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Serie A

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.

Blog by: Shayne
The summer transfer window closed earlier this month, putting an end to frantic transfer-related activities from clubs. However, there is another transfer window in January and clubs will no doubt look to strengthen in certain areas if they feel the need to.

It’s a common thing nowadays for up-and-coming superstars to be chased by a variety of clubs, and there is most certainly no shortage of young and potentially world-class players that are currently plying their trade in various leagues.

Let’s take a quick look at 5 players that will almost certainly be chased by some of the bigger clubs during January:

1) Jackson Martinez

FBL-POR-LIGA-PORTO-ESTORIL

The Colombian striker has been an absolute revelation for Porto, a club that seems to have a knack for discovering top-level talent from absolutely nowhere (Hulk, Falcao et al).

He was linked to Chelsea and Napoli during the summer transfer window, but a move never materialised. The big striker won’t come cheap although given that strikers like Falcao and Edinson Cavani are no longer on the market, Martinez would be an excellent signing.

He is an instinctive finisher and also a physical presence upfront. He would definitely be on the wishlist of several clubs that would want to bolster their attacking options.

2) Gianelli Imbula

FBL-FRA-LIGUE1-TOULOUSE-MARSEILLE

The defensive midfielder is very highly rated in France and some have even compared him to former Arsenal and France midfield general Patrick Viera.

He is an extremely powerful player and is a presence in midfield. Despite that, he is an excellent player technically and has all the qualities of a top-class defensive midfielder.

The 20-year-old is still raw and will not feature in any big clubs’ immediate first-team plans should he sign for a big club (he might be loaned out), but he is definitely one to watch for the future and it wouldn’t be surprising if clubs entered into a bidding war to secure his signature.

3) Julian Draxler

FC Schalke 04 v VfB Stuttgart  - Bundesliga

The young German was linked to a few Premier League clubs during the summer including Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. He chose to stay with Schalke for now, but one wouldn’t be too surprised to see him move in January.

Technically able and extremely pacy, Draxler has an excellent reading of the game and an excellent final ball as well as the ability to shoot from distance. He has already been capped for Germnay, quite an achievement given the talent they possess. The 20-year-old won’t come cheap, but he would most certainly be a quality addition to any side.

4) Iker Muniain

AC Sparta Praha v Athletic Club - UEFA Europa League

The young Spanish winger has been dubbed the “Spanish Messi” due to his creative style of play. Muniain was linked to Manchester United and Arsenal during the summer, but the rumours died down.

Given the sheer talent he possesses he would be a good signing, although Bilbao wouldn’t part with their wonder-kid (who is a graduate of Athletic’s Youth Academy) so easily. The winger’s form was slightly mixed last season but there’s no doubting his talent. Should he express a desire to leave Athletic, many clubs would be interested in securing his signature.

5) Stephan El Sharaawy

AC Milan v Torino FC - Serie A

The Italian forward has already drawn comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He is extremely quick and likes dribbling around players and possesses a good passing range along with an eye for goal.

Milan wouldn’t necessarily want to sell him but as the old adage goes, everybody has a price. The versatile forward was linked to Manchester City on deadline day this year, but other clubs were also supposedly interested in acquiring him. He is definitely one to watch for the future and any club would be lucky to secure his services.

Blog by: Shreyas
A month into the football season, strategies have been laid down, battles have been fought on the pitch, and a bunch of surprising results have already grabbed the headlines. Some of the new signings such as Mesut Ozil have done fantastically well for their clubs, while others are yet to come to terms with the rigours of a new club. With truckloads of money being shipped around in transfer fees, a signing is no joke, and with that in mind, let’s look at the top five most unnecessary signings of the transfer window and how they have fared.

