The Champions League Group Stage Is Over. So, What Did We Learn?

MANCHESTER, England — Now, as far as José Mourinho is concerned, the Champions League can begin. The Manchester United manager has always regarded the three months of the group phase as little more than a glorified preliminary round. The real action, he feels, “starts in February.”

On this, Mourinho’s bombast is not misplaced. Increasingly, the opening salvos of Europe’s most exclusive club tournament feel like a procession. This most recent edition is a case in point: A familiar lineup of teams, from a familiar list of countries, have qualified for the last 16. Going into the final round of group games, the favorites were in so little jeopardy that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Juventus were all able to advance without a victory.

Only when the knockout stages start in 2019 will their credentials truly be examined; only when they meet will the competition ignite. What, then, can be gleaned from the last 12 weeks or so, if anything? Are there any signs to discern or runes to read? Have we all just been wasting our time?

Teetering Giants

Real Madrid made it despite losing its talisman, sacking its manager and somehow twice losing to CSKA Moscow. Bayern Munich made it despite indulging in a crisis so profound halfway through that its preening potentates had to call a news conference to rail against a “disrespectful” news media. Both, indeed, did more than make it: Both won their groups.

So, too, did Barcelona, the only one of the trio of perennial Champions League favorites to have come close to impressing in the group stage. Same old, same old: Between them, Real, Bayern and Barcelona account for eight of the last 10 winners. And they are all in position again.

Or so it seems. Group stage form is rarely a reliable guide to eventual success — Real, in particular, has an uncanny ability to discover not just a new gear but an entirely different engine when the knockout rounds start — but it is obvious that all three are not at the peak of their powers.

Those two defeats to CSKA aside, Real’s European form has provided an escape from their domestic travails. Bayern wallows nine points behind Borussia Dortmund at the summit of the Bundesliga. Barcelona has wobbled, occasionally, too. All three are at, or near, to the end of a cycle; Real and Bayern, certainly, are contemplating comprehensive overhauls this summer regardless of how the season turns out.

All of which means that those clubs who have labored in their shadows for a decade have a mouthwatering opportunity: Atlético Madrid and Juventus, each with two losses in the final in the last six years, certainly, but also the supercharged pretenders to the throne: Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

For both clubs, the Champions League is the Holy Grail — if not for their fans, then certainly for their soft-power-seeking owners. This is the trophy they have spent billions to acquire, the ultimate proof of their transformative power. It is why P.S.G. made Neymar the most expensive player in history, and Kylian Mbappé the second; it is why City designed a whole club just for Pep Guardiola.

Until now, the expertise and experience of Real, Barcelona and Bayern has kept them at arm’s reach. With their strength waning, this is the moment of opportunity for the arrivistes, and they may never have a better one. This could be the end of an era, or it may just be a lacuna. At some point, the old guard will roar back. This is not the year to miss out.

Team of the Round

Borussia Dortmund’s impossibly young squad has a verve and a fearlessness that has caught the eye, but it is the restoration of Ajax, under Erik ten Hag, that stirs the soul. He has built his team around two superstars-in-waiting, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. This will, in all likelihood, be their last Champions League campaign in those famous old jerseys. Enjoy them while you can.

Lionel Messi’s Personal Mission

Lionel Messi has won the Champions League four times. He was part of the Barcelona squad — though not, in the end, part of the team — that triumphed in Paris in 2006; in Barcelona’s victories in 2009, 2011 and 2015, he was at the heart of everything.

There is as much time and energy dedicated to assessing Messi’s frame of mind as was once expended on reading the latest machinations behind the high walls of the Kremlin, but what has become abundantly clear this season is that he has decided that is not nearly enough.

Messi’s form this year has been imperious. Quite what is driving it depends, to an extent, on who you ask. Some would suggest he felt slighted at finishing fifth in the voting for the Ballon d’Or earlier this month, losing out to Luka Modric, just as he did in FIFA’s rival The Best award.

Fans never know quite how seriously to take those prizes. Traditionally, they are additional trinkets rather than genuine ambitions. The voting methods tend to be flawed in some way; the annual publication of the voting lists for FIFA’s version tend to underscore the fact that politics comes, for some, above sporting merit.

Players, though, take them very seriously; their sheen has only been increased by the fervor with which Messi and his great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, have tried to accumulate them.

Securing a fifth Champions League — which would bring him level with Ronaldo — seems to be an even more potent motivating factor for Messi. He may have come to terms with the idea that he is unlikely to win a World Cup with Argentina; if he is to burnish his legend yet further, it will have to be in Europe. Four is not a bad haul, but arguably the finest player of all time may feel he warrants more.

Barcelona seemed set fair to make the final, at least, last year, only to come unstuck against Roma in the quarterfinal. The previous season, Juventus tore Messi’s team to shreds in Turin. He is playing like a man determined not to fall to the same fate again.

