The World Cup may be the pinnacle of the international game but there’s no doubt that for years now the highest-quality football has been on show in the UEFA Champions League.
Has there ever been a more dramatic couple of nights than the events of May 7th and 8th in 2019?
Many thought the drama of Liverpool’s 4-0 win over a catatonic Barcelona at Anfield to overcome a three-goal first-leg deficit would take years to match.
Yet less than 24 hours later, as the clock ticked into the sixth minute of injury time in Amsterdam, Tottenham’s unheralded Brazilian winger Lucas Moura scuffed his third goal of the night into the bottom corner of Andre Onana’s goal to send the London club through to their first ever UEFA Champions League final on away goals.
It was, by any definition, two of the craziest nights in the history of European club football.
And it’s the sort of drama UEFA are no doubt desperate to recreate as life in Europe slowly returns to normal in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
The recent sight of packed English Premier League stadiums has been a stark reminder of everything we’ve missed in football over the past 18 months.
With the greatest respect to defending champions Chelsea and Bayern Munich before that, watching the giants of European football lift a UEFA Champions League trophy in front of mostly empty stands just doesn’t get the heart racing.
Not that coronavirus has been anywhere near conquered in Europe, but hopefully by the time the final rolls around at the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg next May, the game will be played in front of another full house.
There’ll be plenty of twists and turns before that in a group stage that has conjured up its usual assortment of fascinating match-ups.
All eyes in Group A will be on Lionel Messi as he adjusts to life in the French capital following his surreal departure from Barcelona.
As much as Paris Saint-Germain have bought the Argentine superstar to wrest possession of the Ligue 1 title back from Lille, there’s no doubt it’s European glory the club’s Qatari owners truly covet.
Yet progression to the knock-out stage looks anything but a formality, not least because they’ve been drawn in the same group as last season’s beaten finalists Manchester City and German energy-drink moneybags RB Leipzig.
Group B looks equally enticing, with 2019 winners Liverpool drawn alongside Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, Italian giants Milan and Portuguese heavyweights Porto.
There are plenty more enticing clashes sprinkled throughout the group stage, with Manchester United drawn in the same group as Villarreal after losing last season’s crazy Europa League final to the Spanish battlers, while Bayern Munich find themselves up against Barcelona, Italian champions Inter face off in the same group as Real Madrid, with Chelsea set to do battle against Italian aristocrats Juventus.
And it’s the loss of a former Juventus star that has set European football alight, after Cristiano Ronaldo swapped Turin for his former club Manchester United in an improbable late-summer move.
Fresh from becoming the leading national-team scorer in men’s history for Portugal over the international break, the 36-year-old promptly scored twice in a 4-1 win over Newcastle United on his return to Old Trafford.
And while a few Juventus fans might be pleased to see the back of the veteran attacker – despite his 81 Serie A goals in just 98 games – there’s no denying Ronaldo’s return has re-energised the Old Trafford faithful.
How will Ronaldo and his long-term rival Leo Messi fare at their new clubs in the Champions League? Can they see off the challenge of a similarly rejuvenated Chelsea this time around?
And how much will the spectre of a failed European Super League loom large over UEFA?
This is a bit of a make-or-break Champions League campaign for a variety of reasons.
One thing is certain though: no matter who lifts the trophy on May 28, this will be the highest quality football we watch anywhere all season.