If this is the stage where the Champions League “gets real”, and the great trophy becomes close enough to touch, the competition is this season especially driven by something entirely intangible.
It is, in the words of one high-profile manager, “obsession”. So many of the major clubs - to a much greater degree than recent seasons - now feel it is imperative they finally lift this trophy now. That is something Real Madrid’s recent domination of the competition has only amplified, most of all for their greatest rivals.
Lionel Messi is said to be consumed by the desire to win the Champions League again, and believes Barcelona have just not won it enough in his era, given their talent and domination of the domestic title. He is fixated on addressing that, as much as anything for his own legacy.
Another of the club’s greatest ever figures has a similar feeling. That figure just happens to be at Manchester City. Those at the Etihad say that every move Pep Guardiola has made over the last year, every alteration he has studiously rubbed his head over in pained studies in his office, has been with the intention of winning the Champions League.
Of particular concern has been the brief but brutal collapses his teams have suffered in big European games, that one big flaw in his otherwise brilliant managerial career. No one at the club will outright say it, but everyone knows it would also represent the one big hole in that career if Guardiola doesn’t win the trophy with City. Many believe it is about time this grand project came to fruition, to move to that higher level, by winning the most prestigious of trophies.
It’s just the exact same is said at Paris Saint-Germain. They want the ultimate return, after putting in so many resources.
Juventus and Bayern Munich have the same deeper desire, to add true value to these eras of so many domestic victories. This is what the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo is all about. This is what might save Bayern’s season.
The Champions League has taken on a deeper meaning for all of these clubs, with that only heightening the tension and wondrous weight of every match night. That was something that became apparent in last season’s electric knock-out stages. This was no longer just the biggest competition for clubs to win among a few. It had recaptured a historic gravitas, precisely because entire clubs and their football operations are now more keenly aware of what it mean to their own legacy - and status.
Past champions like Liverpool, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund - not to mention Tottenham Hotspur - have other concerns right now, and would instead see the Champions League as more of a bonus in this season, but that very sense of release might be to their benefit. How many times have we seen that?
Then there’s the apparently endless defiance of the defending champions in this competition. Santiago Solari has already turned them around, just in time for February, and in a manner that should be ominous for everyone else given recent history.
Can other clubs’ obsession with the competition withstand Madrid’s certainty with the competition?
This is a team that lives for these nights, that brings out something bigger in them.
But then that’s another constant of this competition, that the champions only best exemplify.
For all of last week’s debate about the away goal, it feels the Champions League has already reached a level of entertainment independent of that or any such rule, because of the concentration of quality at its major clubs and the necessity to win it that brings. These are the gladiatorial circuses that come from the bread being denied the rest of the game. It is arguably the guiltiest of pleasures, how greed has been good, and very entertaining.
The competition now witnesses an extraordinary amount of epics and real televisual events, in exactly the way former AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi envisaged when first broaching a Super League back in the late 1980s.
This is what should really be invigorating about the knock-out stages. Every match now feels a proper event, that exceeds every expectation in terms of effervescent entertainment.
It even has the prime-time narratives to match: these obsessions, Madrid’s defiance, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer potentially pulling off one of the great football coups.
This last-16 draw also feeds into that. The heavyweight clashes supersede the mismatches, with Manchester United-PSG, Liverpool-Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid-Juventus.
The justifiable excitement is that they again touch the heights of the game, precisely because so many clubs are are now so obsessed with just getting to touch that trophy.