This is it. This is the competition that all teams want to be in and all players want to play in. This is the competition that millions of children all over the world fantasise about, the competition that perhaps grabs one’s attention like no other. The Champions League starts in earnest this week, as the group stage of the competition begins.
Last year’s competition was one of the best in living memory, with Bayern Munich finally triumphing over their German rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final at Wembley. This year promises to be an even more intriguing contest than last year, with plenty of the big teams strengthening considerably.
One of the things that makes the Champions League such a brilliant competition is that it’s notoriously difficult to predict a winner. Last year, Real Madrid and Barcelona both made the semifinals leading pundits all over the globe to predict an El Classico final, before Bayern and Dortmund unceremoniously dumped both Spanish giants out of the competition. With that in mind, only a brave or foolish man would decide to make predictions on this year’s competition; and yet here I am – I’ll leave you to decide which category I fall into.
Here are my top four teams to watch out for in this year’s competition:
Surprise, surprise, I think Barcelona are likely to progress far in the Champions League this year. The Catalan side were everyone’s favourites to lift the trophy yet again last season before they were crushed by Munich in the semis, and the chances are that they’ll be there or thereabouts again this time around. The Nou Camp residents have been strengthened considerably this summer with the arrival of the Brazilian wonderkid Neymar, and if the early signs are anything to go by, they’re going to be the team to beat in La Liga this season. Barca have won four out of four so far, with Lionel Messi contributing six goals, and it looks very much as if it will be business as usual for the world’s finest exponents of tiki-taka.
They’re not exactly in the world’s easiest group though, with Milan, Ajax and Celtic all residing in Group H alongside the Spanish champions. You’d fancy Barca to be able to deal with all of those teams, but football fans will know that on their day, all three of those sides are capable of causing an upset.
First up: Ajax (H)
Real Madrid received a welcome boost this week, as talisman Cristiano Ronaldo agreed to sign on the dotted line for a further three years. This, added to the fact that Gareth Bale is now in the white of Madrid means that Los Merengues have as good a chance as any to win the Champions League this year. If we add the fact that they have players like Isco, Benzema, Illarramendi…(the list goes on), then that should make them pretty much dead certs for the latter stages of the competition.
However, as history has told us, having some of the best players in the world is not always a recipe for success, and Madrid will have to work hard to progress in the competition. Thankfully for Los Blancos they have a manager who knows how to win in Europe – Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan side lifted this trophy twice while he managed there, and the pragmatic Italian is the perfect man to steady a ship weighed down with a whole heap of egos. His work at Chelsea was vastly underrated, and has taken the job at Madrid on the back of a French title with Paris Saint-Germain. Ancelotti makes his teams difficult to beat, and this will be crucial with Madrid in a group containing Juventus, Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen – all three current holders of their domestic league.
First up: FC Copenhagen (H)
No list of potential Champions League winners would be complete without the current champions, and Bayern Munich will be at least as tough this year as they were last time. Only good things have happened to the German champions since they lifted the trophy in May, with Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola taking over as coach and promptly signing exciting young midfielder Thiago Alacantara.
The Bavarians stormed to the Bundesliga title last season as well as winning the Champions League in comfortable fashion; demolishing Barcelona in a 7-0 aggregate win along the way. The might of the Germans should not be underestimated, and with Guardiola on board, Munich’s ability to take teams apart has almost certainly just increased. Things are also looking pretty rosy for them on a domestic front, with a home win over Hannover at the weekend stretching their unbeaten streak to 30 league games.
On paper at least, Bayern also have one of the easiest groups in the competition. Their main competition is likely to come in the form of oil-rich English club Manchester City; but with the Citizens proving to be consistently underwhelming in Europe, it seems unlikely that the Manchester club will prove too much of a stumbling block for the European champions. CSKA Moscow and FC Plzen make up the rest of Group D, and it would seem churlish to expect anyone other than Bayern Munich to top the group.
First up: CSKA Moscow (H)
The selection of the fourth team in contention is pretty difficult, as realistically I expect the winner of the competition to be Barca, Bayern or Real. Having said that, there are a few sides that could cause those teams some problems, and Chelsea are one of those sides.
Like a match made in heaven, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho are back together. Defying the old adage of never going back, Mourinho is back in West London with some unfinished business. The Portuguese Special One never won Europe’s premier cup competition whilst at the Chelsea helm, and winning the Champions League with an English club is certainly something that Jose would like to add to his CV.
The Chelsea team has changed quite a lot during his absence from Stamford Bridge, with the side now possessing a much more creative edge, and in Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle, Mourinho has the players to unlock even the sternest defence in Europe. However, question marks still remain over his striking options, with Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o his only realistic options up front. Nevertheless, Chelsea still retain the solid spine that Mourinho created that makes them so difficult to beat, and I’d be surprised if the Blues didn’t reach the latter stages of this competition. Mourinho knows how to win in Europe, and if he’s able to instill his tactical blueprint into the mind of his players, Chelsea will go far this year.
The Londoners have an easy enough group, with Schalke, FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest their challengers in Group E, and it would be a big surprise if Mourinho’s men did not emerge as group winners this time around.
First up: FC Basel (H)