As we head to Matchday 6 in the final round of the UEFA Champions League, the teams are jostling for positions in the group looking around unsure whether to stick or twist.
I read an article about Arsenal a few weeks ago, and how their victory over Montpellier was important, and that the group stage was all about ‘hunting Schalke’. That reaching that coveted top spot was all important to their fortunes in the competition and future possible entries.
In the past few tournaments, I’d have nodded along in agreement. As an armchair fan (of sorts) I’d be sat on my swivel chair watching both games, flicking between both matches every few minutes to get an update as to what the other team was doing, hopeful that whoever seemed the biggest threat within the group would drop points in their game that very night. It meant everything, because you don’t want to be facing Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the next round, that would be too ‘difficult’.
The only way to win the UEFA Champions League, the greatest club tournament competition would be by sneaking in through the back door of the draw, playing the worst teams. As an Arsenal fan for almost 20 years, I have no shame it admitting that was the only way I could see Arsenal winning.
But that all changed from last season when finally, against none of the odds, Arsenal did what was expected of them for once, and finished 1st in their group, the route to the Champions League Final would be much ‘easier’ now, meeting weaker opposition in the next round of the competition. Anyone finishing at the top of their group would be facing a team who had finished 2nd. But last season, AC Milan, 7-times winner of the competition were that supposed weaker opponent. We all know what happened next and that was where the Arsenal FC train ended their Uefa Champions League quest for another year.
So here we are again, one game to go, one point behind Schalke and hoping to bypass them in the final group game. Only look around the tables at the current group leaders, FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Borussia Dortmund, these are not the number one seeded teams in the pot. European Football is changing. Ask Real Madrid, with players that no one would question are some of the finest in the world in every position. Ask Paris St Germain the ‘nouveau riche’ French side and Chelsea, the current European Champions: these are all sides which need no introduction and yet none of them are leading their group. And because of the performances of the group leaders, things are starting to take shape, new teams are starting to show up.
Jose Mourinho, current manager of Spanish giants Real Madrid, quoted after Matchday 6 when asked about how he felt about the likelyhood of finishing 2nd and he said in true Mourinho fashion that he ‘isn’t worried about the teams in 1st place and coming up against them, it’s those teams that should be afraid of facing Real Madrid.’
So now, I cannot agree with anyone who says that its important to finish top of your group. The key thing is to get out of the group, and then get through the next round, and possibly the next round and so on, then get to the final and beat that team too. ‘Simple’. And that’s what I tell myself before I go to bed every night. Because there are no easy teams in this competition, there are no easy rides, it’s the Champions League where the best teams in Europe are fighting it out to be called the best
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