It is a time when hope is high, a time when people will walk into school or to work and brag about how they know that their team will go all the way this year, and claim Europe’s biggest prize.
Of course a lot of banter will follow; especially after those first day jitters get out of the way and your team, let’s say Chelsea, succumb to a home defeat for their first game against FC Basel. But that is the fun, and beauty, of the tournament. In the beginning, every team has a chance; every team has that hope, however realistic or utterly unimaginable it may be, that they will make a good run of the tournament. This season, some new faces come into the Champions League, some new, and some very familiar. I will take a look at what we can expect to see this year in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
The Reds are back! That is probably the most intriguing part of this season’s Champions League for me. How far will Steven Gerrard and Liverpool go, now that they are back in their tournament? I say it is their tournament for obvious reasons: they are five-time European champions (albeit only one of those wins was under the name “Champions League”) and have not been in Europe’s top competition for four seasons, since that defeat to Fiorentina in 2009. That is a long time away from home, but Liverpool will be gearing up for a bright start in a group that contains the aforementioned FC Basel, newcomers PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, and last season’s champions, Real Madrid. Liverpool won’t be expecting any additions to their trophy-laden European career, but they will be expecting a decent run for their return to the Champions League. I would expect them to ease out of their group, but as we all know, it is anyone’s game after that.
Personally, I find this Champions League to be between four teams, with one dark horse. Real Madrid are one such team that are definitely one of the favourites to claim the trophy. Can Los Blancos retain their title? No team has since the AC Milan side of 1990 that boasted the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Franco Baresi, and Paolo Maldini. I could go on; that team was incredible. They had to be, to win back-to-back European titles.
The question this year will be if Real Madrid have it in them to do their own double, after signing two more superstars to their already star-studded lineup in Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez. Those two know what it’s like to play on the big stage – indeed the entire Madrid team know what it’s like – but will that be enough to fill the gaps left by veteran midfielder Xabi Alonso, and versatile winger Ángel Di María? Time will tell, but they will need to shape up fast if they want to repeat their success of last year, as Real Madrid have had a torrid time in their opening three games in La Liga.
Chelsea are another team that I can envision lifting the trophy with the big ears in Berlin. After the start that they’ve had to the Premier League, who could doubt their credentials? Barring injuries, Chelsea have the squad that could take them to a season full of trophies. It is likely that Petr Čech will stand in between the sticks for Chelsea’s Champions League campaign, as José Mourinho seems to have a burden of choice between two of Europe’s top goalkeepers. The Blues have a tough enough group in my opinion: Schalke are no easy team to play against, especially on German soil; Sporting Lisbon might give a few headaches, but minnows Maribor will find things the hardest.
Overall, Chelsea should at least, in theory, make the final. They’ve got enough in the tank going forward in attack to win them any trophy in the world; it’s rather in defence that Blues fans will be worried about. They may have scored ten goals in their last two games, but they have also let in a very uncharacteristic five in those games. Mourinho is known for having a packed defence, and any team that is going to excel in the Champions League – as the Chelsea team of their remarkable 2012 team will tell you – needs a top class back four, that are willing to do whatever it takes to keep a clean sheet.
Barcelona are going to be up there with the best of them this year I think. They have slumped a bit (if you can call two semifinal defeats and a quarterfinal defeat a slump) in the last few years since their last triumph, and will be looking to return to their glorious Pep Guardiola days, where Tiki-taka football reigned supreme for the Blaugrana. Teams know how to deal with this style of possession football now; the mighty Catalan giants can be beaten, who knew? They are not invincible, but a revamped defence is proving its worth in La Liga thus far with Barcelona’s 100 per cent record not looking in any danger. They certainly have the team that can challenge any for the trophy, and you can bet that Barcelona will, at the very least, make a very dramatic and tight exit during the semifinals.
The final team that I think has a real shot of lifting the trophy is, of course, Bayern Munich. Bringing in Xabi Alonso from Real Madrid will come to be seen as a masterstroke by manager Pep Guardiola; his experience will be crucial in returning Bayern to glory. But the additions of Robert Lewandowski and Mehdi Benatia, the highly rated Moroccan defender from Roma, will be key for their run in the campaign as well. They’ve been smart in the transfer market, if not a bit conservative, mainly adding cover players to their already very strong squad. A final in Germany is what will push the Bavarians to reach Berlin, to atone for their home defeat to Chelsea in 2012.
Dark horses can never be ruled out, and Manchester City is a team that really have something big to prove in the Champions League. They’ve done it in England; they’ve shown that they can compete with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, but repeatedly, they have failed to match that form that makes them so dominant in the Premier League to their displays in the Champions League, which up until now have been fairly dismal. Pride, if nothing else, is what Man City need to play with to get out of their group including German powerhouse Bayern Munich, AS Roma, and CSKA Moscow.
This is no easy group; indeed it seems that City never fail to avoid a group of death. But this time I feel that they’ll escape it, over Roma and Moscow, and have themselves a very respectable run in the competition. They could win it, that’s why they are dark horses. But their lack of experience in the latter, business end of the Champions League is what will ultimately be their downfall this year. Patience will be needed for the Citizens to see themselves crowned European champions.
So, there is plenty to be excited about during this season of the Champions League. There will be plenty of upsets and plenty of hearts broken, but that’s the point of Fall being the best season of the year, and of course of football being the greatest sport in the world. As I said, the group stage is a time of hope, when you can say anything can happen in the Champions League and be absolutely right, but it won’t last, so enjoy it while you can, because February will be upon us before you know it.