5. Edinson Cavani – Napoli to PSG

Edinson Cavani

For a hefty transfer fee of around €64 million, Edinson Cavani’s signing was definitely one of the most expensive ones this summer. Having grabbed eyeballs consistently with his performances for the Uruguayan national side and at club level with Napoli, Cavani has been reaching greater heights every passing season. While he has continued to find the back of the net, as one would expect, there are bigger headaches around his positioning on the pitch at PSG.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the established star of the club, and said to be closed to the idea of playing as anything other than the central attacker; a position Cavani also thrives in. A simple switch to 4 – 4 – 2 might seem the easy solution, but the fact that players like Ezequiel Lavezzi will be discomforted also needs to be taken into account. This means that Cavani is currently playing as a wide attacker, a role he doesn’t quite enjoy as much. A welcome, but unnecessary addition to the squad indeed.

4. Fernandinho – Shakhtar Donetsk to Manchester City

Fernandinho (R) of Manchester City

Having played a decent role in Shakhtar’s domestic as well as continental campaign last season, there would always be takers for Fernandinho when rumours spread that he was unhappy in Ukraine. Little would the player himself have expected to be the subject of a whopping £30 million swoop from Manchester City.

The Citizens, who boast the likes of Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia in their holding midfield department, in addition to many others who can be used as a makeshift, were perhaps one of the clubs which least require his services.

To his good fortune however, Fernandinho has been getting regular playing time, unlike poor Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair last season. The fact that he can perform Toure’s holding role means that the Ivory Coast star can push forward more often and bully the opposition. The threat, therefore, is to other attacking midfielders’ place in the line-up, rather than either of these players.

An unnecessary signing who has been cleverly adapted into the set-up by Manuel Pellegrini.

3. Willian – Anzhi Makhachkala to Chelsea

Chelsea’s Willian

The second Brazilian midfielder on this list, Willian had his bags all packed and ready for London club Tottenham Hotspur before seeing his loyalty suddenly purchased by cross-town rivals, Chelsea. For a player who had just moved to Anzhi in the previous transfer window for about €35 million, the Russian club roughly broke even upon sale.

The amusement value of hijacking a Tottenham deal seems to have been deemed worth that amount of money by Roman Abramovich, as Willian has made only a couple of appearances thus far, neither of them in the Premier League. In a rigid line-up where Juan Mata is struggling to find a place, it seems quite unlikely that Willian will shine through and conquer.

One hopes for him that he does, but until then, an extravagant addition to the squad.

2. Thiago Alcantara – Barcelona to Bayern Munich

Thiago Alcantara

For someone who voiced his desire for more time on the pitch to prove his ability, Thiago Alcantara made a perfectly silly decision of moving from the crowded midfield at Barcelona to the Allianz Arena already bursting with world-class midfielders. While he may seem a reasonable expenditure at €25 million, Bayern perhaps knew perfectly well that he would be surplus to requirements even before signing him.

Whether he fooled himself into believing that the presence of Pep Guardiola meant that he would get regular playing time ahead of the likes of Thomas Muller, Mario Götze, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Toni Kroos, or even Arjen Robben/Franck Ribery, one cannot tell.

But the fact that he is much less likely to get on the pitch for the reigning European champions than for his former club, or suitors Manchester United, must have now become clear to him.

Two substitute appearances and an outing in the German Super Cup are certainly insufficient to satiate his appetite, aren’t they?

1. Gareth Bale – Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid

Gareth Bale

In the same time as Cristiano Ronaldo has made 7 appearances, scored 9 goals and grabbed 2 assists, Real Madrid’s marquee signing Gareth Bale has made a grand total of 2 appearances (1 as a substitute) and has scored 1 goal; a tap-in inside the penalty area. If those numbers by themselves aren’t sufficient to convince you why Real Madrid never should have made the Welshman the costliest signing in history, let’s take a look at the fallout of the move.

Mesut Özil , one of the best ‘trequartistas’ in the world, simply chose to move to Arsenal, where he feels happier and is contributing majorly to the team’s attacks. Carlo Ancelotti, who reportedly told Florentino Perez that Bale was an unnecessary target, has refused to bow down to pressure, and continues with what he thinks is his best line-up, devoid of Bale.

