The Football Informant: Heading across the pond

This is one of those times of year when sports have stalled out and there is little worth paying attention to. It is still too early in the NBA season for games to be truly important yet, and while NCAA’s March Madness is around the corner it still a good distance away. Baseball is beginning spring training, while the NFL is beginning the pre-draft hype ramp. In short, there is not much to watch. However, that does not mean that there is nothing of interest out there.

And so your Informant turns to the world of European soccer, in the midst of the UEFA Champions League, the sport’s greatest and most extravagant tournament featuring the best professional club teams from every nation in the European soccer confederation. Teams from Iceland to Kazakhstan will compete in the vast knockout tournament, looking to be crowned the kings of Europe.

Of course, I know the arguments against European soccer. Yes, it is slow-paced and occasionally boring. Yes, many of the players are excellent actors and shameless displays of referee-baiting are as common as shameless self-promotion among NFL wide receivers. However, these factors do not overwhelm the fact that soccer is fascinating to watch, if one knows what to look for. With the exception of NFL quarterbacks, soccer players are forced to think more than almost any other athletes. And because there are so few stoppages in play and no coaches’ timeouts, it is entirely up to the players to execute the gameplan as they see fit, which leads to a far greater variety of styles than one sees in professional football.

Yet, at the same time, games are often won or lost on blazes of brilliance or mindless errors. The few players capable of summoning brilliance with great frequency are superstars beyond the American understanding of the word. In the elite levels of a truly global sport, those who can impose their will become legendary figures. The two best club teams in the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are personified by their superstar strikers — Lionel Messi, the sublime offensive talent who can beat four defenders by himself and find an open man wherever one appears, and Cristiano Ronaldo, the brutally effective striker whose shooting skills are unparalleled. Soccer is a chess match, where protracted maneuvering can give way to sudden strikes without warning, and where a single mistake can cause untold damage. The Champions League is the best of the best, playing in a competition where truly every game matters critically.

The Champions League is now down to a final sixteen teams, and these clubs are an odd bunch. England, typically the world’s strongest league, has performed poorly as titans Manchester City and Manchester United were both knocked out in group play. Swiss club Basel eliminated United, arguably the best-known soccer club in the world, and has since managed a first-leg victory against German superpower Bayern Munich in the playoff round. Bayern is now in jeopardy of a flameout when their goal was nothing less than to reach the final, which will be held in their home stadium in Munich. While England has struggled, other leagues have excelled, as both Russian qualifiers, Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, advanced to the knockout stage and have held their own, taking full advantage of their biggest ally, the Russian winter. CSKA, formerly the Red Army team, managed to draw against Real Madrid in arctic conditions, setting up a winner-take-all showdown in Madrid, while Zenit defeated Portuguese champ Benfica and needs only to hold serve on the second leg. Another surprise is APOEL Nicosia, a team based on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The team managed to win its group in the first stage and is the first Cypriot team to reach the knockouts. Next week they host French side Olympique Lyon and must make up a one-goal deficit to advance.

The two surviving English teams, powerhouses Arsenal and Chelsea, were both stampeded by Italian sides AC Milan and Napoli (Naples) in the first leg and are effectively out of the competition. Napoli, who also handled English leader Manchester City in the group stage, could very well be considered a favorite to win the competition at this point. However, for any of that to become reality, someone has to beat Barcelona, a team that has won two of the last three Champions Leagues, including last year’s comical domination of Manchester United in the London final. Barcelona finished with five wins and a surprising draw to AC Milan in the group stage, and leveled defending German champion Bayer Leverkeusen 3-1 on the road in the first leg of their playoff matchup. Barcelona, led by Lionel Messi, specializes in dominating possession, usually maintaining control of the ball for up to 75% of the game. With that kind of advantage, it is very difficult for any team to mount a serious challenge for long, and Barca has embarked on a three-year reign of terror that has started a conversation as to whether this is the greatest club team ever assembled. They are not invincible, but it will be extremely difficult, as their great rivals Madrid have discovered so far this season, taking two losses and a draw since August against Barcelona.

The hype and drama of the Champions League is like that of the World Cup tournament, only it is held every year, and this year is no disappointment. Although the games are currently only available on the Fox Soccer Network, anyone who is able to catch a few games, especially involving Barcelona, should attempt to do so. Playoff games are held on Tuesday and Wednesday. At the very least, it will give you something to do until March Madness.

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