Set Piece: Predicting the Champions League Winners, Death At the Derby & Bayer Leverkusen’s Hot Streak

For the latest edition of Set Piece, Miguelito gives the definitive Champions League predictions, highlights the perfectly-timed release of Death at the Derby's new single, Bayer Leverkusen's...
By    April 8, 2024

Image via Bayer Leverkusen/Instagram

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Miguelito grants that neutrals have more fun, but understands that’s no way to live.

Set Piece is a bi-weekly football column by Miguelito. Or, rather, a series of stochastic critiques and paeans that document individual and team performances, pop-culture movements of footballers, transcendental memes and the sport’s sometimes depraved intersections with the political and social.

The Definitive Champions League Predictions

It’s that time of year where the Champions League matches are more of an occasion. Storylines are nearing completion and league titles are out of reach for some, but there’s still a chance to erase any lackluster performances by making a deep run in the Champions League. This is the first time I’m putting my ball knowledge on the line with public predictions. If I’m even half right, you won’t hear the end of it.

Real Madrid-Manchester City

Manchester City hold the title. They won the treble last year and most of their bench would be starters anywhere else. Despite some recent dips in form, every rational impulse is telling me to choose Man City over two legs. But a gin-and-soda would make me believe that Bellingham, or Modric coming on as a late sub, could steal one away from the reigning champions. There’s just something about that damn monarchist crest.

Real Madrid 3-2 on aggregate

Arsenal-Bayern Munich

With respect to current form, this might be the easiest call of the bunch. If Arsenal don’t take an insurmountable lead to Munich, they have the defense to prevent Bayern from gaining too much of a home field advantage. This is the last chance for Bayern to win a trophy this year, so they’ll fight hard in the home leg, maybe even keeping a clean sheet against Arsenal. The Gunners will have the most comfortable advance.

Arsenal 3-1 on aggregate

Atletico Madrid-Dortmund

A match between two teams who arguably shouldn’t have advanced this far. Dortmund made it out of the “Group of Death” with PSG, Manchester United and A.C. Milan, while Atleti held out for penalties against Inter Milan and got lucky. Neither team is shining in their respective domestic leagues, and both could miss out on a Champions League spot for next year, so they have everything to play for. That could also mean both teams just play not to lose. I’m going with that scenario.

Tied 1-1 on aggregate after second leg extra time; Penalties; A Coin Flip


They will always hold a place in my heart for their anti-Franco heritage and putting Ronaldinho on the world stage, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve enjoyed watching Barcelona play football these last couple years. Whether it’s the aura of the logo or their ability to capitalize on any morsel of sloppy play from opponents, Barcelona have pulled out results this season when they shouldn’t have. Also, since we’re being honest, I don’t get the chance to watch French teams that often because their broadcasting rights are owned by a Qatari streaming service that’s too expensive if you’re only subscribing for the sports. That being said, I think this matchup could feature the most goals of all the quarter final ties. Mbappe gets to feast, but Gundogan or Yamal seals it with a timely (and perhaps angry) late goal in the second leg.

Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate

It Doesn’t Matter if Leverkusen Lose

If you’re even casually familiar with the Bundesliga, you know that Bayern Munich won’t win it this year. Bayer Leverkusen, on the other hand, are on for a treble, haven’t lost a match this season (only drawing 5 out of 41 matches) and could clinch the Bundesliga title with a win against Werder Bremen this coming weekend.

Xabi Alonso’s arrival in 2022 has proven to be a regenerative decision in the German side’s history. They were in the relegation zone when he took over and less than two years later they look like one of the top sides in Europe. Alonso has adopted the intelligence and flexibility of his own midfield play to train Leverkusen in how to excavate subaltern passing lanes and send the ball around like there’s a firework taped to it. Seeing them control possession has the same effect as watching a pool ball endlessly ricochet around the table. You can see similarities between Leverkusen and the covetous style of Manchester City, but Alonso’s scheme creates more variability with wingback play. City will lull you into complacency with a steady rhythm of passing until they hit the right note, while Leverkusen are more comfortable seizing moments of dissonance. Two of their top three goal scorers are wingbacks Grimaldo and Frimpong, but the scoring is distributed well across the pitch. Before his injury stint, Victor Boniface drew most of the praise for his disruptive play and he remains their top scorer (10 goals) after sitting out for three months. His ascension is similar to Osimhen’s breakout season for Napoli last year, though I’d say Boniface edges Osimhen on strength and lateral movement, while the masked man wields more dominance in the air.

