After a captivating final contested by two Madrid giants, it’s time for the world’s biggest club competition to kick off once again. The road to Berlin starts now for the 32 teams, can Real Madrid be the first team to regain the Champions League since it was renamed in the 1992-93 season. This year sees the return of European Powerhouses Liverpool, many other sides have returned to the illustrious competition. Can a minnow side upset the big teams and replicate the heroics of Apoel who made it all the way to the quarter finals in the 2011-12 season. It promises to be another enthralling campaign; this blog will preview many aspects of this year’s upcoming tournament.
Ludogorets Razgrad, Apoel Nicosia, Bate Borisov and Maribor are all in the group stages. Those teams will be coming up against some of the biggest teams in Europe and be playing against the best players in the world. The odds will be stacked against them and many people will expect them to get a walloping, however the Champions League isn’t as simple as that and the underdog status could well result in players having the game of their lives. Ludogorets have already claimed so many more hearts after their incredible run to the group stage, defender Cosmin Moti was forced to go in goal and subsequently saved two penalties in the play-off shootout against Steaua Bucharest, Ludogorets will already be in dreamland and playing against the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool will be mesmerising for their players. Many neutrals will be hoping that the Ludogorets fairy-tale continues to flourish.
Liverpool return to the big stage
After a very impressive league campaign last year, Liverpool are back competing with Europe’s elite. It will be interesting to see how Liverpool cope with the rigours of the Champions League alongside the Premier League. The home tie against Real Madrid promises to be one of those classic nights at Anfield which will be an incredible atmosphere. Brendan Rodgers would have loved to have kept Luis Suarez but that wasn’t to be. On their day Liverpool can compete with anyone and if they get through their group who knows how far this side can go.
A host of teams will fancy their chances
You could make a case for a lot of teams in this year’s Champions League to make it to the final in Berlin. However it’s hard to look past the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich those three teams are the outright favourites. But teams like Chelsea and Manchester City will believe that they can go all the way. Then come a host of clubs that all have the ability to cause a surprise just like Athletico Madrid last year and go on an incredible run all the way to the final. The likes of PSG, Liverpool, Arsenal, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Athletico Madrid all possess a squad and players that can light up any game on any occasion. With a wealth of top class teams in the competition the knockout stages promise to be mouth-watering and some real blockbuster ties to look forward to.
Manchester City’s Group of Death
Manchester City must look away with anguish when the Champions League group stage gets drawn. Yet again this Year City have been given a very tough task, they will face familiar opposition in CSKA Moscow where Yaya Toure was subject to racial abuse last season. City will also come up against Serie A giants AS Roma, Roma seem revitalised under Rudi Garcia’s leadership and with the likes of Totti, Strootman and De Rossi in their ranks, Roma will prove a stern test for Pellegrini’s men. The biggest test for Manchester City will be Bayern Munich, City and Munich will be very familiar with each other, the two teams have played each other 4 times since City first qualified in 2011. The 3-2 win for City at the Allianz Arena last season should give City reason to be confident and have no fear. With the squad that City has they should qualify from this group, CSKA Moscow should be the team that Roma, Bayern and City take maximum points off. City could on to go to win this group, on the other hand they could come 3rd, Group E promises to be the group to watch.
Mourinho craves CL glory with Chelsea
The Champions League really does bring out the best of Jose Mourinho, after previous successes with FC Porto and Inter Milan, Mourinho is desperate to land Europe’s biggest prize with his beloved Chelsea. With the acquisitions of Felipe Luis, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa Mourinho will believe that his squad has more depth and quality to launch an assault on the trophy. Chelsea have been sloppy at the back which is very unlike a Mourinho side but right now they have the ability to outscore any team. Mourinho will believe that he has a squad that can compete on all fronts, you can never write Mourinho’s men off and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chelsea made it all the way to Berlin.
