The knockout round of the UEFA Champions League began this week, with 16 teams remaining to play for world club soccer’s biggest prize. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have combined to win six of the past eight titles. At the end of the tournament, it’ll probably be one of those three teams lifting the trophy. But looking past the biggest names, there are some potentially interesting stories to follow.
First are the excellent teams that have recently failed to make the big time in Europe. Juventus is headed for a sixth consecutive Serie A title in Italy, but hasn’t won the European title since 1995. Italian clubs dominated Europe for years, but have fallen off recently, a period coinciding with Juve’s rise as perennial champions. Manager Max Allegri, in his third year at Juve, could restore some Italian luster, especially with Allegri rumored to be on his way to another team after the season.
Similarly, Paris St.-Germain and Manchester City have spent big and climbed to the top of their respective countries, but neither has so much as made it to the final in Europe. PSG has lost four consecutive years in the quarterfinals. Manchester City made it to the semifinals last year, its first trip past the round of 16. Both would gladly trade domestic success for a chance to lift the European Cup and complete their club’s trophy case.
Beyond those, a few excellent teams that appear to be doomed always come up just short of greatness.
In England, manager Arsene Wenger has guided Arsenal into the final 16 for the 17th consecutive year, but a 5-1 pasting in the first leg of its Round of 16 matchup with Bayern Munich has again ended dreams of winning it all. Wenger appears to be on his way to retirement, in part because he could never find a way to win in Europe.
Atletico Madrid has lost in two of the past three Champions League finals, but given the team’s struggles in Spain this year, it would appear that manager Diego Simeone will leave the club in the offseason without ever achieving European glory.
Beyond the big names are a few underdogs: Portuguese sides Benfica and Porto, the only two teams left from outside the traditional Big Five European leagues, and Spanish upstart Sevilla. The greatest story of all, of course, would be if tiny Leicester City could somehow find a way to the European title, all while potentially getting relegated from the Premier League. Given that the Foxes haven’t scored a goal or won a Premier League game in 2017, it seems highly unlikely they would find European success. But what a story it would be.
Usually, the big names win out, and in all likelihood, it will be Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid in the final again this year. Now, though, is the time to hope for another club to storm the European gates.
• Carli Lloyd, the best women’s soccer player in the world, will miss the beginning of the NWSL season to play in England for Manchester City. This means the league will start 2017 without its two most recognizable players in Lloyd and Alex Morgan, who will be playing in France for Paris St.-Germain until midsummer. It’s yet another offseason blow for the NWSL, which is struggling to keep its best, and most marketable, players.
• Interesting move by Univision, the Spanish-language television network that will stream English-language broadcasts of select Liga MX games on Facebook for the rest of the 2017 spring season. The first one is Saturday (see the Weekend Watch Guide). It should be a good opportunity for fans who want to check out the region’s best league, but couldn’t get past the Spanish-language commentary.
• The Philadelphia Union is hiring a “Chief Tattoo Officer” in charge of tattooing interested team staff and players and, presumably, becoming the point person for fans who want to ink the team’s branding onto their bodies. It’s likely the first position of its kind for any soccer team anywhere. With the sport’s younger, cooler demographic in America, you can bet other teams are considering a similar move.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich at Hertha Berlin, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Bayern pulled out a late victory last week while the rest of the top six teams in the German standings lost, all but clinching another Bundesliga title for the Bavarians. This game, then, is less about Bayern, and more about Hertha, which is only two points out of third place and desperate to get into the Champions League places.
Liga MX: Club América at Chivas, 9 p.m. Saturday, Univision/Facebook Live. This edition of the Clásico Nacional — between Mexico’s two most popular clubs — sees Chivas in the ascendancy and América on the decline. After Chivas defeated local rival Atlas last week, some are talking it up as a potential title contender and some are wondering if América coach Ricardo La Volpe would survive another loss.
FA Cup: Tottenham at Fulham, 8 a.m. Sunday, FS1. Fulham has had a rough couple of years, even with new ownership by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. This year, though, things seem to be turning around a little, with Fulham beginning to push for a place in the promotion playoffs. Sunday’s match comes against its former cross-London rival.
FA Cup: Manchester United at Blackburn, 10:15 a.m. Sunday, FS1. It’s been nearly five years since Blackburn was in the Premier League, just long enough to let this matchup of teams from England’s northwest start to seem unfamiliar. The Rovers might well end up being relegated to the third division this year, but they have a chance for glory in this match.