What the hell’s the Champions League?
Good question! It’s maybe the best tournament in sports.
We’ve got your attention now, don’t we. Simply enough, the Champions League is a tournament involving the top soccer clubs from Europe’s domestic leagues — for example, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, and so on. There are 53 member associations, and each one sends a different amount of teams based on how prestigious it is. (So like, England, Spain, and Italy get four, Germany, France, and Russia get three, and so on. This year, England’s were Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal.)
Oh, word. So how’s it work?
First up, there are early stages for the last qualifiers from bigger leagues and the only qualifiers from smaller leagues. Winners of these move on to the group stage, which is the meat of the tournament, with 32 teams spread across eight groups. 16 teams advance from there, and each team plays a home-and-away series against every other team in its group.
That’s where the Manchester Uniteds and Barcelonas of the world start playing, right?
Exactly. But also, some smaller teams sneak in as well, and usually end up getting eviscerated. This year, Croatian squad Dinamo Zagreb scored three goals and surrendered 22 in its six games of group play. Poor Dinamo Zagreb :(
Do any of them squeak through? Who’s the Ohio University of this year’s Champions League?
That would be APOEL, which hails from the major soccer power of Cyprus. (Cyprus is not a major soccer power.) APOEL won its group and then beat Lyon in the round of 16 (in penalties!). Now it has the undesirable task of knocking off legendary Spanish club Real Madrid and one of the best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Is every other team in the quarterfinals English?
Actually! Only one EPL team made it to the quarters. Man U and Man City didn’t even survive group play, and Arsenal lost in the round of 16 to Italian club AC Milan. Chelsea will play Benfica, one of the two major Portuguese clubs. (The other, Porto, didn’t survive group play.)
Give it to me country-by-country.
You’re so international. OK: the round of 16 looked like this:
France — 2 (Marseille, Lyon)
Italy — 3 (Inter, Napoli, Milan)
Switzerland — 1 (Basel)
Cyprus — 1 (APOEL)
Russia — 2 (CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg)
Spain — 2 (Real Madrid, Barcelona)
Germany — 2 (Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen)
Portugal — 1 (Benfica)
England — 2 (Chelsea, Arsenal)
That means, out of the 52 nations that sent teams to the Champions League — Liechtenstein is a UEFA member but wasn’t represented in the field — the final 16 squads came from only nine countries. The last eight come from seven countries, with only Spain — the second-rated league, behind England — moving on two clubs.
Cool. Who’s playing who? And who’s going to win?
Well, APOEL has Real Madrid, and conventional wisdom states that they don’t have a chance in hell — Real is stacked, with Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, and goalkeeper Casillas among the “Galacticos” that orbit around Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s talk that this is the biggest mismatch in the history of the Champions League quarterfinals. But if you want to see a true underdog, APOEL’s your guys.
Meanwhile, Benfica and Chelsea are more evenly matched, especially with the recent upheaval at Chelsea, as they fired their manager only a month or so ago. Marseille will be without their goalkeeper/captain in the first leg against Bayern, making an uphill battle even steeper. Milan, poor devils, have to play one of the best soccer teams ever assembled in Barcelona, featuring possibly the best player to ever set foot on a pitch, Lionel Messi.
Those are bold words.
Yeah, well, just wait. Messi scored five goals in one game last round. And Milan’s most recent Champions League result was an 0-3 loss to Arsenal; fortunately, they’d beaten Arsenal 4-0 in the first leg, so they still advanced.
So we’re probably looking at…
Bayern vs. Real Madrid in one semifinal, and Chelsea vs. Barcelona in the other, with an all-Spanish finals of Real Madrid and Barcelona. That would be great, since the two clubs have an ongoing rivalry; each of their games is known as El Clasico, and if a Champions League finals saw that matchup, it could be one of the most-watched soccer games in history.
Fun! When’s it on?
First legs of APOEL-Real and Benfica-Chelsea are Tuesday, March 27; second legs are Tuesday, April 3. First legs of Marseille-Bayern and Milan-Barcelona are Wednesday, March 28; second legs are Wednesday, April 4.
If I had to pick one player on each team to keep an eye on, who should I choose?
Barcelona: Lionel Messi, Forward (Argentinian)
Real Madrid: Cristiano Ronaldo, Forward/Winger (Portuguese)
Bayern Munich: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Midfielder (German)
Benfica: Nicolas Gaitan, Winger (Argentinian)
Marseille: Loic Remy, Forward (French)
APOEL: Paulo Jorge, Center-back (Portuguese)
Chelsea: John Terry, Center-back (English)
Milan: Zlatan Ibrahimovic Forward (Swedish)