Bale himself, favoring the same position that Ronaldo does, can now only dream of winning multiple player-of-the-year awards as he did last season with Tottenham Hotspur. Angel Di Maria sees his position under no real threat, thanks to playing on the opposite flank as favoured by the Welshman. Isco has shone through bright on his entry to the big stage, blocking the possibility of Bale playing there either.

Just a brief summary is provided above to describe in brief the ridiculousness of Bale’s move to the Spanish capital. Perhaps intended simply to be Madrid’s reply to Barca’s signing of Neymar, this is a move which has seen only one club emerge as winners – Arsenal.

Blog by: Anirudh

AC Milan v SSC Napoli - Serie A

In 1986 it was Diego Maradona and in 2013, it was Gonzalo Higuain. Fittingly, the club’s new Argentinian star scored in Napoli’s first victory at the home of AC Milan in 27 years, just as his illustrious compatriot had done on the last occasion it happened.

These are heady times. The win maintained Napoli’s 100 percent record in the league after four games, leaving them behind Roma only on goal difference. Yet amid scenes of joy and rancour—including Mario Balotelli’s latest implosion—the man who masterminded it all soaked it all in with a poised, neutral expression. Rafael Benitez’s star is rising again, but he is not shouting it from the rooftops.

It had been the same on Wednesday when Borussia Dortmund were toppled at the San Paolo. Amid the white-hot atmosphere Benitez studied his notes and made a few of his trademark sweeping hand gestures to his players, but barely moved a facial muscle.

It is a poker face he further perfected amid the poisonous atmosphere that enveloped his awkward six-month spell at Chelsea, which ultimately vindicated him, on a results level at least. Inheriting a dysfunctional side in wild transition, Benitez took them to the Champions League and to Europa League victory, though that senior players only felt they could robustly praise Benitez after the final—and his departure—said much for the strength of enmity many fans felt towards the Spaniard.

With his reputation partly restored for traversing the heckles of Stamford Bridge with considerable dignity, the rehabilitation is continuing apace in southern Italy. This is how Italy should have been for Benitez first time around, but wasn’t.

With a contract inked at Internazionale four days after the Liverpool exit that left him with a heavy heart, it was his rebound move and it was never going to work out. In addition to his emotional status, Benitez had a team in need of major renewal, with a president keen to cut costs and no chance of matching Jose Mourinho’s newly won treble. He lasted 13 days past the six-month mark.

Benitez has never relished verbal jousts. His backfired attempts to lock horns with Sir Alex Ferguson during Liverpool’s title near-miss in 2008-09 remains infamous and showed how ill-at-ease he always was in the mind games that Ferguson and Mourinho revelled in.

Yet if Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez are in many ways opposites, they do share a couple of key attributes. Firstly, both have an extraordinary attention to detail. Secondly, they believe that a head coach must always adapt to survive.

Napoli have undergone profound changes from Walter Mazzari to Benitez, moving from 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1. This is no tactical dogma; the changes have freshened players already there as well as incorporating new ones, such as Jose Callejon. Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga have looked accomplished playing as more orthodox full-backs, to the surprise of many.

For the recent home game against Atalanta, Benitez even took the previously unthinkable step of resting the iconic Marek Hamsik, much to the Slovakian’s displeasure. Hamsik was brought on for the last 25 minutes, contributing strongly as Napoli finally broke down determined visitors. Benitez has challenged him to develop in a more advanced role in support of Higuain, and Hamsik has responded.

At the San Siro this weekend, it was Gokhan Inler’s turn to surprisingly sit out the majority of the match four days after he ran the show in the defeat of Champions League finalists Dortmund. It speaks volumes for a squad considerably strengthened by the proceeds of Edinson Cavani’s sale, but also of a head coach who has the nous to switch emphasis.

