Europe, Europe, Europe. Angry conversations. Hot tempers. Tortured metaphors. Empty podiums. The guy with the massive horn. All the protests. The court. The football.Champions League 2019/20
It’s mid- September, which means that the word Europe finally doesn’t just mean Brexit anymore, and we can look ahead to what promises to be a ferociously competitive season of high level football.
Last season we had arguably the two most dramatic semi-finals in the history of the tournament, with Liverpool’s stunning 4-0 comeback win against Barcelona and Tottenham’s equally mind-blowing turnaround against an Ajax side that stole footballing hearts all over the continent.
England had the four European finalists between them with Liverpool and Chelsea winning the Champions and Europa League respectively, and one must wonder if Pep Guardiola was asking himself if he’ll ever win the Champions League at City at the end of the campaign.
A near flawless campaign brought City a domestic treble but they experienced European heartbreak as Tottenham managed to knock them out on away goals, with Raheem Sterling’s goal ruled out in the last second after an incredible second leg that finished 4-3. That was another unsatisfactory exit for Guardiola, who will regret leaving out Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane in the first leg against Tottenham, concentrating on the physical challenge of Spurs, but over the two legs he was very unlucky not to see his side go through.
City have gotten everything else worked out. They’ve won 201 points in taking back to back Premier League titles, and three Cups in that time. They finished 18 points clear two seasons ago, and last year they managed to edge out the eventual winners of this competition, also beating them on aggregate in their two league campaigns.
The big issue is their defence. They must cope without Aymeric Laptorte and now John Stones for at least a month, and as Norwich showed at the weekend, opposition players can target Nicolas Otamendi. But, get through the group stages – and City are long odds on to take care of Shakhtar, Atalanta and Dinamo Zagreb – and the January transfer window will offer a chance to strengthen the backline if injuries are still an issue.
Going forward, few teams can match them. City have scored 16 goals already in this campaign, and leading the line will be Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, both of whom are already scoring for fun. Aguero has found the net in his last six Premier League games and Sterling has scored in six of his last seven games for England and Manchester City; The two are supplemented by Gabriel Jesus, who has taken his chances with aplomb whenever he’s had them.
In midfield you have the two Silvas, Bernardo and David, with Rodri to add steel and a back to form Kevin de Bruyne to go for the killer passes, and Ederson is a world class goalkeeper to boot.
The worry is that they dominate a game in the knockouts and then get sucker punched, like Spurs did to them last season, but all the evidence points to them finally breaking the curse and there’ll be no greater priority this season.
Liverpool made it a magical six in Madrid last season and must be rated big players again. Gone are the days when retaining the competition was a thing of fantasy and whilst a 4-0 comeback against Barcelona feels like a once in a lifetime comeback, they were unlucky to lose the first leg 3-0 there and on their way to the title they did also swipe aside Bayern Munich in Germany.
Their away form is a worry – they lost all three of their away games last season in the group – but that didn’t stop them from winning the title last season and Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino is a deadly frontline whilst in behind of flying-fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson go forward from the excellent Virgil Van Dijk. In midfield Fabinho and James Milner keep things ticking over brilliantly, and Liverpool balanced a league campaign that went right to the last second with their European run.
Of the rest, Tottenham did brilliantly to reach the final last season and had a good transfer window, so did make some appeal at the prices although a smaller squad than others is a slight worry. They make far more appeal than Chelsea, who have a talented squad but one that has conceded 11 goals already in the Premier League with Frank Lampard making his debut at this level.
Of the Spanish sides, Barcelona have had an excellent transfer window to try and reverse the comebacks of the last two seasons against Roma and Liverpool, with Antoine Greizemann arriving in the forward line and Frenkie De Jong now in midfield. Ernesto Valverde’s methods have been questioned a lot at the Camp Nou, but he gets the best out of Lionel Messi, who scored 48 goals last season. Don’t forget there’s Ousmane Dembele and classy Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic to create chances, or that Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet make for a solid pairing whilst Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of Europe’s best goalkeepers.
Real Madrid ought to get through their group easily with PSG being the only serious rivals, and the core of the side (Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema) that won four Champions League titles in five years still remains. Eden Hazard is an excellent addition, and perhaps by now they’ve adjusted to Ronaldo not being there.
Zidane should be a better fit than Santiago Solari was last season, and they are a side of interest, although perhaps it might be best to wait before pulling the trigger.
Atletico Madrid have changed half their team. Out goes Griezmann, the defenders Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, and Rodri too, and in comes Joao Felix, Kieran Trippier, Mario Hermoso, Hector Herrera and Marcos Llorente. Don’t forget that Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata are still there, and they won their first three games in La Liga before a 2-0 defeat at Sociedad when two goals in three minutes sucker punched them.
They’re better than that, however, and still take an awful lot of passing with Jan Oblak in goal – they have two clean sheets in the bag already and Jose Gimenez is one of the continent’s outstanding centre-backs.
Juventus and Napoli look to be the outstanding contenders from Italy, the two finishing well clear of Inter, whilst Atlanta finished 21 points behind the winners in last season’s Serie A.
Maurizio Sarri has arrived after Massimo Allegri couldn’t quite crack the code in Europe. Sarri did very well to get Chelsea back into the competition and also win the Europa League last year, and he has plenty of quality to go to war with. Bringing Aaron Ramsey from Arsenal and then Adrien Rabiot from PSG before the big purchase of Matthis de Ligt, made for a fantastic transfer window, and he should cover the absence of Giorgio Chiellini well.
Add this to a familiar cast of names including Christiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Douglas Costa, Miralem and Pjanic going forward, before other defensive names Alex Sandro, Danilo and Wojciech Szczęsny, who has been excellent in goal for a long time, and you have a side more than capable of going all the way. The issue? If Massimo Allegri couldn’t get them over the line, then will Maurizio Sarri in his first season at the club?
Bayern Munich had a solid transfer window in which they brought Hernandez, Benjamin Pavard, Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic, but there’s still questions for some over Niko Kovac and with Robben and Ribery out there’s a huge amount riding on Coutinhho’s shoulders to supply the brilliant Robert Lewandowski.
Frankly more interesting at the prices are Borussia Dortmund, who had arguably as good a window as Bayern did, if not better. Nico Schulz is a significant upgrade at left-back and Mats Hummels return gives them a top class defender. Thorgan is the lesser known Hazard but ten goals and ten assists at Mochengladbach was a fine season and he adds something going forward along with Julian Brandt. Upfront, we know all about Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Paco Alacer, who scored 18 goals off the bench in the Bundesliga last season but who is already flying along. There’s plenty to like about them going forward and they’re better equipped than most for counter attacking on the road.
Red Bull Leipzig are interesting. The superb Timo Werner leads their charge and Juan Candido, Hannes Wolf, Christopher Nkunku and Ademola Lookman have all joined a side that impressed for large parts of the Bundesliga campaign last season and they’ve got a decent draw too with Benfica, Lyon and Zenit.
3 pts Manchester City (10/3 general)
1 pt each/way Borussia Dortmund (40/1 Unibet, 33/1 general)
Groups: Very little value when Groups A, B, D and E are regarded as foregone conclusions, with even the second favourites to qualify 9-2 on or shorter, and none of the other groups gave real value.