It can be hard to see it through the all the goals, but this season’s iteration of the Champions League knockout rounds is already its worst in years.
That seems counter-intuitive. How can we rightfully criticize the Champions League when it produced such already-legendary encounters as Manchester City 5 – 3 Monaco and Barcelona 6 – 1 Paris Saint Germain? On what plane of reality is that not considered entertaining football?
The problem is that entertaining isn’t the same as good football. Two teams that pummel each other over 90 minutes is certainly in the best interest of the neutral viewer — and not to mention the broadcasters — but it hardly a pure distillation of the sport. That is something closer to boxing than football.
It would be one thing if these matches were one-offs, exceptional outcomes of an otherwise more predictable round of Champions League football. But they weren’t — far from it.
This Round of 16 also featured aggregate score lines of 6-1 in Real Madrid’s wins over Napoli, and 10-1 as Bayern Munich once again dashed Arsenal against the rocks.
Atlético Madrid saw off Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 at home this past week, but only managed that after enduring a wild 4-2 away win in Germany. Borussia Dortmund succumbed to a 1-0 defeat away at Benfica before pummeling the Portuguese side at home 4-0 at home.
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- Barcelona Femeni win their second Champions League title
All told, through one round these elite level teams scored and conceded a total of 62 goals, or 3.88 goals per match. As a reference point, the average number of goals scored over the previous five seasons of the Champions League’s Round of 16 was 47.40 — or less than three goals per match.
Perhaps future rounds bear this out to be a statistical fluke. The quality of opposition in this first knockout round was poor, you could say. Arsenal suffered through their perennial Champions League implosion. Pep Guardiola forgot to recruit a defense over the summer. Paris Saint Germain, well, what in the hell even happened there?
The fact is though that many of the teams that progressed to the quarterfinals looked poor even as they won.
Barcelona needed that 6-1 win over PSG only after faceplanting in Paris to the tune of a 4-0 defeat. Monaco slipped through only after conceding four goals in 24 minutes away at City in the first leg. Even reigning champions Real Madrid struggled against Napoli over the majority of both legs against the Italians.
Take a wider view of the clubs that remain, and things look even more dire.
Barca took the lead in La Liga after Real slipped up, but then lost to Deportivo La Coruna to gift it right back to their rivals. Borussia Dortmund continue a rebuilding process in the Bundesliga under Thomas Tuchel, and might not even qualify for the Champions League next season.
Then, of course, there’s the real chance that Leicester City gets relegated from the Premier League this season despite their place in the UCL quarterfinals. They currently sit just three points above Hull City in 18th place.
Truly great teams — i.e. the teams that should be participating in this stage of the world’s greatest club competition — simply don’t concede half a dozen goals over two legs, much less in a single match. Relative valuations on the transfer market might suggest otherwise, but football is a holistic sport. It requires talent in attack, in possession and in defense.
Of the eight teams remaining, perhaps two come close to meeting this baseline standard. Bayern Munich should be considered the favorite to win it all. This competition is Carlo Ancelotti’s specialty, after all.
Juventus will give Barca more of a game than people expect. Massimiliano Allegri presides over a coolly competent side from back to front — one that will be anxious for revenge after their 2014/15 final defeat to the Catalans.
Cases could be made that Atlético could ride their defense through to the final, or that Monaco’s battering ram offense could make the difference.
In all though this isn’t going to be a conclusion to the season defined by tactical masterclasses. It will likely produce goals by the plenty, and maybe even one or two reversals of the sort that make network executives salivate. If the Round of 16 serves as any clue, it won’t make for genuinely good football though.