Narratives dominate the UCL Round of 16 draw

Posted by Rory Smith

You have heard the conversations. You will be aware of the phenomenon. It takes the form of asserting that one player, for every single second of footage of his career, is better than the superstar who comes in glorious Technicolor.

It manifests itself in the sepia-tinged lionisation of teams long forgotten. Football yearns for the past. Nostalgia haunts its every waking moment.

This is in direct contravention of common sense. Common sense dictates that the world moves forward, that things -- broadly -- get better with time, knowledge and development.

Penicillin is more likely to cure your fever than leeches. Sprinters get faster. So do computers. Human history is a story in which every successive generation has things better than the previous generation.

Football -- like art or music -- is exempt from this. Football has no time for common sense. Mention that Lionel Messi is the finest footballer in history, and you will be told in no uncertain terms that Pele was his superior in every department. Presumably this happened to Pele, too. Presumably, when people mentioned in 1970 that he was the best player ever to have lived, someone came along and said:

"Well, maybe for you. You don’t know any better. I do, and he's no Matthias Sindelar."

It will no doubt be the same in 50 years, when we -- old and wizened and scornful of the present -- hark back to the football of the early 21st century. We will decry whatever superstar led River Plate to victory in the World Super League, instead eulogising the genius of Messi. We will be the prisoners of the past. We will be the old-timers hooked on pure, uncut nostalgia.

We will, though, be correct in one sense. We will assert in no uncertain terms that the early years of the 21st century were the high point for the football narrative, and we will be right. This is a golden age for subplots.

We will tell our grandchildren that, whatever the overarching storylines dominating the 2063-64 season, they do not match up to the themes we enjoyed back in 2013 when we heated our homes with rotted trees, flew in the sky in gigantic iron birds and still remembered dial-up.

"You think this is a storyline," we will say. "But I remember when Jose Mourinho encountered Andre Villas-Boas, the mentor against the prodigal son. Now that was a trope you could get your teeth into."

This season's draw for the last 16 of the Champions League will come up, too. Whoever scripted it deserves a big-money move to Hollywood. You can barely move for subplots. There's so much texture, so much richness, so much coincidence and unironic irony that you could be in a Roger Altman movie.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesDidier Drogba: He used to play for Chelsea, you know.

There’s Manchester City's Barcelona contingent -- Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano -- going back to Barcelona, of course, as well as Didier Drogba's return to Chelsea with Galatasaray and Roy Carroll's homecoming at Old Trafford in the colours of Olympiakos, too.

That would be more than enough on its own, but throw into the mix Arsenal's meeting with Bayern Munich -- the tie which, according to so many of the north London club's players, represented the moment their fortunes turned last season -- and Schalke's game with Real Madrid (the Raul derby), and you have a draw rife with Grade A narratives, the sort that will rot your teeth and keep you awake for 72 hours.

Only the Bayer Leverkusen-Paris Saint-Germain and Zenit St Petersburg-Borussia Dortmund matches don't boast an overarching storyline. As Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Paolo Condò noted, even AC Milan against Atletico Madrid has a subplot: "the duel from the Mexican revolution -- Zapata against Villa." This time it's Cristian and David, of course, not Emilio and Pancho, but it still counts.

Among all these glorious stories, though, lies a grander theme: the survival of the fittest. The strong are getting stronger and are shedding all their peers. There is an elite cadre of 10 clubs and all the rest are cast into shadow.

Certainly, it is hard to think of a year in which the contrast between the group winners and the runners-up has been more stark. Aside from Barcelona and Bayern Munich, none of the main contenders for the trophy -- both Madrid clubs, Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea and Manchester United -- will be fearful that they may not make the quarterfinals, identified by most clubs as the minimum requirement.

They have been helped to some extent by the vagaries of the group draw, which meant that the likes of Juventus, Napoli, Ajax, Porto and Benfica, all sides that might have expected to make the last 16, fell by the wayside. Nevertheless, the impression is that very few of their peers can compete.

These elite clubs have the resources, whether through obscenely rich owners or bloated marketing deals. This means they can stockpile players, depriving their rivals of the chance to mount a sustained challenge to their dominance. The elite clubs have the best coaches, too, so the likelihood of a tactically astute manager overturning the odds is vastly reduced.

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And it is a self-repeating cycle. The biggest pockets buy the best players and obtain the best managers, which means they get the riches from the Champions League, both financial and intangible (the glamour of being seen in the quarterfinals, which means it is easier to buy players). And so next season, they are even stronger, and their potential challengers even weaker.

This is not the first season in this process, of course. The makeup of the semifinals in the Champions League has been growing ever more homogenous for a decade. Who do you expect to be in the quarterfinals in 2015? Would it surprise you if it was the eight teams from the 10 who expect to be there this season? And in 2016? Probably the same, you'd expect. And on and on into eternity.

That's a good thing, of course, for fans of narrative. The more teams play each other, the more the rivalries turn into feuds, as fans of professional wrestling would attest. Is it a good thing for football? Who knows. Perhaps the elite will push the game on to ever-increasing levels of excellence.

Or perhaps, when we come to look back in 50 years, we will ask: "Do you remember when Bayern Munich played Arsenal in the last 16 of the Champions League?"

And we will be met with this answer: "Yeah. But which time?"

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