later in the season. It could very well be just the start of more upsets. It’s what makes the Champions League the best club competition in the world.
Fans of bigger, wealthier clubs may not like it, but neutral observers know that upsets are what tournaments (think March Madness) such as this one are what it’s all about.