They’ve naturally drawn comparisons to Arsenal’s undefeated Invincibles of the 2003/04 season and it seems they can handle the pressure of the comparison. Their fixture list is scattered with dramatic comebacks, notably against RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim and Qarabag. If they do end with zero losses, they’d be the first team playing in one of the Big Five leagues in Europe to go undefeated since Antonio Conte’s Juventus team in the 2011/12 season. Leverkusen have anywhere from nine to twelve matches left, depending on how far they advance in the Europa League, where they have to get past West Ham before potentially facing Roma, AC Milan or Liverpool in later rounds. They could lose against a hungry Kaiserslautern in the DFB Pokal final. Dortmund or Stuttgart could give them trouble before the end of the month. All of those things could happen and put a bitter taste at the end of a superb season. Still, it doesn’t really matter if they lose one or a few. I can’t see them dropping the Bundesliga title. It would be the first in the club’s history and that would make up for some late disappointments in an otherwise blissful season. Not allowing a single team to take three points from you for an entire season is reaching a mythical level of the sport. It’s not the bar for success, it’s the summit.

They really could pull it off though. The video linked for this section was uploaded by an account named Vanemas2 and its title claims BAYER LEVERKUSEN IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE WORLD. Obviously they use hyperbole to sate the algorithm first, but it’s a statement you hope has some impetus beyond growing their CPM. Because hearing it, and watching Leverkusen play, almost makes you believe they might be.

Death at the Derby – “Eternal Enemies”

Death at the Derby have dropped their latest single “Eternal Enemies,” a distillation of the Eternal Derby between Croatian sides Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split. Their release schedule synced up nicely for last week’s Croatian Cup semi-final between Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, which saw the Citizens clinch a 0-1 win at Hadjuk’s ground. If you’re unfamiliar, Death at the Derby have been dropping music for the last few years, all of which revolves conceptually around L.A.-based Cousin Feo and Toronto emcee Lord Juco assuming opposite perspectives in historic football rivalries or channeling the spirit of Ballon d’Or winners. DJ Dubplates has been their ever-present surgeon, sewing together the rappers’ formal discrepancies and the irreconcilable fandoms they embody.

It’s not a task you could trust to another group. It’s difficult for music to start from such a defined concept and not feel shoehorned. Death at the Derby have been around for over five years now and haven’t shown any evidence of staleness or lost the hunger that defined their first lyrical trips to Turkey, Scotland and Brazil in 2019. A lesser pair would confine themselves to listing off club accomplishments or take lazy shots at fanbases. Instead Feo keeps his tracks grounded in an anticolonial ethic, weaving sentiments like “all my boys in blue but you know we ain’t the damn pigs” into sketches of Livaković’s goal presence. On the flip side, Lord Juco morphs simple repetitions (“Brazilians, learned from the Brazilians”) into transcendent moments, like Jeezy breaking down the syllables of “snowman” in 2005.

When Cousin Feo isn’t involved in brotherly beef with his cross continental rap partner, he’s a part-time manager of Escuadron FC. The team plays in an 8v8 league on Thursdays and Sundays, with Feo taking the weekday shift. You might find him smoking during the halftime talk in an ode to the Carlo Ancelloti of prior decades. The Sunday league energy still bleeds into the Thursday evening matches though. At one of their fixtures a few weeks back, there were some heated words exchanged when the ref blew the whistle a good three minutes before the legitimate stoppage time. Escaudron FC features some former semi-pros, but most of the team are regular working class civilians, so they rarely have time to practice. That didn’t stop them from claiming the league trophy last season and they’re on pace to challenge for the title again.

That’s part of why Death at the Derby’s music works. It’s a natural overflow of two fans who happen to be astutely talented rappers. The stakes feel high because they always are when you’re plugged in to genuine football culture at a level accessible to anyone who can show up at the park.

The United States Men Winning the Nations League is Boring (at best)

For the third consecutive season, the United States Men’s National Team has lifted the CONCACAF Nations League trophy. After a heartbreaking own goal from Jamaica near the end of added time in the semi-final, the USMNT went on to score twice in extra time to advance to the final. They finished the job a few days later, dispatching Mexico 2-0 in Dallas on March 24th. Despite what the curated pyrotechnics of American sports always want you to believe, it’s become a profoundly boring spectacle.

The game itself was fine enough. Tyler Adams’ goal just before halftime was lovely to watch and the experience of American players in European competition is showing on the field, but I couldn’t shake the monotony of another U.S. win. They’ve now won the competition every season it’s existed. You can’t fully rig a game at that level, as far as I can tell, but it does raise questions about the point of the Nations League and the interests it serves.

The competition was first announced in November of 2017 and qualification began in 2018. Its stated goals were to give a more consistent and meaningful competition among nations in the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. The league was supposed to be an even greater benefit to the smaller nations. According to an FAQ document published by CONCACAF shortly after the announcement, “the [Nations League] promises to offer needed opportunity among those that historically have lacked the tools and structure to develop at the national team level.” Each season the teams are placed into one of three groups (A, B or C) according to FIFA rankings and the top national teams in the two lower groups have the potential to move up, while the lowest performers of Groups A and B face relegation. There’s technically a winner of each group, but their achievements aren’t even worth a passing mention in the League’s Wikipedia page. Group A is where the money’s at.

