The Champions League last 16 draw probably produced some of the ties you wished it wouldn’t.
At this point, we’ve seen Arsenal take on Bayern Munich and PSG crumble up against the devastating Barcelona with an alarming regularity. We think we know what to expect. But we shouldn’t think that. Not this season.
We should probably know better than to make predictions in 2016. Leicester City won the Premier League title and now they’re predicted to be the winners – per Michael Cox in The Guardian – of a last 16 tie with Sevilla: a club who have won five European titles in the last decade. The years 0 through to 2015 wouldn’t have dared to throw up such a bizarre state of science fiction.
2016 has been a year like no other in recent memory. From Leicester City winning the Premier League, to Nice topping the Ligue 1 table and Barcelona trailing by six points in La Liga, via Portugal winning the Euros, this has been the year of the underdog. Or at least a year for defying predictions.
Yet these Champions League ties won’t be played in 2016. They’ll be played in the spring of next year.
There is, mercifully, more to this argument than a flippant suggestion that the numbers on the calendar matter greatly to football and its outcomes. It’s not that the numbers themselves matter. 2017 could be just as weird. But the time it takes to get to the spring of next year matters greatly.
The Champions League knockout rounds are always about hitting form at the right time. Like any knockout competition, it’s about turning up on the night, not about how good you were before Christmas.
Take the Manchester City Monaco tie, for instance. Monaco are the highest-scoring team in Europe, and City’s defensive is shaky to say the least.
But in three months’ time, City will be more used to their new manager’s methods, they will surely be better suited to playing a style of passing football they don’t yet look comfortable with, and – crucially – they’ll have had three months to scout their opposition.
Monaco, on the other hand, have started the season superbly. They’re in incredible form, they look solid in midfield and at the back – they were, after all, a team known for their defending only a few seasons ago – and they’ve even started to see Radamel Falcao scoring goals, including a hat trick at the weekend against Bordeaux.
But Monaco started their season early. They’ve peaked early. The question is whether or not they can sustain that peak without falling away by the time the Champions League comes around.
They had to peak early because their entire pre-season was geared towards beating Villarreal in the Champions League play-off round. Being forced to hit the ground running meant being able to take advantage of that form whilst French rivals PSG were easing into their first season under Unai Emery and Tottenham Hotspur were getting used to playing at Wembley.
But then there’s the opposite problem for Arsenal. The Gunners’ reward for topping their group was the exact tie they’ve been urged to avoid for the last decade. By topping their group.
Horrible bad luck, sure, but probably even worse when you consider Bayern Munich’s seasons so far. Top of the Bundesliga, but only on goal difference to a team just promoted and with an average age of just 24. Forced into second place in the group by defeat to Champions League Bete Noir, Atletico Madrid (probably acceptable), and Russia’s FC Rostov (definitely not acceptable).
But the same thing that can be said for Manchester City getting used to life under Pep Guardiola’s methods can also be said for Bayern getting used to life after Pep Guardiola’s methods. They simply can’t be the same team in March as they are now. A winter break and – surely – an upsurge in league form is still to come. Their five-goal thumping of Wolfsburg at the weekend shows there’s more to come, as does the fact that Thomas Muller ended a 999-minute goal drought with the timing of Jack Bauer cutting the live wire of a bomb just a second before detonation. There’s always a touch of the blockbuster about FC Hollywood.
And so if you’re tempted to write off the Champions League last 16 ties as thoroughly predictable, the current state of play would suggest that’s probably a bad idea. It’s just that three months is a long time in football, and these ties will be played in 2017. Surely nothing can top 2016 for drama and surprise. Surely. Surely?