Thursday 20 September 2018

City draw much comfort as Real paired with PSG

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: AFP/Getty
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: AFP/Getty

Miguel Delaney

Right through this season, there has been a sense that it might mark a change of eras in the Champions League, a shift, and that is something that is only further fostered by yesterday's last-16 draw.

It is most notable by the absence of an issue that has slightly dragged the competition over the past few years - the dogged repetition of the same old fixtures.

There is none of that this season, with three of the ties involving sides that have never before met competitively, and the Premier League clubs have mostly done rather well out of it.

Chelsea, the only English side to finish second in their group, got the only tie that really has any proper latter-stage history but even that actually feels refreshing because it is now over five years since they met and so much has changed at both clubs since those momentous matches from 2005 through to 2012.

Their clash with Barcelona is also one of two proper heavyweight match-ups, along with the eye-catching clash of the Champions League establishment that is Real Madrid against the nouveau riche of Paris Saint-Germain and everything that entails.

Undercurrent

Click to view full size image
Click to view full size image

The dimensions of that alone are so alluring - the defending champions going for three-in-a-row against the club most desperate to win it and banish the ghosts of defeat to Real's great rivals Barcelona, the undercurrent of PSG overtaking the entire transfer market to disrupt Spanish power, right down to getting Kylian Mbappe over Real - and could have great meaning for the rest of the season.

It is a tie that will clear the competition's path, instantly removing one of the primary contenders for the trophy.

That is one reason why Manchester City are now being seen as outright favourites, along with their favourable draw against Basel, who they play for the first time.

Liverpool and Manchester United benefited from similar ties - against Porto and Sevilla, respectively - and that reflects another reality of the competition worth dwelling on and that could yet distort this season.

If you are a big club or fundamentally good side that can make it as far as the last eight, it really is up for grabs.

Anything's on. From there, you don't even need that many good performances to go and win it. You need solidity and a sizeable bit of luck. That's what knockout football allows.

This is precisely why, as regards an English club finally winning this trophy for the first time in six years, it doesn't actually matter all that much that City are so much better than everyone in the Premier League. Two legs is short enough for things to go wrong.

United and Liverpool could be very dangerous in that regard, especially since Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp have good recent records in navigating knockout competitions, even allowing for the great debates about their very different styles.

The same could be said for Chelsea and Spurs, although they have those weightier matches in this round, and must get through that first. Antonio Conte will have to figure out how to deal with Leo Messi, and Mauricio Pochettino will have to work out last season's finalists Juventus.

Spurs did beat the Italian champions in pre-season and for all that might be written off as a mere friendly, it is now being seen as a key match as to how Pochettino managed to adapt his approach to go and beat last season's champions in Real Madrid.

There remains the possibility that all of this could lead to one of the biggest clubs from the last few years actually blindsiding everyone. Bayern Munich haven't been discussed much this season because of a poor start that saw them sack Carlo Ancelotti.

The German kingpins have greatly improved under their returning Champions League-winning coach Jupp Heynckes and a relatively low-wattage draw against Besiktas could help obscure that, so they are suddenly there in the latter stages and in an ominous position.

They wouldn't be the first side to benefit from a mid-season change of manager, and change of outlook.

The fact it is being discussed in that way - after almost a decade when Barca, Real and Bayern were guaranteed semi-finalists and the benchmark to get over for everyone else - does reflect this change in the competition. This draw only reinforces that.

A gaping window of opportunity now exists for Premier League clubs to take full advantage. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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