The only competition hotter than the Qatar World Cup is back this week and so far the Champions League has seen Europe’s elite playing everywhere from Kazakhstan to Manchester. I’ll take a look at the best bets for winning the competition.
Bayern are, to put it alliteratively, Bavarian Bundesliga behemoths and a dominant force in German and European football and arguably the team to beat in this seasons Champions League. At home they seem unstoppable, scoring a frightening 26 goals in their last 5 home matches in the competition.
With Pep Guardiola at the helm, who is more of a perfectionist than Andrea Pirlo’s beard stylist, Bayern strive for comprehensive victories constantly which is a much-needed trait for teams wanting to win the UCL.
As domestic success is essentially obligatory for a Bayern manager, the pressure is really on Guardiola to deliver in the Champions League and they certainly have the squad for it.
Bayern have frightening depth in their squad and could even field two different starting XIs and probably do rather well with both. Arjen Robben returned from injury in the last round of group fixtures and slotted straight back in to the Guardiola system against Arsenal, scoring just 38 seconds after coming off the bench.
Thiago Alcântara seems to drift to the left when Bayern are in possession, which leaves David Alaba open to float around in the No10 role when what he wants to and it has paid off with Alaba scoring a cracker against Arsenal and again in their last game against Schalke.
With such a powerful squad it’s difficult to look past them as the eventual winners. However, complacency seems to be the biggest threat to their challenge. With a 0-0 draw against Frankfurt and a 2-0 loss at Arsenal in October, Bayern’s immortal status seems to have been slightly shaken and the big teams in the UCL will surely have strategies to frustrate the German champions. Let us not forget that they were knocked out by Barcelona last year and Real Madrid the year before so the Spanish clubs certainly have a knack for ruining the German club’s party.
My prediction: Runners up
No club has ever retained the Champions League trophy in the competition’s current format and Barcelona have a very real shot at being the first. Even though they have been without Messi for much of this campaign they’re top of the pile in Group E and look fairly certain to qualify for the last 16 for the 12th consecutive season.
Neymar and Luis Suarez have formed a golden partnership of skill and guile that has seen them bag five goals and four assists between them in the Champions League. Neymar has really matured as a player and is far less selfish than his younger self, which really helps Suarez sink his teeth into teams. If anything, Messi’s absence has really cleaned up the Brazilian’s act and he has stepped up as a leader and an influential creative force.
The thing to consider here is that if Barca can play this well without Messi then how much better will they be when he returns? When Messi is back and the most exciting trio since Destiny’s Child is reunited there’s no telling what they can accomplish. Could the sextuple be gracing the Camp Nou?
My prediction: Winners
You can never rule Real Madrid out because of the sheer class their squad possesses but this year they simply look off the pace (despite Bale reportedly being faster than Usain Bolt). It was a miracle that they beat PSG in perhaps their biggest group stage match and when they’ve been without Benzema, James and Bale they look as pale as their shirts. They can take heart from the fact that despite some poor performances they have come away with wins but at this sort of level they need their A-game.
The positive is that when key players return, Madrid’s swagger could too and they could start scoring freely again. The fact that they’ve maintained victories despite looking worse than Jack Grealish’s hair is the big thing here, points are everything in the group stages, the real football is played in the knockout rounds.
The problem is, will they decide to turn up? The recent Clasico result worryingly suggests that they won’t.
Arguably the most worrying thing for Real Madrid however is Rafa ‘Fat Spanish Waiter’ Benitez’s defensive style, which is unsettling fans and surely can’t win the Champions League unless they’re looking to emulate Chelsea. Conceding 63% possession at home to PSG is simply not the Galactico way. Surely it’s not long before Rafa is Chelsea manager again to clean up another Mourinho mess.
My prediction: Semi-final knockout
Paris St Germain
Who knows what it is about PSG but season after season they just don’t look like they’ll win the Champions League. This certainly isn’t for a lack of trying and the addition of Angel di Maria does nothing to mask the Parisians’ intent to force themselves into Europe’s elite. Last season they knocked out Chelsea but it’s clubs like Bayern and Real Madrid that they need to start beating.
That said, they really should have beaten Madrid in their group stage meeting and really they were desperately unlucky to lose after seeing Rabiot hit the post and Di Maria hit the bar. The fans must have been going in-Seine (see what I did there?). They have a talented squad; comprehensive wins against Shakhtar and Malmo have shown that this.
One thing’s for certain; Jay-Z and Kanye’s friends in Paris certainly haven’t been going gorillas over Cavani’s performances in the Champions League and he seems to embody PSG’s problem in Europe; lack of experience. Just as Cavani seems to get lost in big games, so too do PSG seem to lose their arrogance that has seen them dominate the French Ligue 1.
My prediction: Quarter-final knockout
After years of playing second fiddle to their Manchester neighbors, City have been a big force in recent times and look the most promising of the English clubs to go far in the Champions League this season. They have secured their last 16 place for the third time under Manuel Pellegrini and maybe this year they’ll make it further than the first round of the knockout phase.
Pellegrini has stuck to the ‘we only play one way’ philosophy for a long time but, as we saw in the Manchester derby this season, his tactics in big games seem to have been modified slightly with Yaya Touré, Fernando and his slightly more exotically named friend Fernandinho and all starting in the City midfield in the games that Pellegrini considers the most important.
Playing this trio together brings a balance to City’s team that the City manager needs in the crucial games but with the in-form £55 million Belgian Kevin De Bruyne only being a late sub in the mid-week match it’s hard to see where he will fit in when David Silva returns. A happy problem for Pellegrini to have though.
The key to City’s success in the UCL will be keeping Sergio Aguero and David Silva fit as with these two they look like a very dangerous side and if their form is good going into April then they have a decent shot. Perhaps the only thing more frightening than seeing Sergio Aguero running at your defence is the mass of City fans holding pieces of paper saying ‘BOO’.
My Prediction: Semi-final knockout
English clubs and honourable mentions:
Manchester United have potential to be somewhat of a dark horse in the UCL if Van Gaal ever lets Martial play down the middle. The Dutchman’s ethos of possession football lends itself to the Champions League but surely Martial is the player who can guide United to European success; his desire to take on players is just what United need on the European stage.
Chelsea look a shadow of their former selves in the Premier League this season and it’s hard to see the Blues getting far in the Champions League, even if they make it out of their group.
Arsenal are having a nightmare in their group, sitting bottom after four games. The good news for Arsenal is that this means they’re fourth! In fairness they’re doing excellently if their aim is to win the Europa League. Even if by some miracle they do make it out of the group they, like Chelsea, probably won’t make it far.
Atletico Madrid are a difficult one. Looking past the fact that I think Antoine Griezmann is the best player in the world, they look fairly average this season and it’s difficult to see where their goals will come from. Second in a group they should really be top of and results like a 0-0 draw with Astana in the heart of Central Asia kind of sums them up. I’m not sure how well they’re going to fare against bigger opponents.
Juventus have had a fall from grace that rivals Chelsea’s this season and they’ve been struggling. Recently they look like they have the potential to turn it around and last year’s competition proved that they can perform on the European stage. However they’ve lost some key players in Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez and I don’t think they’re going to cut it this season.
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