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Champions League

Blog by: Souvik

A year after the English sides caught the ire of the Champions League; it was the bowing out of two of the biggest names from the Italian Serie A that made the headlines this time around. Juventus and Napoli formed the two biggest casualties of this year’s competition in the group stages. While Napoli could count themselves unlucky with the results coming out as they did, Juve’s performances in the group left a lot to be desired and was probably the lowest point in Antonio Conte’s tenure at the head of the Old Lady so far.

The Groups of Upset 

GS-Juve

 

Snow and misery poured down at the Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi as Group B claimed the first big casualty of the competition when Juventus were left floored. The defending Serie A champions, coming into the competition as one of its favourites were a poor shadow of themselves; managing to win only one of the 6 games in the group stage. Hail, snow and Wesley Sneider were enough to drill the final nail in the coffin for the bianconeri. However, even before the Dutch midfielder rippled the back of the net amongst ghastly conditions, Juventus had already made its bed. Conte summed it up perfectly in his post-game comment, “The regret is that we let everything go down to the last game”. You can’t say that you were put in a bad position after conjuring up only six points after first five games. Real Madrid on the other hand cruised through the same group with utter ease.

FBL-EUR-C1-NAPOLI-ARSENAL

 

Group F, the group of death in this year’s competition probably brought the biggest drama to the screens. Whilst Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund seeped through the cracks, Napoli was left distraught as the Italians were knocked out despite amassing 12 points in the group stage. Coming into the final game game, Napoli needed to beat Arsenal by 3 clear goals. Whilst an injury torn Dortmund side battled through to a 2-1 victory over a 10 man Marseille side to put their name in the draw for the second round, two second-half strikes from Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon was just too little too late for the azzurri. Thus, Napoli became the first team to finish third with 12 points in a Champions League group and the first to be eliminated with such a tally since 1997.

The group also brought us the first ever French team to be eliminated from the group stages of the competition without having registered a single point in the form of Olympique Marseille who looked a class below their fellow groupies throughout the competition.

So close, yet so far

SL Benfica v Paris Saint-Germain FC - UEFA Champions League

 

The margin between a place in the last 16 of the Champions League and a place in the much maligned Europa League is thin. While a few rejoiced at clinching their place amongst the last 16 of Europe’s elite, some “giants” in their own respect drifted down to the second tire of European competition. Amongst the big names as per say that failed to make the second stage were the pair of Portuguese giants Benfica and Porto.

Benfica fluffed their lines for the second consecutive season, going out from the group stages for the second consecutive season whilst being tied on points. After Neil Lennon’s Celtic the previous year, it was the turn of a Kostas Mitroglu inspired Olympiakos this time around to upset the applecart for the Pourtuguese powerhouse. Group C proved to be too strong for Benfica as a last gameday win over PSG at the Stadium of Light wasn’t enough to see the Eagles through. It was their loss at the hands of the Greeks on Gameday 5 came back to bite them big time. Progress to the second round might now mean that Olympiakos will try and hold on to their prized possessions in the form of Manolas and Mitroglou who have constantly linked with big clubs from the big leagues. PSG meanwhile romped through the group, looking a class apart from the rest.

Club Atletico de Madrid v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League

 

Porto meanwhile crashed out of the group stages after impressing last season. The Dragões were eliminated had their home form to blame for their fortunes in the competition. The losses of Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez were clearly felt in their performances as they failed to record a single win at home in the group stages. That never bodes well for any club, let alone those with aspirations of going through to the second of Europe’s premiere club competition. However a weak group kept their hopes alive till the last game.  Porto however had the unenviable task of eking out a result away to the Spanish powerhouse Atletico Madrid. In the end it proved to be a too big a task as Atletico made short work of the Portuguese, romping home to a 2-0 victory which put out the light for good for the Lisbon outfit. Coming second in the group were Zenit St. Petersburg, who themselves were given a 4-1 hiding by last placed Austria Wien.

