“The beauty of football shows that the small teams in theory can win and beat the favourites,” said the Portugal great.
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Former UEFA Champions League winner Luís Figo has heralded “the beauty of football” in light of Sheriff’s victory at Real Madrid on Tuesday.
According to Figo, these tales of the unexpected underline the importance of the principles of sporting merit that drive the UEFA Champions League.
“It’s a competition that allows everyone by sporting merit to play it. It should be like that,” he said.
“It is the beauty of football. The beauty of football shows that the small teams in theory can win and beat the favourites. That is football and it’s the sporting merit whereby you can play these big competitions and have the chance to beat the biggest teams and qualify for the next rounds. It is fantastic.”
With an exciting mix of drama, surprises and intriguing subplots, the opening matchdays of this season's UEFA Champions League have offered a reminder that the competition remains the high-water mark for club football the world over.
For spectators in the stadiums and TV audiences across the globe, there has been much to capture the imagination – with the competition's magical capacity to serve up the spectacular (and the unexpected) summed up on Tuesday night by Sébastien Thill's brilliant late strike which earned newcomers Sheriff a stunning 2-1 triumph at Real Madrid.
Coming two weeks after Switzerland's Young Boys rallied from behind to beat Manchester United, Sheriff's success in the Spanish capital was another shock to savour, highlighting the sense of opportunity that exists for every club in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
If Lionel Messi's first Paris Saint-Germain goal on the same evening had a beauty that we have come to expect from the Argentinian, the winning goal which Sheriff midfielder Thill struck at the Santiago Bernabéu was the stuff of David meets Goliath.
Thill is a 27-year-old who only left Luxembourg a year ago, first for Russia and now Moldova. And there he was, firing a wonderfully arrowed half-volley high into the top corner of Thibaut Courtois' net in the 90th minute. With it, he delivered one of the group stage's greatest upsets as the new boys prevailed at the home of the 13-time champions, having withstood a barrage that featured 30 Madrid goal attempts (to four from Sheriff).
It was also the first goal in the competition by a player from Luxembourg – the 105th nation to join that list.
There has already been a flurry of late winners in this 2021/22 group stage. On Matchday 1, Young Boys spoiled Cristiano Ronaldo's first European night back in a Manchester United shirt with a 95th-minute strike by Jordan Siebatcheu. Ronaldo did make amends with a similarly-timed clincher of his own, against Villarreal this week.
The San Siro witnessed last-gasp drama on Matchday 2 as Atlético de Madrid overcame AC Milan via a 97th-minute Luis Suárez penalty. That contest also highlighted how the football gods enjoy a good subplot, with Antoine Griezmann hitting his first goal since rejoining Atlético at the venue of his penalty miss in the 2016 UEFA Champions League final. There was a wry symmetry too as Messi struck his first Paris goal in a master-and-pupil reunion with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
Those who appreciate an underdog story will likewise note the efforts of Club Brugge, another less-fancied side holding their own in this season's group phase, having already come from behind to draw with Paris and win at Leipzig.
Shocks across the years
Sheriff's victory at Madrid is a result which gives hope to all of the competition's smaller clubs – and is arguably the biggest group stage shock suffered by a Spanish club since Rubin won 2-1 at reigning champions Barcelona in October 2009.
Other noteworthy upsets of recent memory include Zürich beating Milan 1-0 at San Siro in 2009, Celtic's 2-1 home win over Barcelona in 2012 (secured by Tony Watt, an 18-year-old making his UEFA Champions League debut), and BATE Borisov's 3-1 success over Bayern in Minsk in 2012.
This season's group stage has already given us a nine-goal thriller between Manchester City and Leipzig, and the goal rate currently stands at 2.67 per match.