Blog by: Born off side
For most people, when the group stage of the Champions League kicks off, the competition really begins.
This year’s groups are very balanced and there isn’t an obvious ‘Group of Death’ like we had last year with Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, and Real Madrid. The Barcelona, Celtic, Ajax, and AC Milan grouping looks dangerous, but there is a bigger gap then many realise between those teams. Almost every group has solid contenders and should likely go to plan, but the tournament always offers its fair share of surprises. Yet I see the group stage going pretty much to plan.
So who are the teams with a serious chance this season? I’ve broken down the teams into four groups; Usual Suspects, Cautious Contenders, Gotta Have a Break and Pure Pretenders. If I do not mention a side, I would say they fall into the ‘Snowball’s Chance in Hell’ group. I won’t bother to write up that section!
This group consists of sides that no doubt have the best chance to win Europe’s most prized club tournament. I’m not likely to surprise anyone with this portion of the list.
Bayern Munich would be my favourites for victory. Their depth and experience make them the odds on favourites for me. Perhaps the biggest factor going against them is that no team has retained the famous Champions League trophy since the competition was renamed from the European Cup in 1992. I also do not believe the gap is very big between the other two sides in this grouping, but still a solid favourite.
Barcelona would be my second pick. They have an amazing strike team upfront with the addition of Neymar and the improved play of Alexis Sanchez. If they can maintain fitness and tighten up their defensive tactics, they should be closer to Bayern than they were last year. I am a believer that they do not need defenders, but a rework of the defensive tactics compared to what they did last season. My main contention would be to restrict Jordi Alba from playing up so high.
Real Madrid are a solid third choice for me. Carlo Ancelotti is a great coach for this team and will surely right a ship that went off course last season. Their squad is as deep yet full of quality as it’s possible to be, and have the ability to rebound from injuries with little problem. There are just a lot of factors that worry me about a slip up. Iker Casillas might not be missed in goals as much as he once was, but his leadership will me massively missed. Introducing Gareth Bale into the starting 11, Xabi Alonso being out for a prolonged amount of time, a shift in playing style, no Mesut Ozil in the midfield, and the new players like Isco hitting a slump as they adjust in the new club are all possible massive factors.
I would say these three teams are much better than the rest of the pack. They have very few holes, but an amazing depth of talent. They all have experience in the tournament with their core group of players. Real stayed in third for me because of the fact that they have not won the tournament in the past few years like the other two and maybe that’s the only reason. The last 16 could see any combination of an early tournament meeting between these sides. I think it would be better to see them meet in a two legged situation rather than the one off final so that we can get a decisive winner as we did last year when Bayern and Barca met. Even though Dortmund provided a challenge in the final, I felt Bayern really stamped themselves in the semi-final as the best in the world, having destroyed Barca.
This group is comprised of teams that can be dangerous, but might have a fatal flaw in their DNA that could cost them at some stage. I do not believe these sides would be the favourite in all of their match ups, but could beat the top three teams on my list at any stage in the tournament. Manchester United top this group for me. They have finally added some quality midfield play in Marouane Fellaini and a healthy Shinji Kagawa. This has to be the season Wayne Rooney stays healthy. They have depth up front with Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, but I just wish they offered more depth at the back. They were a red card away from getting past Real Madrid last year. My concerns are simple; fitness, the new coach, and Robin van Persie showing up for the big matches. He disappeared in big spots during games last year.
Juventus are in this group, but I’ve already questioned myself by having them this high. They had zero strike power last season but did very well, and this year they have added Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. I worry that age in the middle of the field and running the new players against polished sides might find them a bit overwhelmed and out of sorts. I haven’t liked the vibe Antonio Conte has given off regarding repeating the title win in Italy, let alone performing better in the Champions League.
Manchester City would be next. I am not concerned by their slow start in the league (until the Manchester derby). For me they have made some great acquisitions and with time, they will play better. Just look at yesterday’s Manchester derby! I’m just concerned about on the field leadership. They have a lot of doers, but who is the focused presence for them on the pitch that pulls the team through hard times? My top three teams have multiple players that can keep their side focused, but who does that for City?
Have a Break
This group is comprised of the sides that could do some damage, but will need a lucky draw to have a chance at winning the competition. They will also need breaks in the form of scheduling and injuries to the other team. They need to be taken seriously, but the likelihood for success is not super high.