The win at Milan was not vintage Napoli, but crucially suggested they can find a way to win when below their best. Juventus are still clear title favourites, given their and their coach Antonio Conte’s incredible records in the past two seasons, their formidable squad and their continual ability to grind down their opposition in matches with physical—as well as technical—power.

Yet they now have credible competition. Benitez has brought his A game to Italy this time, and Serie A is all the richer for it.

Blog by: Anirudh

LOSC Lille Metropole v FC BATE Borisov - UEFA Champions League

Roma’s attempt to achieve that ultimate footballing ideal – achieving results in style – has proven difficult, but their new French manager might have struck the right balance.

It feels like Roma, in the Eternal City, is eternally in distress. Since Thomas Di Benedetto’s consortium, with James Pallotta as owner, took over from the Sensi family less than two years ago there have been four changes in coach, each attempting to launch their own mini-revolution.

First there was Luis Enrique, then Zdenek Zeman, before Aurelio Andreazzoli was appointed from within to introduce structure from the chaos that had emerged under the previous two regimes. However, the feeling that Andreazzoli’s appointment was only a stop-gap was exacerbated by Roma’s terrible capitulation in the Cup Final, at the hands of arch rivals Lazio.

It was a fatal blow. Roma fans held a mock funeral. The team finished sixth in the league. Lazio continually rubbed salt in the wounds — Senad Lulic, who netted the winner, claimed he’s launching a clothing line in dedication to the minute he scored.

It has been revolution after revolution, having signed twelve new players under Enrique (and sold nine of them since) as well as eleven — more if you count co-ownership — under Zeman, underpinning the constant cycle of change in which Roma found themselves trapped in. The board wanted Walter Mazzari or Max Allegri to oversee a new regime, but were rejected by both. It was a shambles.

Gradually, though, Roma regained their sensibility. The appointment of Rudi Garcia was a move grounded in rationality. It was, maybe intentionally, perhaps ironically, a compromise between the two types of managers Roma sought and had had during the Pallotta reign. Garcia is an intriguing cocktail of the attacking idealism that dominates the philosophy of Zeman and Enrique, but blends that with the winning, pragmatic streak evident in Andreazzoli, Mazzari and Allegri.

At his unveiling, Roma director of sport Walter Sabatini described Garcia as a synthesis of the coaches they had before. It’s a neat piece of symbolism, but perhaps most importantly, Garcia has actually won things — the French league and cup double with Lille, achieved with the kind of attractive, positive playing style Pallotta so desperately wants Roma to play.

“My objectives and football philosophy,” Garcia says, “are without doubt offensive, but I am well aware that in order to win a game you also need an excellent defensive base.” It’s the classic line trotted out by thousands of newly appointed coaches, but Garcia actually has the substance to match.

Only one goal conceded – and without their best defender from last season, Marquinhos, to boot – and second for average possession are statistical indicators but more importantly the key elements of Roma’s new system are obvious on the pitch. Sunday’s Derby della Capitale provided the best demonstration, with the home side lining up in their now customary 4-3-3 formation.

What has been most intriguing, tactically speaking, is the use – or rather, return – of Francesco Totti to the centre forward role, having been used on the left side of attack last season with the freedom to drift inside at will. Totti has been granted the same effective ‘free role’ under Garcia, but rather than moving in from the flank, he’s been handed the false nine guise that Luciano Spalletti originally tumbled upon in the 2007 season.

It only came about because of an injury crisis, but it worked magnificently — Totti dropped into his usual playmaking zone, but by moving in advance of the opposition defenders into deep positions, he dragged away defenders and opened up space in behind. We’ve become so accustomed to Lionel Messi doing the same the term ‘false nine’ has passed into general footballing taxonomy, but Totti’s subtle shift in position was one of the first occasions in which such a tactic had been applied in the modern game.

Both Maicon and Federico Balzaretti relish the freedom they get and frequently motor high up the pitch towards the end of attacking moves, although Balzaretti’s goal against Lazio was an exaggerated illustration of this trend.