UEFA Champions League - AC Milan v Ajax

 

Another team that would go out of the competition heartbroken was Ajax Amsterdam. The Dutch constantly punched above their weight in Group H and set the cat amongst the pigeon with a victory over eventual group champions Barcelona in the fifth gameday. Going into their last game against Milan needing a win straight up front, Ajax however fell short of the target. A goalless draw was all that the Dutch could manage to take home from the San Siro. This leaves their future forays in Europe confined to the Europa League. Barcelona on the other hand, comfortably passed through the group in spite of losing to Ajax. The Catalans’ depth of talent made their route into the final 16 quite comfortable in spite of Lionel Messi missing a large chunk of the games.  Celtic meanwhile couldn’t pull off any tricks this time arpound as they bowed out of the competition tamely after managing to register a solitary victory over Ajax.

Chelsea might have found their European kryptonite in the form of FC Basel, but there was nothing much else to bother the Blues in these early stages of the competition. Like all Jose Mourinho’s teams, Chelsea remained astute at the back throughout the group stages, conceding a Champion League low 3 goals in the competition. Schalke on the hand got the better of Basel to qualify to the last 16 of the competition, defeating the 10 men Swiss team on the last day of the competition to keep their dreams of furthering Champions League adventures alive. Steaua Bucharest rounded out the group as the minnows of the lot.

The others

Group A failed to live to its billing as Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen cruised through the group without having to break their stride.  United in Europe has been a different animal altogether when compared to their endeavours in the domestic league. Shakhtar as always  gave some brilliant displays of attacking football and still had a faint chance coming into the last game at Old Trafford. But there was no mercy to be had a t Old Trafford midweek as the Red Devils themselves looked to bring some momentum into their campaign this season after a couple of  hapless displays had seen them drop two games in a row at home in the Premier League. Real Sociedad however was the big disappointment of the lot as they failed to meet the lofty heights that they had set in the previous LaLiga campaign and folded tamely on their return to the competition after a decade.

There were no thrills or spills to be had in Group D as favourites Bayern Munich and a rampaging Manchester City made mincemeat of their competition. Neither Viktoria Plzeň, nor CSKA Moscow could build up any kind of strong challenge to the big powerhouses as their gap in class was well reflected in terms of the points in the table.

By: Souvik

FBL-EUR-C1-LEVERKUSEN-MAN UTD

Chelsea has found its European kryptonite

The Blues managed to plod through to the second round of this year’s Champions League but not because of their performance. The Londoners scrapes through courtesy of a tame goalless draw between Steaua Bucharest and Schalke, although they themselves slumped to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Swiss giants Basel. Chelsea may have finally found their “kryptonite” in European competition. Few teams have been as big a reason for misery for the Blues as much as Basel in the recent past. This year’s Champions League has seen the Blues rampaging through the group stage taking Schalke for a ride in a 3-0 win over the Germans and followed it up with a 3-0 battering of Bucharest only to come unstuck time and again against Basel.

Chelsea were at their authoritative best last weekend away to West Ham romping home to 3-0 victory. Up against Basel, the story however was totally different. The midfield which had looked impermeable against the hammers was undone at will. Only Jon Obi Mikel was able to make some imprints into the game but had too much to on his hands to make a difference. This game is one that the Chelsea fans would rather lock up in the cupboard and forget about it. Basel’s keeper Yann Sommer was a virtual spectator throughout the game as the Londoners failed make a single attempt on goal. To compound Chelsea’s misery further, Samuel Eto’o had to be taken out on a stretcher for what seemed to be a problem with the Cameroonian’s groin. With Torres also recovering from a recent injury of his own, Mourinho’s options upfront seems to have been further stretched.

Isco making Ozil a distant memory at Real Madrid

When Real Madrid decided to purchase Gareth Bale at the expense of Mesut Ozil, it was like someone selling his house to buy a fancy car. The German, who in his few years had become the lynchpin of Real Madrid’s game going forward, departed amidst discontent and disbelief from the Real Madrid fans. It was on Isco’s young shoulder that Real Madrid had entrusted the job of becoming the “play-maker”. The quick-footed Spaniard, who had showed some real potential last season with his performances for Malaga and Spanish U-21, has taken to job like a duck to water.

