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  • Writer's pictureArsenal Bengal SC

UEFA Champions League '19/20: Against All Odds



After 11 months and 6 days, the longest documented edition of the annual continental club competition finally reached its glorious conclusion on Sunday, the 23rd of August 2020. A journey of towering highs for some and profound lows for the others, witnessed some of the best teams in Europe test their mettle for arguably the most prestigious trophy in association football, not only in Europe but also in the entire world. The 65th season of the competition, apart from being the longest, was also one of the most curious of seasons. The global pandemic forced the competition into a hiatus of nearly five months, as a result of which the format and venues had to be changed for a major chunk of the competition. Ultimately, after what seemed like an eternity, European heavyweights Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich locked horns to be crowned the best team in Europe with the latter coming out on top to take the coveted trophy.


This season was so much more than your average Champions League season. This season laid bare in front of us some nuances of football, culture, and society which would otherwise be swept under the rug due to the bustle and excitement that these games bring. The enforced break due to the outbreak of COVID-19 taught us that even though this game forms a part and parcel of our lives, at the end of the day, it is a game. The gap helped the football fraternity come together as one to prepare for events that on the surface seem so ordinary, yet at the blink of an eye can turn into something unfathomable. The gap made us fall in love with the game all over again.


So, let's look back at the journey that was the UEFA Champions League 2019-20.


Group Stages


The group stages commenced in the sultry September of 2019 amidst much-expected fanfare and excitement. A total of sixteen nations were represented by thirty-two teams in the competition. Atalanta, who would go on to win hearts throughout the footballing community as the competition progressed, was making its first-ever group stage appearance. The group stages served up some delicious encounters, nail-biting finishes, and individual and collective moments of brilliance. Some of the talking points were the absolute mauling of Tottenham Hotspurs at the hands of Bayern Munich over the two fixtures, Chelsea clawing their way back to a draw after trailing 4-1 till the 62nd minute, or RB Leipzig's Swedish talisman Emil Forsberg scoring two goals after the 89-minute mark to secure a draw from the jaws of victory. We were treated to some otherworldly goals which we would've never dreamt of had the players not made them a reality. Hakim Ziyech's curling lob against Valencia, Luis Suarez's scissor volley against Inter, Oxlade-Chamberlain's outside of the boot finish from outside the box against Genk or Douglas Costa's slaloming run to take on all comers and then producing the winner are some of the goals that will be etched in memory for some time to come.


While the collective brilliance of teams shone through, some individuals are also impressed with their consistency or moments of inspiration. Teenage sensation Erling Haaland announced his arrival on the grandest of stages in some style: with a hat trick against Genk. He then followed it up by scoring in five out of the six matches Salzburg played. Another Salzburg player Takumi Minamino also shone through while Tomas Soucek of Slavia Prague proved to be one of the few positives in what was an understandably dismal group stage campaign against the likes of Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, and Inter Milan. Not surprisingly all three of them earned moves to other clubs following their side's exits. While Haaland moved to the Bundesliga with Dortmund, Minamino and Soucek moved to the Premier League with Liverpool and West Ham respectively.


Amidst all else, the fairytale that will be on every football fan's lips would deservedly be Atalanta Bergamo's great escape. Having lost all three of the opening games having shipped in eleven goals whilst scoring a measly two, nobody gave the debutants from Lombardy who were already punching above their weight a shred of a chance.

But ladies and gentlemen, we are all suckers for a good underdog story and the heavens didn't disappoint. Atalanta welcomed Manchester City for their 4th fixture and scraped a gritty 1-1 draw while Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb played out a feisty draw. This gave Atalanta a glimmer of hope and they made full use of it. They followed it up to end the group stages with two consecutive victories and saw both their rivals fail to win against the aggressive City team, which ultimately meant Atalanta had done just enough to merit qualification to the knockout phase.


