Paris Saint-Germain are this year's overachievers.
On Tuesday, PSG beat Valencia 2-1 on the road, giving the Parisians the best prospects of advancing to the quarterfinals in their rematch in a fortnight. While the $330m they spent on talent surely helps, the fact is that money rarely buys wins in Europe. This PSG team is an exception, and they are currently playing exceptional soccer.
Counterintuitive as though it may seem, it typically takes teams brought together by a procession of cash-laden wheelbarrows brimming several years before they learn to win in Europe. Domestic titles tend to come quickly, but winning in Europe, where the margins for error are slim and the opponents invariably stacked and savvy, poses difficulties of a different magnitude.
Just look at Manchester City , whose Abu Dhabi-based ownership has sunk well over a billion dollars into the club in the last few years. City won the Premier League last year - with a great deal of help from luck and the stumbles of rivals - but over the last two seasons, the Citizens have flamed out spectacularly in Europe, failing to survive the group stage.
The turn-of-the-century Lazio were afflicted by a similar continental malaise. They loaded up on enough talent to win the Serie A in 2000, but never reached past the quarterfinals in Europe, and failed to do so when the tournament operated in a more forgiving system of two group stages.
Chelsea is the notable exception to this syndrome, which has claimed scads of other victims, too. In the first four years since Roman Abramovich started pumping in his natural gas money, Chelsea reached the last four of the Champions League three times. The next year they reached the final and lost it on penalties.
PSG bucks that trend, too, having wisely stocked up on players with extensive Champions League experience to remedy those growing pains. Its performance against Valencia was composed and mature - for 89 minutes at least. The plucky Spanish club - which always seems two or three players away from competing domestically and in Europe but never gets there because of endless financial troubles - ran the game, taking about two-thirds of possession. Playmaker Ever Banega deftly connected the dots and striker Roberto Soldado typically made a nuisance of himself in the box.
But PSG absorbed the pressure well, defended competently out of a deep line and blockaded the passing lanes. At the other end, PSG's superior talent was on its counterpunches. Lucas Moura, found by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, hammered a shot off the upright in the 9th minute. A minute later, Ezequiel Lavezzi cut right through the Valencia defense on a give-and-go with Javier Pastore and blasted his shot through a weak Vicente Guaita for the 1-0.
In the 44th, Lucas once again ripped Mexican makeshift left back Andres Guardado apart, and delivered his cross right onto Pastore's boot, who redirected it through Guaita's legs to double the score, leaving the goalkeeper looking dreadful once more.
But for all its composure, PSG failed to put the game away in the second half. Between the 61st and 72nd minute, PSG cultured four fat chances. Lavezzi's malpractice before goal, however, ruined the first two. He didn't serve Ibrahimovic properly on the third. And the fourth was wrongly disallowed for offside, even though the final ball had come off a Valencia player.
And as is if to underscore that you can't take such liberties as not finishing out games in continental play, PSG was punished to a certain degree. In the 89th minute, a Tino Costa free kick sailed over the PSG defense, which failed to pick up central defender Adil Rami, who made it 2-1. In extra time, a rash Ibrahimovic assault on an opposing leg and the subsequent ejection ensured that PSG will have to appear without their talismanic Swedish striker and playmaker Marco Verratti - who collected one too many yellow cards - in the return leg. Such is the unforgiving nature of the Champions League.
Celtic learned much the same lesson, hitting the skids in Scotland with a 3-0 loss to Juventus . While you can praise the Scots' character, it's hard to say the result was unfair: Celtic made bad errors that a precise Juve jumped all over. Heart simply isn't enough at this level.
The Hoops went down very early thanks to an error by Efe Ambrose, who badly misjudged a routine ball in the third minute, allowing Alessandro Matri to slam the goal home through Fraser Forster's legs. Kelvin Wilson tried to clear it, but the ball was over the line - and in any case, Claudio Marchisio was there to bash it right back into the roof of the net.
Matri and Marchisio would combine late to add the second on a clean break, but Ambrose would again be found out when Mirko Vucinic was set free on a slack ball to add the third.
Why Ambrose - who played the full 90 in Nigeria's 1-0 African Cup of Nations final win over Burkina Faso - was out there in the first place, only manager Neil Lennon knows. In hindsight, it was not the wisest decision.
While they will take pride in the heart they showed, Celtic were left confused with precision, and that haste made for disastrous final touches. The closest they came was when the Hoops saw Kris Commons attempt a bicycle kick that missed narrowly left.
The Old Lady now has three away goals, and one suspects, the entire tie.
FOX Soccer's Jamie Trecker contributed to this report.