By Ian Chadband
It was Alex Ferguson who once noted famously that watching the World Cup was as excruciating as visiting the dentist while offering the counterpoint that the Champions League was much more fun, quite the best competition in football.
To be fair, the old Manchester United manager did make this observation long before the exhilarating 2014 edition of the World Cup restored most football folk’s faith in the sport’s premier event.
So now it is time for UEFA’s ever more unstoppable juggernaut of an event to re-establish its bragging rights as the 60th edition of the European Cup competition – and the 23rd in its Champions League guise – kicks off this week with its first set of group matches on the long road to a climax at Berlin’s Olympiastadion next June.
The Champions League’s paymasters can ask again who cares about the World Cup when hundreds of millions are able to see Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and company strut the dandiest stages of European club football week in, week out over the next 10 months?
The competition, which was worth 57.4 million euros in prize money to last season’s champions, has mushroomed into an unrecognisable phenomenon and veritable cash cow from the inaugural 29-game, 16-team tournament of 1955-1956 which made an intriguing bow with no television or sponsorship nor, indeed, sniffy Englishmen.
Some things never change, though.
Just as the Cup’s first edition in 1956 was won by Real Madrid, so the Spanish aristocrats begin tournament number 60 as holders and warm favourites, even after their underwhelming start to the La Liga campaign.
Even without AC Milan and Manchester United, 10-times winners between them, in this year’s draw, there is predictability to what will eventuate.
It is no coincidence that the four favourites this season – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Chelsea – are also the last four heavyweight winners of the trophy.
The last genuine surprise winners? Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004, 18 of the last 19 winners having come from one of the continent’s big four leagues – La Liga, Bundesliga, Premier League and Serie A. The Champions League is not big on fairytales.
Here is another predictable prediction. Carlo Ancelotti can claim that his Real Madrid squad “is stronger than it was last year” – a highly debatable assertion without Xabi Alonso and Angel di Maria offering their excellent balance – but they will not defend their title.
Why? Modern Champions League lore dictates that the winner never repeats, that the pressure is too much. You have to go back to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990, three years before the inaugural Champions League final, to find the last back-to back European champions.
More than that, no champions since then have ever been succeeded by a club from their own country.
So Barcelona, with their own set of striking Galacticos – Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez – and last year’s beaten finalists Atletico Madrid, still hewn from Diego Simeone’s inspirational one-for-all image, have their work cut out.
Yet for Real, surely the pressure of finally landing the fabled 10th crown – La Decima – last season ought to make the idea of winning the not-so-exacting ‘Undecima’ seem a mere trifle?
If it happens, Ancelotti would be the first coach ever to win ‘the Cup with the big ears’ four times. Added to his two titles as a player with Milan, it would cement this quiet achiever’s standing as equalling Real Madrid’s Francisco Gento as the most decorated figure in European Cup annals.
Gento played in all six of Real Madrid’s European Cup triumphs between 1956 and 1966.
Surely, as Real prepare to start their defence at the Bernabeu against Basel on Tuesday, President Florentino Perez must believe they can break the Champions League holders’ jinx, especially if Cristiano Ronaldo can maintain his supersonic form of last term, with his record 17 goals in a campaign.
Ronaldo himself predicts he is not finished yet, stating: “In terms of individual achievements I’m going to try to break my own records. I know it’s tough, but I’m going to try.”
Indeed, it seems a decent bet that this season, both Ronaldo and Messi will shoot past the all-time tournament record of 71, held by Real’s former immaculate marksman, Raul.
Traditionalists may pine for the days before the occasionally less than gripping group stages when a big fish could be netted early in a straight knockout competition.
Yet there is always room for a major casualty to go tumbling before the end of the year.
Bayern Munich and Manchester City, the champions of Germany and England respectively, meet on Wednesday for the third tournament out of four and have to repel both Serie A runners-up AS Roma and Russian champions CSKA Moscow in a highly competitive Group E.
A couple of other Anglo-German clashes – Arsenal renewing familiar rivalry at Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea hosting Schalke 04 – may be the pick of the other opening round games.
For a bit of romance, though, look no further than Anfield where the returning five-times champions Liverpool will play host to the unsung Bulgarian side Ludogorets and their amazed new celebrity, Cosmin Moti.
Defender Moti was the unlikely hero who, pressed into emergency action as substitute goalkeeper in Ludogorets’ qualifying playoff against Steaua Bucharest, scored one and saved two in his side’s victorious shootout.
“Everything in football is possible,” said the man who had laughed that Steaua’s penalty takers could not possibly know what he was going to do because he did not know himself.
With Ludogorets’ first-choice keeper Vladislav Stoyanov suspended, their coach Georgi Dermendzhiev suggested, perhaps only half in jest, that Moti might end up in goal at Anfield.
It would not be just Liverpool’s Kop, who have long believed in Champions League fairytales, but the entire tournament which would adore that.