Football, as the cliche goes, is a game of two halves. Yet in the UEFA Champions League, that is increasingly untrue. If anything, European football is a game of six 15-minute intervals in which the last is the most crucial.
Arsène Wenger once purported the following: "From a coaching perspective, the key element of the UEFA Champions League is the last ten to 15 minutes." On matchday three, FC Schalke 04 proved him right – much to his chagrin – by snatching three points at the Arsenal Stadium with goals from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (76) and Ibrahim Afellay (86).
That was not the only late swing in the competition on matchday three. In the last 15 minutes, FC Barcelona, Olympiacos FC and FC Porto all turned one point into three with winning goals, while Galatasaray AŞ salvaged a draw at home to CFR 1907 Cluj. So far this season, 36 out of 136 UEFA Champions League goals have been scored in the last 15 minutes or even in second-half added time.
If UEFA Champions League games lasted 75 minutes, Barcelona and Porto would have five points apiece (instead of nine) and Real Madrid CF would have three (rather than six). Is this a step change? Sceptics might think not. After all, there has been no shortage of decisive goals in the last 15 minutes in previous campaigns – Didier Drogba's equaliser in the 2011/12 final set Chelsea FC on their way to victory.
Yet Wenger may have a point when he suggests that teams are increasingly keeping their powder dry, knowing the last 15 minutes could prove vital. Take the final quarter-hour – or 19 minutes if you include stoppage time – that broke Celtic FC hearts at the Camp Nou. In that period, the Blaugrana forced three corners, missed the target four times, were denied by Emilio Izaguirre and Victor Wanyama, made two substitutions, had one player (Adriano) booked and scored the winner (Jordi Alba) with virtually the last kick.
This kind of action is increasingly the norm. It is as if some invisible hand is speeding up the action, ratcheting up the pressure at the very point when players are physically and mentally most vulnerable. Sides that want to flourish in the UEFA Champions League have to compete in this late, late show in which the winners so often take it all.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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