What these past four pulsating, often dumbfounding, days have taught us is that this year’s truncated Champions League is very much a battle of nerve. More so than ever before.
The last eight of this competition is always a stressful experience for those involved but this one-legged,
World Cup of Europe, is something else entirely. While not exactly giving the underdogs a sporting advantage, this format serves as an equaliser.
‘We know that they have a lot of experience over two legs — but anything can happen in just one game,’ RB Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann said on the eve of his club’s greatest night. ‘There’s pressure and nerves, but we want to relax the players and not increase the pressure.’
Leipzig are the perfect example of a team with little or no Champions League history relishing this mini-tournament for what it is.
Forward they ploughed against Atletico Madrid, forcing the Spaniards into areas that Diego Simeone, Nagelsmann’s opposite number, would rather they were not.
The classic first-leg circumspection has gone and UEFA may look at the last few games and wonder, providing the one-off format can be monetised to the same degree, whether the end-of-season carnival is here to stay.
You probably would not find many Premier League clubs moaning if that were to be the case, with fixture congestion forever a bone of contention in England.
Paris Saint-Germain probably would not have gambled on Kylian Mbappe’s ankle injury with another leg on the horizon.
Mbappe exploded into their tie, Atalanta failing to live with him as their hopes vanished in 149 seconds.
Watching these games has felt like witnessing the contracting of football, almost a Twenty20 equivalent and, at a time when we are saturated by live games, that is no bad thing.
It has also brought the relationship between manager and players into focus, something that sprung to mind during Bayern Munich’s massacre of Barcelona on Friday night.
Quique Setien’s problems as Barcelona coach are not because they were hammered 8-2 over one leg, but the manner of that defeat amplified issues that were to be addressed at the Nou Camp.
Pep Guardiola was absolutely right ahead of his Manchester City side’s meeting with Lyon last night. ‘In this competition there are no favourites,’ he said. ‘I want to see my team be who they are, do everything with their souls, their minds.’
PSG are the exception, but the clearer heads are winning. Watching their opponents attempt to unscramble their own is fascinating in itself.