The style that Manager Pep Guardiola has instilled in City, the movement he has drummed into his players, the quality at his disposal, is too sophisticated, too complex, too high for Wicky’s squad to mimic.
Credit Matthias Balk/DPA, via Associated Press
There are, as Wicky described it, “two worlds.” Manchester City in one, distant and untouchable, and Basel firmly in the other. The chasm between them is too large to bridge, even briefly, even in training, even in tribute.
The first installment of this season’s Champions League knockout rounds bore out Wicky’s assessment in stark fashion. Manchester City swatted Basel aside, beating the perennial Swiss champion, 4-0, and rendering the return leg, in Manchester in March, a formality.
That was not the biggest win of this set of fixtures, though. Liverpool beat F.C. Porto, 5-0, in Porto, and Bayern Munich recorded the same score line against visiting Besiktas, the Turkish champion.
There will, of course, be plenty of drama when the second legs are played next month: Barcelona’s home meeting with Chelsea, Juventus’s visit to Tottenham, even Real Madrid’s trip to Paris Saint-Germain all remain mouthwatering prospects. In Liverpool, Manchester and Istanbul, though, there is next to nothing at stake. Sérgio Conceição, Porto’s coach, has already conceded that all his team can do at Anfield is defend its “honor.”
Taken in isolation, the fact that three of eight ties were so lopsided is not especially remarkable. Even in what is theoretically the most exclusive environment soccer has to offer, not every meeting can be finely balanced: Porto was missing its most potent forward, Vincent Aboubakar; Basel is sputtering domestically; Besiktas played for 75 minutes down a man.
Besides, the history of the Champions League — in its modern incarnation, ever since the European Cup was reimagined in 1992 — is one of imbalance. A rarefied elite has always held sway over the competition, even if its identity has shifted over the years, mapping the ebb and flow of primacy among Europe’s great domestic leagues.
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Italian sides dominated in the 1990s, Spanish teams around the turn of the century, the English Premier League’s Big Four from 2005, and then — starting with Barcelona’s victory in 2009 — the age of the transcontinental superclubs began, with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid streaking away from all challengers. The tournament is the most ruthless sort of meritocracy. It does not indulge those who cannot keep pace.
Read as part of a pattern, though, the fates of Porto, Besiktas and Basel point to something more significant. This season, 306 goals were scored in the competition’s group stages, beating the previous record of 292, set way back in 2001. That in itself could be a quirk of circumstance: Though there have been more goals scored in the group stage in recent years, the level has remained relatively consistent, flitting between 277 and 284.
But the goals are ever more unevenly distributed. This season, for example, P.S.G. scored 25, thanks largely to beating Celtic by 7-1 and 5-0, and Anderlecht by 5-0 and 4-0. Liverpool scored 23, a tally that included back-to-back 7-0 wins against Maribor, of Slovenia, and Spartak Moscow, the Russian champion.
Indeed, according to data provided by Gracenote Sports, a record 29 of the 96 group-stage games this season were won by a margin of at least three goals. The previous best — in 2010 and 2013 — was 25.
The Champions League has always been a competition that brought two worlds together. In recent years, those worlds have grown further apart. What happened to Porto, Basel and Besiktas is a continuation of that trend: It is no longer just the group stages that can seem a procession. The last 16, to some extent, is also afflicted now. Little wonder that José Mourinho, the Manchester United manager, suggested this week that the competition itself only really catches fire in the quarterfinals. Everything before that is simply a tuneup.
The question that should prompt — for UEFA, the competition’s organizer, and for the clubs that comprise it — is whether that is a good thing or not.
At first glance, there is little reason to worry. The Champions League is still soccer’s gold standard. Viewer interest remains high. Prize money — directly related to the amount of income UEFA can derive from sponsorship and television rights — keeps growing. The Champions League has boomed as its pool of potential winners has grown smaller; its strength is in the heights it can reach, not the breadth of its base.
Before 1992, there was always a chance that a team from Romania or Yugoslavia might win the European Cup. Those leagues have long since been disenfranchised, condemned to the sidelines as western Europe’s great powers fight it out among themselves, and the event has not suffered — quite the opposite, in fact.
The European Club Association, a body that represents the continent’s most powerful teams, is convinced that fans want more meetings between the game’s great clubs, not fewer. They have already suggested in negotiations with UEFA various measures to that end, ranging from wild cards for big clubs struggling to qualify on merit to reducing the competition to 24 teams, from 32.
UEFA dismissed that out of hand, but it has ceded ground, suggesting it understands which leagues are the engines of its banner competition. Beginning next year, England, Spain, Germany and Italy will each be guaranteed four entrants to the group stage.
One world is gradually squeezing the other out entirely, and nobody seems to mind.
The worry, though hypothetical, is one that should not be dismissed out of hand. Nobody — not the broadcasters, not the E.C.A., not UEFA — knows precisely where the tipping point is, when things become too stale. Nobody knows what happens when only a dozen or so teams from five leagues dominate a competition that is meant to represent the ultimate ambition for 53 nations and thousands of clubs.
Perhaps there will be no cliff to fall off. Perhaps the Champions League will be at its best when all of its drama is packed into those last few games, when its first eight months are just a warm-up for the real business at the end. Or, perhaps, when one world is left behind entirely, unable to compete — even briefly, even in training, even in tribute — fans will start to switch off.
There are two worlds. Perhaps the task is to find ways to bring them closer together, not simply allow them to drift apart.