Isco’s performances this season has taken even the staunchest Ozil admirer to take a step back and applaud the young Spaniard’s coming of age. He has seamlessly fitted into the scheme of things for Carlos Ancelotti. Five goals and two assists in the league itself coupled with a further two goals in the Champions League is a testament to the early season return that Isco has been providing. Showing maturity beyond his years, Isco is making Ozil a fading memory at the Bernabeu. Isco’s imprint in this week’s Champions league game against Galatasaray was there to be seen. With Isco at the fore, even with 10, Los Merengues were the superior team. On the 3 minute mark, he played in Bale in with a sublime ball, only for the Welshman to strike it wide. He was again in the thick of things in Madrid’s attacking game, playing an instrumental role in starting the move which saw Madrid extend their lead 3-1 through a penalty. Then on the stroke of 80 minutes, Isco rounded off his brilliant performance with a goal of his own to see Madrid home in comfortable fashion. 

Bold decisions can bear fruit for Moyes

There wasn’t any better team display from any of the other 31 teams involved in Gameday 5 of the Champions League than Manchester United’s 5-0 demolition away to Bayer Leverkusen. The red devils played with a swagger that we have generally have come to associate with them in the years past.

Coming into the game, Leverkusen were eight games unbeaten at home and sitting in second spot in the Bundesliga table. Given Bayer’s recent form they would have fancied their chances against a team yet to build an identity under a new boss. What proceeded in the following ninety minutes had Leverkusen Sporting Director Rudi Voller at a loss for words.

Moyes, who played both Rooney and Kagawa in their much preferred roles as the Centre Forward and the just behind the main forward respectively was rewarded with 5 goals in a 5 star performance from the United side. The game was one of Moyes’ biggest yet in his short tenure as the Manchester United manager. This match might create selection headaches but that’s one headache that every manager would prefer to others. Kagawa seemed like the man that the Red Devils had paid all the moolah for. Ryan Giggs, two days shy of his 40th birthday turned round the clock and seemed to play with the vigour of a teenager. For once even the backline seemed to have found their niche.

A must win game away to one of best German sides would have been a test for the best of managers let alone the new Scot at Old Trafford. Moyes not only passed the test but made a mockery of it. With many more tests to come for Moyes yet, there will be many more occasions where he needs to take some unflinching decisions that may even include rotating between RVP and Rooney to get the best out of Kagawa.

This might be Manchester City’s year finally in Europe

Firstly les make things clear: This being Manchester City’s year should mean in no ways that they are favourites for the title. They can however do some serious damage to Bayern Munich and other big hopeful’s chances towards lifting the trophy come June 2014. In doing so the Citizens’ are also well on their way to shrug off their tag of “perennial chokers” in Europe.

City had already made it through to the second round of the Champions League coming into this week’s game at the third time of asking. However, their performances of late will warrant ornate looks from the other big boys in the competition. Carrying on from their fine display at the weekend which saw Pellegrini’s men thump six past Tottenham, City cruised home to a 4-0 demolition of a hapless Plzen. The blue half of Manchester seem to be certainly going up the gears as recent results have seen City hit 4,5,6 and even 7 goals past their opponents.

Salah and Mitroglou’s futures lie elsewhere 

This is the nature of the game of football. It’s sad but it’s the harsh truth. As soon as a player begins to shine and garner some reputation playing for a club with not much to offer in terms of financials, silverware or a reputed league; the big boys swoop in to take the prized possessions away. Basel’s Egyptian forward Mohamad Saleh and Olympiakos’ Kostas Mitroglou have been the real revelations in this year’s group stages of the Champions League.

Mitrolglu, who came into the game against PSG having scored 20 goals in 16 games for club and country, was a constant thorn in the PSG defence though failing to find the back of the net. With all the big clubs mooted to be interested in the giant Greek, Olympiacos will have a decision soon on their hands on “when” rather than “whether” to cash on their hitman.