Knockout Phase


Sixteen out of the thirty-two teams made it out of the group stages to qualify for the round of 16. Bayern was the most dominant team winning all their group stage fixtures. PSG, Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona, and Napoli were the only teams to have not lost a game during the stages. So, the expectations for a great round of 16 were running extremely high. There were some delicious matches on the menu with Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool and Real Madrid vs Manchester City being the pick of the bunch. For the first leg of the fixtures, Leipzig, Lyon, and Dortmund pulled off upsets against Spurs, Juventus, and PSG respectively. The Bayern machine rolled on and so did the Atalanta fairytale. However, by the time the first leg of fixtures had concluded the coronavirus pandemic had a stranglehold grip on most of the countries in Europe. The condition was far worse in the countries which were still represented in the competition. While Atletico Madrid, PSG, Atalanta, and RB Leipzig booked their places in the quarterfinals, the situation was worsening rapidly. Finally, on 15th March, it was decided by the governing body, UEFA, that all matches would be postponed indefinitely. A dark shadow was cast over the completion of the annual event.


Project Restart


But with shadow, coexists light. To every football lover's unbridled joy, that source of light came as the announcement in the month of June’20, that the competition would resume on 8th August 2020. However, there would be some vital changes to the format of the tournament. Although the remaining round of 16 fixtures would be played at their original venues behind closed doors, all fixtures from the quarterfinals onward would be a one-legged knockout tie, to be played in Portugal. The news of resumption itself was music to our ears but the anticipation and the energy associated with one round knockout ties blanketed the tournament with near World Cup vibes. And, truth be told, it didn't disappoint. The days leading up from the 7th August to the final day, 23rd August, were an absolute blur of high-octane matches, special goals, and nail-biting finishes. Atalanta's dream run came to a crashing halt against the Paris powerhouses, when they conceded in the dying stages. Lyon and RB Leipzig upset the odds against Manchester City and Atletico Madrid respectively.


But the biggest talking point was the utter carnage that Bayern shipped out at the expense of Lionel Messi & Co. Barcelona limped to their highest ever defeat having shipped eight goals against the Bavarians and scoring measly two. It was a result that shook the foundations of the club: triggering talks of Messi, Suarez, and other giants wanting to leave and raising questions on the internal management of the club. Bayern, on the other hand, epitomized the word Juggernaut: a merciless, destructive, and unstoppable force, swatting aside every team that they faced to storm into the finals where they were to face a star-studded side from Paris.


Finale: Bayern vs Paris


As anticipated, it was a juicy affair indeed. Paris had glorious chances, early on, to take the lead. However, Manuel Neuer decided to play God on the day. He single-handedly weathered the Parisian onslaught and kept his team in the game. His brilliance and some moments of wayward finishing by the PSG attackers meant the game went into the half time break level at 0-0. But there's a saying in football that if you don't take your chances your opponents will. That's exactly what transpired at Estádio da Luz. A momentary lapse of concentration at the back allowed Kinsley Coman to ghost in at the back post and steer in a header from a delightful lob from Joshua Kimmich. Coman, the Parisian, with his header, put a hot dagger through all the Parisian’s hearts that night. Bayern then held the fort and played on the counter and not even Neymar or Mbappe could pierce the impregnable Bayern wall. It was a thoroughly professional performance from the German giants which led them to win the trophy for the 6th time in their history.


Bayern, the brute force, smashed numerous records on their way to the trophy becoming the first-ever team to have not dropped a single point en route to the trophy and scoring a record 43 goals (!) throughout the tournament. Robert Lewandowski, their talisman striker, also ended up as the highest goal scorer (15) and assist maker (6) of the tournament. In McGregor’s powerful words, it all made sense for Bayern: “they weren’t there to take part, they were there to take over.


And with that, the curtain was brought down on another exhilarating season of the UEFA Champions League. It was patchy and uncertain at times but like all its predecessors didn't disappoint.


On to the next one we march!

 

Author: Saikat Chakraborty

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