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The Champions League’s New Twist: Injury Roulette

With muscle injuries rising and an unforgiving, pandemic-compressed schedule looming, Europe might not crown its best team this season, but the one that’s still standing.

The procession was nearly over. Ninety-five of the 96 games that constitute the group phase of the Champions League, six weeks of phony war that largely serve to check boxes, cross Ts and dot Is, were complete. Most of the heavyweights had long since advanced to the knockout rounds.

As is so often the case, there had been precious little drama. The whole exercise only served to fuel to the flames of those who would revamp the competition or abandon it altogether. Bayern Munich and Manchester City dropped only two points. Juventus, Barcelona, Chelsea and Sevilla qualified with two games to spare, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund with one.

And yet, with five minutes of injury time still to play in the one game outstanding, it felt a little like everything was on the line.

The tension was exquisite. In Milan, Internazionale was hurling everything it had at Shakhtar Donetsk, knowing a single goal would be enough to earn a place in the last 16. Antonio Conte, Inter’s coach, threw on forward after forward. A flurry of chances came and went, blocked by Shakhtar’s teenage goalkeeper Anatolii Trubin, or the frame of the goal or, in the case of one Alexis Sánchez header, his teammate Romelu Lukaku.

(For some reason, Shakhtar — in the exact same position, knowing a late goal would effectively seal its qualification — seemed to have decided it was content with its consolation prize, a place in the Europa League. Its coach, Luis Castro, spent the final few minutes urging the officials to blow the whistle, rather than pushing his players to win the game.)

At the same moment, on the outskirts of Madrid, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s game with Real Madrid had been over for some time. Real Madrid had won comfortably, guaranteeing its inevitable progress to the knockout rounds. Mönchengladbach, by contrast, had to wait. Its players and coaching staff huddled around laptops and phones, aware that a goal of any stripe in Milan would extinguish their flickering hope of advancing.

And then it was over. Inter’s players slumped and shrugged, all of that effort in vain. Castro — again, a little unexpectedly — celebrated. And in Madrid, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s squad poured back out onto the field, swirling their jerseys in the air and bounding for joy.

The Borussia Mönchengladbach players in this photo lost their game on Wednesday.
Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

It was a moment worth savoring, even for those without a direct connection to any of the clubs involved. Much of the criticism of the Champions League group phase is warranted. It does, largely, simply confirm what we already know: a prolonged and dispiriting trudge to a conclusion that is essentially predetermined by the game’s financial imbalances.

This year was no different. In the final week, the handful of traditional favorites who had left it late pulled through. Real Madrid, despite losing home and away to Shakhtar, finished on top of its group. Atlético Madrid eased past RB Salzburg. Paris St.-Germain swept aside Istanbul Basaksehir, though by the time it did so the sport itself felt very much like an afterthought.

Of the superpowers in peril, only Manchester United fell by the wayside, and even that felt like a special case. Historically and financially, United might be far superior to RB Leipzig, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of the way the clubs came by their current managers — one after years of learning a craft and honing his skills, one because he scored a very important goal 21 years ago — would have realized that did not quite paint the whole picture.

But while those five minutes in Milan and Madrid should not invalidate that criticism, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge it. That the fate of three teams rested on whether a single goal could be scored in injury time of the last of 96 games to finish — that the group phase, essentially, was live until its very last kick — is no mean feat.

Quite what all of that means for the remainder of the competition is unclear. The group stage, of course, is never an especially reliable barometer. In some years, the team that shines brightest in the early exchanges maintains that form: Bayern Munich’s victory, for example, was preceded by the most imperious group stage in the competition’s history.

But that is more of an exception than a rule. In 2019, Liverpool lost three games in the group phase, finished second to P.S.G., and then went and won it. The previous year, Real Madrid failed to beat Tottenham Hotspur, home or away, and ended up as champion. The season before that, Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid tied three games — including one against Legia Warsaw — and qualified second in its pool. It finished the season in rather better form.

Sergio Perez/Reuters

That is, of course, because of the genius of the Champions League’s structure. Its length — spread over the span of a season — rewards the most consistent teams, as a straight league might. But there is an often unacknowledged degree of randomness to it, too: All it takes is one bad night in the knockout round and even the best team will fall.

That randomness seems more pronounced than usual this year. The teams that traditionally populate the tournament’s stages all appear flawed: Barcelona seems haunted, diminished; Real Madrid’s sheen has dulled; P.S.G. waxes and wanes; Juventus has a rookie coach; Liverpool is beset by injury, Manchester City caught between two iterations of Pep Guardiola’s ideas.

In most circumstances, that would point only in one direction. Bayern Munich is, without question, the best team in Europe. Hansi Flick’s side has barely blinked since completing the treble over the summer. If anything, thanks to the addition of Leroy Sané, it carries more threat than it did when it beat P.S.G. in Lisbon.

Pool photo by Alexander Hassenstein

But for all that Bayern appears uniquely unperturbed by the strangeness of this condensed season, for all that it seems entirely unaffected by the stress and the strain of it, for all that it rolls on, tidal, relentless, it is hard to believe, this year, that what is true in autumn will still be true in spring.

Across Europe, teams are already struggling to cope with packed schedules and a lack of preparation time. One study of the Premier League found that muscle injuries are up by almost a quarter this season than at the equivalent point last year, testament not only to the increased workload but the loss of the hard yards of preseason.