While Mitroglou has been busy taming the Mediterranean, further north a 21 year old Egyptian has been taking his reputation to new heights. Mohamed Salah performances of later has seen his already alluring profile reach new peaks in the dizzy altitudes of Switzerland. The southpaw, who has been a cause of real sorrow for all Chelsea fans, was at the thick of things again this week. Saleh scored the decisive goal yet again to ensure Basel’s double over Mourinho’s Chelsea in the group stages. With 9 goals and 7 assists in 27 games this season, the fleet footed forward has had scouts across the continent going gaga over his talent which combines raw pace with some nifty footwork and an eye for goal.

It won’t at all be surprising if we see the Egyptian or the Greek in new colours as early as this coming January.

Blog by: The Football Addict

David Moyes

David Moyes

David Moyes, prior to the defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion, had given a press conference in which he commented to various national newspapers about his side’s Champions League chances.

“To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players. Look at Bayern Munich, they have it. Look at Barcelona, who had it in the past and Real Madrid, who have maybe got it now. That’s the level you have to be at to win it. We’ve not got that yet but what we have got is experience.”

Let’s try and see what does he actually might mean with this statement?

Is it a message to the club? It maybe a veiled message hitting back at the new Manchester United CEO, Ed Woodward, who, it has been reported, has been responsible for United’s failure in the transfer window.

It has been reported that Moyes had a number of players on his mind to strengthen United’s midfield. There were names like Modric, De Rossi and Thiago amongst others who were linked to United.

Others including Fabregas, Ander Herrara and in other positions, Baines were confirmed targets. But all of these moves failed to materialise. Fans all over the world blamed Woodward for this and even Moyes, although to a lesser extent.

Moyes maybe indicating that the transfer window needed to be utilised properly and the main club transfer targets needed to be brought in.

On the other hand, it could be a message to the Glazer family. An indication that he wants them to start loosening their pockets or the club will suffer.

Moyes insisted after the end of the window that the pursuit of Herrera ended because the £30.5 million fee was considered to be too high. Manchester United had a £26 million bid rejected, but the extra £4.5m required to trigger the release clause was considered too high. Looking at the current state of the United team, a player of Herrara’s credentials could have had a massive impact.

If Moyes wanted a player but the extra £5 odd million required was considered as too high, then other alternatives needed to be looked at. But that didn’t happen either.

Maybe, it is a way for Moyes to get his message across to the Glazers. Spend or suffer. Moyes is desperate to succeed here as well. But maybe he’s asking for financial backing from the Glazers through this statement.

A message to the fans?

The job of being the manager of Manchester United Football Club, is without doubt one of the biggest jobs in world football. One man, Sir Alex Ferguson, performed it marvellously well over his tenure of 26 years at the club. He performed it so well, that it was always going to be difficult for any man coming in. Stepping into Sir Alex’s humongous shoes, was always going to be a tough job for any manager.

But, having said that, some sections of the fans are being increasingly critical of David Moyes by asking him to deliver immediately. He will require sometime to settle into the club. He will require time to deliver success to the club.

Maybe this is the message he wishes to put across to the fans.

His statement “we’ve not got that yet but what we have got is experience,” indicates that he intends to build on this squad. “We have not got that yet“, he says, stating that the team does not have the quality yet, but have got the experience.

His motive for the long term is to indicate to the fans that he intends to improve the squad, given enough time.

The United fans owe that to him. He needs to be give benefit of the doubt and trusted with the club. Let’s do that and get behind him, back him and support the club through troubled times.

Blog by: Azhiii

Ever since Fergie’s retirement, there has been a sense of gloom and despair amongst the United faithful. David Moyes, despite building a reasonably strong reputation at Everton, has not been unanimously seen as a worthy successor – though to his credit, it was always difficult to fill Fergie’s huge boots. Amidst the crests and troughs of League and Cup results, football fans throughout the globe have remained split on United’s prospects this season, domestically and in Europe. Eight competitive matches under Moyes’ reign and this appears to be a reasonable point to analyse the progress that has been made under him and what bodes for United going forward. And from the diagnosis, there appears to be reason for optimism.