The width they provide on the overlap is also crucial in that it occupies the space otherwise vacated by the movement of the wide players inside, as they make runs into the space Totti creates. This is the one area in which Roma have lacked fluency thus far, and after selling their two top scorers from last season — Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela — there’s a concern about where the goals will come from (something the remarkable stat of having not scored in the first half correlates to). Gervinho, Adem Ljajic and Alessandro Florenzi all have the attributes to make those driving diagonal runs from the outside to in, but are yet to truly complement Totti in attack.

Meanwhile, Garcia’s favoured format for the midfield trio not a pure 4-3-3 in that the roles are restricted: instead, Garcia encourages the triangle to rotate on its axis, so that while Pjanic is often the most advanced, he can also become the deepest when the other two venture forward.

Daniele De Rossi, the holder, Kevin Strootman, the runner, and Miralem Pjanic, the creator, are all flourishing within the new template (and Michael Bradley soon to return from injury), with the middle man, Strootman, making a bright start to life in Italy.

Some might view his continental crossing from the Netherlands down to the south of Europe a sideways move, however it was probably the ideal move for a player looking to shore down a spot at next year’s World Cup but also keep on challenging himself at the highest level. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have been hard for Roma to convince him to climb aboard the Garcia project – he fits perfectly into the Frenchman’s philosophy, combining street-smart tackling and aggression with the kind of neat, tidy distribution associated with the likes of Michael Carrick.

“I won’t say that Strootman [is the surprise I promised the fans],” president James Pallotta said, “but he’s the player we needed. It was evident that the team found it difficult [going from defence to attack and back again last season].”

Strootman himself says “I like to play from one side of it to the other. I do both phases of play, attack and defence, without a particular preference.”

Strootman’s versatility in the midfield band has had a flow-on effect to the rest of the side, with the defence enjoying the sort of protection so conspicuously absent under the Zeman reign. With the full-backs taking turns to get forward, there’s a wonderful balance with the deep-lying midfielders — if Maicon gets forward, De Rossi, the more right-sided central midfielder, sits, and vice versa with Balzaretti and Strootman, the latter tending to the left of central midfield.

The defence also benefits from the compactness Garcia has instilled from front to back. Roma no longer feel like eleven individuals strung out across the width and length of the pitch – instead, they close the lines between bands neatly when without the ball, but still looking to press reasonably high up the pitch.

Unfortunately, though, like at Lille, there’s the very real risk that this Roma side will be broken up, just like the French champions were dismantled once they’d emerged as one of Europe’s bright new teams. Adil Rami went to Valencia, Cabaye and Gervinho to the Premier League, then later Eden Hazard also to England as well as Moussa Sow in the winter to Turkey, of all places.

Money and prestige always tempts players to greater places and for the likes of Strootman, Ljajic and Pjanic Roma should, and probably does, just merely represent a stepping stone to better things, and a better paycheque. This reality might be difficult for romantics to accept but it is doing exactly that – realising that positivity need not sacrifice all pragmatism – that in itself led Roma to Garcia, and to a fine start to the season.

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: Oalmasri

Manager Rudi Garcia (C) and Daniele De Rossi (R) of AS Roma celebrate the victory after the Serie A match against SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico on September 22, 2013 in Rome, Italy.  (Getty Images)

Manager Rudi Garcia (C) and Daniele De Rossi (R) of AS Roma celebrate the victory after the Serie A match against SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico on September 22, 2013 in Rome, Italy. (Getty Images)

Following the 2-0 victory over Lazio on Sunday, AS Roma were awash with emotion. And manager Rudi Garcia, boasting a 100% record from four games after joining the club in the summer, became at one with the fans.

“I feel like one of you. I feel like a Romanista” he said, while his left-back Federico Balzaretti admitted he was forced to tears after scoring the opening goal. “I felt such incredible joy and emotion” said the 31-year-old. “This doesn’t happen very often, I tend to score once every four years, so to do it in the derby.”

