A tournament proceeds through a series of questions. Can a small team surprise with a deep run? Which teams will fail to make it out of the group stage? Who will score the most goals? And, ultimately: who will lift the trophy? The questions are endless, but to these, we have the answers. Gent and PSV made it to the knockouts; Wolfsburg gave Real Madrid a fright. Manchester United were sent to the Europa League, but failed to get to the quarterfinals. We know a team from Madrid will lift the Champions League trophy. We also know that, unless Antoine Griezmann scores 10 goals, Cristiano Ronaldo will walk away with the Golden Boot.
But as those questions are answered, other unique questions pop up. These are the questions that come only as a result of certain outcomes and are specific to certain seasons, certain periods in time. They are the questions that result from complicated and unexpected scenarios. It is these sorts of questions that ultimately keep the Champions League fascinating, both ensuring surprises and helping shape the tournament in coming years.
Without a Champions League title, how will Pep’s legacy at Bayern be viewed?
Pep Guardiola has just finished a three-year spell in Germany that brought three Bundesliga titles and two DFB Pokals to his name, but never took Bayern Munich past the Champions League semifinals. Three years is obviously a small sample size, winning the Champions League no easy feat. Those who would defend Guardiola would note that this year, Bayern’s loss to Atlético Madrid was down to the away goals rule, which many believe should be thrown out altogether. Previously he was beaten by giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, not upset by any small foe.
However, many Bayern fans are frustrated by the lack of Champions League success. Guardiola joined the club right after they won the treble with Jupp Heynckes, and, considering the Catalan won two in four years at Barcelona, at least one Champions League trophy was expected. Fans rue Guardiola’s choice to bench Thomas Müller in the first leg against Atleti, and were certainly left disappointed by the blowouts they received from Real Madrid and Barcelona in the past. Bayern should be better than 5-0 and 5-3 aggregate losses to anyone, the reasoning goes.
It may be that expectations will be (perhaps fairly) lowered as Guardiola enters his next job at Manchester City. However, knowing the managerial climate in the Premier League, the pressures may actually rise. His new employers will be anxious to replicate, if not better, the Champions League success of this year – but also eager to challenge for the title back at home. These are expectations City Football Group likely gave Guardiola before he signed on the dotted line.
We know that Guardiola did not completely fail at Bayern. However, his legacy likely won’t be determined until we see how Bayern adjust under new coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Is Zlatan ever going to win the Champions League?
Speaking of … well, not losers, but not-winners – everyone’s favorite Swede still does not have a Champions League trophy to his name. Zlatan Ibrahimović will end his four-year stint in the French capital with as many league titles, two Coupes de France, and three Coupes de la Ligue, but no Champions League. Paris Saint-Germain is his sixth club but, unlike Guardiola, he’s never won the tournament, and it’s looking like he won’t next year, either.
The most prominent rumors surrounding Ibrahimović’s future suggest he’ll be playing in Major League Soccer or at Manchester United next season. One thing North America and the red side of Manchester have in common, at least for the next year? Neither will be playing in the Champions League next season. United is increasingly looking like the destination, as the striker is keen to work with José Mourinho again – under the coach he won the Serie A Player of the Year award, but departed a season before Inter won the Champions League.
Zlatan told L’Equipe in December, “I have yet to win the Champions League and that is one of my goals.” He tops every list of Best Players Who Have Not Won the Champions League and is clearly looking at a move to United as a long-term prospect. That being said, the forward turns 35 in October. How much longer does the guy really have?
If you ask Zlatan, he would not talk of a ticking clock. “I am like fine wine, I improve with age,” he said last year. From everything he’s shown in his first 34 years, his long-term plan might not be a bad one.
Does Manchester City’s run to the semifinals signal the turning of a new leaf?
Let’s face it: almost everyone was surprised that the Manchester City team who lazily finished fourth in the Premier League this season made it to the Champions League semifinals. Although they barely threatened Real Madrid over the two legs, the Manchester club managed to change the story on English teams in Europe – at least for a year.
After the 2008-09 season, when the semifinals were 75% English, English teams have missed out on the penultimate round on three separate occasions. Europe’s now a place where Spanish teams rule, and thanks to poor performances by English clubs in both the Champions and Europa Leagues, there’s been discussion as to whether England’s coefficient will drop enough to result in the loss of a European spot. City’s performance this season, along with Liverpool’s appearance in the Europa League final, will keep that talk at bay, but are these improved performances a fluke?
Manchester City making this season’s semifinals seems like a complete accident, and maybe it is. In their semifinal against Real Madrid, they managed only two shots on target over both legs (and neither came from Sergio Agüero!). The club is in flux at the moment; although much is expected of Guardiola, it may prove difficult for him to manage the same result in year one. But if City permit their newest manager to stick it out a little while, he could bring England European success.
As for the other English clubs that will compete in next year’s Champions League, expect Arsenal to do what is typical of them and get eliminated in the Round of 16. Tottenham Hotspur, back in the league after six years, and new boys Leicester City, are wild cards, but few believe they’re likely to make a deep run.
Is the Champions League becoming a haven for teams who are not the champions of their domestic league?
Both Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid came close to winning La Liga this season, but the title ultimately landed in Barcelona’s hands. But Barça had an advantage in the league: they had less to focus on after being eliminated by Atleti in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Including Manchester City, who were more or less out of the title race by the time they reached the semifinals, the final four was chock full of teams who could make Champions League as a priority. Those three had only the Champions League to play for at that point; in fact, the loser of Saturday’s final will end the season trophyless.
In contrast, the other team that joined the final four was Bayern Munich, who won their title the weekend after elimination from the Champions League, in the Bundesliga’s penultimate round. Perhaps the run to the semifinals of the Champions League made Bayern’s title win a less shiny one than in years past. They weren’t able to win in the same dominating fashion we saw in years past: last season they had the title a month before the league finished, while in 2013-14 they won by 19 points and clinched the trophy in March.
Is it possible that this pattern is just a coincidence? Sure. But perhaps it’s a relationship of cause and effect. If Barcelona are eliminated from the Champions League, then they have more effort to put into winning La Liga and the Copa del Rey. If Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, and Manchester City have no other tournaments to win, then they concentrate harder on the Champions League.
Of course, Barcelona won the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey last season, so this question might be premature. Yet it feels like the likelihood of winning the treble – or even just lifting the Champions League trophy the same season as winning the domestic title – is decreasing. It would make those seasons, those teams all the more iconic, though.