The first of many trophies

United’s Community Shield triumph was a stroll. The scoreline may have read 2-0 but it doesn’t reflect how dominant United were throughout the tie. United weren’t dazzling; they were just disciplined. They looked comfortable in possession and were impressive going forward and defensively solid. Van Persie kicked off the Moyes era with two well-taken goals and the general feeling is he could end up with the Golden Boot yet again.

But as much as it was about watching how United would shape up and how they’d go about their duties, David Moyes would very much have wanted to get his hands on the first trophy being offered. United had had a mixed pre-season and for all Moyes’ domestic exploits at Everton, Manchester United was always a step up. There were several question marks on him being able to handle the big stage. A loss against Wigan would have been catastrophic; Moyes would have been under immense criticism early on. Fortunately for him, United delivered. The Shield wasn’t about playing flowing football; it was about removing doubt and reassuring the supporters. Mission accomplished. Well done, Manchester United and David Moyes.

The Wayne Rooney factor

United sent out an official message a fortnight ago, justifying Vice Chairman Ed Woodward’s transfer dealings and explaining in some detail, the club’s priorities during the window. Woodward had been much maligned during the window for his inability to bring in marquee players and United deemed it necessary to assure the fans that all was well at the club.

The first item on the club’s agenda, apparently, was not about buying the elusive central midfielder or putting together a package for Cristiano Ronaldo. Instead, it was about retaining a player, a player who United felt was extremely crucial to their plans. Yes, the first item on the agenda read, “Keep Wayne Rooney at the club”.

Over the last few months, Rooney has attracted varied opinions from critics and fans alike. There has been tremendous speculation on whether or not Rooney requested for a transfer last season – the details of which are still unclear – and whether or not he sees his future at Old Trafford. The debate among the supporters, meanwhile, focused on how indispensable he was and whether offloading a disinterested Wayne Rooney was better than keeping him. Chelsea had been knocking on the door harder and harder, and Moyes did well to remain firm on his stance of Rooney not being for sale. At the end of the day, the club have persuaded him to stay and the speculations and rumours have been quelled. For now.

More importantly though, whatever his personal interests, Rooney has carried on his on-field duties in the manner of a thorough professional. 4 goals and 4 assists in 6 matches do not reflect the personality of someone who is frustrated at being here. What’s more, he seems to be enjoying every moment of it. Against Leverkusen, he seemed to be involved in every United attack and there appeared to be a spring in his steps – something that had been missing for a major slice of last season.

He was the only one who could, perhaps, hold his head up high after the derby drubbing. He was captain in the League Cup win over Liverpool and justified his manager’s faith, while putting in a mature display with a smile on his face must have been so reassuring to the United faithful. A rejuvenated Wayne Rooney is the biggest positive of the embryonic David Moyes era and could well be key to firing United to Premier League glory come May. Plus, he needs just 49 more to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton.

The acquisition of Marouane Fellaini

There’s been all the negativity surrounding Manchester United’s transfer dealings this summer and while most of it has been justified, the fact remains that the void in the starting lineup has been addressed. Fellaini might not have been United’s first choice target, but his presence alongside the excellent Carrick gives United the balance that was missing previously. Both of them are impressive at retaining the ball and making key passes and together, they seem to form the pivot from which United can launch their attacking play.

Cleverley has failed to impress recently and Anderson has never had even the most optimistic United fan purring. The Belgian might just be the real deal though. The physical presence in the middle of the park apart, there is now an additional threat from corners and set-pieces, not to mention his eye for goal as United can certainly testify to. His performances keep getting better for United and maybe, soon enough, he’ll justify his statement, “I’ll be the next Roy Keane”.             

The points tally

Much has been made about United’s difficult start in 10 years and United have found themselves wanting on a couple of occasions. Yet, the league is still in its early stages and with the initial set of difficult fixtures out of the way, and a series of winnable games on the trot, United are in a position to put forward a lengthy winning streak, much like they did last year. Seven points from a possible fifteen is a poor start even for a mid-table side, but considering that there have been four tricky matches during this period, the end-result is not that poor. Trips to Anfield, the Liberty and the Etihad have been negotiated – rather poorly on two occasions – and the United goal is yet to be breached at Old Trafford.

