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Thank goodness for those 10 minutes, when Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne scored, Sergio Ramos walked, the Bernabéu fell silent and Real Madrid fell apart.
Until then, this had been an ignominious round of Champions League fixtures for the Premier League. Liverpool, imperious in domestic games, had lost to Atlético Madrid, failing to muster a single shot on target. Tottenham, stripped of its two most potent strikers, had lost by 1-0 at home to RB Leipzig, which was playing its first knockout game in Europe’s elite tournament.
And, most damning of all, Chelsea had been swept aside by Bayern Munich, losing at home, 3-0. Bayern had made all the right noises before the game: pointing out that Chelsea had the vim and verve of youth; suggesting that perhaps the English team’s strengths might exploit their weaknesses. It was all smoke and air. If there is one thing that is worse than losing, it is being patronized before it.
For 75 minutes or so, it looked as if Manchester City might complete the set for England’s representatives: four games, four defeats, no goals.
Eventually, though, the superiority of Pep Guardiola’s team told. Zinedine Zidane, his Real Madrid counterpart, has never failed to win the Champions League as a coach. That record, barring a remarkable turnaround at the Etihad Stadium — a two-goal victory, without either Ramos, his captain, or the injured Eden Hazard — has about three weeks to run.
The prospects of the other English teams joining Manchester City in the quarterfinals are more distant. Chelsea, it has to be assumed, will travel to Munich with no greater ambition than saving face. Tottenham’s task in Leipzig is less daunting, but its form in recent weeks is not encouraging.
Liverpool’s beating Atlético at Anfield is not impossible. Getting through the evening without a resurgent Atlético scoring — meaning the reigning European champion would need three goals against Diego Simeone’s obdurate defense — is a different matter. One year after the Premier League occupied all four slots in Europe’s major finals, it might find City its lone standard-bearer at the game’s highest level.
That, of course, would dovetail nicely with the theory that the Premier League this year is poorer than it has been for some time. So far, the supporting evidence has been, in short, that Liverpool has too many points, and that the remaining members of the traditional Big Six have too few.
The league, the conclusion goes, must therefore be diminished. Seeing Chelsea and Tottenham, in particular, knocked out of the Champions League would lend weight to that idea. Should Liverpool go, too, it might be seen as proof that Jürgen Klopp’s team is not quite as era-defining as reported.
There are three problems with all this. One is that using the health of the Big Six to discern the strength of the Premier League is flawed. There is no debate that Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea are worse than normal. But Wolves, Sheffield United and Leicester are all far better than normal.
No team has quite been detached — yet — at the foot of the table, either; the points total required to stay up is likely to be higher than it has been in recent years. A league can surely be measured as much by its strength in depth as by the quality of an arbitrary number of teams at the top.
Personally, I would say the Premier League was at its strongest in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea all reached Champions League finals, Manchester City was starting to emerge, and Everton and Aston Villa menaced the elite. But lower down the table, teams were much less sophisticated, much less adventurous, much more pliant. Perhaps this version has a far shallower peak. Its base, though, may be sturdier.
The second problem is that the Champions League is an imperfect gauge, even for supporting evidence. With different draws, or better luck with injuries, both Chelsea and Tottenham might have made it through. One year is a tiny sample size, both to establish a league’s dominance and to assess its decline. The variation in any one season is simply too great.
But the third and most important problem is that the whole subject is meaningless. The English are curiously obsessed with the idea of ranking leagues. It is, I suspect, driven by the relentless, screeching marketing of the broadcasters who show Premier League games.
Each one costs them somewhere in the region of $13 million for 90 minutes of action — plus VAR delays — so they are going to tell you what you are watching is pretty damn flawless, whether it is true or not. Declaring the Premier League the best in the world inevitably suggests that all the others are in some way lacking, and it is natural that fans of those leagues should bridle at the suggestion.
But the reality is that all of Europe’s top five leagues are similar: perhaps not in style, but in the level of quality. That is why Atlético can beat Liverpool, and Manchester City can beat Real Madrid, and Lyon can beat Juventus. It is, in essence, why the Champions League is so exciting.
The raw output — the number of goals and shots and crosses — is broadly the same. There are variations in tempo and delivery, but they are preferences brought about by cultural conditioning. One is not objectively better or worse. The only differentiating factor, at heart, is how much all of it seems to matter, and that is personal. The one that you think is best, in all likelihood, is the one that has your team in it, because that is the one that has the most crucial ingredient of all: meaning.
Sometimes Sports Are Just Sports
It takes a lot to force soccer to allow events in the real world to interfere with its single-minded, self-regarding focus. Ten years ago, when the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano grounded flights worldwide, soccer refused to be cowed: Barcelona took the bus to Italy to play Inter Milan; Liverpool took the train to Madrid to make sure a Europa League game could go ahead.
