Is that it? Has the dust settled? Can I write my Champions League preview article now? Because if I discover – after adding the final, triumphant full stop – that Real Madrid and Chelsea have been suspended from the competition by UEFA and summarily replaced by, say, Trabzonspor and Inter Miami, I will not be best pleased. And it will take more than a polished, grovelling video apology from John Henry to calm me down. (Like all good governing body officials, however, I can be persuaded by a large bundle of cash.)
The Big 6’s moneybags owners carelessly allowed their masks to slip this week, revealing their inner Mr Burns; and, in the process, crossed the line between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy. Which raises a couple of questions: 1) If they’re so rich, why do they choose such awful masks? And 2) After observing a project launch imbued with all the subtlety, timing, and co-ordination of a heavily intoxicated hippopotamus, how on earth did they come to be in charge of our beloved footballing behemoths in the first place?
The Smartest Guys In The Room will surely have some more dreadful money-propelled ideas with which to club the beautiful game about the head. And the bunglers over at UEFA have a couple up their sleeve too. But let’s talk about some actual football while we’ve got a moment to ourselves…
A couple of years ago one would’ve expected the narrative of a Champions League Semi-Final clash between Real Madrid and Chelsea to be centred around the thrilling stratagems of Belgian prestidigitator, Eden Hazard. But the former Blue’s Bernabéu spell has thus far been an underwhelming showcase of untimely injuries. Cheeky observers have also speculated that he may have spent rather more time in the club canteen than in the club treatment room.
Hazard looks unlikely to feature in the first leg, and must already be considered a doubt for the second. Let’s hope that is not the case and we see him filling his belly with succulent goals and delicious chips again in the near future.
Both teams arrive in the sacred waters of the latter stages having navigated a course away from a sea of mid-season mediocrity. Unlike Frank Lampard, the more skilful Zinedine Zidane was able to side-step the descending axe on his faltering stewardship; and, in one swift movement, successfully turned his side’s fortunes around. Karim Benzema’s remarkable Madrid career also continues against the odds, and he too seems to have unearthed an elusive nugget of form precisely when Los Blancos need it the most. With Raphaël Varane returning to plug any defensive leaks, the pieces appear to be falling pleasingly into place for the 13-time Champions.
PSG find themselves in the unusual – and, most-likely, brief – position of being considered one of the ‘good guys’ in European football, having wisely eschewed the initial opportunity to join up with the European Super League’s Gilded Dozen. Another unusual position for PSG is that they are currently in the midst of an unseemly scrap for the Lique 1 title – only un papier à cigarettes currently separating the top four clubs as France’s top division approaches its conclusion.
One would imagine that the Champions League is the priority for PSG and Pochettino; but, in order to overcome Man City, they will need to replicate the rare, happy marriage of hard-work and clinical finishing that took them beyond Bayern Munich in the Quarter-Finals.
Man City’s inability to field the same XI in consecutive games – either due to ill-timed injury or Pep-oriented tinkering – could be affecting their hitherto unbreakable cohesion as the late-season fixtures begin to pile-up. Wouldn’t it be ironic, though, that after all the Abu Dhabi-funded, marquee purchases, it is a lesser-spotted home-grown product – Phil Foden – that ultimately carries the side to European glory? Only Alanis Morissette has the expertise to properly answer that question, but the academy graduate is currently reaching new heights of skill and influence for City, and the timing could not be more propitious.