Pressure on Guardiola
The only way for Bayern Munich’s season to be seen as a success is to win the Champions League, that’s the constant pressure that Guardiola is under. There were murmurings last season that members of the club weren’t buying into the former Barcelona man’s methods. After Jupp Heynckes near-perfect season in 2012-13 it was hard to see what Guardiola could bring to the table other than to win it all again. After last season’s humiliation to Real Madrid it will be interesting to see if Guardiola has changed his tactics and changed his style of play. With the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer often speaking out if things don’t go to plan at Bayern, Guardiola will be motivated to prove the doubters wrong.
Are the Spaniards Vulnerable?
After signing the likes of James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos it seems crazy to suggest that Real Madrid look weaker, but the opening weeks of the season suggest that Ancelotti hasn’t quite got the balance right so far. Di Maria was Man of the Match in last year’s Champions League final and yet he was seen as surplus to requirements much to the disapproval for Cristiano Ronaldo. Florentino Perez obsession of Galactico signings could well be the undoing in Real Madrid’s quest to regain the Champions League. Athletico Madrid have had to sign reinforcements after losing star names such as Thibaut Courtois, Felipe Luis, Diego Costa and David Villa. Those players were key performers in what was a memorable season for Simeone’s men. The likes of Moya, Siquiera, Cerci, Griezmann and Mandzukic have all been brought in an attempt to replicate last season’s success. Meanwhile at Barcelona it has been a summer of all change at the Nou Camp, former favourite Luis Enrique is now charged with the task of getting Barcelona back to the very top. Come October and probably the first El Classico clash of the season, Luis Suarez will be available for selection and if he manages to create a good understanding with Neymar and Lionel Messi then Barcelona will possess the scariest frontline in the world. Of these three Spanish giants, Real Madrid stand the best chance of putting this current ‘crisis’ behind them and achieving what nobody has managed to do in the Champions League and retain the trophy. However if a certain Lionel Messi reaches a level that only he has previously reached, and the star frontline trio gel and fast then it would be foolish to rule Barcelona out.
Winners: FC Barcelona
Surprise Package: Athletic Bilbao
Top Scorer: Lionel Messi
Best English Hope: Chelsea
Players to Watch:
This part of the blog looks beyond the usual household names to introduce you to the latest batch of talent ready to flourish on the European club game’s main stage this season.
Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
Sterling’s progression since his breakthrough year with Liverpool has been incredible. His pace and ability to drift past defenders makes him an integral part of the Liverpool jigsaw. If he stays grounded and works hard then Sterling has all the attributes to be a world class talent.
Callum Chambers (Arsenal)
From coming through the Southampton academy to being capped for England, Chambers development in the past year has been stunning. Since joining Arsenal he has looked settled and comfortable. Chambers has a bright future for club and country, being around fellow English youngsters such as Welbeck, Wilshere, Chamberlain and Walcott will only fasten Chambers ability to feel settled at Arsenal.
The versatile midfielder has all the capabilities to become the most impressive graduate of La Masia since Brother Thiago Alcántara. The 21-year-old shone last season under Luis Enrique while on loan at Celta Vigo.
Gaudino (Bayern Munich)
The 17 year old has become a prominent part of Bayern’s first team so far this season. Due to injuries to key players, Guardiola decided to give Gaudino a chance, a chance that the young man has taken. With the likes of Schweinsteiger, Lahm and now Xabi Alonso as mentors, Gaudino will not be short of players to idolise.
Max Meyer (Schalke)
Great things are expected of a player who turns just 19 in the first game week. The home-grown midfielder followed up his 30 Bundesliga appearances in 2013/14 with a first Germany cap against Poland last May. Meyer is one of many young Germans that will be targeting a place at Euro 2016.
Jese Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
After suffering a season-ending knee ligament injury during the round of 16 second leg against FC Schalke 04 last term which resulted in him being ruled out of the World Cup. The 21-year-old forward will look to challenge the likes of Benzema and Javier Hernandez for a starting berth once he has returned to full fitness.
