This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.
A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:
Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen
I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.
Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.
It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.
I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.
As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.
There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter. But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.
To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.
The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.
AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.
One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.
And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.
But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.