Some 340 days after it all kicked off in the preliminary round, the 2021-22 Champions League reaches its climax in Paris on Saturday.
And as Liverpool and Real Madrid meet in the final for the second time in five years, we take a look at some of the trends and quirks (and potential history in the making) from another memorable edition of the greatest club knockout competition on the planet.
High Shock With Sheriff
Sheriff Tiraspol’s first foray into the Champions League didn’t last long – the minnows from the Moldovan breakaway state of Transnistria finished third in Group D and dropped into the Europa League – but they certainly left their mark.
On Matchday 2, Sheriff produced arguably the biggest shock in the competition’s history as they defeated 13-time champions of Europe Real 2-1 at the Bernabeu – and in dramatic fashion, on-loan Luxembourg international Sébastien Thill firing in a stunning 89th-minute half-volley to clinch it.
Real bounced back to win their remaining four group games and ultimately finish comfortably top of Group D with 15 points, but they are only the second team ever to make it to the final after losing to a Champions League newcomer. Bayern Munich were the first, losing to Lyon in the old second group stage in 2000-01 before going on to claim their fourth of six European crowns, beating Valencia on penalties in the final at San Siro.
Let’s Talk About Six out of Six
“Let’s talk about six, baby,” beamed a Salt-N-Pepa-channelling Jürgen Klopp in a live TV interview after Liverpool beat Tottenham to become champions of Europe for the sixth time in 2019. Where was that energy when your side won six out of six group games this season, Jürgen?
Who knows, perhaps he gave the players a little rendition in the dressing room. It was a notable achievement, after all; it has only ever been done nine times in 30 editions of the Champions League.
The Reds were joined in advancing from (and – obviously – winning) their group with a 100% record by Ajax, making this the first season in which two teams have managed the feat.
Real have won six out of six group matches twice (in 2011-12 and 2014-15), with Bayern (2019-20), Barcelona (2002-03), Spartak Moscow (1995-96), PSG (1994-95) and AC Milan (1992-93) completing the set.
But is there any correlation between a perfect group campaign and success in the knockout stages? Well…
Of those nine sides (excluding Liverpool, whose destiny is to be determined, of course), only Bayern have gone on to win the whole thing – and their triumph came with the slight caveat that the quarter-final and semi-final were both single-legged affairs*. Milan were runners-up – but the 1992-93 group stage took place after two knockout rounds (which weren’t even classed as Champions League at the time) and directly before the final.
As for the rest… PSG lost in the semis, as did Real on both occasions; Barça and Spartak went out in the quarters (which took place after the last-ever group stage two in Barça’s case and formed the second round in Spartak’s); and Ajax went out in the last 16.
That said, Liverpool have made a quirky bit of history by becoming the first team ever to advance from a group with six wins from six and one win from six – pulling off the latter by winning their final match of the 2001-02 second group stage (before losing to Bayer Leverkusen in the last eight).
*The quarter-finals onwards of the 2019-20 tournament were played during an 11-day period in August 2020, five months after the tournament was paused as football went into hibernation amid the onset of Covid.
Goals, Goals, Goals (Having a Good Time)
Since the Champions League switched to its current, 125-game format in 2003, the overall number of goals has been trending upwards. This season is set to be the fourth edition in the last six to see a goals per game rate of more than 3.0, a landmark never reached before 2016-17 and one that has never been seen in the Premier League.
We’d need the final to produce 22 goals to match the 401 scored in 2017-18 (the most seen in the current format) but we could see a new all-time best in an individual sense. Karim Benzema – who, at 34, is enjoying the campaign of his career – strolls into the showdown by the Seine on 15 goals and a hat-trick away from usurping Cristiano Ronaldo as the highest scorer in a single edition of the Champions League (or European Cup, for that matter).
Ordinarily, you might say that’s easier said than done, but Benzema has already hit two hat-tricks in the competition this term (and become the oldest player to score one) – in consecutive appearances, no less (against PSG in the second leg of the last 16 then against Chelsea in the first leg of the quarters). Only Ronaldo has ever struck three in one season, doing so as Real took European crown No. 11 of 13 in 2015-16.
If Benzema doesn’t conjure up the first hat-trick in a Champions League or European Cup final since Pierino Prati did so for Milan against Ajax in 1969, he will still scoop this season’s Golden Boot – as one of at least three players to score more than 10 goals, something which has never happened before. He’ll also be the first Frenchman to finish as outright Champions League/European Cup top scorer since Just Fontaine 63 years ago (Jean-Pierre Papin shared the accolade with Romário in 1989-90).
Karim The Dream
When we dig into the data behind Benzema’s performance in the 2021-22 Champions League, we get more of a feel for just how devastating he’s been. His 15 goals have come from an expected goals value of 8.37 – lower than that of second and third top scorers Robert Lewandowski (13 goals from 10.27 xG) and Sébastien Haller (11 goals from 9.38 xG). He’s outperformed his non-penalty xG (6) by 100%.
An utterly clinical finisher, Benzema has had 12 big chances this season – and missed only two (16.6%) of them. Lewandowski and Haller missed four out of 16 (25%) and six out 16 (37.5) respectively – while the only other player to have had 10 or more big chances, Mo Salah, has missed seven out of 12 (58.3%).
Other xG-defying individuals worthy of a mention include Salah’s Liverpool teammate Roberto Firmino (five goals from 1.76), Cristiano Ronaldo (six from 2.93), and RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku (seven from 3.83). Meanwhile, Lionel Messi’s tame penalty against Real in the last 16 -comfortably saved by Thibaut Courtois – makes him the only player with five or more goals this term not to outperform their xG. You’d have expected better from the xGOAT.
If Carlo Ancelotti guides Real to glory as he did in 2014 during his first spell in charge at the Bernabeu, he will become the first manager to lift the Champions League multiple times with multiple clubs – having led Milan to glory in 2003 and 2007, avenging 2005’s Miracle of Istanbul by beating Liverpool in the latter, as well as the first manager to win the Champions League four times. It’ll be some CV.
However, should Liverpool win to go joint-second with Milan on seven European Cups/Champions Leagues, it will see German coaches equal their Italian counterparts as the most successful with 11 titles.
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