If the scorer of Roma’s vital breakthrough goal was unfamiliar, it was his first for the club since joining last August; the provider, however, was very much recognisable. Floating in the cross from which Balzaretti volleyed home was Francesco Totti, still showing his class at the age of 36 and just two days after signing a new contract that will see him stay with the club for two more seasons.

This season marks his 21st year with the Giallorossi, which has yielded just the one Scudetto, though the early indications are that he could make a genuine bid to add to that this year after a fine start to the campaign.

Garcia urged caution, saying “we must stay humble, we shouldn’t forget that our aim is to finish the season in the top five. To be ambitious is a quality, maybe we can have a good season, but it’s too early at the moment”.

Ten goals scored with just one conceded have been the numbers behind the opening four games which have encouraged such ambition, though the former Lille coach will do well to bear in mind how quickly fortunes can change given the madness of the last few years in the Italian capital.

Garcia is Roma’s fifth manager since the departure of Claudio Ranieri in 2011, two seasons that have seen them finish sixth and seventh, and it will take a lot more than four games to validate claims for the title.

Encouraging signs have come in the form of Alessandro Florenzi, the 22-year-old academy product who has scored two goals, and the excellent, ageless performances of Totti who has registered three assists so far.

Miralem Pjanic has been impressive in forming a solid midfield combination with the ever-consistent Danielle De Rossi and Kevin Strootman, who arrived from PSV Eindhoven for £15 million in the summer.

Garcia’s other big money signings, Gervinho and Adem Ljajic, who got his second goal for his new club with a late penalty in the Rome derby, have both performed well in attack, ensuring the summer sales of Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela will not be missed too much.

As Roma's captain Francesco Totti celebrates after scoring during the Serie A  match vs Parma at the Tardini stadium in Parma on September 16, 2013. (Getty Images)

As Roma’s captain Francesco Totti celebrates after scoring during the Serie A match vs Parma at the Tardini stadium in Parma on September 16, 2013. (Getty Images)

Roma made £92 million in player sales over the summer, £28 million of which coming off Marquinhos, the Brazilian centre-half who departed for Paris St-Germain. His replacement was found in Mehdi Benatia, a Moroccan defender signed from Udinese for £11 million, to slot seamlessly alongside Leandro Castan in the centre of defence.

Garcia has operated shrewdly in the transfer market despite the talent he has lost, Ljajic for instance coming at a third of the price they demanded off Spurs for Lamela. Maicon, signed on a free after a disappointing spell with Manchester City, boasts a wealth of Serie A experience and has been installed as first choice right-back.

Garcia is staying true to the fluid 4-3-3 system that served him well in winning the Ligue 1 title over in France with Lille, with Totti as the roaming centre-forward and a fierce midfield trio providing a solid, combative defensive screen behind him.

As cover, Marco Borriello and Mattia Destro lurk to offer an alternative to Totti’s ageing limbs, whilst Rodrigo Taddei, Michael Bradley and Marquinho provide depth to the midfield. In Vasilis Torosidis, Nicolas Burdisso, Alessio Romagnoli and the promising young centre-half Tin Jedjav, the French manager also has an array of defensive options to call upon.

It is a well-balanced, well-stocked squad that has a fine blend of youth and experience, primed for an assault on the top five as Garcia’s target remains. If they stay together, displaying the same effusive team-spirit that was on display as they celebrated in front of their fans in the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday afternoon, there should be no limit to their ambitions.

One significant aspect of Garcia’s first few months in his job in the Italian capital has been to repair the relations within a squad that has been fragmented and disjointed in recent years. “I think it’s the same in Italy as it is in France, during training sessions we also work on the psychological aspect” he spoke after the win over Lazio.

“The project and the playing style are more important than looking at the past, I like the enthusiasm that the team has now while they are playing. We’re working to make the fans happy and today it was magical.”

If Roma and Garcia continue the way they are, the Romanistas will have every right to be happy.