Champions League Preview: The English Clubs
How will the English clubs perform in this season's Champions League? Today Paolo Bandini takes a look at the chances of Chelsea, City, United and Arsenal.
The Premier League’s claim to being the best domestic competition in world football took a blow last year, when England was overtaken by Spain at the top of Uefa’s country co-efficient rankings. All four of its representatives were subsequently eliminated from the Champions League before the quarter-finals – prompting a good deal of soul-searching in the national press.
But is English football really falling behind? This was the first time since 1995-96 – back when only domestic title winners got to take part in Europe’s top club competition – that no Premier League teams had reached the last eight. Seven of the last nine Champions League finals have featured at least one English team.
The Premier League’s standing has undoubtedly slipped, but reports of its demise have likely been exaggerated. All four of its representatives enter this year’s competition with high expectations, even if the presence of three new managers among their ranks also gives rise to uncertainty.
Arsenal (Group F)
Not since 2002-03 have Arsenal team failed to reach the knockout stage of this tournament. They will have their work cut out to extend that run after being drawn together with Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli in Group F.
All three of those teams finished as runners-up in their domestic championships last season, while Dortmund also reached the Champions League final. The Germans were the strongest of the third seeds going into this year’s draw, just as Napoli were the pick of pot four. Short of replacing Marseille with the French champions Paris Saint-Germain, it is hard to imagine how Arsenal’s task could look any more daunting.
The capture of Mesut Özil on the final day of the summer transfer window has bred fresh optimism in North London, however, prompting celebrations among Arsenal’s fans and a shortening of their odds to win trophies. They are widely listed as 10th favourites for the Champions League – just behind Dortmund and ahead of Atlético Madrid.
That is probably about fair. Özil is a world-class player who will reinvigorate a team that – for all its elegant manoeuvring – had become too predictable inside the final third. Among Europe’s top leagues, only Lionel Messi can match the German’s 47 assists over the last three seasons.
With Özil in the side, Arsenal’s first XI might be among the best eight in Europe. But their prospects of reaching the later stages of this tournament will rest heavily on their ability to avoid injuries. For all the excitement at their one big signing, this team still failed to address its needs in both attack and defence, and the squad is wafer thin in places.
If Olivier Giroud, in particular, were to suffer an injury before January, their prospects of making it out of an already very challenging group would take a major blow.
Group F: Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Marseille.
Arsenal 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||34.00||29.00||34.00||34.00||34.00|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.67||1.73||1.70||1.80||1.67|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Chelsea (Group E)
José Mourinho has won the Champions League with both Porto and Inter, but failed to go beyond the semi-finals during his previous three-year stint at Chelsea. Indeed, Roman Abramovich’s impatient desire to get his hands on this trophy was understood to have been a contributing factor to the escalating tensions that led to the manager’s departure in September 2007.
Chelsea have since succeeded in scratching that particular itch, winning the Champions League for the first time in club history at the end of the 2011-12 season. They followed that up by claiming the Europa League this May. Mourinho, as a consequence, might place a higher priority on domestic matters during his first year in charge; Chelsea won the Premier League just once during his six years away.
The manager, however, is not one to take any competition lightly, and it would be a significant surprise if Chelsea did not emerge as winners of Group E. Schalke have made a slow start this season, while Steaua Bucharest sold their top scorer, Raul Rusescu, and best defender, Vlad Chiriches, over the summer. Basel are a dynamic, attacking side with a good coach in Murat Yakin, but lost both legs of their Europa League semi-final against Chelsea last year.
How far Mourinho’s team go beyond the group stage will depend in significant part on the impact of new arrival Samuel Eto’o up front. This team has an excess of talented players to deploy behind the attack – Willian, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle, to name but a few – but not enough capable of leading the line. Neither of Fernando Torres or Demba Ba has thus far lived up to the club’s expectations.
The good news is that Eto’o has 30 goals and two winners’ medals already in this competition. But at 32, is he still sharp enough to carry the burden for a team that looks a little short of alternatives?
Group E: Basel, Schalke, Steaua Bucuresti.
Chelsea 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||10.00||10.00||11.00||11.00||11.00|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.05||1.07||1.03||1.05||1.05|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Manchester City (Group D)
Reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League ought to be a top priority for City, who have failed to do so in each of the past two seasons. Hindered by their low seeding, they finished bottom of a group featuring Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Ajax last year, having come in third behind Bayern Munich and Napoli in 2011-12.
The draw was kinder this time around. Although City have been paired with the European champions, Bayern Munich, in Group D, they will know that there were much more daunting opponents than CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen lurking in pots two and four.
Both of those clubs are reigning champions of their domestic leagues, but the Russians crashed out of the Europa League at the playoff stage last year, while the Czech side only entered this competition in the second qualifying round. After spending a reported £90m on upgrading their squad with the additions of Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas and Fernandinho, City should expect to beat than such sides.
The unknown quantity here is the new manager, Manuel Pellegrini. He has made a mixed start to life with the club – suffering a surprising defeat to newly-promoted Cardiff in his second league game in charge – but has done well in this competition before – steering Villarreal to the semi-finals in 2006. The squad at his disposal now is certainly more talented than that one.
City’s returning players, furthermore, should have a better idea now of what is required to win in this competition. They know from bitter experience that there is no room for slow starts. If they can avoid the same old mistakes, then this squad should easily make it out of their group. It remains to be seen how far they can go after that.
Group D: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen.
Manchester City 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||15.00||15.00||12.00||13.00||15.00|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.14||1.20||1.17||1.14||1.20|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Manchester United (Group A)
At last, David Moyes gets his shot at the Champions League. His 11-year tenure at Everton was a story of constant near misses, his team coming closest in 2005 – when they finished fourth in the Premier League, only to lose a two-legged qualifier to Pellegrini’s Villarreal.
Despite a horribly mismanaged summer transfer campaign, United have sufficient talent on their books to reach the latter stages of this tournament. This is still largely the same squad that scored 86 goals in 38 Premier League games last year, with Robin Van Persie leading the line and Michael Carrick pulling the strings in midfield. The club overpaid for Marouane Fellaini, but his muscular presence will be an asset in midfield.
On paper, Group A looks manageable. Shakhtar Donetsk finished above Chelsea last year, but have since lost both Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Similarly, Bayer Leverkusen sold André Schürrle over the summer; Real Sociedad bid farewell to midfielder Asier Illarramendi.
United’s supporters, though, will expect to do more than just scrape through. The English champions are listed as fifth-favourites to win the competition, and after a disappointing last-16 exit in 2012-13, those fans want to see their team go further this time around.
That might be a tall order. European football presents very different challenges to the domestic game, with opponents applying unfamiliar tactics and strategies. It took Sir Alex Ferguson a number of years to work out how to get the best out of his team on this stage, and some managers never get there at all. Roberto Mancini won domestic titles with Inter and Manchester City but consistently disappointed in this competition.
Moyes could be an exception, one of those rare men who ‘gets it’ right away. The more likely scenario, though, is that his team will struggle through some growing pains. Reaching the last eight would probably be this team’s most realistic target.
Group A: Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad, Shakhtar Donetsk.
Manchester United 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||15.00||13.00||13.00||15.00||15.00|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.17||1.14||1.17||1.11||1.14|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Follow Paolo on Twitter: @Paolo_Bandini
And read more of his work at The Guardian
- Tag: Football