After six years on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean, I can safely identify two additions to Sports Competitions I Follow.
The English Premier League … which is a subdivision of the ultra elite European Champions League.
This is where the world’s most famous sports teams come to play because, really, we must concede that more humans are aware of this competition, and follow it, than any other.
This is where Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus play, as well as the top English sides who are trying hard to catch up.
The final 16 in the competition were determined tonight, and that’s another part of the Champions League I like — the middle-of-the-night exotic-ness of it, at least in the UAE.
By getting special dispensation to push deadline back by 90 minutes, we at The National can get Champions League results into the print product — for the first four rounds of group play, that is. Before the clocks change again, making the UAE four hours ahead of England, instead of three.
Thus, we can’t get these final two rounds in print, which makes me even more interested in watching them — because they start at 11:45 p.m., making them something of a child-like flashlight-under-the-bed spread event.
I woke in the depth of night, and the first thing I did was check my watch. Hey, 1:15 a.m. — another 15-20 minutes left in the eight games going on!
Two prime subplots, for English football fans, involved Chelsea and Arsenal, each at risk of failing to survive the group stage, joining Manchester United (!) on the sidelines.
So, I fired up the television, nearly muting it so as not to trouble sleepers on more normal schedules, and found Arsenal at Olympiacos, in Athens … and squinting at the screen I decided that, yes, Arsenal was leading 3-0 in the 75th minute, which would be enough to get the London side into the last 16.
I then surfed down the beIN menu to Chelsea, home to Porto, and Jose Mourinho’s team was leading 2-0, which would secure its place.
So that allowed me to look at some of the other games going on (and beIN, the sports arm of Al Jazeera, carries all of them), including Roma and Bate Borisov grinding out a scoreless affair that would send Roma to the knockout round. (Nobody does tactical scoreless draws like the Italians.)
I also scooted past Dinamo Zagreb at Bayern, Valencia at Lyon (Valencia lost, falling out of the competition), Gent home to Zenit St. Petersburg (Gent won, advancing) and Barcelona at Bayer Leverkusen, which ended 1-1, as Barca played only Lionel Messi, from its “trident” front three that usually includes Neymar and Luis Suarez.
So, I saw all these games end, saw the replays of Oliver Giroud’s three goals that saved Arsenal, and Messi’s goal that was negated by Javier Hernandez’s strike.
It is a soccer overload, almost (rather like the NCAA Tournament’s first two days), all these teams with players whose names you recognize, when you have been here long enough, even on teams like Olimpiacos and PSV Eindhoven and Galatasaray.
Now, into the final 16, two-leg knockout competitions.
Spain (Barcelona, Read Madrid, Atletico Madrid) and England (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City) each have three of the final 16. Germany (Munich, Wolfsberg) and Italy (Juventus, Roma) each have two and six countries have one team still in the running: France (Paris Saint Germain), Portugal (Benfica), Netherlands (Eindhoven), Ukraine (Dinamo Kiev), Russia (Zenit) and Belgium (Gent).
Odds are one of the Spanish teams will win this, with Munich the most likely interloper, though we should remember that one of Chelsea’s less imposing teams of the past decade won the competition in 2012, defeating Barcelona in the semis and Munich in the final. And it was only five years ago that Inter Milan won it.
So, yes, elite competition, the world’s best soccer players, the sense that “everyone” (outside North America) is watching, familiarity with many of the sides, the enormity of the stakes … every year now I will try to watch the European Champions League. Wherever I happen to be.