By Simon Barnes
You watch the Premier League for drama, but the Champions League for excellence. You can find both qualities in both brands of football, of course, but when you watch the Premier League you tend to do a lot of shouting and when you watch the Champions League you’re more inclined to wag your head in wonder. And it’s all happening this week: 16 matches in two days as the group stage begins.
If you have a taste for football – football for itself, rather than as an excuse for partisanship – the Champions League is essential viewing. Here are the best football players on the planet: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Manuel Neuer, Kylian Mbappé.
What’s more, here are the best teams on the planet: the traditional powers like Juventus and Real Madrid, the big new moneyed aspirants like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. Forget the scratch sides that you find in modern international football: the Champions League brings you teams in which individuals have been playing together week in, week out for years.
You watch a counter-attack from Barcelona, say, and wonder if it would make much difference if they were in the pitch black. The players seem to know exactly where each other is. It’s a fact that the best teams raise their games against the best opposition, so it follows that when two of the best teams in Europe come together you’re likely to find a higher standard of football than you do in any national league.
With six British teams in the group stage there will still be plenty of partisanship on offer. But as the competition develops, the difference between very good and excellent makes itself clear. This process of sorting-out brings a more thoughtful pleasure than that of cheering your own boys on.
There’s a chance to relish the tactical nuances, first in the group stage and then in the two-legged knock-out ties that follow. It’s a format that comes as close as it can to eliminating luck.
A classic example is Inter’s near-neutralisation of Barcelona – then regarded as the best side in the world – in the semi-finals of 2010. In the second leg in Barcelona, Inter lost by a single goal: “the most beautiful defeat of my life,” as Inter’s then manager Jose Mourinho said. It was a tactical masterpiece, and their 3–2 win on aggregate paved the way for Inter’s eventual triumph in the final.
Jose Mourinho (L) and Marco Materazzi of Inter Milan celebrate their team’s victory at the end of the UEFA Champions League Final
The shame of Champions League football is that it’s not free-to-air; the good bit is that every match is available live. You can even watch eight games at the same time on BT Sport’s Goal Show, which darts in a frenzied way from match to match, following the goals, the cards, the penalties and the dangerous free-kicks.
It rapidly becomes addictive. It’s like a wildlife documentary in which the lions are always hunting or killing or copulating. In real life, lions spend 19 hours a day asleep. Watching football in this live-highlights manner is at the same time inexcusable and irresistible.
For all that, the Champions League season tends to be a slow revelation of genuine class. When you watch the Champions League you are entitled to ask: is this the best that football has ever been played?
Champions League Football is on Tue, Wed 7pm BT Sport 2, BT Sport 3, ESPN; 7.45pm Radio 5 Live The Goal Show Tue, Wed 7.30pm BT Sport 1