It’s that time of the year again – I’m rubbing my hands at the prospect. The final stages of the world’s greatest club competition; The Uefa Champions League.
This year’s competition is wide open and that brings a real sense of excitement to the neutrals amongst us. There’ve been a couple of standout club overs the past few years, with the likes of Barca, Real and Chelsea dominating the competition. But it really is anyone’s competition this season and here’s my analysis on each team and their chances.
The Big Boys
The greatest club side in the world, in the eyes of most footie fans. The brand of football they play at times is mesmerising. In fact, they are the one club in the last 5 years that have changed the way football is played. In Leo Messi, they have probably the greatest player to have ever played the game.
So how can anybody look beyond them? Tough I know, but if you are going to oppose them, as I will this year, it’s that for all their strengths (and they have a lot) they also have some major weaknesses. I have always thought their keeper to be suspect; a great shot stopper, does the hard things well, but makes the most basic of errors at times.
Defensively, I think they are vulnerable; with an ageing Charles Puyol, who’s picked up a number of injuries this season, I think it will affect them at the deep end. Puyol is the leader of that back four, the warrior that sets the tone for the rest of the defensive unit. And over the years their philosophy has been, ‘we’ll score more than you!’ and on the whole they have.
But I don’t expect them win the competition, they’ll come close but not be victorious, mainly because a lot of teams have seen how Inter Milan and Chelsea have approached 2 legged ties against the Catalans and they will adapt their game plans accordingly.
My Key Player : Puyol
At the start of the campaign, I really fancied Mourinho’s men. However, in just a few months something seems amiss at the Santiago Bernabeu. Whether it’s the unhappiness of Cristiano Ronaldo, the dropping of club legend Iker Casillas or just Mourinho’s unusual demeanour in press conferences. From out the outside looking, it appears he’ll be off at the end of the season.
And whilst high hopes were expected this season following their dominance in winning the league last season, there’s been little repeat of that this time around. They’re miles behind Barca in the league and with a squad still jam-packed with quality players, you’d expect them to focus on salvaging some form of pride.
They have a tough return fixture with Man Utd, a team you’d want to face later in the competition. But with tie finely poised following a 1-1 draw in Madrid, and even if Madrid manage to upset the Manchester side, I still think the political situation off the field, will rear its head and manage to upset the team’s quest for another European Cup.
My Key Player: Casillas
United set off in search of a fourth European Cup and with RVP hitting a rich vein of form, I wouldn’t put it beyond them.
The winning culture Sir Alex Ferguson has cultivated at Old Trafford means it’s what’s expected of this current team. The tactics employed in Madrid last week, were a further (if any was needed) confirmation that SAF, can pick a team to get the result required on the day.
With the exception of Rooney and RVP, I don’t think Man Utd have a team of superstars, like a Real or Barca, but what they do have is a great team ethic and a mental toughness within the squad. David De Gea is still a work in process too, I know he has been criticised heavily in the British media but his save in the opening moments in Madrid showed what an excellent shot stopper he is.
I do feel he is vulnerable from crosses and set pieces, but as a shot stopper he’s very good and this is echoed when I’ve spoken with United players about him – many of them praise his outstanding performances in training. We’ve seen flashes of that in the last month or so, and being fair to the lad it seems only a matter of time before his troubles are behind him and he becomes the mainstay of the Old Trafford goal. With a defence that’s ageing and a keeper developing, my gut is that Man Utd won’t have quite enough to win it despite their attacking prowess.
My Key Player: RVP
I feel as though this side is best equipped to topple Barcelona and win the Cup, they’re dominating the Bundesliga at the moment and the announcement of Pep Guardiola as successor to Juup Heynckes for next season, has definitely created a buzz around Der Bayern. They have the unique mix of talent and team spirit that’s synonymous with top sides like Chelsea and Man United when they’ve won the treble.
They also have a real fire in their bellies. Remember their agonising defeat to Chelsea last year on penalties? It’ll make them desperate for victory this term and you only have to look to their squad to recognise it might be their year. Players like Ribery, Robben and the €38 million Javi Martinez from Bilbao are a force to be reckoned with. Then you’ve got the determination of German internationals Lahm, Neuer, Schweinstiger and Thomas Muller all instigating cogs of the Bayern squad.
My money will be heading in direction of the Bavarians, especially as I see Arsenal posing little challenge for them in the next round.
