Giles Smith's Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 7 Dec 2017
To be second or not to be second, or to worry about it anyway? That is the question pondered by supporter Giles Smith in this week’s column…
Let’s have another look at that Champions League table, then. Because I can always stand to do so, can’t you?
And here’s what it says. Six games played. Won three of them, drew two and lost one. Eleven points accumulated, and through to the knock-out rounds.
Marvellous stuff. What a great time that was, and no mistaking. The 2011/12 season, I mean. We went on to win it that year, of course. Faced Napoli in the Round of 16, who were red-hot at the time, then Benfica and then Barcelona, Fernando Torres running free in the Nou Camp.
And then it was the Allianz Arena in Munich on a balmy May night, Drogba at the near post, Cech saving from Robben in extra-time, Drogba at the penalty spot, the team exploding in joy every which way from the centre circle… Irreducible, diamond-hard memories.
Anyway, here we are again, coincidentally enough, with the numbers looking intriguingly parallel. Six games played. Won three of them, drawn two and lost one. Eleven points accumulated, and through to the knock-out rounds. What’s not to like? We’ve seen where that kind of form can lead.
Tougher group this time, as well. Few people in 2011/12 would have been staggered to see us top a mini-league containing Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia and Genk, which we duly did. Yet this time, as the manager perfectly reasonably pointed out, one of the formidable trio of Roma, Atletico Madrid and us wasn’t going to make it out of Group C. And happy days because it wasn’t us.
Far from it, actually. We qualified a whole round of fixtures ago, and if UEFA used the criterion of goal difference, which has served as a perfectly acceptable team-separator almost everywhere in the world since time immemorial, we would have finished on top by several streets. (Our goal difference was superior to Roma’s by five, and we managed seven more goals than they did.)
All highly encouraging, then. Yet, after this week’s fantastically entertaining battle with Atletico, the chances are that you, too, will have read reports about how we were ‘left rueing’ those several, beautifully crafted but ultimately unconverted chances, and how the whole occasion may well ‘come back to haunt’ us.
You may even have heard people saying, in a particularly revealing use of language, that the result on Tuesday night ‘condemned’ our team to second place, as if the second of two available qualifying positions in the Champions League was really just another version of the electric chair.
Odd way to think about the possibility of a big night against PSG in the spring, which is exactly the kind of thing the fans crave and the reason you hope your team lands up in the Champions League to begin with.
Odd point, also, to try to make, in this of all years. If you want to avoid, for instance, Real Madrid next February, then second place is a very good spot in which to finish. Interested in keeping out of the way of Juventus? You’ll want to be among the runners-up, then. Keen to sidestep Bayern Munich for a little while longer? Again, Pot B is the place you’ll need to go, and the place where we find ourselves.
But if avoidance is the first thing in your mind when the Champions League finally gets down to business in earnest, then it’s reasonable to ask: what are you hiding from? And, more than that, have you come to the right place? Surely, at this point, there is no such thing as getting off lightly – and, ideally, no such thing as being interested in getting off lightly. After all, we’re talking about a contest which has finally been whittled down gleamingly to the 16 top teams in Europe, on current form, and, unless there’s something badly awry with the competition, soft options shouldn’t really present themselves, nor appear desirable.
In any case, what is this supposition that there is some kind of massive talent gulf between first and second place in a Champions League group, such that a team must either scramble its way into one group or get eaten alive in the other? Surely it’s a grave insult to the competition to imply as much. You’re basically saying that the group stage of Europe’s top-table contest is, to all intents and purposes, Scottish football, in eight miniature forms. And I think we all know that not to be true. As the saying goes, there are no easy games at this level. Which is a cliché, but if you can’t say that and mean it about the knock-out stages of the Champions League, when can you?
First place, second place – what’s the difference, really? The last time we won three, drew two, lost one, accumulated 11 points and came second to Roma in the group stage was in the 2008/09 season – after which we beat Juventus and Liverpool and came within a whisker, an unfortunately mis-placed Michael Essien clearance and a number of highly eccentric penalty calls of beating Barcelona to reach the final. So much for having been ‘condemned’ in December.
On the other hand, we won our group undefeated in 2009/10 and promptly got crushed by Inter, who were nobody’s idea of a soft touch at the time. Our reward for beating seven bells out of Group G in 2014/15? A tie with Paris St-Germain, which we lost. Our reward for doing the same thing to Group G (again) in 2015/16? Another tie against Paris St-Germain, which we also lost.
Frankly, if you’re maintaining that finishing first or second in your Champions League group affects the kind of spring you are likely to have, then you’ve not been paying attention. And if you’re hoping it does make a difference, you’re in the wrong competition. Bring on the draw for the knock-outs, then. And, whoever comes out of the hat, bring them on, too. It’s why we came.