Aidan Smith: ‘The Champions League is too smug – until now’

Leicester's run to the last eight of the usually predictable Champions League is refreshing.  Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leicester's run to the last eight of the usually predictable Champions League is refreshing. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Carly Simon was my fourth-form lust object but, as it turned out, she was much more than that – a football prophet, no less. In her most famous song, written when the European Cup was still a lean, dramatic and brilliant tournament for the absolute best, she was talking about the bloated thing it would eventually become.

Wasn’t You’re So Vain supposed to be about Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger or some other self-absorbed ex-lover? The question had fascinated pop aficionados for years, and still does, with Simon admitting in 2015 that the second verse concerned Beatty. But while the actor continued to think he was the sole inspiration, she teased, the rest of the track concerned two other still un-named men.

My favourite line has always been the opener: “You walked into the party like you were walking on to a yacht.” It’s easy, though, to view the song as being about Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich: You walked into the quarter-finals like you were walking on to a yacht.

Or, directly addressing Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski: you walked into the last eight like you were walking on to the set of a watch commercial in Milan, filmed between rounds of the Champions League naturally, when after a few choreographed flicks and smirks, you could bearhug your friendly foes and tell them with pretty much unerring certainty: “See you in the semis, amigos.”

OK, in the world of contrived musical links in the hope that the Sports Editor will use a photograph of the luscious, pouting Simon, this one may take some beating. But surely you can see where I’m coming from. The Champions League is too predictable and too preening. Too self-serving and too smug. Too big and too boring. Until this season.

I’d written these unflattering things often, and as recently as a few weeks ago as the tournament emerged from its winter break. It had lost its magic and I was on the brink of cancelling my BT subscription. Yes, Real, Barça and Bayern are in the quarter-finals again but in Barça’s case only just. And look who else. Not Manchester City, so desperate to join this club of black-card privilege, but Leicester City. And – reminiscent of a time when the Champions League was good – Monaco.

Barça’s incredible comeback against Paris Saint-Germain restored some of the magic, not just to the Champions League but to football in general. Superpowers don’t often evoke romance because they don’t often lose games 4-0. In the delirium of the final moments – three goals from the 88th minute onwards – they almost became plucky strivers overcoming great odds, little guys scripting their own fairytale.

Almost but not quite. Barça are still Barça. A better story has been Leicester City qualifying and Manchester City not qualifying. Leicester went from everyone’s favourite other team to the one we most wanted to see relegated after the cruel sacking of Claudio Ranieri. But their Euro adventure continuing into the last eight has softened that view. Now many want to see if they can go as far as those other unglamorous, cloggy Midlands outfits, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa.

It’s true that Leicester haven’t yet played a Warren Beatty or a Mick Jagger, one of the elite. Atletico Madrid don’t quite come into that category, which is faintly ridiculous given that they’ve made two of the last three finals. They hold the most advanced position of the insurgents at the gates, for sure, and you sense that their manager Diego Simeone, if asked, would adopt the Groucho Marx attitude to an organisation inviting his application for membership. Simeone is an alley cat; he’s Benny Blanco from the Bronx. He seems too streetwise for Leicester but maybe in this Champions League there will be more surprises to come.

Pep Guardiola was pursued by Man City for four years. In that time he’d failed to get Bayern to the final of the Champions League, which compromised his legend somewhat, with one of the exits coming at the hands of Simeone. No matter, decided City: he’d take them all the way to glory. And he may yet do that but it won’t be this season. This is his first term at City but how long does a coaching god get to effect a proper upgrade? England’s Premier League and its media cheerleaders threw garlands at Guardiola’s feet when he arrived. Admittedly they did the same when Louis van Gaal came to Manchester United. He wasn’t the great dugout alchemist as billed. Doubts are now surfacing about Guardiola, which of course enables the Premier League to stick out its chest and proclaim itself the greatest challenge to coaching sophisticates, if not quite the greatest Champions League competitor.

Over the past five years Spain has produced 15 quarter-finalists, England only four. They’ve been outscored, with six, by France, a league which has prompted sneers over its perceived lack of competitiveness. PSG would be champs in perpetuity, went the theory, except exuberant Monaco’s 126 goals already this season seem likely to rubbish it. And Guardiola thought he could outscore this outfit with the joie de attacking vivre.

He was wrong, although it was strange that he still saw fit to chastise his attack for not bagging more than six, which would have been sufficient if he’d deemed the backline worthy of serious attention – but beyond spending £47.5 million on a defender who can’t actually defend, he really didn’t. Guardiola’s method has been criticised as madness. What, your plan B is the same as plan A, with plan C and D looking suspiciously similar as well? Rangers fans not mourning the departure of Mark Warburton will breathe weary sighs. And Pep has something else in common with Warbs: a supercilious air denoting impatience with dolts who dare to question him.

He’s far more fastidious about his attire than his defence, insisting the whole club pull on a grey poloneck to match his. Brian Kidd, an older man and not as svelte, looks particularly uncomfortable. Still, it could be worse. Guardiola could be inspired by Carly Simon to demand apricot scarves all around.