Themes from this season’s Champions League: Germany’s rise to Man City’s stumble

<span>Pep Guardiola, <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Vinícius Júnior;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Vinícius Júnior</a> and <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Kylian Mbappé;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Kylian Mbappé</a> all played their parts in the Champions League this season.</span><span>Composite: Guardian Picture Desk</span>

Real rule supreme

Francisco Gento’s record of six European Cup wins was one of those records that looked unassailable, belonging to the era of football scrapbooks. And yet Dani Carvajal, scorer of Real Madrid’s first goal in the final, and Luka Modrić matched the legendary winger’s total with Madrid’s 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. Toni Kroos, in his final club game, having won five with Real to add to his Champions League title in 2013 with Bayern Munich, joined them.

Real Madrid rule supreme again, and if there is a complaint that a weak, underpowered Champions League will be won by the Spanish club as a fait accompli, that ignores the infrastructure at the club. Carlo Ancelotti may cut a cool figure but he heads a highly technocratic setup, with his son Davide just one of the many powers behind the throne.

Juni Calafat is the chief scout who has brought in Rodrygo, Vinícius Júnior, Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Jude Bellingham. Such talent is subsequently ingrained with the winning mentality that is an indelible part of the club’s makeup. The likes of Carvajal, hardly the world’s finest footballer, and Nacho, the ever dependable utility defender, add backbone and dressing room authority. The importance of such players in their mould to be have been mislaid by a number of clubs who aspire to Madrid’s heights.

Stars of the season

If Vinícius continued his inexorable rise towards the Ballon d’Or, the stars of this season’s Champions League represent an odd mix of newer names and dependable perennials. Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappé finished as joint top-scorers. At Porto, Pepe, at 41, showed off all his old tricks and became the competition’s oldest goalscorer, while Ukrainian goalkeeper Andriy Lunin was outstanding for Real Madrid before being dropped in favour of Thibaut Courtois for Wembley. Dortmund keeper Gregor Kobel had an outstanding campaign too.

For the champions, Kroos signed off in style, showing the likes of Bellingham they have much to emulate in midfield. To find some unlikelier heroes, Joselu’s two goals in the semi-final against Bayern maintained Stoke City’s iron grip on the competition, while Niclas Füllkrug’s performances reminded us that big centre-forwards still have their place in the modern game. Marcel Sabitzer, rejected by both Bayern and Manchester United, had an outstanding season in Dortmund’s midfield.

Mats Hummels rolled back the years, while his Dortmund colleague Julian Ryerson excelled as an attacking full-back, with Julian Brandt also showing off his attacking talents. If Manchester City disappointed, Phil Foden took more steps away from the shadow of Kevin De Bruyne with five goals and three assists. And of those who exited earlier, Antoine Griezmann graced the group stages in an Atlético shirt.

Goodbye group stages as we knew them

Farewell, then, Tuesday and Wednesday nights where the competing 32 clubs aim to reach the last-16 stage by reaching around 10 points. Farewell, too, to the glitzy group-stage draw carried out with the great and good sat in an airless room as master of ceremonies Giorgio Marchetti takes the floor from Pedro Pinto. Giorgio’s lounge act will have to wait until the knockout draw. All hail the Swiss System, where the algorithmic vagaries mean a super computer must pull the fixtures from the hat in the style of a lottery machine.

Goodbye, warm balls, hello Dominion-like conspiracy theories on the plots against your club. And all after a season in which the group stage did actually chuck up a few decent matches, and bloodied the noses of Manchester United, Milan and Newcastle, all of whom exited the competition. Shakhtar Donetsk, the club without a home, almost made it out of a group containing Barcelona and Porto, beating Barcelona in an emotional night in Hamburg.

Au revoir, PSG

With Mbappé headed for Real Madrid, along with Brazil’s next star, Endrick, perhaps a new Galácticos era begins. It also signals the end of PSG’s vainglorious attempt to replicate Madrid’s early 2000s constellation of Zinedine Zidane, Luís Figo, Brazil’s Ronaldo and David Beckham, by pairing Neymar and Lionel Messi with Mbappé.

With the first two gone, and largely unlamented, Mbappé’s last dance saw PSG stage a worthy attempt to finally capture the Champions League. Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé put Barcelona to the sword in the quarter-final, and Dortmund looked a kindly semi draw, only for the great man to fluff his lines in the second leg. There was bad luck, too: Warren Zaïre-Emery, Nuno Mendes, Mbappé and Vitinha each hit the woodwork. There was some dreadful finishing to along with misfortune, with perhaps Gonçalo Ramos most guilty.

Mbappé now heads to Madrid to try to win the trophy he most covets. But PSG, with players like Zaïre-Emery, Vitinha and Lucas Beraldo, and under the adept management of Luis Enrique, can now try to build a different team, one that no longer relies on a star system.

German football on the rise

Had the likes of Karim Adeyemi and Füllkrug been more adept in front of goal at Wembley, German football could have signed off a fabulous Bundesliga season in the finest style possible. It ended with both Bayer Leverkusen – unbeaten champions – and Dortmund losing in their respective European finals but German football has asserted itself ahead of hosting Euro 2024.

If Bayern Munich disappointed domestically they were within a whisker of denying Madrid in the semis; a premature offside flag from Polish official Tomasz Listkiewicz killed the move that should have ended with Matthijs de Ligt scoring an equaliser in the Bernabéu. German football had lately been viewed as a talent factory for coaches and players, but its clubs showed that they should not be underestimated. Dortmund were much the better side in Wembley’s final until Madrid stepped it up.

The Premier League’s supremacy takes a hit

Our League, This League, the EPL, whatever you want to call it, took a caning in this season’s Champions League. Having won two of the last three, and with Manchester City in their imperial phase, the expectation was that Wembley’s final would host one, if not two Premier League clubs.

Then came Newcastle and Manchester United’s dreadful performances – both of them crashing out of Europe completely. Erik ten Hag’s team were involved in a series of matches in which they were on the end of barely credible comebacks from FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray, twice over. Arsenal swaggered with self-confidence across England and Europe, until the revival of their Bayern Munich hoodoo.

What of City? Real Madrid showed that when it comes to the Champions League, one empire rules the rest – and the importance of taking chances when they really matter. Revenge was served cold and the failure against Madrid was another of those occasions where Pep Guardiola abandons simplicity for an advanced tactical plan. Here were two legs for Erling Haaland to regret. The result: Premier League clubs all out by the quarter-finals. Previous to that, there had been the widespread conceit that only Liverpool were capable of stopping City from defending their crown. Still, they would just have to win the Europa League, right?

Still, it could be worse. Or better? Italy will have six Champions League teams next season due to co-efficient performances across the three European competitions, but they only mustered two teams in the last 16.