13 Biggest Things the 2012-13 Champions League Season Has Taught Us So Far
The UEFA Champions League provides the perfect barometer for the level of the game each and every season. New standards are set each year, and the team who has adapted most usually comes out on top.
As the quarterfinals come to an end and the semifinals roll onto the horizon we can look back at the year that was. What did we learn from the world's greatest club competition this term?
Has the era of English dominance truly come to an end? Will Spanish teams continue to control the competition for years to come? Or is there another power growing in the shadows unchecked?
Here, Willie Gannon looks at 13 of the biggest lessons learned in the 2012-13 Champions League season.
What are your favourite and defining moments, and what is your biggest lesson of the UCL 2013?
Leave your comments, suggestions and best Champions League moments in the comment section below!
Lionel Messi Is a Footballing God
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When Lionel Messi scored his 59th goal in just 77 UEFA Champions League games against Paris Saint-Germain, he moved one small step closer to taking Raul's goal-scoring record.
The little wizard has been sensational again in this UCL term and is just getting better and better with age. There can be little doubt now that we are witnessing one of the great players develop in front of our very eyes. His game is so phenomenal on all levels that he can now only be compared to the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona, such is his God-like ability.
Lionel Messi Is Actually Human!
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We are so used to Lionel Messi accomplishing amazing footballing feats. The Argentinian superstar has set about breaking records like most people open doors over the last couple of seasons.
So when he got injured against Paris Saint-Germain, the entire world looked up.
Messi only pulled his hamstring and is only expected to be out for a couple of weeks, but the fact that he got injured almost left the footballing world in shock. Messi has only been injured four times in the last six years, and his most recent injury was his first since 2010.
It was a timely reminder that Messi may have Godlike abilities, but he is human after all.
The End of an Era?
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On May 22, 2008, two English clubs contested the Champions League final.
The EPL featured at least one team in every single semifinal, and in 2008, three teams made it to the last four.
In 2013, just five short years later, and not one English team made it to the quarterfinals. Holders Chelsea were embarrassingly knocked out in the group stages, becoming the first ever defending champions to achieve that particular feat.
Manchester City and all their billions were also knocked out at the group stage. Their embarrassment was arguably worse than Chelsea's, as they left the competition with the lowest ever total for an English team.
Manchester United, who are all but guaranteed to be named Premier League champions, exited the competition at the last-16 stage, as did Arsenal.
The era of English dominance has well and truly ended. EPL teams are now incredibly far away from the ideal set by the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Only time will tell if the new EPL TV deal, which will begin next season, will put the EPL teams back on top.
For the moment they are being left behind.
The Beginning of an Era?
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Two German and three Spanish teams have made it through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2013 alongside a French team, a Turkish team and an Italian side.
The fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona have made it this far is no surprise to anyone. The Spanish giants dominate Spanish football and Spanish television and have far better revenue streams that any other Spanish side. They will always have the means to make it this far in the competition.
However, the fact that three German teams contested the round of 16 and that two have made it to the quarterfinals is big news. The fact that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have played the best football in the entire competition is even bigger news.
German sides have benefited greatly from the DFB's ruling that 51 percent of each club must remain in German hands. This combined with the DFB's strategic and intelligent youth coaching system means that German sides have one of the highest percentages of home-based players under the age of 23 in the world.
Add in the fact that the Bundesliga is the most supported league in Europe and you have a perfect storm coming together that could signal a Champions League period of domination.
Real Madrid Will Win Nothing Without Iker Casillas
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Real Madrid will not win the Champions League with Diego Lopez between the posts.
By hook or by crook, Iker Casillas has seen more time on the bench this season under Jose Mourinho than at any other time during his 14 years with the club.
The club captain has been relegated to the position of spectator as Lopez played in the Champions League and La Liga.
Quite simply, there is no comparison between the two shot-stoppers. Casillas has won every single prize the game can throw at him and has been the best goalkeeper in the world for the last decade. They will need him back if they are to win the Champions League.
Without him they will come undone.
Borussia Dortmund Are the World's Darlings
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Once upon a time, the fan-boys looked to Arsenal as the template for good football in Europe. Then, the eye moved towards the machine that is Barcelona. Now, the eye is firmly fixed upon Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund.
Aptly, Dortmund are the very embodiment of the footballing zeitgeist at the moment.
They are an exciting young team built on the principles of good football, good technique and clever and intellectual use of the ball. They are a joy to watch and have superb players all over the pitch.
Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels hold the defence together while the likes of Mario Goetze, Marco Reus, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Ilkay Gündogan and Robert Lewandowski do all the damage. Dortmund's much-heralded style of play has even seen an increase in football tourism for the Bundesliga based club.
They are everyone's favourite second team at the moment and one hopes they can keep this current team and management setup together to challenge again next season.
Cristiano Ronaldo Is Maturing with Age
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There was a time when Cristiano Ronaldo was regarded as little more than a show pony.
His multiple step-overs and self-indulgent style went against everything that real footballers stand for.
That, simply, can no longer be said. The Real Madrid man is now in the prime of his career and has cut out the many basic mistakes that used to grate for so many. He is now the complete article and can play in a number of positions and in a number of ways. And all in the name of the team. For this, Jose Mourinho deserves huge credit.
Ronaldo has been the best player in the world this year and has scored a remarkable 39 goals in 41 games for Real Madrid, including nine as top scorer in the Champions League. This accounts for 39 percent of all Madrid's goals this term.