(I was on that train, as it happens. Rafa Benítez gave his media briefing in a dining car, dictaphones flying off the table with every rattle. We all had to hurry through Montparnasse station in Paris at first light to make a connection to Bordeaux. It is quite refreshing, really, to be in a position where the journalists are much more at home than the players.)
The reaction to the spread of coronavirus has, thus far, been broadly the same: a few games called off in northern Italy last weekend, and Sunday’s game between Juventus and Inter — like Inter’s Europa League match on Thursday — to be played behind closed doors, but for the most part the sport’s authorities are doing all they can to get on with things.
It is simultaneously an impressive level of resilience and quite remarkably pigheaded: to see the World Health Organization warning of the threat of global pandemic at the same time as fans and officials debate when, exactly, Inter will make up its fixture deficit.
You do get the impression that, when the apocalypse comes, as the bombs are raining down, someone out there will be asking how, precisely, this affects the Champions League semifinals (there will definitely be people complaining about VAR).
But if the virus continues to spread at the current rate, serious questions will have to be asked, not only about the viability of allowing fans to travel for European games, but also about Euro 2020 itself. The tournament is scheduled to be held across the continent, after all, with fans flying from Bilbao to Baku and every point in between. At what point do we accept that something has to give?
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic left Los Angeles, and Major League Soccer, late last year, he did so with another of those relentlessly workshopped quotes that have become his trademark: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
It is hard to tell, at first glance, precisely what he conquered: He did win the newcomer of the year award in his first season with the Los Angeles Galaxy, but it is hard to imagine a man who won the league title every year between 2003 and 2016 being impressed by that. Ibrahimovic did not conquer M.L.S., not really; he didn’t even come especially close. Which — because this is not just another bit of Zlatan-skeptical polemic — suggests M.L.S., which opens its 25th season this weekend, does not always go with the script.
Last year’s final was a case in point: Los Angeles F.C. was, to most, the best team in the regular season, and Ibrahimovic was the biggest name. Neither made the league’s championship game, the M.L.S. Cup final: Instead, Seattle and Toronto made it, two teams that do not seem to attract quite as much attention as they might but who have made something of a habit of getting to finals.
That makes predicting things in M.L.S. hard — for the record: The Galaxy, thanks to Javier Hernández and Cristian Pavón, should go far this year, and Rodolfo Pizarro, the midfielder now at Inter Miami, caught my eye when he was at Monterrey — but that is a trait M.L.S. should lean into.
Most Europeans (and, as it happens, quite a lot of North Americans) are dismissive of the standard of play in M.L.S., but it is not just quality that makes a league enjoyable: It is unpredictability, too. A game can be good because it is accomplished, and it can be good because it is entertaining. Most, if pushed, would probably rather watch the latter than the former.
M.L.S. is not of the same standard as the major European leagues, but then, it does not necessarily need to be. It helps to have big names, of course, and teams that have an air of dominance. But it can be even more compelling watching those big names, those feted teams, fail. M.L.S. still offers that, and should celebrate it. It is something increasingly missing on the other side of the ocean.
An interesting note from David Post, who points out that it might be harder to be a Houston Astros fan at the moment than a Manchester City one. “In the Astros’ case, it was the players themselves engaged in the misbehavior,” he wrote. “City fans can at least say the back office and money guys cheated, but that doesn’t change what happened on the pitch. For the Astros, their in-game performances are now all tainted.”
I understand his logic entirely: It’s hard to think of what Manchester City did as cheating in the same way that, say, doping is cheating. It all seems too detached from the actual business of scoring goals to be quite as severe. But rules — even rules you don’t like — are rules.
There is no question about my favorite line of the week, which is so good James Thurber might have written it. A hat tip to Don Karon, writing about how we should change the offside rule. “I would suggest it to be if any part of a player’s foot is onside, the player is onside,” he wrote. “Otherwise, I envision players reaching back to grab some part of a defender’s jersey to ensure that their hand is onside and, therefore, they are onside. I expect this would result in fighting.”
That’s all for this week. Thanks for all the correspondence, as ever. If there’s anything urgent, I’m on Twitter. My Instagram was updated last week for the first time this year. You can download Set Piece Menu wherever you get your podcasts, and feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please click here to subscribe to this newsletter on behalf of your cousins, too.
It is an excellent weekend of soccer: Juventus against Inter (albeit without fans in attendance) in Italy, a clásico in Spain, and even Ajax and AZ Alkmaar meeting at the top of the table in the Netherlands. Enjoy.