Home Sport In the Champions League, Fine Margins and English Winners

In the Champions League, Fine Margins and English Winners


MANCHESTER, England — Edouard Mendy’s palm would still have been stinging from the Karim Benzema shot he had saved seconds before as his Chelsea teammates advanced down the field. N’Golo Kanté exchanged passes with Timo Werner, parting Real Madrid’s defense. Kai Havertz’s delicate chip clipped the bar and fell, gentle as a feather, onto Werner’s head.

By the end of Wednesday’s game, Chelsea’s superiority would be painfully apparent, its place in the final of the Champions League its ample and just reward. Mason Mount would add a second goal, but there might have been many more. Havertz alone might have had three. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea cut Real Madrid apart with an ease that, at times, bordered on embarrassing.

“They played better,” Casemiro, the anchor of Real Madrid’s overworked midfield would say. Thibaut Courtois, the Madrid goalkeeper, simply described Chelsea as “the superior team.” But in that space between Mendy’s save and Werner’s goal, what would grow into a chasm was but a sliver. All that separated this result from another, quite different, was an inch or two.

Sergio Ramos and Real Madrid were swept aside at Chelsea.Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It had been the same in Manchester’s springtime snow the previous night. Riyad Mahrez had given Manchester City the lead only a minute or two after Paris St.-Germain had thought, wrongly, that it had won a penalty. From that point, City was immaculate. In hindsight, its victory, too, seemed predetermined, inevitable.

But in that moment — had the ball struck Oleksandr Zinchenko a few inches lower; had P.S.G. been able to capitalize on the pressure it had exerted in the opening exchanges — everything turned on nothing more than the bounce of a ball, the precise placement of an arm.

The nature of sports determines that, in large part, interpretation is downstream from outcome. The explanation for and the understanding of how a result came about is retrofitted, reverse engineered, from the unassailable fact of the scoreline itself.

The assumption, in the case of this week’s Champions League semifinals, is that the evident supremacy of Manchester City and Chelsea would have told regardless: that Chelsea would have created those chances even if Benzema had scored; that City would have possessed the wit and the imagination to overcome conceding an unjust penalty.

Manchester City has the deepest squad in the world, allowing it to swap out one star for another at any time.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That is possible, of course. Make no mistake: Chelsea and Manchester City most definitely are better teams than Real Madrid and Paris St.-Germain. They are more complete, more coherent, smarter, fitter, better drilled. But at this level, among the handful of the greatest teams in world soccer, there is no such thing as a vast difference. There are only fine margins.

That is what Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City coach, meant on Tuesday night when he said that there can be “something in the stars” in the Champions League. Strange things happen. The best team does not win. The dice roll. Games and destinies hinge on the merest details: a stroke of luck, a narrow offside, a player slipping as he takes a penalty.

It is Guardiola’s job, of course, to do all he can to make sure his team is not susceptible to the vicissitudes of fate, to ensure that the players at his disposal are talented enough, that his tactical scheme is effective enough, that his squad is fit enough to minimize the power of what is, in effect, random chance. But most managers accept there is a limit to what they can do: Rafael Benítez, who won the Champions League with Liverpool, saw his job as getting his team to the semifinals. After that, he knew, to some extent he had to trust to luck.

What is clear, though, is that increasingly those fine margins are falling in favor of English teams. Before the year 2000, there had never been a European Cup or Champions League final contested between teams from the same country. Since then, there have been eight: three all-Spanish finals (2000, 2014, 2016), one each for Italy (2003) and Germany (2013); and three for England (2008, 2019 and, now, 2021).

That concentration, of course, reflects not only the preponderance of teams from western Europe’s major leagues in the competition — those four countries now supply half of the teams that comprise the tournament’s group stage — but serves to demonstrate the shifting power balance between them, evidence of which league possesses the mix of tactical nous, technical virtuosity and sheer physicality to take center stage.

When Italian teams led the world in tactics, they tended to dominate the Champions League. Spain’s golden generation, combined with first the brilliance of Lionel Messi and then Real Madrid’s second-generation Galacticos, were so technically gifted that no master plan could stifle them, until Germany’s homespun counter-pressing approach punched a way through. The Premier League’s best years have come when its traditional athleticism is married to cutting-edge tactics and technique, imported from continental Europe.

That is precisely what has happened over the last few years, of course. England is now home to most of the world’s finest coaches, Guardiola and Tuchel among them. It first adopted and then advanced the German pressing style — and in Guardiola’s case, Spanish-inspired possession — marrying it with England’s long-cherished virtues of industry and physicality and both acquiring and developing players of sufficient technical brilliance to pull it off.

For all of that to happen, though, England relied on its primacy in a fourth — and perhaps most significant — factor: resources. It should be no surprise that the Premier League is now anticipating a second all-English final in three years, both in the Champions League and, potentially, in the second-tier Europa League, too.

Its teams, after all, have access to the sort of revenue that is unimaginable to their peers on continental Europe, thanks largely to the income from the Premier League’s gargantuan television deals. It means that, while Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and the rest can buy the same quality of player as England, only the Premier League’s elite can buy them in a certain quantity.

That trend has become more pronounced, more obvious, in the age of the pandemic. The Premier League has been able to absorb the impact far better than any of its peers. And the two teams that have been able to outlast everyone else in the Champions League have been able to ride it out better than anyone.

Three days before facing P.S.G. in the second leg of the Champions League semifinals, Manchester City traveled to Crystal Palace. Though it is within touching distance of claiming the Premier League title, Pep Guardiola’s team is not there quite yet: There was still something riding on the game. And yet the team he named contained only one player — Fernandinho — who would face P.S.G. City still won, comfortably.

It has been a similar story for much of the last six months. Guardiola has regularly changed five, six or seven players between games, with little or no drop-off in performance or result. No other team — in England, let alone Europe — can call on that sort of depth.

There is a reason that City seems so fresh, so cogent, at a time when teams across Europe are gasping for air, desperately cobbling together teams from the players they have available. The defensive partnership Real Madrid played in its semifinal against Chelsea was the 14th different combination it has used in the last 20 games. City, by contrast, could allow Ruben Días and John Stones to take the weekend off, saving them for battles ahead.

Chelsea does not quite compare — seven of the players who took the field against Real Madrid had faced Fulham over the weekend — but its durability is no surprise when you consider that it spent more than $250 million on strengthening its squad last summer, as most of the rest of the game wrestled with the economic shortfall caused by the pandemic. Tuchel could leave Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic on the bench on Wednesday, just in case he needed an infusion of talent worth north of $100 million.

None of this, of course, is to diminish what these teams have achieved, to suggest that they do not deserve their place in the final, or to downplay the work their coaches have done in taking them to European soccer’s showpiece game. Indeed, in many ways, City-Chelsea is the perfect final for the year that soccer has had: that, at the end, the two teams left standing were those best placed to weather the storm, to endure the compact, draining schedule, that found that games that hung in the balance were weighted, ever so slightly, in their favor.