It’s a good thing for national sides to play more often, especially because, according to the CONCACAF FAQ worksheet, nations like Saint Martin only played two competitive matches between 2014 and 2016. Since the Nations League started qualification in 2018, Saint Martin has played eighteen competitive matches. There are forty-one nation members of CONCACAF and, of those, thirty-five are also members of FIFA. How much has this increased competition benefitted teams internationally, specifically with respect to FIFA rankings?

FIFA has done the hard work of making the graphs for us. The honor for the most significant jump in position of all the CONCACAF nations goes to Guatemala, who have ascended thirty-five positions since 2019 and now sit as the 108th ranked team in the world. Panama also saw a significant leap from 74th to 45th in the same time frame. Guyana and Puerto Rico both rose twenty-one places, though they still sit below 150th, and Canada is 49th after being 78th this time five years ago. The USA, by comparison, has gone from 24th in the world to sitting 11th after this latest Nations League victory. Though it’s not as many places, it’s clear that the qualitative jump of those thirteen places is more significant than, say, Guyana’s improvement, especially in the United State’s buildup for 2026 as one of the World Cup hosts. It’s fair to ask that more than 15% of CONCACAF teams receive a substantial benefit from the league’s existence. I’m sympathetic to the idea that FIFA rankings shouldn’t be the final word on a national team’s improvement. Still, even by the standards of football’s governing bodies, a competition such as the Nations League doesn’t really move the needle that much. Except when it does.

There have been other, much more material, beneficiaries of CONCACAF’s Nations League. People want to see their national sides play and for that you need a television or smartphone. And for that device to pick up a stream of the game, it needs a service provider. It’s no secret that the prices for sports broadcasting rights have exploded in the last decade. It’s a profitable venture. Once you have the rights to show an event that everyone in a nation wants to see (i.e. national football team matches) you can make back the money spent purchasing them many times over by selling advertising spots during the games. The wheel keeps spinning.

One company providing such services is Tigo, the face of Latin American operations for Luxembourg-based telecommunications conglomerate Millicom. They own the rights to broadcast the Nations League in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They also sponsor panels featuring the Head of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Tigo’s CEO, Mauricio Ramos, smiles while discussing the opportunities for investing in Central American communication infrastructure and the unlimited potential of building “smart cities” in the region. Tigo is also a strategic player in the Partnership of Central America, an initiative spearheaded by the Biden administration to work “with a multi-national coalition of private organizations to advance economic opportunity across underserved populations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.” In clearer terms, make the conditions ripe for foreign capital.

Of course we should want the people of Central America to be able to communicate with one another. That can facilitate them organizing around their interests. Who is the main, intended benefactor of these investments though? We’d be foolish not to see companies like Tigo using the legitimate need for communication as a pretext to open up fresh populations to the myriad harmful and exploitative digital assets that have been finely tuned to extract attention and value. Just the simple draw of advertisers to your exclusive broadcast of all these new CONCACAF fixtures of the last five years is enough to raise suspicion.

While one of the most nimble football writers of the twentieth century, Eduardo Galeano is remembered more for his work in political economy. Open Veins of Latin America is a thorough study of intervention and resource extraction on the continent up to its publication in 1973. One of the later sub-chapters of Open Veins is titled “Technocrats are Better Hold-Up Artists Than Marines” and it highlights the rigged nature of loans and aid dispensed to Latin American countries by organs such as the Inter-American Development Bank. The loans and contracts Galeano referenced back then are rather overt in their language. The text itself seems to relish in the plunder. Today, the wording stresses CONNECTION and SUSTAINABILITY and building the kind of SMART CITIES that Tigo’s CEO references in panels with the head of the IDB. Entities like the IDB are adaptable ghouls. They still push for regime change if you want their money, but the faces aren’t as pale anymore and the attaches have acentos in their last names. Scrolling through their website, you’re flooded with a parade of children smiling in front of huts that you’re supposed to understand as being from that space of “poverty down there somewhere”. All weaponized to justify the vampiric careers of people who probably pronounce ‘barrio’ like a malevolent Peggy Hill. Galeano said it better than I ever could: “To operate effectively, the repression must feel arbitrary.”

I don’t have a smoking gun to present (give me some time) but that’s not really my point here. The point is to understand that at least a part of the initiative to create the competitions like the Nations League is to open up these nations to the foreign capital “required” to build the infrastructure to host, broadcast and promote these events. And possibly to give the US Men’s National Team a relatively easy shot at an annual trophy. When they announced the Nations League, CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani said, “This is a watershed moment for CONCACAF. By focusing on football to provide all our teams with year-round, quality competition, the Nation’s League platform means everyone wins”. He should’ve been pressed harder on who he meant by ‘everyone.’

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