Themes from this season’s Champions League: Germany’s rise to Man City’s stumbling block

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Real rule supreme

Francisco Gento’s record of six European Cup victories was one of those records that seemed untouchable, belonging to the era of football scrapbooks. And yet Dani Carvajal, scorer of Real Madrid’s first goal in the final, and Luka Modrić equaled the legendary winger’s total with Madrid’s 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. Toni Kroos joined in his last club match after winning five with Real to add to his 2013 Champions League title with Bayern Munich.

Real Madrid reigns supreme once again, and to complain that a weak, sub-par Champions League will be won by the Spanish club as a fait accompli is to ignore the club’s infrastructure. Carlo Ancelotti may be a cool figure, but he leads a very technocratic outfit, with his son Davide just one of the many powers behind the throne.

Juni Calafat is the lead scout who has brought in Rodrygo, Vinícius Júnior, Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Jude Bellingham. Such talent is then ingrained in the winning mentality, which is an indelible part of the club’s makeup. The likes of Carvajal, hardly the best footballer in the world, and Nacho, the ever-reliable defender, add backbone and authority in the dressing room. The importance of such players to emulate has been denied by a number of clubs aspiring to Madrid’s heights.

Stars of the season

As Vinícius continues his inexorable march towards the Ballon d’Or, the stars of this season’s Champions League represent a strange mix of newer names and reliable perennials. Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappé finished as joint top scorers. At Porto, Pepe showed all his old tricks at the age of 41 to become the league’s oldest goalscorer, while Ukrainian goalkeeper Andriy Lunin was excellent for Real Madrid before being dropped in favor of Thibaut Courtois for Wembley. Dortmund goalkeeper Gregor Kobel also had an excellent campaign.

Kroos signed off in style for the champions and showed that players like Bellingham have a lot to match in midfield. To find some more unlikely heroes, Joselu’s two goals in the semi-final against Bayern maintained Stoke City’s iron grip on the competition, while Niclas Füllkrug’s performance reminded us that great centre-forwards still have their place in the modern game. Marcel Sabitzer, rejected by both Bayern and Manchester United, had an excellent season in Dortmund’s midfield.

Mats Hummels turned back the years, while his Dortmund colleague Julian Ryerson excelled as an attacking full-back, with Julian Brandt also showing his attacking talents. If Manchester City disappointed, Phil Foden took more steps away from Kevin De Bruyne’s shadow with five goals and three assists. And of those who left early, Antoine Griezmann graced the group stage in an Atlético shirt.

Farewell to group stage as we knew it

Farewell then, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, where the competing 32 clubs will aim to reach the last 16 stage by gaining around 10 points. Also farewell to the glitzy group stage draw, which saw the great and the good sit in an airless room while master of ceremonies Giorgio Marchetti takes over from Pedro Pinto. Giorgio’s lounge act will have to wait until the knockout draw. All hail the Swiss system, where the algorithmic quirks mean a supercomputer has to pull things out of the hat in the style of a lottery machine.

Goodbye warm balls, hello Dominion-esque conspiracy theories about the plots against your club. And all this after a season in which the group stage did indeed produce some decent games and bloodied the noses of Manchester United, Milan and Newcastle, who all exited the competition. Shakhtar Donetsk, the club without a home, almost emerged from a group with Barcelona and Porto, beating Barcelona on an emotional evening in Hamburg.

Au revoir, PSG

With Mbappé heading to Real Madrid, along with Brazil’s next star, Endrick, perhaps a new Galácticos era will begin. It also marks the end of PSG’s vain attempt to copy the early 2000s Madrid constellation of Zinedine Zidane, Luís Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham by pairing Neymar and Lionel Messi with Mbappé.

With the first two gone and largely unregretted, Mbappe’s final dance was a worthy attempt to put PSG on the podium. Finally conquer the Champions League. Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé put Barcelona to the sword in the quarter-final, and Dortmund looked like a friendly semi-draw, only for the big man to shake up his lines in the second leg. There was also bad luck: Warren Zaire-Emery, Nuno Mendes, Mbappé and Vitinha each hit the woodwork. There was a terrible outcome and setback, with Gonçalo Ramos perhaps the most guilty.

Mbappe will now head to Madrid to try and win the trophy he most desires. But PSG can now, with the likes of Zaire-Emery, Vitinha and Lucas Beraldo, and under the adept management of Luis Enrique, try to build a different team, one that is no longer dependent on a star system.

German football is on the rise

If players like Karim Adeyemi and Füllkrug had been more adept in front of goal at Wembley, German football could have ended a fantastic Bundesliga season in the best possible style. It ended with both Bayer Leverkusen – undefeated champions – and Dortmund losing in their respective European finals, but German football has asserted itself ahead of the 2024 European Championship.

If Bayern Munich disappointed at home, they were close to denying Madrid in the semi-final; a premature offside flag from Polish official Tomasz Listkiewicz ended the action that should have ended with Matthijs de Ligt scoring the equalizer at the Bernabéu. German football has recently been seen as a talent factory for coaches and players, but the clubs showed that they should not be underestimated. Dortmund were much the better team in the Wembley final until Madrid went one step further.

Premier League supremacy is taking a blow

Our league, this league, the EPL, whatever you want to call it, was given a blow in the Champions League this season. Having won two of the last three and with Manchester City finding themselves in the imperial stage, the Wembley final was expected to feature one, if not two, Premier League clubs.

Then came the terrible performances of Newcastle and Manchester United, both of whom disappeared from Europe completely. Erik ten Hag’s side were involved in a series of matches in which they were twice at the end of barely credible comebacks by FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray. Arsenal paraded confidently through England and Europe until the revival of their Bayern Munich hoodoo.

What about the city? Real Madrid showed that when it comes to the Champions League, one empire rules the rest – and the importance of taking risks when they really matter. Revenge was served cold and the failure against Madrid was another of those occasions when Pep Guardiola abandoned simplicity for an advanced tactical plan. These were two legs that Erling Haaland regretted. The result: Premier League clubs are all eliminated in the quarter-finals. Before that, there was the widespread conceit that only Liverpool could stop City from defending its crown. Still, they should just win the Europa League, right?

Yet it could be worse. Or better? Italy will have six Champions League teams next season due to the co-efficient performances in the three European competitions, but only two teams came together in the last 16.

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