UEFA staged the group stage draw of this season’s Champions League in a somewhat sober event in Monaco during which the best player of last season was announced. Just like Luka Modric in last year’s Ballon d’Or, there was a third player in the running – Virgil van Dijk, who beat Messi and Cristiano to the award. We are nearing the end of an era – one which Cristiano and Messi raised the bar to new levels with their tremendous rivalry; it’s cooled a little since Cristiano left us to join Juve. In Monaco yesterday, that rivalry left us with a tender moment when both players spoke with warmth about each other. It was great to see them together, so relaxed, with their careers fulfilled but still with the drive to continue offering us the magic of their game. For me, that was the best part of the whole event.
In recognition of defenders
As for Van Dijk, he’s a fantastic player. Liverpool plucked him from Southampton for 85 million euros in Janaury 2017 in a deal which came as a surprise to many. Until then, no one had ever paid such an amount for a central defender. And until now, a centre-back had never won the UEFA best player award. Di Stéfano used to say that it’s more difficult to make a chair than break one… that was his way of expressing how a forward’s job is valued more than a defender’s. But every football expert I’ve ever asked who would win a hypothetical game between a team of forwards and a team of defenders has assured me that the defenders would win every time. I’d love to see such a game.
Tough draw for Barcelona
Regarding the draw itself and how it all unfolded for the Spanish teams, Barça came off the worst – in spite of being in Pot 1. Valencia, who were in Pot 3, were drawn with Chelsea and Ajax, who are not quite the force they were last season after losing De Ligt and De Jong; Lille complete their group. For Real Madrid, it worked out quite nicely – they will take on a PSG side who are immersed in a chronic state of confusion plus Club Brugge and Galatasaray in what on paper appears a relatively accessible group. Atlético return to meet Juve, and they are joined in Group D by Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv – another reasonably uncomplicated group. But Barça were dealt the teams everyone wanted to avoid in the second and third pots - Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan in the toughest group of the lost, with Slavia Prague. In their favour, Barça have Leo Messi…