My Key Player : Mandžukić
‘The Old Lady’ are already through to the next round after a 3-0 victory in Glasgow last week. I would’ve had Juve in my dark horses group below had it not been for Celtic giving them a number of problems – they were extremely fortunate to leave Celtic Park with such a commanding lead. And, whilst I think they are a very good team, I think at the latter end of this competition teams such as Bayern and Barca will have way too much for them to compete.
My Key Player: Pirlo
The Dark Horses
Having dominated a tough group containing Man City, Ajax and Real, the Dortmund team have propelled themselves into one of the dark horses for the competition, and rightly so.
They’re a great football team with some exciting young players, an incredible footballing story of a club that went from winning the title in ‘99 to almost bankrupt and back in less than 20 years. In Klopp, they have one of Europe’s top, up and coming coaches and I think after scoring two away goals in Donetsk, they’ve done enough to progress. It was interesting that these two teams were drawn together, as I felt they where both seriously underrated by most fans.
My Key Player: Reus
Before the winter break, anyone that watched the Ukrainian’s must’ve been impressed. A brand of football that was pleasing on the eye and effective in European competition. The loss of star player Willian to Anzhi, is a massive blow. He was at the hub of most of their offensive play. If they can find a way past Dortmund (which I doubt after conceding two goals at home) I think they go out in the next round. The early season promise has fizzled out.
My Key Player: Srna
The Gunners will forever be in the wake of The Invincible’s of 2003/04 unless they strengthen their squad. They have the foundations of a great squad, but that’s all they have at present, the foundations. I can’t just see Wenger’s boy having the mental toughness to get past a strong Bayern side.
My Key Player: Wilshere
They always have to be respected in European competition, but with much stronger sides around them, progressing to semi’s is pretty unlikely.
My Key Player: Martinez
The signing of Drogba and Sneijder makes it interesting from a spectators perspective. I also can’t think of too many teams looking forward to visiting those boisterous Turkish fans. They won’t have enough to win it though.
My Key Player: Sneijder
Having recently beat Dortmund 4-1 in Dortmund, Schalke are not a team to dismiss so easily as those above. Some top players in the Dutchmen Huntelaar and Afelley, but they won’t have anywhere near enough for the big boys.
My Key Player: Huntelaar
In Manuel Pellegrini, the Spanish side have a wily old fox as head coach. The surprise package of this season’s competition, a team who many expected to be out by now, mainly due to off field financial problems. But Malaga dominated a group with the likes of Zenit Saint Petersburg and AC Milan, coming through the groups stages undefeated. They now face a tricky fixture with Porto in the next round; I can see them winning that and maybe posing a potential banana skin for the big boys in the next round.
Ultimately, like many of the other underdogs, they just don’t have everything in place to lift European football’s greatest prize. With the news that Uefa have banned them from European competition for financial irregularities (from next season), it will be a shame to see this talented team break up.
My Key Player: Isco
After losing 2-1 to PSG in Northern Spain, I think Valencia’s chances all but ended there. And unfortunately, with off the field problems and changes to personnel at the club, a result in Paris is not unthinkable – but even if they do win, it’ll be the side all the big boys will want to face.
My Key Player: Soldado
The newest big spenders in town, a team I probably know most about playing in France. They have some great players, but if I’m honest I don’t think they have enough to beat the top European sides. Whilst they are top of the league here in France, their form has been a little shaky from time to time. I think they’ll dispose of Valencia, but will need the draw to be kind to them if they’re planning on going further. Maybe not this season, but if they keep investing at the rate that they have, it won’t be long until they are dining at Europe’s top table.
My Key Player: Ibrahimovic
Facing Barcelona is a tough game at the best of times, but it’s an even tougher fixture for the Serie A team whose off-field financial situation is interrupting them on field. It’s been a far from vintage season for Milan, and as ever, you should never rule them out. But with Barca’s dominance still very much apparent, I think it’s their game to lose.
My Key Player: El Shaarawy
No matter what the result was in Glasgow last week, it’s been a magnificent achievement by Neil Lennon and his men to get this far. Coming through a group with the likes of Barcelona, Spartak Moscow and Benfica, to then reach the knockout stages, must have been all any Celtic fan would have wished for.
They were unlucky last week after a great performance against Juventus, in which the Italian’s unsavourily man-handled many of Lennon’s squad to the ignorance of the officials. Celtic needed something to defend in Turin and at 3-0, they have nothing. This season’s journey is over for the Celts, but they can take huge positives from the campaign, beating the mighty Barcelona at home, amongst other things. They have set the bar higher now for the coming seasons. I am looking forward to some great nights at Celtic Park in the future.
My Key Player: Brown