Game of the Round

Red Star Belgrade’s 2-0 win against Liverpool not only left Group C on a knife-edge but reminded, briefly, the greedy, self-regarding leagues of western Europe of the dangers that used to — and still can — lurk in the east, the peril that made this competition special in the first place. There were higher-quality games, more-dramatic games, more-beautiful games, but none meant quite so much.

Fine Margins, but Failure Nonetheless

As part of the endless appeasement of Europe’s biggest, most powerful clubs, UEFA agreed that — from this season onward — each of Europe’s big four leagues would be guaranteed four places in the Champions League’s group stages.

No longer would the team that finished fourth in the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga or the Bundesliga be subjected to the indignity of actually having to qualify for a tournament: They would all have automatic access to the most lucrative stage of the competition.

Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA’s president, had been given little choice but to make the concession. Every time the Champions League television rights are due for renegotiation, the elite clubs of England, Spain, Italy and Germany threaten to walk away from the competition and set up their own tournament unless they are given a greater slice of the broadcast revenue and more special treatment. This was the latest demand.

Ceferin was clear, though, that this was his line in the sand: He would go no further, whatever the next threat. He would not — as the major leagues had suggested — reduce the competition to 24 teams. UEFA, he felt, had already succumbed enough.

The country that benefited most, without question, was Italy. Serie A, under the competition’s previous provisions, had just three places, full stop, one of which was dependent on a successful qualifier. Now, Juventus, A.S. Roma, Napoli and Internazionale would all be parachuted straight into the group stage.

It is hard to argue that it has entirely earned that status. England sent four teams to the last 16; Germany and Spain three apiece. Italy has only two: Juventus and Roma.

There are mitigating circumstances. Napoli can rightly feel that the draw for the group stage was unkind, pairing Carlo Ancelotti’s team with both P.S.G. and Liverpool; Inter, seeded in the lowest tier of teams, was always likely to face an uphill struggle.

And the margins of failure were fine, too. It is not difficult to imagine a world in which four Italian teams made it, and only two from England: Napoli would have qualified at Liverpool’s expense had Arkadiusz Milik managed to evade the sprawling limbs of goalkeeper Alisson Becker in the dying seconds at Anfield; a single goal — either for Inter or Barcelona — would have sent Inter through, rather than Tottenham.

It is still, though, an unfortunately timed blow for Serie A. Ceferin may see it differently, of course. Perhaps the major nations should have to earn special dispensation, rather than simply having it handed to them.

The Group Winner to Draw

F.C. Porto won its group with ease — dropping just two points on the way — but will still be the plum opponent for any of the heavyweights reduced to runner-up status. Liverpool beat Sérgio Conceicão’s team, 5-0, in northern Portugal in last year’s last Round of 16; Porto will be determined to ensure there is no repeat, if only for personal dignity, but Manchester United, Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and the rest will be hoping for a February visit to the banks of the Douro.

Time to Shine

Real Madrid’s legacy is apparent in Paris, where Neymar, all $252 million of him, carries the hopes of a club and at least one nation. It is there in Turin, where Cristiano Ronaldo is heralded as the man to break the club’s curse. It is there, too, in Manchester, though its form contorted and its message altered, where Pep Guardiola is supposed to be the savior.

Across Europe, elite clubs have spent huge amounts of time and even greater amounts of money to try to crack soccer’s code. They draw up complex recruitment strategies and hire impeccably qualified data analysts. Teams of scouts pore over footage of opponents, probing for weaknesses; medical staff swab players’ mouths every morning, trying to determine the precise level of hydration they require that day.

Soccer has become obsessed — rightly, in large part — with process; it operates — rightly, in large part — under the belief that the most marginal of gains could be significant, that by being smarter than their opponents they can be more successful.

They do all that stuff at Real Madrid, too, but they see the game rather differently. Real Madrid stands at odds with the sport’s zeitgeist. To Florentino Pérez, the club’s president, soccer is much more simple than that. It is, at heart, a game of individuals. If you have the best ones, then you win.

At the very highest level, his peers seem to have decided he is right. P.S.G. bought Neymar to be their superstar, their game-breaker, because being smarter was not quick enough. No club in Europe has been cleverer these last few years than Juventus, but even it could not turn down the chance to sign Ronaldo.

At Manchester City, the savior complex attaches to the coach, the man who oversees all of those systems, rather than the players who benefit from them: to Guardiola, the shortcut to a place among the true elite.

All three shone in bursts in the group stage, and all three will be expected to do more than that once the knockout games come. Neymar left Barcelona to emerge from Messi’s shadow. Ronaldo left Real Madrid because the club felt he belonged to the past, not the future — and he disagreed. Guardiola has not won a Champions League since 2011; seven years is too long for the finest coach of his generation. Now is the time for them to prove they were worth the money, and the belief.

The Runner-Up to Avoid

Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid might have been ripped to shreds by a reinvigorated Borussia Dortmund, and it might have closed its group stage campaign with a dispiriting draw at Club Brugge, but it still presents a uniquely physical, exacting challenge. The fact it cannot face another Spanish team, or Dortmund, in the last 16 means that either Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Bayern Munich or Porto will draw the short straw.

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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