Real Madrid and the Champions League: End of an era?

(Image courtesy of Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

Step aside Real, the reign is over.

As the Champions League returns this week to complete the first legs of the knockout stage, 16 of Europe’s elite remain, and arrive in varying conditions. Two of the tournament’s historic giants meet on Tuesday, as Bayern Munich travel to Anfield to face Liverpool, while 2016 and 2017 runners up Atlético Madrid and Juventus face off on Wednesday.

Real Madrid made it three consecutive triumphs in the competition in 2018, defeating Liverpool in Kiev. In the aforementioned 2016 and 2017 finals, they crushed both their Madrid neighbours’ dreams, as well as those of the Old Lady from Turin. Real are among a strong group of clubs with a realistic claim to the title this time around, as the domestic season enters its final furlong continent-wide. However, this year the final will be held in the Wanda Metropolitano, home of Real’s rivals Atlético, and this is an early prediction that the 13-time winners will not be competing for a four-peat come June 1st.

Of the remaining 16, how can we realistically assess who will be in contention for club football’s greatest prize come June, when it returns to its undisputed home in Madrid? According to the bookmakers, Manchester City are the favourites to claim the 2019 crown, followed closely by Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain and Juventus. It is hard to argue with this, as three of these four are the defending champions of the tournament’s most dominant countries historically – Spain, Italy and England. In fact, 2017/2018’s four champions were so dominant domestically that they won their respective titles by a combined margin of 50 points.

With the turn of the year, each of them are competing once again domestically, having breezed through their Champions League groups with relative ease. City, Barcelona and Juventus all play this midweek, and the former two face potential banana skins, as they travel to Schalke 04 and Olympique Lyonnais respectively. However, these giants should have too much quality in squad depth to be able to swat their opponents aside, whether it be this week or in the reverse fixtures in mid-March. By this point, the real contenders will emerge, as the tournament’s membership is sliced in half to the final eight.

As for Liverpool and Bayern Munich, the winner will back themselves to make a run for glory in early June, with the value of experience in Europe’s elite competition not to be underplayed, particularly in the latter stages. While Bayern last made the final in 2013 (when they defeated the now-Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund), Liverpool rode the crest of a wave which took them all the way to Kiev last May under the same managerial guidance.

Despite prevailing from a testing trip to Amsterdam last week, in which they defeated Ajax 2-1, it seems that Real Madrid’s stronghold over the Champions League has weakened. It is yet to be seen just how much the Real grip has diminished on the continent, but domestically they are barely keeping pace. Real currently sit nine points off their great Catalan rivals, having lost 2-1 at home to Girona in La Liga on Sunday. Since the summer exits of record marksman Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, along with seemingly untouchable manager Zinedine Zidane, Real’s air of invincibility has disappeared almost entirely.

Julen Lopetegui replaced Zidane as manager, and Gareth Bale has been given a more senior role alongside Karim Benzema in the attacking absence of Ronaldo. These two, along with Brazilian wonderkid Vinícius Júnior, have provided the odd spark of life for Real but it has been very much a case of one step forward, two steps back for Los Blancos.

Lopetegui was sacked after the crushing 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in October’s El Clásico, and his replacement Santiago Solari initially steadied the ship, with the end of the Champions League group stages providing light relief from inconsistent league form.  However, in their final group game, Real Madrid were humiliated 3-0 by CSKA Moscow at home, an alarming reminder of the extent of their troubles.

With Real an inconsistent mess, albeit a likely quarter-finalist, and the other favourites starting to reach top form, could their reign come to a dramatic end? In Paris, Kylian Mbappé has started where he left off last season, as a Ligue 1 champion with Paris Saint-Germain and then a breakthrough star in France’s victorious World Cup winning team. In this season’s Champions League, both he and PSG eased their way in to the tournament; despite losing their first game away to Liverpool and drawing home and away against Napoli, PSG came through a tough group C as winners. 

Last Tuesday, PSG turned up at Old Trafford to face a resurgent Manchester United team, buoyed by their upturn in form since the caretaker appointment of cult hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Les Parisiens were missing various star men, none more so than Neymar. The response? An emphatic display led by 20-year-old Mbappé, scorer of a brilliant goal which confirmed the 2-0 victory and all but cemented his side’s place in the last eight. After his heroics in Russia in the summer, who’s to say Mbappé can’t perform similar magic in bringing his club their first ever Champions League triumph, further cementing his place as the future of world football?

As domestic matters heat up, the Champions League’s return provides relief, or added pressure, depending on which European powerhouse you ask. One thing is for sure: this season, it is anyone’s for the taking, and for once Real Madrid do not look among the favourites. However, the same has been said about them before, and if a La Liga triumph becomes increasingly improbable, the 13-time winners might turn their full attention to their favourite competition once again. Real have a special relationship with the trophy, and they can never be written off…

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