Serge Aurier (PSG)
The Ivory Coast international, a standout performer at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, could be a shrewd signing for PSG this season. Aurier will be competing with Gregory Van Der Wiel for the right back slot.
William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon)
Carvalho was subject to a lot of interest from a host of top European clubs over the summer. Sporting will be delighted that they managed to retain the services of their star man. If Sporting are to progress then a lot will ride on how Carvalho martials the midfield area, an impressive Champions League campaign for Carvalho could enhance his ever growing reputation.
A €10m buy from Sporting Lisbon 12 months ago, Bruma missed the second half of last term after knee surgery. Now revitalised and healthy under Cesare Prandelli, Bruma will be looking to light up the Champions League and prove that he possesses serious talent.
Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund)
Kagawa never really got to terms with being a Manchester United player, after being deemed surplus to requirements by Louis Van Gaal; Jurgen Klopp seized the opportunity to reunite with the Japanese International. Now back at Dortmund, Kagawa will be looking to get back on track and reach the levels that made Manchester United want to sign him.
Geoffrey Kondogbia (AS Monaco)
Kondogbia was lured from Sevilla last season and proved he has all the talent to shine on the World stage. Currently 21, Kondogbia is among the best box-to-box midfielders in Ligue 1, with the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao leaving Monaco this summer, the club needs a star to stand up and take the club forward. Kondogbia will be eager to impress France manager Didier Deschamps with Euro 2016 on the horizon, there is no bigger stage than the Champions League for players to impress.
Kingsley Coman (Juventus)
Lured this summer from Paris Saint-Germain, the 18-year-old forward will be looking to become a hit with the Italian giants. He will be able to seek advice from fellow Frenchman Paul Pogba who could be crucial in helping Coman settle.
Saul Niguez (Athletico Madrid)
After returning from a successful loan spell at Rayo Vallecano, the 19-year-old central midfielder will be looking to impress Simeone and show him that he is ready to step up once called upon.
Eliaquim Mangala (Manchester City)
One of the most promising central defenders in Europe and after three seasons with FC Porto, the 23-year-old French international is seen as Vincent Kompany’s central-defensive partner for the long term. Mangala will hope to hit the ground running with City, learning from the likes of Kompany will only aid and develop his game.
Munir El Haddadi (Barcelona)
The latest youth player to come through La Masia, Munir’s rise to the top has been incredible. After a successful pre-season with the first team, Munir earned the right to start the season alongside the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Munir is only 18 and his fine start to the season will not have gone unnoticed.
Kevin Strootman (AS Roma)
After missing the World Cup due to injury, Strootman will be looking to play a pivotal part in Roma’s European campaign. Strootman will be integral to Roma’s chances and a lot will depend on how he manages to deal with world class midfielders in the games against Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Ruben Neves (FC Porto)
The defensive midfielder repaid the clubs faith by becoming Porto’s youngest Liga scorer at 17 years and 155 days with an opening-day goal against Marítimo – on his competitive debut. Neves hasn’t been short of big match experience, for a young man he played in both Champions League play-off games against LOSC Lille.
Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao)
Muniain is another young Spaniard who is eager to impress and get called up to the National Team. Muniain’s pace and dribbling ability makes him a nightmare to defend against, with Bilbao’s new stadium and being in the world’s best club competition, Muniain has the opportunity to do great things at Bilbao and become a hero.
Pierre Højbjerg (Bayern Munich)
Højbjerg featured in a few matches towards the end of last season and is expected to have regular starts this season. With fitness concerns over the likes of Schweinsteiger, Thiago and Javi Martinez, Højbjerg could have the opportunity to have a good run of games. The Denmark midfielder, 19, praised by Josep Guardiola for his determination and versatility, is widely touted as the next academy graduate to make it on the big stage.
Nemanja Matić (Chelsea)
Since moving back to Chelsea from Benfica, Matic has become a crucial part of Mourinho’s team. His physical presence and ability to break up play could be crucial when Chelsea play against the top sides.