Sometimes Second Can Be the Top Prize in the Champions League


MANCHESTER, England — To Pep Guardiola, as to anyone involved in elite sports, the very idea of being second best is anathema. So Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, did not need to pause for thought when he was asked whether, in certain circumstances, there is no difference between coming in second and finishing first.

“I prefer first,” he said, without missing a beat. Pushed for an explanation, he demurred. “I don’t know why,” he said. “It’s a good question. I just prefer it.” It is an instinct, a reflex, one that would be shared by any manager, any player, in any sport. Theirs is a world, after all, in which second is never good enough.

There are occasions, though, when it is not without its attractions. On Wednesday, Real Madrid will host Borussia Dortmund in the final round of group games in this season’s Champions League. Both teams are already assured of a place in the competition’s round of 16 next year, but this week they will meet to decide which of them will advance as their group’s winner. Dortmund currently has 13 points, Real Madrid 11. It is winner takes all.

Or it should be, anyway. The vagaries of the draw for the knockout rounds, however, mean that it is not quite that simple. For Real Madrid, in particular, there will be a sneaking suspicion that it is second, rather than first, that brings the true prize.

Should Madrid, the reigning champion, beat Dortmund and finish atop Group F, it could draw Bayer Leverkusen or F. C. Porto when the knockout stage begins in February. It could, however, also find itself paired with either Bayern Munich or Guardiola’s Manchester City, an altogether more intimidating prospect.

By contrast, finishing second would allow Real to avoid both of those teams. More significant, the rules governing the draw for the round of 16 — teams cannot face opponents they have faced in their group, or those from their own country — would also inoculate Real from hazardous ties with not just Dortmund, but Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, too.

There are still dangers, of course — a second-place Real could draw Juventus, or the winner of Group A, either Arsenal or Paris St.-Germain — but the odds would be on its receiving a somewhat softer landing. Of the five other likely potential opponents, three are Monaco, a stuttering Leicester City and the winner of the Besiktas/Benfica/Napoli group. Yes, second place is not without its attractions.

Manchester City and Bayern Munich, which are already guaranteed second-place finishes, are in a similar situation. Bayern cannot draw Dortmund or Atlético, which visits Bavaria in the group stage finale on Tuesday, so it will be hoping for Monaco or Leicester, rather than Juventus or P.S.G. Guardiola might have preferred to finish first, but at least by coming in second, City will avoid Barcelona, Bayern and, potentially, Real Madrid, as well as Leicester.

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Pep Guardiola, manager of Manchester City, at a training session on Monday.

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Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That is not his only solace. Guardiola believes, too, that how a team qualifies for the last 16 is not the most important factor in determining how well it performs once it is there.

“My experience in the Champions League is that what matters is how you arrive in February,” he said. “The draw is on Monday, and we will analyze the team and say who is the favorite to get to the next round. But the game is in February, and many things will happen before that.”

History does not quite bear that out. In four of the last five years, six of the eight group winners have gone on to qualify for the quarterfinals. In the other season — the 2013-14 edition — all eight made it through. That raw statistic would suggest that playing the away leg of a home-and-home series first is something of a head start, as it is supposed to be.

More likely, though, is that it hints at something else. Over the last 10 years or so, what was a creeping transformation in the nature of the Champions League has become an overwhelming one. The tournament, particularly in the knockout stages, has been colonized by a clutch of superclubs. Since 2010, Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid have accounted for almost two-thirds of the semifinal spots. In the last three years, only Atlético Madrid has suggested it is capable of breaking — or becoming part of — that stranglehold.

That the climax to this season’s group stages is so low key only strengthens that impression. Of the 16 spots available in the knockout rounds, only four have yet to be claimed. At this stage last season, there were seven slots still up for grabs; in 2012, there were 10.

This year, the few big clubs that do not yet know their places — Arsenal, P.S.G., Real Madrid and Dortmund — are merely scrapping for position. The last vestiges of drama are in Group B, where Benfica, Napoli and Besiktas can all still qualify; Group G, where Porto and Copenhagen retain hope; and Group H, where Lyon against Sevilla has the air of a shootout. Only once in 20 years have there been fewer meaningful matches at the end of the group stages.

That is not the only change. If Napoli makes it through, 14 of the last 16 teams in the tournament will be from one of Europe’s so-called Big Five leagues, the domestic competitions of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Currently, all but one of those teams scheduled to qualify are among those with the largest salary budgets. The only exception is Tottenham, which was eliminated despite a higher budget than Monaco or Leverkusen.

To Guardiola, “that is normal, that is good: I prefer the best teams to be there.”

In another light, though, it is a problem, and one likely to be exacerbated by the unpopular decision by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, to guarantee the leagues ranked as the continent’s four most powerful get four automatic spaces each in the group stage from 2018 onward.

Increasingly, the Champions League feels somehow preordained, ever more homogeneous, ever more predictable. That this week’s matches feel like a box-checking exercise, a formality, is part of it; so, too, is the fact that it does not matter who finishes first and who finishes second. After all, it is the same games, the same teams, who prosper in the end.

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