Topping this list is Chelsea. For me, Chelsea could have been the second best side in the world and the kings of England if they had signed a world class striker this summer. Instead, they settled for Samuel Eto’o and send their only prospect off on loan in Romelu Lukaku. Chelsea added depth in midfield when they didn’t need to and passed on strikers where they were in need. It was a bit perplexing to say the least. What is worse is Juan Mata appears to have fallen out of favour with newly rehired Jose Mourinho. He has been their best player the past few seasons. They went from a team that had it all together to a team with more questions than answers.
Borussia Dortmund would come next, and yes, they have fallen this far in my eyes. They just lack the depth to sustain another deep run. They should have been knocked out by Malaga last season, if not for some poor officiating. I think everyone will see them coming this year, so they will need a good draw. The key for them will be match ups. If they catch Real Madrid they could get by them, but Barcelona would give them nightmares. Real would allow them to have the ball, which suits their style. Barca would not. They defined this group last season and put down the blueprint for how to get it done. They drew well in the first two rounds of the knockout stage, got officiating help, and drew Real Madrid. They got the one off final with Bayern, but just could not pull off one more win.
PSG would come next. I think up front they can hang with anyone, but the back-line and the loss of a totally class manager will be their undoing. I don’t think any top side will like to draw against them, but in a two legged match they would rarely be the favourite against the teams already listed. It’s hard to see them getting to the final, but they have the talent on paper. This year might show improvement, but the league start has been unimpressive. If that is any indication of problems, this team is in trouble.
These are the teams that are traditional powers but lack quality right now. There are also a few that create a false sense of quality and have their supporters believing they are better than what they are.
Arsenal comes first for me in this group. Ozil was a massive pick-up, but who is the clutch goal scorer for this team? Arsenal would be perfect with a Luis Suarez, but they could not land him. I think they will be tougher out than last year and could go deeper into the tournament. They could also upset a side as I have already discussed, but winning the tournament is not in the cards. Attacking midfielders cannot score enough goals to win a competition like this. You need that leader who can get you goals over the course of the tournament. Arsenal tend to play musical chairs with their key players, and then suddenly in important situations, nobody turns up to score goals.
Napoli will likely be forced to face reality in the next round. They don’t have enough striking power or quality depth to hang with any of the bigger sides. They could trouble any team in the tournament and they may be better than last year, but I know that Gonzalo Higuain is headed for the trainer’s table at some point. When it does happen, who gets them goals?
AC Milan expect to be better this year, but I don’t put a lot of faith in a side containing Mario Balotelli in a two legged tie. I have to assume that any first rate side will pester Super Mario and push his buttons if they need to and he will combust, you can bank on it. Milan look good on paper, but upfront Stephan El Shaarawy tends to play worse besides Balotelli instead of benefiting from his obvious skills. This side may need another year before they can really contend.
Atletico Madrid are finally in the biggest tournament in the world, but they are drowning without superstar Radamel Falcao. David Villa has something to prove, but he will not be able to do it alone. Injuries are already starting to plague a side that is not very deep to begin with. Unless they are hiding a Fernando Torres Jr. on the bench, they will be lucky to get out of the group stage.
Sadly, it is likely to be a three horse race and the top dogs are familiar to us all. I am always looking for an upset, but class usually wins in two legged ties and the top three teams have a few things in common; talent, depth and bags of experience. In the end, the only real risk they are faced with is bad scheduling and the one leg final. A major flaw in the UCL is the Tuesday-Wednesday flip flop game scheduling, especially late in the tournament. In the semi-finals, teams are forced to play on Wednesday then league play on Saturday and then back on Tuesday, it leaves them at a major disadvantage. Just ask Barcelona. In 2012, their Chelsea semi-final had a league deciding Classico sandwiched in the middle. Poor scheduling may have cost them the league and a final.
Also, it is imperfect to play a tournament for six months where you give teams extra chances to survive in all stages, but finish with a one-off final match. While I realise a single game final is a ratings bonanza and a two legged final could be far less dramatic, you are decreasing the chance of the best team winning. Is it good for football if the best team does not win? It is an age old question, but I will finish with this.
Even the 3rd round qualifying and play-off rounds are two legged affairs, so how could the final not be? Despite this, I would imagine the tournament will live up to its reputation. In the last two seasons, Chelsea have been an unexpected winner and Dortmund has made the final, which added to the drama. Both finals were full of excitement and fans were left begging for more.
Let’s get on with it!