After the thrill, arrived the dread. No more football to watch for an entire day. Sure, in a certain corner of the world, some teams may have squared up on Thursday. But Tottenham Hotspur’s smash-and-grab win over Ajax Amsterdam had turned out to be a heady aperitif. You wanted more football, more drama. And you wanted it to resume that very moment.
Just like it is during the World Cup when one’s circadian rhythms are guided by a referee’s whistle. One match after another. And another. The festival of football accustoms us to shift our attention to the next game even before the hysteria of the previous encounter has caught its breath. Alas! No such joy in the Champions League.
Spurs scored thrice in the span of 40 minutes to complete a thrilling comeback win over Ajax. Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
But the past few months have broken down the entertainment into satisfying morsels over days and weeks. When Ajax thumped Real Madrid 4-1at the Santiago Bernabeu in early March, it was the kind of aberration one had almost forgotten in club football. The champions of three previous editions were bested by an old giant that now inhabits a much inferior economic reality.
But then came Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain. Juventus vs Atletico Madrid. Ajax against Juventus. Spurs against Manchester City. And this week, Liverpool overturned a three-goal deficit from the first leg to stun Barcelona before Tottenham once again shocked observers in Amsterdam. Shocks galore, humming with different strains and modes. This is already a Champions League season like no other, and we still have a final to play. The drama and the shocks have suspended disbelief for so long that you suspect it was doping.
The numbers tell a part of the story. Until 2017, only six times had a three-goal lead been overturned in the European Cup or the Champions League. We have had the same number of turnarounds in the past two and a half years, as Jonathan Wilson noted in The Guardian. Do the moments of insanity point towards a now-familiar disregard for defending among elite sides? Or do they signify something greater, a pushing of the boundaries?
Probably a bit of both. Teams in the Champions League football like to play on the front foot and they are not usually comfortable when the shoe is on the other foot. Arguably, nobody epitomises this malaise better than Barcelona who have now thrown away a three-goal lead in consecutive campaigns. But Liverpool believed they could send the Catalan giants packing in spite of the absent Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino because the memory of the Romantada is still fresh. And Spurs did not give up on Wednesday, even though the north Londoners required three goals in 40 minutes, as the previous night’s exploits at Anfield had not gone unnoticed.
It does feel strange to celebrate the Champions League in the era of the “super club” when a dull group stage has come to be an inescapable routine. The super rich in European football tend to get their way. This season, Red Star Belgrade’s win over Liverpool was a pleasant surprise before Ajax’s stunning run to the semis. But even these developments are unlikely to herald a tectonic shift in the continent’s football. Instead, they might be the last reminders of a richer competition before a seemingly inevitable European Super League atrophies the pretence of fairness.
So, how should we remember this most incredible Champions League campaign? The story of Ajax is insuperable and imbued with symbolism. A club that was once part of European royalty; a team that is built with academy products and value signings; and a side that epitomises the tenets of positional play and attacking football that has defined Dutch football for decades. Before Spurs stole the Amsterdam club’s thunder, the neutral’s darling had barely put a foot wrong. Ajax’s success served as a reminder of the times when money was still only one of the concerns.
No other club in this season’s Champions League battled similar odds. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool might be short on title-winning experience but their financial reality and personnel are nearly unmatched in football. Tottenham possesses even lesser pedigree but they are still among the richest clubs in the world. Four-time European champions Ajax can only wish of stepping on to those shiny plinths.
A more democratising impulse in European football would be able to sustain the colour and drama witnessed this week. A Super League, on the other hand, may provide football of the highest quality but the thrills and spills are likely to alienate as well. This should worry football fans who have been stirred by Ajax’s run to the semi-finals. Unfortunately, a repeat of such an achievement is unlikely to be on the cards anytime soon — no matter how many surprises football offers.
This season’s Champions League deserves to be cherished in the drawers of memory. But years later, when some of us will look back at the competition, we could be filled with a tinge of regret at how things used to be.