In club football, there is no grander stage than the UEFA Champions League.
Finally, the most dramatic and captivating show has returned from its relatively short hiatus to once again capture the hearts and souls of millions.
The Champions League pitches are what every team, every player, dream to conquer. This year, the final returns to Istanbul, the scene of one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
Even Lionel Messi, after winning countless titles already, including the Champions League three times, said this in 2018: “Although last year we won La Liga and the Copa del Rey, we all got stung in the Champions League. We promise that we will do everything possible so that this beautiful cup returns to the Camp Nou again.”
It speaks volumes that even after doing the domestic double, the season was seen as a failure by the Argentinian legend. No matter how extraordinary a player or a team is, they have not truly reached the pinnacle until they have etched their name into Champions League history.
Think back to Pep Guardiola’s dynasty at Barcelona, which reached its peak in 2011. Barca dominated Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley.
It is that same domination that Guardiola has been chasing ever since leaving Spain, first with Bayern Munich, where he inexplicably failed to make a Champions League final, and now with Manchester City, where the same threatens to occur. Even though league domination comes easily to the Catalan, to include his team alongside Fabio Capello’s 1994 Milan, the treble-winning Manchester United or his own Barca legacy, he must lift the Champions League trophy.
The Champions League is not only for those that want to prove their greatness; it also obfuscates the lines of how exceptional a team truly was.
Look no further than Real Madrid’s history-defying run in the past few years on the European stage. Their four championships in five years mean people will look back with misty eyes as they recall one of the best teams of the 21st century.
They were often second, sometimes even third-best in the league, let alone in Europe, but those Champions League titles helped paper over the cracks, which might finally only be starting to reveal themselves .
Jose Mourinho’s legacy was tarnished at Real Madrid where he failed to win La Decima, even though he competed against that famous Barcelona side domestically when consistency was key. But the Champions League is also where Mourinho made his name.
Few would have taken notice of ‘The Special One’ before he put himself on every team’s wish list by winning the trophy against all the odds with Porto in 2003-04. It pushed him to take charge of a rebirthed, oil-rich Chelsea where he confirmed that Porto was no fluke.
Then, he cemented himself as one of the all-time great modern managers by claiming the mythical treble with Inter in 2010, once again defeating his great rival Pep in a memorable semi-final.
Last year, it was Ajax that made a splash in the Champions League, as they channelled the spirits of their legendary 1994 squad to remind the world that they have the best academy in the world. Matthijs De Ligt, only a teenager, captained his side to a miraculous cup run, cruelly cut short in the final moments by an equally miraculous Lucas Moura hat-trick.
Funnily enough, the 2018-19 Champions League final will not be remembered by many, aside from Liverpool fans, given its anti-climactic ending.
For the 2018-19 season, most will think back to the aforementioned Ajax run, or the fine lines by which VAR intervened to halt City’s domination in its tracks and propel Tottenham to the final.
They will think back to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quick corner kick that condemned Messi’s team to another year of failure on the grandest of stages, after Barcelona took a three-goal lead in the first leg.
Now, there are new legacies to be created, new stories to recount to our children in the decades to come.
Could there be another team that defies all the odds like Ajax last year, or will it be the Dutch side again with fresh talents from their famed academies that step in the big shoes left by De Ligt and De Jong?
Can Guardiola finally confirm the greatness of his City squad that we all know exists, but cannot be proven with certainty until he conquers the Champions League?
Will Neymar reconcile with the PSG squad as well as the fans and meet the high expectations of the Qatari owners, for whom the Champions League is the only meaningful prize? Only time will tell, but you can be certain the journey will be filled with twists and turns that will only make the ending sweeter.