Besides, United haven’t merely scraped results; they have dominated their opponents, except for the League Cup win and yes, the Manchester derby. They mesmerised against an impressive Swansea side in the opening game in Wales, bossed the game against Chelsea in a stalemate, produced the goods against a defensive-minded Crystal Palace and swept past a Bayer Leverkusen side that has been putting in brilliant performances in the Bundesliga week in week out. Even in the 1-0 League defeat at Anfield, the second-half showing was the kind of performance that deserved an equaliser and maybe even a winner. The points may have been squandered but a strong showing of that kind against fierce rivals was heartening, though ultimately nothing but a consolation.

And yes, I am at no point ignoring the derby debacle – the depressing, disappointing, heartbreaking derby debacle. Yes, it was a double blow. The loss not just gave City the headstart in the title race, but also dented a major blow to the morale in the United camp. It was a depressing sight to watch City dominate the game from start to finish. There were brief periods when United threatened, hitting the woodwork on more than one occasion, but it never seemed like we were up for a fight.

There was hardly any sense of urgency within the United personnel and Moyes seemed content to invite the pressure rather than take the game to City. It cost United, but yes, the lessons have been learnt. Fans and critics would do well to remember that Fergie had a tough time too, starting out at United. Moyes can only improve from here. And his squad can only get better.

What was most reassuring though was the manner in which United responded in two days’ time in the League Cup tie at Old Trafford. It wasn’t dazzling or stylish by any stretch of imagination, but United were impressive against a first-choice Liverpool side, despite not fielding RVP, Fellaini, Vidic, Ferdinand or Evra. It must have been a massive morale booster, which bodes well for the upcoming fixtures.

Moyes and United can only go up from here. The Moyes era is well and truly kicking and there is reason for optimism.

The Off-field developments

While all the talk has been about the new manager and the on-field developments, there have been reasons for the shareholders and management to cheer about. Record revenues indicate a sign of progress and reassures the sceptical United fans that the post-Fergie era is not one of downfall and depression. Commercial income grew by 30% over the last year and 20 sponsorship deals were announced. The stock price has risen, the leverage levels are coming down, there are deals being signed every now and then globally and overall, the business side of the club is looking pretty good. The average United fan can only be pleased with these off-field developments. At the very least, all the focus can be directed towards the football side. After all, its one less thing to worry about.           

The verdict 

In my view, United’s early season report card would carry a rating of 7 on 10. It isn’t eye-catching and certainly to the uncompromising United fans, it isn’t a number they’ll be happy with. But considering our tricky start and the fact that we haven’t had a new gaffer since quite a long time, the initial season form is impressive. United can only get better from here. It’d still take a miracle for United to get better of the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona, but this squad is good enough to put up a fight against any opposition. And in football, you just never know. Its too early to tell, yet there’s every sign that United are headed in the right direction. And they can only get better from here.

Blog by: Born off side

Defending champions Bayern Munich are the favourites to lift their 6th European Cup

Defending champions Bayern Munich are the favourites to lift their 6th European Cup

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!

Usual Suspects

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.

Cautious Contenders

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.

Chelsea could have done better than Samuel Eto'o

Chelsea could have done better than Samuel Eto’o

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.

Pure Pretenders

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!

Blog by: Soccer Souls

Mario Balotelli

Mario Balotelli looks on during the UEFA Champions League group H match between AC Milan and Celtic at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on September 18, 2013 in Milan, Italy. (Getty Images)

Alongside Barcelona, AC Milan head into the 2013/2014 UEFA Champions League as favourites to progress from group H.

But only just as the Rossoneri can no longer claim to be the feared side of old. Having clumsily stumbled through the opening rounds of the new Serie A season, finishing second in a group of previous winners of the competition is the minimum requirement for Milan in this year’s Champions League; falling short of this expectation is not an option.

