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Soccer Football - Champions League Round of 16 First Leg - Ajax Amsterdam v Real Madrid - Johan Cruijff Arena, Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Reuters)
Soccer Football - Champions League Round of 16 First Leg - Ajax Amsterdam v Real Madrid - Johan Cruijff Arena, Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Reuters)

Four narratives around Champions League 2019

  • The knockout stages of this year’s Champions League kicked off this week
  • Here is a look at four storylines that could end up defining the title race

The business end of UEFA Champions League began this week, with the round of 16, built on the home and away concept.

For 16 clubs, representing the finest of European football on offer and stitched together in tantalizing matchups, it’s a moment of reckoning—reputational, financial and generational. For some clubs, players and coaches, the stakes are higher. There’s one set that lugs the weight of history: They are either expected to win or they are living with the expectation that it’s about time they won.

The second set lugs the financial burden of mega spending intended for a big result here.

As the Champions League narrows down, here are four compelling strands that weave through one of the most open editions in recent years.

Can English clubs shed their ‘underachievers in Europe’ tag?

The last time an English club won the Champions League was in 2011-12 (Chelsea). The six years since have seen just one finalist from England (Liverpool last year). English clubs have been prolific in making it to the last 16, but have struggled to progress further. Both Spanish and English clubs made it to the last 16, a leading 20 times; but, while Spanish clubs progressed to the quarter-finals on 90% of those occasions, English clubs did so on just 30% of those occasions .

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This poor return comes at a time when the share of revenues of English clubs among top-tier clubs across Europe has increased from 20% in 2012 to 27% in 2017. This has given them more money to spend.

In 2017, among the top five clubs by squad cost, there were three English clubs. Manchester City was ranked one (€800 million), Manchester United third (€751 million) and Chelsea fourth (€529 million). Such spending, naturally, leads to expectations. As is the case from the four English clubs in the round of 16 (City, United, Liverpool and Tottenham).

Can Spanish clubs win a sixth straight title?

There are three Spanish clubs in the last 16, each with its own impending reason to do well.

Barcelona, for all their dazzle and Lionel Messi, have not won in three years. Worse, bitter rivals Real Madrid have won in all these three years. Yet, Real Madrid needs the title again to salvage a pedestrian season in its local league. And, its cross-town rival Atletico Madrid would love to play for the title at its home stadium, the venue for this year’s finals. Since 2003-04, when the Champions League doubled participation in the knockout stage from 8 teams to 16, Spanish clubs—essentially, the above troika—have been the most prolific in Europe. In these 15 years, they have featured 21 times in the semi-finals (or, a participation rate of 26%), 10 times in the finals (a participation rate of 33%) and have won the title eight times (a winning rate of 53%).

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Can Juventus break their finals jinx?

In 1995-96, three years after the Champions League migrated to the first version of its current format, Italian club Juventus won its first title. Since then, it has lost five finals, more than any other team. In recent years, it lost in 2014-15 and 2016-17. Last year, partly to balance that statistic, Juventus made the bold and expensive move to buy Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid. The forward has won the Champions League five times. He has scored 121 goals in the Champions League, 15 more than anyone else. But he’s also 34 and Juventus is not Real Madrid. What Juventus remains is a tough opponent, and particularly stingy at the back. Among the 16 teams in the ongoing knockout stages, along with German club Schalke, Juventus conceded the fewest goals in the group stages, when Ronaldo was subdued by his standards.

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Now, Juventus would be looking at Ronaldo to do what he came to Turin for.

Can Paris Saint-Germain win its maiden title with a spending spree?

Like Juventus, French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) was another superclub that broke the bank, partly for the Champions League title that it has never won. In the summer of 2017, PSG acquired Brazilian forward Neymar for a world-record €222 million. And, in the summer of 2018, it completed the transfer of speedy 20-year forward Kylian Mbappe for €135 million.

Those two, along with Edinson Cavani, make for a formidable forward line. This year, PSG leads with 19 goals, including the two it put past Manchester United earlier this week bringing the English club down to earth under a new manager. On attempts at goal, PSG doesn’t lead the 16 clubs in the knockout stages. What it does lead in is attempts on target, which is one metric of attacking play that poses problems for the opposing defence.

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(Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint)

Neymar and Cavani missed the Manchester game, but they will be back. Can they end PSG’s drought?

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