Football is cyclical. That’s what my dad always told me when I was a kid. No team can go on winning forever and ever. As a Manchester United fan who had to suffer the glee of Liverpool supporting colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s, such a belief probably gave him comfort. For my United supporting generation, it was more of a foreboding.
Sometimes, it’s not only a team, but a whole footballing nation that can have a sustained period of success. In the 1990s, for example, it was Italy. I remember watching Italian games on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid, and wondering if it was really fair that about eight teams in Serie A had at least two world class forwards.
In recent years it’s been Spain’s turn to dominate. Since the 2009-2010 season, Spanish clubs have won five of the eight Champions Leagues on offer, and the same number of Europa Leagues. The national team, of course, also won the World Cup and a second consecutive European Championship in that time.
But is the hegemony of Spanish teams in Europe at risk?
A new rivalry
The recent draw for the last 16 in the Champions League leaves the three remaining sides with much to ponder. Sevilla will be underdogs against Manchester United, Real Madrid have drawn many people’s favourites in PSG, and Barça will have to return to London to face the closest thing they have to a bogey team in Europe – Chelsea.
The morning after the draw earlier this week, the sports papers in Madrid and Barcelona, as well as daily podcasts such as El Larguero were all asking the same question. How many Spanish teams will actually still be in the competition when the draw for the quarter-final comes around in March?
The Madrid based analysts on El Larguero were bullish. They’re Madrid. They don’t have to fear anyone. It’s the other teams who should fear them, they reckoned. However, it’s quite normal to fear a forward line of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe. Particularly when Madrid have been pretty poor for the opening three months of the season. Their troubles were epitomised by only just scraping through to the final of the World Club Championships, currently taking place in Abu Dhabi.
However, we have been here before with Madrid. They tend to be a different beast as winter turns to spring. The suspicion remains that Ronaldo et al might be so affronted by the arrogance of the “new money” of PSG that they’ll be extra-determined to put them in their place. That said, there are many outside the Spanish capital (and not only in Barcelona), who think it might be good for the competition if they don’t go all the way again.
It will be a fascinating match-up, that’s for sure.
Spain vs. England
As for Barcelona, the Catalan press expected to be drawn against Chelsea, and so there was little surprise, but a lot of caution. Barça’s official Twitter account might have been quick to remind us of happy memories of Stamford Bridge, but they know that there have been less-happy occasions, too. The Barcelona based analysts on the El Larguero podcast were keen to point out that their record against Chelsea currently reads five wins, five draws and five defeats. And they see this tie as 50-50. That this is the case says a lot about the confidence that Cules have in the new Barça, despite their healthy lead at the top of the table.
Two or three years ago, would Barça fans have rated their chances of getting through a last 16 tie against Chelsea as 50-50? I’m not convinced.
As for Sevilla, there isn’t the same level of expectation that exists in Madrid and Barcelona, clearly. But this is a team with European pedigree, albeit in the “other” competition. Indeed this tie pits together the previous two winners of the Europa League.
The view in Spain is that while United are favourites, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sevilla give them a bloody nose at least. But Sevilla aren’t seen as being realistic winners of the competition in Spain. Their participation is seen more as a bonus.
In the balance
So, is the hegemony of Spanish teams in Europe at risk?
I would say so. I personally wouldn’t be too surprised to see none of the Spanish teams make the quarter-final. Equally, however, I wouldn’t be amazed to see them all go through. Isn’t that the beauty of football, after all?
All across Europe the draw for the last 16, so often a little underwhelming, has actually engaged people as it has thrown up some old rivalries and some new ones too.
And in Barcelona, there’s a sense of relief that at least one of PSG and Real Madrid will not be winning the Champions League this season.