To the joy and sheer relief of many, the club football season has rolled back into gear, slowly but surely, and after the interruption of the international break we now have Europe’s greatest prize in the Champions League – the pinnacle of the club game.
Recent finals have often seen one country dominate with the balance of power understandably shifting in a competition that has the tightest of margins but Spain look to have three of the world’s best teams in their presence and this can be the year that Barcelona rise to the top once again.
Since the departure of Pep Guardiola Barcelona have not been the force that swept all aside in a three year period when they set and broke records but for the first time since then they look to have set their house in order and are ready to seriously challenge once again.
Their last two managers – Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino – have not proven to be success stories in Europe with Barcelona lacking moments of inspiration to break down obdurate sides on the road or indeed to cope with the intensity that Atleitco Madrid bought to their last 16 tie, but there are mitigating circumstances with all not well behind the scenes with the sadly departed Vilanova seriously unwell and Martino’s tactics totally exposing the team’s weakness; Defending against pace.
While Luis Enrique is just as unproven he comes without any of the baggage following a fantastic campaign at Celta Vigo and with Barcelona taking advantage of an admittedly farcical loophole before their transfer ban for two windows came into effect a squad that was on the wane has been given some sorely needed changes and impetus.
All of the headlines came with Luis Suarez, and for good season. The Uruguayan’s 31 goals were nearly a third of Liverpool’s 102 tally last year while he single headedly knocked England out of the World Cup before sinking his teeth into Giorchio Chilleni. While Barcelona do not lack for forwards, Suarez’s persistence and movement should prove vital in helping to break down the stubborn opposing defences that have so often faced Barcelona in the latter stages of the competition while his versatility should also prove to be a huge help if he can keep himself fit and out of trouble.
Neymar and Messi didn’t live upto the expectations set of them last season even though Messi scored 28 times in 31 La Liga games but Neymar should improve plenty for a debut season in Europe and the three offer a wide range of movement, clinclity and pace that Barcelona thrive upon.
It is at the back where the worry is but Carlos Puyol’s retirement has allowed for a freshening up in defence and while Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermalen may not be many people’s idea of Champions League winning centrebacks, they are likely to prove far more ideal partners for Gerard Pique than the ageing Puyol and if Javier Mascherano plays in midfield as he did for Argentina then Enrique’s men should have a far more solid shape to them than last year.
In midfield Xavi may be on the wane but Ivan Ratktic has looked like his own man in a handful of appearances and shone in the Europa League, and with Andres Iniesta still capable of magic Barcelona have a midfield that is still capable of dominating games with Sergio Busquets at the base; The loss of Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea is helped by Raktic’s much better defensive qualities and fine work ethic while new goalkeepers Ter Stergen and Claudio Bravo should be well upto the biggest nights and they look to have a fine chance of returning to the top this season; The year is young but in their three La Liga wins they have looked promising, composed, solid and should only improve.
La Decima had consumed Real Madrid since landing the title in 2003 but they ended the curse last year after nearly a billion pounds spent with the second Gaclticos era and Carlo Ancelotti combining for a success that saw with it a remarkable 41 goals from start to finish, numerically spearheaded by the remarkable Cristiano Ronaldo – his 17 goals a tally we’re unlikely to see bettered in a long time. However equally as crucial to that success was the sensational Angel Di Maria along with Xabi Alonso despite his suspension for the final and the galacticos policy has seen both exit in the summer. Replacements James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos are fine players but neither is filling the role their predecessor fulfilled so well and on the handful of occasions that we’ve seen of them this season they have sorely missed both influences. There’s no telling about how their firepower can turn any game but without those two things will be much harder this year and no side is yet to retain the title since 1990 so at the prices they can be taken on.
Bayer’s superb transfer dealings make them hard to evaluate. Roma’s hot centreback Mehdi Benatia is a fanrastic addition that should go a long way to shirting up a defence that has proven vulnerable at times under Pep Guaridola while striker Robert Lewandowski – yet another capture from Borussia Dortmund – gives a sharp edge to the possession football Bayern are so well known for. Guardiola has also come out well on top in a swap deal for Toni Kroos with Xabi Alonso just the kind of deep lying playmaker that’s needed for his system to work.
There are plenty of usual suspects – a success for them would be following on with a similar vein with Champions League contingents following up an World Cup win (Italy 06/Milan 07, Spain 10’/Barcelona 11’) with core members also present and Thomas Muller, Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Manuel Neuer are just 4 of a whole host of world class names that give them such power but they are by no means invincible and struggled frequently before being dismantled by Real Madrid on the counter and at the set piece last year in the semi final. They are a better unit this time around but those same questions are still a worry.
