Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Champions League Preview – have Real bought the tournament? Or will English clubs reign supreme again?

The UEFA Champions League returns to our screens this evening, with thirty-two teams fighting for the chance to take home European football’s premier trophy. Whilst all four British qualifiers reached the quarter-finals last year, with only Liverpool missing out on a place in the semis after defeat by Chelsea, this year their dominance could be slightly curtailed following the extravagant spending by La Liga runners-up Real Madrid. The acquisitions of Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Raúl Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa have certainly transformed Madrid’s chances both domestically and on the European stage. Barcelona have also been busy, despite losing Samuel Eto’o to Barcelona, bringing in Zlatan Ibrahimović, Dymtro Chygrynskiy and Maxwell, improving last year’s treble winning squad. Whereas other top European sides have chosen to strengthen, it seems that the English sides have failed to do so. Manchester United are nowhere near as powerful a force as last season, having lost Ronaldo and Tévez, whilst Arsenal have been forced to sell both Adebayor and Touré. Quarter-finalists Liverpool have lost Xabi Alonso, replacing him with the currently injured Alberto Aquilani, whilst Chelsea have been subjected to a transfer ban until January 2010.

In terms of the group stages it should be fairly simple to foresee which teams will emerge, although there may still be a shock or two. Group A sees Bundesliga runners-up Bayern Munich pitted against Maccabi Haifa, the first Israeli team to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, this evening. The rest of the group is made up of former Italian champions Juventus and French title winners Bordeaux. Although Maccabi Haifa may pose a threat to the their opponents at home, it is almost certain that either Bayern or Juventus will be qualifying for the knock-out stage, with Bordeaux likely to enter the last 32 of the Europa League, formerly known as the UEFA Cup. Yet on paper this group is one of the toughest, especially given Bordeaux’s recent renaissance under Laurent Blanc. Manchester United have been drawn in Group B alongside Russian outfit CSKA Moscow, Turkcell Süper Lig winners Beşiktaş and German champions VFL Wolfsburg. Whilst Manchester United would expect to emerge with ease from this group, Wolfsburg’s strike partnership of Edin Džeko and Grafite, retained despite significant interest throughout Europe, could see them qualify ahead of CSKA. However, away trips to Moscow and Istanbul could provide interesting tests for both United and Wolfsburg.

Group C will no doubt be one that many people, both in Europe and worldwide, will be watching closely, in order to see whether or not Real Madrid are able to turn a collection of expensive superstars into a cohesive, balanced team. Although even if Real’s ‘galacticos’ fail to shine in the early stages they should still have the measure of the group, with AC Milan the only other team likely to pose a significant threat. Marseille look odds-on favourites for third spot, and therefore the consolation prize of a place in the newly-formed Europa League. Group D sees Chelsea’s pursuit of the so-far elusive Champions League trophy, with 2004 winners FC Porto and Atlético Madrid likely to fight it out for second place. Although following a summer in which Porto received more than £70 million from transfers they have used just over £20 million of this to complete their squad, and lost their talismanic goal-scorer Lisandro Lopez. Therefore despite their defensive frailties it appears likely that the electrifying attack of Agüero, Forlán, Maxi Rodríguez and Simão will be enough to see Atlético Madrid through. Group E features five-time European champions Liverpool, who will be hoping to make a return to form in this year’s competition, having failed to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2006 last year in their quarter-final defeat to Chelsea. Whether or not Liverpool’s squad will prove capable enough against in the latter stages remains to be seen, yet they should have sufficient quality to see off the challenge of Lyon, Fiorentina and the first Hungarian side to qualify for the Champions League group stages in fourteen years, Debrecen. It may well prove an interesting battle between Fiorentina and Lyon, as whilst the French outfit would be the more likely to take second place, the loss of Karim Benzema will undoubtedly hurt them.

In what is probably the most interesting group of this year’s tournament, Barcelona and Inter Milan will go head-to-head for the coveted first place which would allow either team a more favourable draw for the first knock-out round. As we have already seen Barcelona have spent moderately to improve their squad, mostly on defensive options, whilst Inter Milan have made a number of clever signings over the summer. Inter’s ability to score goals, especially in crucial games, has increased no end with the signing of Samuel Eto’o, in my opinion one of the best strikers in the world. Barcelona’s frankly baffling decision to swap a player with a goal-per-game ratio of more than one in every two for the extremely skilful, show-boating, big-game bottler Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will be the main talking point. It will certainly be interesting to see which player is able to score more goals in the knock-out stages, as there is very little chance of Dynamo Kiev providing any significant threat, much less Russian newcomers Rubin Kazan, despite their success in winning the Russian league. Unfortunately for Rangers, groups G and H appear to be just as straight-forward and predictable. Although Sevilla are odds-on favourites to claim first place in Group G, there is a chance that VFB Stuttgart could continue the recent German tradition and perform disastrously in the group stages, thereby allowing Rangers to go through in second place. However it appears the Europa League is the most likely destination for the Scottish champions, with first-time Romanian qualifiers Unirea Urziceni almost certain to finish last. Finally Group H is, at least on paper, the easiest draw of all; Arsenal will have the chance to pit their youngsters against the combined talents of Olympiacos, Standard Liege and AZ Alkmaar, in what should prove to be a mostly uneventful sequence of games. Olympiacos, thanks to their experience of the Champions League are probably the most likely to follow Arsenal through.

In terms of the knock-out stages it is impossible pass comment on what will happen until the draw is made on December 19th. However, predicting the quarter and semi-final participants should be slightly easier. Obviously depending on the draw, and the possibility of the English sides being pitched against each other, it would be reasonable to suggest that all four sides should make the quarter-finals at least. In terms of the other four sides, Spanish giants Barcelona and big-spending Real Madrid will almost certainly take part, as well as dark-horses Inter Milan and anyone from Bayern Munich, Juventus and AC Milan. Other potential candidates are Atlético Madrid, Porto, Lyon, Fiorentina and Sevilla, who could stand to benefit from any failure by English sides, if it were to occur. Any semi-final predictions must be made on the premise that the first-round and quarter-final draws are favourable for the participants, yet based simply on the quality of players available, there is a strong possibility that the four sides contesting the semi-finals will be Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea. Of these Chelsea, along with Real Madrid look to be favourites, on the premise that Real’s signings are able to gel sufficiently in time and Chelsea don’t suffer inordinately from their transfer ban. However Barcelona have a similar chance of reaching the final for a second year, assuming Ibrahimović can score the crucial goals Eto’o was able to. Current odds appear to support this conclusion, with Barcelona favourites at 4/1, Real Madrid 9/2 and Chelsea 6/1. Whilst Inter Milan are behind both Manchester United and Arsenal, they are a good outside bet at 12/1 if Mourinho can enable his players to face up to the threat posed by the English sides.

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