Simon Rolfes, the sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen — competing in the Europa League, but subject to the same pressures — admitted this week that his team has had to adjust its style to stave off the threat of burnout; intensity has had to be sacrificed, slightly, for control.

And this, to some extent, has been the easy bit. The calendar, across Europe, between the draw for the Champions League knockouts on Monday and the resumption of the competition early in February is unforgiving.

Pool photo by Bernd Thissen

In England, France and Italy, there are 10 league games scheduled between now and the end of January, as well as at least two rounds of domestic cup matches. In Spain, there are nine La Liga dates, and three rounds of the Copa del Rey.

Only in Germany is the schedule notably lighter. That should, theoretically, play into Bayern’s hands: Flick’s team will have had a chance to recuperate while all the contenders for its crown must play on. But still, it faces eight Bundesliga games and one round of the German Cup. It has a winter break, but the usual three weeks has been cut to only 10 days.

It is not, in other words, a Champions League that will be decided by the brightest ideas or the most inspirational coach. It will be determined, instead, by who copes best with the demands of this long, draining winter. The Champions League’s eventual winner may not be the team with the best players, but the one with the most left standing once March and April hover into view.

The odds, of course, suggest that will still be Bayern Munich or Manchester City or P.S.G.; their squads, after all, are rather better able to cope with absence than those not blessed with their bottomless resources. But it offers a glimmer, too, to those ordinarily cast as makeweights that this year, perhaps, might just be a little less of a procession.

John Walton/Press Association, via Associated Press

It has, by now, become part of the ritual of pretty much every professional game in English soccer. The teams troop out on to the field. The players fan out into their positions. The referee blows his whistle. And then, just as they have every day since soccer restarted in June, the players — uniformly — take a knee.

Something so commonplace quickly becomes unremarkable, even if it is, by its very nature, wholly remarkable. English soccer has been taking the knee for six months: a unified, ongoing, social commentary/political statement* devised and perpetuated by a group of young men usually encouraged to be as detached and apolitical as possible.

(*You will have your own views on whether an anti-racist gesture is political or not, just as I do. There is not a vast amount to be gained in sharing them.)

In that time, it has been possible to wonder if the gesture had lost its power, whether it had, effectively, become no more meaningful than the anti-racist slogans so beloved of corporate soccer. It was easy to see it as a way of saying something, not doing something. The fact that it happened after the referee had blown the whistle turned it from protest into something condoned, and therefore controlled.

And then Millwall happened.

Last weekend, the first in which a handful of fans had been allowed to return to watch English soccer in person in months, Millwall’s fans loudly and immediately jeered the sight of their players — as well as those of the club’s opponent, Derby County — taking the knee.

The excuses followed just as quickly. The fans were not objecting to a message of equality and inclusivity, just to the association with the broader Black Lives Matter movement and … something to do with Marxism and out-of-touch elites and soccer not being a political stage. It is hard to précis, because it does not really hold water.

The booing was, of course, a shameful, sorrowful incident, but it was also one that offered a reminder — if that was necessary — of the power of the gesture, something that had been lost in the silence of empty stadiums.

Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Taking a knee, as the American experience has shown, may or may not be political, but it is certainly divisive. The action is designed to force people to confront their views on the subject of race and equality. In the context of sports, it is a way of expressing values, of asking fans if they share those principles.

As a rule, soccer, like all sports, eschews anything even remotely controversial. It does not want to alienate any fans, no matter their views, because those fans might have money they can spend, too.

By taking a knee in front of fans, though, the players are exposing the inherent cowardice of that position. Instead, they are asking those fans to make a choice: You are either with us, or you are not. And if you’re not, feel free not to come back. It would be a retrograde step for soccer to reject kneeling because it is divisive. That, more than anything, is its point; that, more than anything, is its power.

A great question from Vincent Tjeng, which I cannot answer but is definitely worth further exploration.

“Do you know of any work to measure the impact of individual players in football? Baseball has wins above replacement, basketball has plus-minus, but we don’t seem to having anything comparable for football. My best proxy is to look at the transfer fee, cut the price in half if it is an English team, and cut the price to a quarter if it’s Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, or a Manchester club.”

As a straight metric, I don’t. There are things like packing — which is very popular in Germany — which can maybe stand in for attacking impact, but it isn’t an equivalent to W.A.R. Let me do some research and get back to you. Or, of course, if anyone out there might be able to educate me (and thereby Vincent), feel free to get in touch.

Chris Sheahan’s question was just as good, as it happens. Inspired by the travails of Arsenal, he wondered: “What are Arsenal’s overall objectives, and are they meeting them? I wonder why people buy control of a sports team: is it ego, vanity, tax advantages, competitiveness? If the Kroenke family is out to make money, allowing the current steady decline makes no sense.”

It does and it doesn’t. You can decline to a certain level and still make money, I think, especially in the Premier League and the Champions League. The gamble is not allowing the rot to go too far. That, I would say, is where Kroenke has gone wrong.

As to why people buy sports teams, the most convincing explanation I’ve heard — for anyone doing so without a concealed political aim — came from one American owner: It’s an investment, like any other business, but it’s a lot more fun to own than most. I’d buy one, if I was inappropriately wealthy. And let me tell you now: I would be a disaster.

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