Against Manchester United in the round of 16, which was by no means his best game this season, he played a team role. He worked incredibly hard on and off the ball and never gave less that 100 percent. This is now the very least expected and the very least given of the 28-year-old Portuguese.
His goal against his former club was not celebrated, which has become the norm in modern football. What did stand out though was the maturity of his play and how he refused to let the emotion of the occasion get to him.
This is now also the norm for Ronaldo.
Raphael Varane Is the Real Deal
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Raphael Varane is, without doubt, the best young defender in the world today. The Real Madrid star may only have 67 full games behind him, but the maturity of his play makes you think he has 670.
The central defender has excelled under Jose Mourinho at the Bernabeu this term and has been particularly excellent in the Champions League. He is a superb reader of the game and knows exactly when to use cleverness over strength and when to use brute force over over technique.
He is a consummate defender at just 19 years of age and played Galatasaray almost by himself in the first leg of Madrid's quarterfinal encounter. There he dealt with the raw power of Didier Drogba and the incessant running of Burak Yilmaz to such a high degree that both international strikers were left scratching their heads in disbelief.
The Qatari's Understand Football Better Than People Think
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Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona was also known as the "Qatari Derby" because of the millions that has been sunk into both clubs in recent years.
The two clubs, of course, faced each other in the Champions League quarterfinals.
The big news for much of the watching media, particularly the English, was not the fact that one of the most important matches of the year was taking place. It was the fact that David Beckham was playing.
This may seem a trite point, but the fact that Beckham played in this game meant that the entire world was interested in the game. As such, interest in Qatar and PSG has risen.
The Qatari Royal family has promoted the country phenomenally well after winning the rights to host the World Cup in 2022. Qatari football is now linked with the most storied club in world football, Barcelona, and has bought into PSG, who are a monster sleeping giant of a club.
They are also now linked with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi and David Beckham and every news and media article mentioning anything to do with PSG mentions Qatar. The subliminal advertisement campaign has begun in earnest.
Now compare how the Qatari's have done business to how Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi has carried out his business.
He owns Manchester City if you're interested, and is Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.
Paris St.-Germain Are a Growing Force
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Sitting atop Ligue 1 by a county mile and guaranteed entry into next season's Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain are a growing power in the European game.
Qatari millions and good management by Carlo Ancelotti has guided PSG into the quarterfinals when their target was a place in the last 16.
Having spent somewhere in the region of £130 million since last summer, PSG have shot right into being recognised as a threat and a hurdle in the Champions League rather than a speed bump.
Ancelotti has spent wisely and has brought in great experience and potential youth stars to give the Parisian side a potent mix. Nineteen-year-old Lucas Moura joined from Sao Paulo for over £30 million. Zlatan Ibrahimovic left AC Milan for the lights of the Seine and perhaps their most impressive signing, Marco Verratti, left Pescara for guaranteed Champions League football.
Considering that they will be expected to progress upon the heights of this season, it is fair to expect PSG to spend another £100 million during the summer of 2013.
They are not going to go away easily.
Celtic Did Well, but Scottish Football Is Going Nowhere
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Make no mistake about it, Celtic did phenomenally well to make it as far as the last 16.
There they were taken apart by an ultra-experienced Juventus side led by Andrea Pirlo.
Neil Lennon's team made a lot of friends on the way, and their unfortunate 2-1 defeat at the Camp Nou and their 2-1 win over Barca in Glasgow will live long in the memory of football fans everywhere.
However, despite the Celts qualifying for the last 16, they played, to the best of their abilities, by trying to snatch games rather than go outright and win games.
Of course there are huge financial differences between the likes of Celtic, Juve and Barca. But they will never match any team in a football match until they improve their scouting and coaching setup. One of the problems they face is that they are unchallenged for the Scottish Premier League title.
With that in mind they can adjust their budgets to spend more than the second-best team. This tactic will do nothing for them in Europe, and to emulate the great 1967 side they must completely reinvent their structure and produce from within.
The 5th Official Does Nothing
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Believe it or not, the "additional assistant referees" have been around since 2009.
During that time, to my mind anyway, they have contributed nothing to the game of football or refereeing for that matter other than create jobs for the boys.
Every Champions League week we see contentious decisions made by the referees or the linesmen as the behind-the-goal lads stand back and do nothing. They never seem to call a referee's attention to players pulling out of each other, never disallow a goal, or give one for that matter, and generally never seem to get involved in the game at all.
Actually, now that I think of it, they have phenomenal viewing positions of the match, they do get in for free and they get paid for it.
Whoever thought up a job where you have to contribute nothing, get paid for it and then get to watch the best football on the planet deserves a medal.
Step forward, Michel Platini.
St. George's Park Can Not Work Quick Enough
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St. George's Park is the new home of English football.
Opened to huge fanfare in October 2012, St. George's Park will be the coaching headquarters for the English FA going forward. Considering that the FA were the world's first football association, was formed in 1863 and have only now opened their elite training ground, they have much work to do.
Roughly based on Clairefontaine in France and Coverciano in Italy, St. George's Park will host elite English players from all age groups. It will also be the FA's coaching base, where elite coaches can receive instruction, tuition and experience from working with elite players.
It is hoped that the centre will spark an improvement in the technical side of the game for English players.
As far as the Champions League is concerned, this can only be a good thing. Since the removal of the three-foreigner rule by the EU in the mid-90's the English Premier League has thrived whilst football in the British Isles has gone steadily backwards.
St. George's Park will go some way to rectifying that slide regarding English football, but not Scottish, Irish or Welsh football.