After a disastrous start to the 2012/2013, the Milan giants finished third in Serie A and cemented their place in Europe’s top competition once more thanks to tactical nous, emerging talents and of course Mario Balotelli; he scored 12 goals in 13 appearances since his January move from Manchester City. Although at times controversial, the Italian international’s contribution to the Milan cause cannot be questioned.

The influence of Balotelli was not available during Milan’s Champions League exploits last term due to his participation with City. However, Milan emerged from their group to reach the last 16 of the competition; one which they have won on seven previous occasions making them one of the most decorated sides in the competition’s history.

The round of 16 brought Barcelona to the San Siro in what was to be billed a walk in the park for the Spanish giants. This it was not, as Massimiliano Allegri’s men performed miracles and dominated the match to win 2-0. It was simply a tactical masterclass from Allegri, who completely nullified any threat from Leo Messi and co.

Optimism was high for the return leg at the Camp Nou, but nothing could stop Barcelona clinching a 4-0 win; although not without a few scares as Milan could have made it a different story had they taken a chance or two. Eliminated, Milan did not go out without a fight and the victory over Barcelona in Milan would be a memorable moment for supporters in the season.

With the season over, and Champions League qualification secured, both fans and management knew that areas of the side would need to be reinforced.

Allowing midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng to leave for Schalke for around £8.8m served only to weaken the side, such was his influence in the middle of the park and contribution to the goals tally; notably, a brace in the 3-0 win against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League playoff tie in August, ensuring progression to the group stage of this year’s competition.

Key arrivals this summer have been delivered at the San Siro with Andrea Poli arriving from Sampdoria for a mere £2.6m, Alessandro Matri arriving from Juventus for around £9.6m and of course Kaka, who made his return to Milan on a free transfer from Real Madrid. Kaka’s arrival has renewed fans’ hopes ahead of the new season, conjuring memories of his past performances both in Italy and European competition.

To say these key signings have not hit the ground running would something of an understatement as Milan suffered defeat in their opening day of the Serie A campaign against lowly Verona. A win at home to Cagliari was followed by a lucky 2-2 draw with Torino. The 2-1 loss to Rafael Benitez’s Napoli last weekend meant that Milan have been shaky at best.

Kaka reacts during the match vs. on September 14, 2013 at the Olympic Stadium in Turin. (Getty Images)

Kaka reacts during the match vs. on September 14, 2013 at the Olympic Stadium in Turin. (Getty Images)

That defeat was further compounded by Balotelli three-match ban. The striker received a red card for confronting the officials but Milan are set to appeal against it. Allegri bemoaned his side’s luck following their home loss and insisted that his side put on a decent display.

“It was in a way our best performance of the Serie A season so far. We were lucky to get back the 2-2 draw at Torino, so we paid for that good fortune this time around,” he said.

Allegri, however, conceded that the Milan outfit need to improve their defending.

“We defended badly and in the wrong way, as we should’ve realised straight away they were going to do that. We need to improve our defending in the box, but that doesn’t take away from the fact I think the team played well,” he said.

Kaka managed 70 minutes against Torino without contributing much, as a stoppage time penalty from Balotelli clinched a point for Milan. Of course, Kaka’s lack of game time at Madrid means the Brazilian will need to be eased back into action to recapture fitness and gel with the new side.

Serie A form aside, Milan have a new plethora of options in attack which should be a cause for concern for Group H. As well as Balotelli, Stephan El-Shaarawy is a clinical finisher and finished last season with 18 goals. At only 20, the striker is a huge talent and is only likely to improve.

Robinho, Giampaolo Pazzini and Matri also provide options, benefitting from Champions League experience; the latter having scored twice in Juventus’ 5-0 aggregate annihilation of Celtic in last year’s round of 16 tie.

In terms of midfield, Poli’s arrival strengthens it as well as Nigel De Jong’s return from injury; the Dutchman’s strength and tenacity in the deep midfield role used by Allegri is key to breaking up attacks and retaining possession. Captain Riccardo Montolivo and returning hero Kaka will add creativity and support for the front men.

