The Union of European Football Associations Champions League is the unquestioned pinnacle of each club soccer season, and for good reason: not only is it the only competition that combines all of the top European teams from across leagues, but it also has the most volatility and unpredictability, leaving its fans on the edge of their seats from start to finish.
The knockout format creates drama, in which every result carries greater consequence than it would in 38-match domestic league campaigns. In addition, the participation of all the top teams creates a competition in which five to 10 teams legitimately can win the trophy each season.
Also, smaller teams have enjoyed deep runs when compared to the champions of major domestic leagues, with Ajax and Tottenham having success last season. For these reasons, in recent years more than ever, the Champions League has become the defining event not only for fans, but also for the legacy of players and managers.
Although the Champions League is clearly the most exciting competition to watch, there is now too much of an emphasis placed on the results of the Champions League when it comes to judging players and coaches.
The last Champions League campaign exemplified this perfectly. Both Barcelona and Manchester City displayed dominant form in their league and impressively won their league titles, with Manchester City winning their final 14 league matches to top Champions League winners Liverpool for the Premier League title.
Both teams came up short by miniscule margins in their Champions League efforts, with Manchester City losing on away goals to Tottenham after a stoppage time Raheem Sterling goal, which was ruled off after VAR determined he was fractionally offside. Meanwhile, Barcelona was unable to hold onto a 3-0 first leg lead, losing the second leg 4-0 in the semifinals to Liverpool, despite star Lionel Messi creating a plethora of chances for his teammates.
As a result of their defeat, Manchester City Coach Pep Guardiola faced a ton of criticism and backlash in continuing a trend of Champions League failure. Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde’s job is also under immense pressure, despite winning La Liga in his first two seasons.
Messi was also snubbed for the UEFA Player of the Year award, despite being the top goal scorer in all European leagues and the top scorer in the Champions League, losing the award to Virgil van Dijk, despite Messi scoring two goals against the Liverpool defender in their Champions League matchup. The last five Ballon d’Or winners have also come from teams who have won the Champions League.
The Champions League should matter when it comes to judging players, as it is the premier club competition in Europe and every team’s goal, but we as fans should also understand these 180-minute ties are decided by such small margins that they should not be what defines how we judge the club season. However, two teams’ ultimate standing relative to one another being determined by a mere two matches lets randomness and volatility take over, brewing the suspense even further.
While this may not be as exciting for fans, league campaigns should perhaps still be the most important criteria we use when it comes to defining players and teams. League campaigns span over the whole season, while Champions League knockout rounds only span a few months. While it may be less exciting to watch Messi and Barcelona square off against a team like Sevilla than Liverpool, the match still happens, and it should receive the emphasis and respect from fans and pundits that it deserves.
External factors, such as draws, refereeing decisions, suspensions and injuries can play a massive factor in determining who goes through in a Champions League tie, but in a 38-match league, the best and most consistent team almost always wins. However, in recent years, league success has become almost a footnote, even in leagues such as the Premier League and La Liga, in which multiple great teams have legitimate chances of winning.
Ultimately, while we all should and will continue to enjoy the Champions League, we should do more to take into account the volatile nature and the elements of randomness that make the competition so much fun to watch when it comes to judging the seasons of players, managers and teams.