The UEFA Champions League Season Review
May 23, 2018
Back on the 19th June, this seasons’ Champions League tournament kicked off in the remote surroundings of the Faroe Islands, as this nation’s champions Víkingur Gøta entertained Albania’s Trepça’89 in one of five initial qualifying rounds.
Eleven months and a staggering 218 matches later, Europe’s premier club competition is set to reach a thrilling climax at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev on May 26th. On this date, 12-time winners Real Madrid will take on Liverpool in the tournament’s showpiece finale, with Jurgen Klopp’s Reds attempting to claim their 6th European crown.
Make no mistake, this season’s tournament has been one of the most exciting and unpredictable in living memory, packed full of stunning goals, thrilling matches and barely believable comebacks.
In today’s post we’ll look back at the European season and recall some of the most memorable moments.
The Group Stages – How did the British Teams Fare?
While the initial qualifying rounds were typically unspectacular, the final 10 play-off matches did provide some outstanding entertainment. Liverpool entered the tournament at this stage, before producing two exceptional attacking performances to dispatch Bundesliga outfit 1899 Hoffenheim by an aggregate score of 6-3.
Scottish champions Celtic (who had dispatched Norwegian outfit Rosenborg 1-0 during the third qualifying round) also managed to reach the group stages through the play-offs, despite a helter-skelter, 4-3 defeat in the second leg of their tie against FC Astana. Fortunately, Brendan Rodgers’ side had won the first leg 5-0 at Celtic Park, enabling them to take their place at the top table of European football for the second consecutive year.
This completed a stellar group stage line-up for British side, with six representatives on show following Manchester United’s triumph in the Europa League during the previous season.
United and their bitter rivals City, managed by serial winners Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola respectively, made serene progress through the group stages, with both recording five wins and just a single defeat to top their sections. Klopp’s Liverpool also managed to top Group E while remaining unbeaten, despite a catastrophic defensive display that enabled Spanish side Sevilla to rescue a 3-3 draw at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium (they were 3-0 down at half-time).
The Reds also scored an impressive 23 goals in just six group stage games, including two 7-0 triumphs against Maribor and Spartak Moscow respectively.
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea experienced mixed fortunes in Group C, while they qualified for the knockout phase ahead of the 2014 and 2016 finalists Atletico Madrid, a harrowing 3-0 defeat against Roma at the Stadico Olympico cost them first place to the Serie A side and ultimately earned them a difficult, second round draw against Barcelona.
Then we come to Spurs, who were initially expected to struggle having been drawn in the so-called “Group of Death” alongside APOEL FC, Borussia Dortmund and the defending champions Real Madrid. After vanquishing Dortmund 3-1 in the Group H opener, Spurs earned a superb point in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium with an organised and mature performance.
Los Blancos were then put to the sword impressively at Wembley, as two goals from Dele Alli and a Christian Eriksen secured a 3-1 win that ultimately proved crucial in allowing Spurs to top the group and qualify from Group H. Interestingly, this win also ended Madrid’s 30-game unbeaten run in the Champions League’s group stages, while underlining Spurs’ credentials as a genuine force to be reckoned with.
The Knockout Phases and the Year of the Comeback
A total of five British sides qualified for the last 16, with only Celtic falling by the wayside. While the Scottish Champions at least earned a Europa League place with a 3-0 win over Anderlecht in Belgium, they were also thrashed 5-0 and 7-1 by Paris St. Germain and shipped five goals in two matches against Bayern Munich.
The second round saw the departure of three EPL sides, however, with Manchester United the biggest and most surprising casualty. Jose Mourinho’s men were ultimately undone by an overly cautious approach in both legs against an inconsistent Sevilla side, failing to score an away goal in a 0-0 draw in Spain before two late Wissam Ben Yedder strikes at Old Trafford saw them defeated 2-1 on aggregate.
Perhaps less surprisingly, Antonio Conte’s struggling Chelsea side failed to overcome Barcelona over two legs, despite performing impressively on the quarter-attack during a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. This was followed by an error-ridden display in the Nou Camp, where poor finishing and defensive mistakes enabled the Catalan giants to achieve a comfortable 3-0 win.
Tottenham became the third EPL side to exit during the first knockout phase, as an experienced Juventus side proved too seasoned and clinical over two legs. This came as something of a shock following Spurs’ outstanding performances in the group, particularly after they overcame a 2-0 deficit in the Juventus Stadium to earn a 2-2 draw in the first leg.