Defensively, Philippe Mexes’s lack of pace could be a chink in the Milan armour, but teams will need to get past the defensive midfield wall likely to be in force through De Jong and Poli; not an easy task.

The summer has saw Milan strengthen greatly without compromising any areas. They have a good depth to the squad, a healthy mix of youth and experience and a coach more than capable of getting it tactically spot on.

Although the start to their Serie A campaign has been tame, with new players to settle in and a number to come back from injury, the Milan faithful could see their side difficult to beat in this year’s Champions League.

Blog by: Woolwich 1886

Theo Walcott hasn't had the best start to the season

Theo Walcott hasn’t had the best start to the season

Amidst all of the success Arsenal are enjoying at the start of the 2013-14 campaign, it seems a bit churlish of me to point out that Theo Walcott is off to such a slow start that one wonders if the malaise that settled in him after signing his contract threatens to become a personality trait rather than a phase.

With news that he might be out for two weeks or more due to the injury he suffered before the Stoke City match, he could miss as many as three Premiership matches—at Swansea on 28 September, at West Brom on 5 October, and home against Norwich on 19 October, not to mention Wednesday’s League Cup clash, again at West Brom (a match he probably would have been rested for anyway).

Aside from the dilemmas this creates for rotation and the focus it puts on him and his injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, and Santi Cazorla all working their ways through various injuries, we almost have to wonder where Walcott’s been in the first place even when fit.

Ever since signing his new contract back in January, he just hasn’t found anything resembling form. He had started the first half of the 2012-13 campaign very slowly with only one goal in his first five appearances, just as he has this season. However, he did go on a bit a of tear, tallying 15 goals in 21 appearances.

Then, come January, he hit a drought that saw him score 7 goals in 23 appearances. Whether this was down to pressure tied to proving his worth, fatigue, niggling injuries, complacency, or some combination thereof is hard to say.

Having started the current campaign as slowly as he has — one goal in seven appearances — is troubling.

In those seven matches, according to whoscored.com, he’s managed to take 23 shots, putting 13 on target but only converting once for a woeful conversion rate of 7.6%. When we consider that Walcott’s “typical” shot comes from inside the box and rarely at a distance of more than 12 yards, it’s of course natural that he should manage to put many of his shots on target.

Contrast this against Aaron Ramsey, who has taken 20 shots, put nine on target, and scored six goals for a conversion rate of 67%. While it’s unlikely that he’ll keep up that kind of finishing over the long term, consider that many of his shots have come from distance and through a thicket of defenders and teammates while Walcott frequently finds himself with a clear path to goal and only the keeper to beat, albeit at a tight angle.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was suggesting that Walcott would go for 20 Premier League goals. I have also wrestled with doubts about his consistency. On his day, when he combines his pace with intelligent movement and deft touch, he can eviscerate defences and even his movement off the ball can be enough to unsettle and stretch them.

However, when he contents himself with merely wandering on the wing, as he too often does, he disappears. With 42% of the Arsenal attack coming down the right flank (courtesy again of whoscored.com), it is vital that the attacking winger on that side show greater finishing ability.

As it currently stands, however, too many attacks fizzle out with Walcott putting a tame shot directly at the keeper or seeing that keeper beat him to the ball.

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s attacking options look desperately thin with Olivier Giroud the only first-team attacker still healthy at the moment. Youngster Serge Gnabry, after a tentative start against Stoke, showed some positive signs and will probably be relied on heavily over the next few weeks as Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain work their way back from injury.

Perhaps some bright performances from the German could put pressure on Walcott; seeing that there is some kind of competition for the spot might prod him from whatever torpor seems to have settled into him.

It’s not too late for Walcott to find his form. After all, he did start slowly last year before hitting his stride.

Arsenal can only hope he returns from injury more determined and purposeful. Ramsey will eventually slow down, just as Giroud has after his own bright start, and Arsenal is going to need someone to step up. We may have to wait two weeks for him to even make an appearance, but here’s hoping he’ll make it worth the wait.