Things to watch out for in the Champions League knockouts
With Jadon Sancho gracing the front cover of FourFourTwo’s March 2019 Champions League special as the world’s biggest club competition returned from its winter hibernation, their gaze also turned to other notable questions from the knockouts. Such as…
BARCELONA: Messi’s mission to reclaim the throne
Last time Leo Messi wasn’t in the Ballon d’Or top three, Tony Blair and George W Bush were in power and Marcus Rashford was at primary school. But last December the Argentinian was painfully pushed off the podium for the first time since 2006.
Messi hasn’t become a bad player since turning 30 in June 1987: his 34 goals in 36 la Liga games helped Barcelona steamroll to yet another league title in 2017/18. But in an international tournament year, domestic dominance isn’t always enough to grab the golden ball, and with Argentina leaving the World Cup at the first knockout stage he was duly elbowed aside by summer finalist Luka Modric, winner Antoine Griezmann and – but of course – triple Champions League winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
But while he considers whether to take one last shot at Albiceleste glory at this summer’s Copa America, Messi can concentrate on making his case for a record sixth Ballon d’Or – edging ahead of his Madeiran mate – by dragging Barcelona back to the sort of European summit that doesn’t involve Angela Merkel.
Leading the Blaugrana to glory wouldn’t be entirely altruistic. On the last three occasions they have been European champions (2009, 2011 and 2015), guess who’s grabbed the subsequent Ballon d’Or?
By those standards, both club and player have gone through comparatively lean times. Messi has only bagged one Ballon in the last six years; Barça have only conquered Europe once in the last seven attempts. And whether by correlation or causation, their struggles have gone hand in hand.
Since obliterating Bayer Leverkusen with a five-goal spree in March 2012, Messi has scored 14 goals in 32 knockout games: hardly humiliating, but well below his usual run-rate. Away from Camp Nou, he’s scored just five – four of them, intriguingly, in England – in 17 knockout trips.
Uncoincidentally, over the same period Barça have had their own travel travails, failing to trouble the scorers in knockout legs at Milan (twice), Chelsea, Bayern (twice), Atletico (twice), PSG, Juventus and Roma. It would be a major surprise if the Catalans can’t overcome a Lyon side who haven’t reached the knockouts since 2012, but tougher tests await if the team and its captain are to regain their place atop the scheme of things.
JUVENTUS: Ronaldo vs the Old Lady curse
For a sport drenched in cutting-edge quantitative analysis, football remains curiously superstitious. Few other realms of 21st-century endeavour could so easily tolerate talk of curses and bogeymen. But then, Juventus’s Champions League curse started in the 20th century.
In 1996, Marcello Lippi’s side beat holders Ajax in the final. It was only Juve’s second time as continental champions, the other coming at Heysel in 1985. They’ve since reached five finals fruitlessly, and – worse – not got past the quarters on 11 occasions. Recently, and despite domestic domination, they have oscillated between the two unfavourable outcomes: runners-up in 2015 and 2017, early exiteers in 2016 and 2018.
Those early losses were down to a very unJuventian defensive fallibility, especially at home. In 2016, they had to come from 2-0 down to draw with Bayern, who finished the job in Bavaria; last spring, Spurs did the reverse in Turin, and although Juve’s Wembley win saw them into the quarters, they were ruthlessly despatched 3-0 in the home first leg by Real Madrid.
Scoring twice that night was a certain Madeiran; back in Madrid, he also scored the 98th-minute penalty that ended Juve’s brave comeback (and thus Gigi Buffon’s continental career). Forget any lingering accusations of flat-track bullying in bloated group stages: Cristiano Ronaldo scored 50 goals in 52 Champions League knockout appearances for el Real.
Before signing Ronaldo, Madrid – no strangers to the concept of a Euro hoodoo – lost at the first knockout stage five times on the bounce. They did it again in 2010 but in his eight subsequent seasons they reached the semis four times and won the pot four times. You may or may not like him, but you’d be churlish not to admire him.
For Juventus, CR7 has sparkled in Serie A but only scored once in five Champions League performances, a #narrative opener at Old Trafford that didn’t matter anyway as Manchester United came back to win 2-1. He’ll also be 34 by the time they face Atletico in the first knockout stage. If Max Allegri’s side are to return to the Wanda Metropolitano for the final on June 1, they’ll need their defence to do what they should – and their main man to do what he does.