Despite Son Heung-min giving Spurs an early lead in the second leg at Wembley, a tactical reshuffle inspired Juventus in the second half as the Serie A champions scored twice in just three minutes to turn the tie on its head. Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala were on target for the Old Lady, who progressed to yet another UCL quarter-final.
Juventus were at least joined in the quarters by two British sides, with Manchester City and Liverpool both progressing serenely. In a strange twist of fate, however, the UK’s last remaining representatives were drawn against one another in the following round, with the Reds prevailing after a blistering first leg performance saw them punish City’s high defensive line and leave Anfield with a hefty 3-0 win.
The Blues couldn’t overturn this deficit in the second leg, despite a third minute goal from Gabriel Jesus. In fact, Guardiola’s men were left stretched at the back as they chased the game in the second half, allowing Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino to secure a 5-1 aggregate win.
The quarter-finals will be remembered for two stunning comebacks, however, one of which ended in success and another in valiant failure. In terms of the former, Roma overturned a 4-1, first leg deficit against Barcelona in a thrilling return match in the Stadico Olympico, with an early goal from Edin Džeko setting the tone for the Serie A sides’ intense pressing and direct play. A Daniele De Rossi penalty early in the second half narrowed the deficit further, before Kostas Manolas raised the roof with a near post header eight minutes from time.
The latter tie saw Juventus take on Real Madrid, as Los Blancos produced a sublime counter-attacking performance to record a stunning, 3-0 win in the first leg at the Juventus Stadium. This display by a Cristiano Ronaldo brace, which included a stunning overhead kick that defied gravity as much as it defied belief.
Not to be deterred, however, Juventus rebounded at the Bernabeu, as two first-half headers from the returning Mario Mandžukić put the tie on a knife-edge. On the hour mark, Madrid keeper Keylor Navas fumbled a routine cross and allowed Blaise Matuidi to tap home, levelling the contest and sending neutrals into raptures.
Unlike Roma, however, Juventus couldn’t complete the job, as a contentious 90th minute foul by Medhi Benatia on Madrid’s unmarked winger Lucas Vazquez saw Los Blancos awarded a penalty. An emotion Gianluigi Buffon (in his final season at Juventus and chasing a maiden UCL win) was then sent off for his protests before the ice-cool Ronaldo ended seven minutes of tumult and delays with a precise and decisive spot-kick.
These matches left us with Madrid, Liverpool, Roma and Bayern Munich in the last four, with the Bundesliga outfit having dispatched Sevilla comfortably in their quarter-final. Liverpool and Roma were the first sides drawn against one another, with the Reds kicking off the first leg in front of their baying home crowd.
As you would expect, the Reds took full advantage of playing at Anfield in the opening leg, plundering five goals in a bewildering 33-minute period either side of half-time to assume full control of the tie.
Although Roma scored two late goals and managed to win the return leg 4-2, Liverpool defended with enough efficiency while maintaining a threat in the final third to progress 7-6 on aggregate.
In the other tie, it was Madrid who held sway despite being largely dominated by Munich over the two legs. Another clinical counter-attacking display by Los Blancos put the Bavarians to the sword in Germany, as Madrid came from behind to earn a decisive 2-1 win. So, although Munich once again battled hard in the Bernabeu and ultimately came away with a 2-2 draw, profligate finishing prevented them from overturning a 4-3 aggregate defeat.
The Last Word
This years’ tournament has been one of the most memorable in recent times, although it ultimately flattered to deceive from the perspective of British clubs.
While Liverpool have overcome their defensive failings and confounded expectations to reach the final, the failure of any British club to reach the semi-finals have come as a significant disappointment to fans. Sure, Manchester City may well have progressed further had Pep Guardiola not ran into his tactical nemesis in the quarter-final, but the collective and relative failures of Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs highlights the chasm that remains between Britain’s best sides and Europe’s elite.
As for the final, this promises to be a modern-day classic, as Liverpool’s electric and high-tempo forward line take on seasoned and clinical Madrid side is seeking a hat-trick of UCL titles.
Hopefully, these two sides can produce a final that is fitting of the tournament as a whole, particularly if they commit to their historical values of playing fast and attacking football.