This is a competition of such fine margins and had last season’s runners up, Atletico Madrid, put a man on the post in the final last year then it’s likely that we’d be talking about one of the most remarkable doubles in football history. I was on Atletico for this competition last year – but as it ended up they gave as good as they got against Real and came within seconds of glory.
The betting has them written off as a one-season wonder with Chelsea having taken Diego Costa, Flipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois but they have signed at least as well in a bid to replace those three. Mario Mandzukic comes from Bayern with a wealth of top level experience and solid goal scoring tallies of 15 and 18 in the last two seasons and while not an exact replacement for the now Chelsea striker Costa, he provides the same sort of physical edge and a fine aerial presence that should mean little transitioning.
The signings of Antoine Greizemann from Real Madrid and Alessandro Cerci from Torino gives Madrid a new dimension out wide and adds tremendous pace – and two other goalscorers – to share the burden left by Costa.
In midfield Raul Garcia, Tiago, Gabi, Koke and Arda Turan all remain while the centreback pairing of Godin and Miranda is one of Europe’s most solid on last season’s evidence with Simeone still able to call upon Juanfran on the right.
Courtois’s absence is a big blow but Miguel Moya has made a fantastic start to the season and Jan Oblak is full of promise, while Guilherme Siqueira has slotted in for Filipe Luis and will be provided with good competition by Cristian Ansaldi; Atletico have already played Real Madrid three times and gone unbeaten, winning the Supercopa and landing their third game at the Bernabeu in four matches; They look big at 25/1 with Hills.
Next best to consider are Chelsea, for whom anything less than the semi finals would be a disappointment. Semi final losers to Atletico last year, Jose Mournhio has improved his squad notable with some notable additions and in Diego Costa has a striker worthy of leading his line while the addition of Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona has added extra creativity to a side that already boasted one of Europe’s premier midfields.
The presence of Nemanja Matic – ineligible last year – is sure to be a huge presence in the knockout stages with Flipe Luis now allowing Cezar Azpilcuteta to play on his correct side; This is adding to a side that already boasted Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle, Willian, and Oscar going forward and their centreback pairing of Gary Cahill and John Terry is boosted by the return of Thibaut Courtois. Under the master of European football in Jose Morunhio, who knows just how to navigate this competition and has a fine record second time out with his club sides; Just ask Inter and Porto fans. They look to have a very strong chance of going close at 7/1 but they are also maybe a better bet to go the furthest out of the English sides, a market they should dominate.
Manchester City are gaining much needed experience with every season and improving their squad with each transfer window, but there is still a lot of improvement to be made judged on their defeat to Barcelona in the last 16 and there is the small issue of a group with Bayern Munich – once again – and also Roma to compete with, and progress is not guaranteed for any of the three and there is also the danger of getting a poor last 16 tie once again. Eliaquim Mangala is a fine centreback even if a horrendously expensive one and Bacary Sagna also adds experience, but they are a watching brief until the end of the group stages.
Arsenal’s FA Cup success should prove to be a huge mental fillip for them and they are beginning to sign like a club of their own stature should in the transfer window, but they failed to build properly on a good start to the window and look woefully short in defence going into the season.
Mathieu Debuchy is out for three months after a fine start to the season while a failure to replace Thomas Vermalen after his departure leaves just three centrebacks to share duties for four competitions with one of them being 19 year old Calum Chambers – a fine young talent but one with no knockout experience of the Champions League. Upfront Danny Welbeck is a good short-term replacement for the injured Oliver Giroud but he is not one of Europe’s elite, while it remains to be seen if Mezut Ozil will be moved into the position he plays best (the #10) or regain his form. They boast a fine amount of midfield depth, but the lack of a defensive midfielder to cover with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamni having been exposed makes them unappealing. They should get through an easier group than last year but facing Europe’s giants has been a problem for them – they’ve gone out at the last 16 for the last four years.
Liverpool’s return to the big time has been a long time coming but it was deserved with fantastic football and the way that Brendan Rodgers has restructured his side after the loss of Luis Suarez provides reassurance that Liverpool will cope with the return to European competition. The addition of Mario Balotelli to the frontline is a smart move to cover for Daniel Sturridge’s injury but more important adjustments have been made in defence with Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno looking to be very smart fullback captures and Dejan Lovren a vital addition to a back four that was Liverpool’s Achilles heel last season.
Raheem Sterling goes from strength to strength and Jordan Henderson and Phillippe Coutinhio are worthy of their chance on this stage to add to a whole host of fine additions and they should make it through a group with Basel and Ludogrets accompanying a pair of ties against Real Madrid; They have the potential to give any side a game but their defence is a worry in the knockout stages.
