Nope, not really! But my editors and management insist that these posts are longer than three words, so I guess I’ll have to explain. If Manchester City waltzed to last year’s trophy, only really sweating in the final for about an hour against a stubborn Inter, they very well may never get out of a rolling beach chair to this year’s trophy. Even some of the usual powers like PSG and Bayern Munich look weaker than they were, and City kicked Munich’s ass up to their ears last year anyway. But they’re still going to play this, so we should run through the themes. I guess.
So why should I watch if the outcome is already decided?
Maybe you’ll feel wistful about the format? This is the last season of the “eight groups of four” system. Next season, the tournament will expand to 36 — just the latest warping of Europe’s premier competition to try and guard against the threat of a Super League — and there will be no groups. All 36 teams will be tossed into one table, though divided into four “pots.” Each team will play two games against teams in each pot, one home, and one away, but not against the same team. The top eight in the table will automatically move on to the Round of 16, while teams that finish 9th-24th will have a bonus round to see who are the next eight teams to join them there. Is it confusing as all get out? You bet!
But what it does do is create more games between big teams in the opening round than we get now. Say Real Madrid is in Pot 1 next year, which they most certainly will be. That means there will be two games for them against the Munichs and Citys of the world, whereas now in the group stage they are the only team from Pot 1 in their group. It is those marquee matchups in the opening rounds that UEFA and the big clubs lust after, and they’ll get more of them next season.
So yeah, enjoy your group stage, heathens, for it is soon to be dust in the wind.
So why can’t the usual favorites run with City?
Let’s just say they’re flawed. On the surface, Munich signing Harry Kane solved their biggest issue from last year, which was a striker they could count on. Except Munich also needed some freshening in midfield and they didn’t get it. Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka have looked pretty damn old to start the season, panting, and wheezing through their last match against Bayer Leverkusen where Munich were kind of lucky to get out of with a draw at home. Thomas Tuchel still hasn’t quite worked out the best way to deploy his team, and they’ll be counting an awful lot of Jamal Musiala to make up for their weaknesses, and he’s 20.
PSG are going to try and Ewing theory their way to go farther than they ever have. However, with City now having broken their hoodoo, and winning the thing last season, PSG stand alone as the doofus rich kid who’s never kissed a girl. They’ve jettisoned Neymar and Messi, so this is certainly Kylian Mbappe’s team unquestionably now. However, as well as losing two-thirds of their attacking force from previous seasons, PSG have also lost their best midfielder in Marco Veratti. Manuel Ugarte and Marco Asensio are meant to address all that, but it’s still very much coming together and the latter has been played as a false nine. Ousmane Dembele is playing opposite Mbappe, which has all the promise, and almost certainly will end in disaster when something on Dembele goes TWANG!
Liverpool and Juventus aren’t even here. Inter still is, and they just thwacked Milan in the derby. Marcus Thuram looks awfully tasty as a new recruit, but this midfield is getting old too. Marko Arnautović is on this team. No team with Marko Arnautović on it is winning the damn Champions League. Stop yourself.
So is there anyone that can make this interesting?
Yeah, but you’re not gonna like it. Real Madrid have a player who if he isn’t already the best midfielder in the world, he will be in about the next five minutes. And that’s Jude Bellingham. Madrid have built the whole team around him, and have been rewarded with five goals, and an assist in five La Liga games. They’ve given Bellingham a pure No. 10 role in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Vincius Jr. is hurt, so they really don’t have that much striking power after the departure of Karim Benzema for blood money. Joselu has been taking up Vincius’s spot next to Rodrygo up top, and he’s a great story, but he’s still something of a 33-year-old journeyman. Still, Madrid Black Magic, and Bellingham just might be enough to return to the semis at least. Especially as this is Carlo Ancelotti’s last season before he takes the Brazil job, and they’ll want to send him off to Copacabana gloriously.
But maybe one of the other English teams can avert another romp, right? Being the strongest league in the world and such?
Ha, no. Arsenal are making their first foray into this in a decade and everyone saw what happened last season when they faced up to City in a big game. They’re not ready for this yet. Manchester United are a comedy routine at the moment. Newcastle lost to City, Liverpool, and Brighton on the bounce, have a midfield configuration to figure out, and a manager at this level for the first time. They’re not beating a big boy over two legs. Though they can get out of this year’s Group of Death, which is made up of them, Milan, PSG, and Dortmund.
But City are still going to win it, right?
Yep! Now that they’ve removed the monkey that had burrowed into their spine last spring, they can probably play even freer, and easier. They’ve gone 5-for-5 in the Premier League so far, and that’s with Kevin De Bruyne playing half an hour or so total. Now they have variables to how they can play, either in formation or in style by carrying the ball more. They’ve got Kyle Walker playing the best stuff of his career at the moment, and have reinvented Julian Alvarez as a #10. There’s no bottom.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social