Never can there have been a major final that has seemed so absurdly unpredictable as next week’s meeting of Real Madrid and Liverpool.
It’s not merely that either side could win, but that either side could hammer their opponents. There is a giddiness, a recklessness, about the latter stages of the Champions League at present that is producing football that may not be of great quality but is certainly of great drama.
The Swiss-based CIES Football Observatory published a survey last month that showed that 21 per cent of all Champions League games finished with a winning margin of three or more goals, making it the third least-balanced competition in Europe. That’s perhaps not a particular surprise: the group stage is full of the elite beating up teams of more limited resources.
But what’s odd is that the trend continues into the quarter-finals and beyond, when the disparity between sides should no longer be so great.
In the eight seasons before this one, 21 of 104 games in the quarter-finals or later have finished with a winning margin of three or more; in the eight seasons before that there were only eight. This season, there have been five. Three-goal leads suddenly don’t seem safe any more, while the 13 goals in Liverpool’s semi-final against Roma were a Champions league record.
The question is why, to which there seem a number of inter-related answers. In part, there has been a general shift in club football towards attacking, which in turn is the result of the liberalisation of the offside law, a more proactive approach towards stamping out intimidatory tackling and perhaps also a general fashion for possession-based attacking football in the wake of Barcelona’s successes of a decade ago.
There has also been a growing inequality of resources. Bayern, Juventus and PSG are almost entirely dominant in Germany, Italy and France, while Barcelona and Real Madrid rule in Spain. Teams are tested only rarely and that means, inevitably, that the focus becomes less on defending than on ball-playing. It’s far more important, week-to-week, that a central defender can initiate attacks than that he can mark an opposing forward out of the game.
But it’s not just about technical ability. There’s also a question of mentality. Top teams seem to have become so used to winning with ease that they have forgotten how to fight. Even in England, where there is at least notionally a big six, Manchester City have proved irresistible up to the point at which somebody does resist them, at which they have tended to collapse.
That’s a general issue. But the other trend to have emerged from this season’s Champions League is how English teams, as they did when they dominated European competition 35-40 years ago, have begun to look quicker and more aggressive than their rivals (Manchester United excepted). Juventus, in the second leg of their quarter-final, outmuscled and outpaced Real Madrid, yet they had themselves been physically overpowered by Tottenham. Similarly, Barcelona looked slow and sluggish against both Chelsea and Roma, who were then blown away by Liverpool.
There has been a suggestion over the past couple of weeks that Liverpool have looked tired, and given the injuries that have reduced them to essentially a first XI with no back-up, and the frenetic pace they prefer, that is understandable. But if they can play with the verve they showed in the first legs of their three knockout ties so far, it’s hard to see how Madrid can cope.
That’s not the only if, though. Liverpool are vulnerable. Their tie against Roma seemed won with them 5-0 up after 80 minutes of the first leg and yet they ended up going through by a single goal. This is a team that has conceded three or more goals eight times this season.
It’s true they’ve tightened up to an extent since the arrival of Virgil van Dijk in January but that remains a remarkable record for potential European champions.
The battle between the Premier League’s top scorer, Mohamed Salah, and Marcelo, a full-back who barely defends, could be both key and representative. Salah was left upfield against Roma to exploit the space behind Aleksandr Kolarov. If the same happens again and Jurgen Klopp calls Real Madrid’s bluff, Trent Alexander-Arnold could end up being the only player on that flank doing any defending at all.
There is a sense of anarchy about the game, a feeling that neither side is really capable of exerting control, that anything could happen. Whether that is good football can be debated, but it should be fun.