Paris St Germain have gone close to the semi finals twice in the last two years, and they should have edged out Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season, so will have their backers at 16/1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edison Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, make for a frightening forward going trip while Marco Veratti can star in behind with Lucas Moura, but a transfer window which resulted only in the capture of Serge Aurier from Toulouse and the extraordinary purchase of David Luis for an amazing sum of money. FFP made the capture of Angel Di Maria – a player who could have been the difference – impossible and while there’s Lucas Moura and Blaise Matuidi in the middle of the park too, others make just about more appeal.
Juventus have been a fancy of mine for the last two years but they disappointed badly in Europe last year after going down to Bayern Munich two seasons ago, despite dominating in Italy. The change in manager from Antonio Conte to Max Allegri may raise doubts for some but maybe the former Milan born coach brings more tactical versatility and plenty of experience behind him from four years with Milan. Many have Juventus’s hopes resting on how he can adapt the club to European football but despite some smart signings over the summer they look to have a lot to prove on the biggest stage still.
Instead from the outsiders, consider Borussia Dortmund closely to go close to another final. Jurgen Klopp has lost one of his main stars again in Robert Lewandowski but has signed superbly to accommodate his departure with Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos upfront, both of whom are capable of testing even the best defences, with Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang also present and capable of leading the line.
Last year they were second best to Real Madrid but they were injury ravaged going into the game – Neven Subotic and Marchel Schmelzer were absent for the first leg along with Ilkay Gundogan, Sven Bender, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski for the first leg that they lost 3-0 but they have made several smart additions in the summer, which should alleviate the chances of such a crisis crippling them once again.
In midfield the returns of Shinji Kagawa – who has already starred in a 3-1 win over Freiburg – and Nuri Sahin provide essential cover in the midfield ranks with Marco Reus set to return for the knockouts – and at the back Mathias Ginter looks to be a fine foil for Mats Hummels while we should see more of the extremely Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Dortmund have a fine record in knockout football – they reached the German Cup final last season only to be beaten by Bayern in extra time and won it two seasons ago, while they retain much of the squad that has was runner up to Bayern two seasons ago and they can easily outrun their price once again.
We are now with the real big outsiders and easily the most appealing at triple figures is Roma. Rudi Garcia’s side have been outside of Europe for two seasons but the arrival of the Frenchman has transformed a side languishing in seventh to clear best of the rest in Italy – they finished 11 points clear of Napoli at the end of last season with a points total that would have won 4 of the previous 5 Championships.
Their dynamic football should see a swift transition to the European stage, and while the sale of Mehdi Benatia to Bayern is a blow for them, they have signed very well to compensate and boast a deep squad for what is the Group of Death and another title challenge.
Miralem Pjanic, Alessandro Florenzi, and Daniele De Rossi are all players capable of mixing it with the lite and Juna Itrube’s signing is a gamble worth taking on all evidence. Francesco Totti is long in the tooth but not everything goes through him with Matia Destro and Gervinho now excelling upfront and Kostas Manolas and Davide Astori are two smart captures – even if not on the level of Ashley Cole, let go by Chelsa but still with a huge amount to offer.
Getting through a group with Bayern and City is a massive challenge but all the teams look capable of dropping points and there is nothing for Garcia’s men to fear – make it through and they will be far shorter than 100/1 shots.
Porto are expected to improve after a poor domestic campaign last year resulted in the firing of two managers and a new transfer spree to bring in plenty of young fresh faces under Julen Lopetegui. The likes of Christian Tello, Oliver Torres and Adrian Lopes should all help them in an open group, but they have not been able to break the elite of Europe since the days of Jose Mourhinhio and overall despite retaining Jackson Martinez, the verdict is that they lack the quality. Domestic rivals Benfica have started well but suffered far too many transfer losses to be considered.
Athletic Bilbao, will be a nightmare to deal with at the ferociously intimidating San Mames. In the last year they have lost just twice at home (once to Atletico Madrid on the way to the Champions League final) beating Real Madrid and holding Barcelona, and their fierce pressing style is likely to bring them many rewards, but against the biggest and best from the quarter finals onwards and lack of European experience could be their undoing away from home.
Bayer Leverkusen are an exciting side expected to top their group, but their defence is too much of a liability and they were exposed last season at the last 16. Zenit look to be finding form under Andre Villas Boas, but they were exposed by an injury ravaged Dortmund and their new singings may not do the trick in terms of a sustained challenge.
4 pts Barcelona (6/1 general)
1 pt each/way Atletico Madrid (25/1 Coral, Hills)
1 pt each/way Borussia Dortmund (28/1 Coral)