Columnists, Soccer, Sports

Full-Time Focus: Previewing the world’s most popular football club competition

What can we anticipate from the Union of European Football Associations Champions League this year compared to last season? 

Annika Morris | Senior Graphic Artist

As February approaches, the Champions League knockout stage is closer than ever. This is the time of the year where clubs and fans start preparing for the most important nights of the year. 

Even with the threat of a possible European Super League coming to place, the Champions League is still the most respected competition in the world — from its iconic anthem that plays before every game, to all the mythical moments that have taken place on the field. Some players even tend to hold its value just under the World Cup. 

Last year’s Champions League run confirmed Pep Guardiola’s place as one of this generation’s greatest soccer coaches. Manchester City crowned themselves champions for their first time in history, ending Guardiola’s 12-year Champions League title drought. After City defeated Inter Milan 1-0, Pep could not contain his emotion and said: “This f—ing trophy, it’s so difficult to win it.”

City was — and still is — the favorite in every match they compete in. 

The club has spent the last decade building a reliable project by investing in young players and their coaching staff. The balance completely shifted when Erling Haaland joined Borussia Dortmund in 2022. 

Haaland’s presence in the box posed an incredible threat to all the defenses he faced. By the end of his first year, he had already broken the Premier League record for most goals in one season. 

On top of that, Guardiola has invested a lot of time in implementing a possession-driven style of play which has allowed for his midfielders to take protagonism. Some people argue that Kevin De Bruyne sits at the same table with players like Andres Iniesta, Xavier Hernández Creus or Luka Modric. 

Manchester City ended up winning the treble, meaning that they took all major trophies home — a feat only achieved by seven clubs before. The birth of City as an European champion came with the demise of another great, Real Madrid. Madrid is not only the most crowned team in European competitions, but they had come from winning the Champions League the season prior. City faced Madrid in the semi-finals and defeated Los Blancos 4-0 in the second leg. 

Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit from Real Madrid, the club has been in a transitional period of reconstruction. Regardless of this, Madrid has been quite successful in the last few years. Their elimination against City was hurtful but it did not come as a surprise — Guardiola is inevitable. 

Last Champions League also vindicated the status of Italian football. Three Serie A teams were present in the Quarterfinals, with one making it to the final. Napoli was considered to be the surprise of the season, with players like Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen driving a lot of attention to the way of playing. 

Even though the trophy was not taken back to Italy, fans were able to witness the rise of a style of defensive football not seen in almost a decade.

When analyzing how this season of the Champions League could go, there are many factors to take into consideration — many things have changed since last season. 

One of the most interesting things to look out for is Arsenal’s presence this season. The Gunners had one of their best seasons to date in last years’ Premier League, finishing right behind City. Players like Bukayo Saka, Leandro Trossard and Declan Rice will make their Champions debut. On the other hand, AC Milan will not be present, marking a big difference from what went down last year.

As for favorites, City is still on top. However, Real Madrid’s history and their trophy case tells us to beware of them. The round of 16’s first leg kicks off on Feb. 13.

The most interesting match up to look out for will be Inter versus Atletico de Madrid. Both teams are strong defensively and have had important experience at the biggest stage.

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