Champions League Preview: The Spanish Clubs
Will a Spanish club claim Champions League glory in 2014? Today on the blog ChalkOnTheBoots shares his thoughts on the chances of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico and Real Sociedad.
Another Champions League campaign is almost upon us. The qualification rounds have removed the lesser sides leaving us with, in theory, the 32 best sides in Europe. What you can be certain of is that the Spanish representatives this season were unquestionably the four best sides in Spain last season. And possibly will be again this season as well. The big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid will make their customary appearance and are joined this season by Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad.
Whilst there can be no denying that the Champions League has brought together the cream of Europe on a regular basis, providing us with glamour games between the heavyweights each season, there is an argument that the frequency with which some teams are facing each other is removing some of the appeal. And for the benefit of this argument, these teams are neatly contained within Group H.
Barcelona (Group H)
This will be the fifth time that Barcelona and AC Milan have met in the competition over the past 10 years (the double meeting in season 11/12 counting twice) and the third successive season that they have clashed. It’s not quite familiarity breeding contempt but the recurring nature of the fixture reduces its allure somewhat. Add to that both AC Milan and Barcelona meeting Celtic on numerous occasions in the past 10 years and Group H suddenly begins to have a rather monotonous feel to it. Throw in Ajax too who have most recently met Milan in the group phase in 09/10, and the group of familiarity is complete.
It’s difficult to see beyond Barcelona winning the group although I doubt they will do so with the consummate ease that many casual observers will expect. Aside from their 4-0 victory at the Camp Nou last season over Milan (when Allegri changed his tactical set up after the home win for no apparent reason and contributed to his side’s downfall) games between these two sides have been fairly tight and often cagey. I see no reason why these games will differ. The games with Milan will be considered as the potential group deciders but don’t rule out Ajax entirely. Christian Eriksen may have departed but the mercurial talent of Viktor Fischer remains. De Boer’s side could split the big two if they get a positive result against Milan.
Could lighting strike twice for Celtic? If it does and qualification occurs, it will be a greater achievement than last season. The Scottish Champions have lost three key players in Wilson, Wanyama and Hooper. It remains to be seen if the replacements are of a similar calibre. A weaker Celtic and a more direct Barcelona could spell bad news for the Scots.
How far Barcelona will go beyond the group phase is more difficult to predict. Martino has already told the club he doesn’t want defensive reinforcements despite the central defensive area being weak. Adriano and Bartra may suffice against the likes of Elche and Almeria but can such a partnership cope against the likes of Man Utd, Bayern Munich if called upon? It doesn’t really bear thinking about. And for all of the talents of Neymar and Messi, there are structural issues that have not been dealt with. Martino wants to reintroduce a high press but can the squad sustain such an effort? Are they even willing to entertain such an idea? Alba continually gets caught out during transitions too. These are the sort of areas that the top coaches will exploit. If Barcelona cannot stop opponents from scoring, they won’t progress. They may be second favourites overall but getting to the final will be an achievement in itself.
Group H: Ajax, Celtic, Milan.
Barcelona 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||5.50||4.50||5.00||5.00||4.33|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.01||1.02||1.02||1.02||1.02|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Real Madrid (Group B)
Mourinho was supposed to deliver La Decima for Madrid but it failed to arrive. The club have bought very well during the summer with the exception of vastly over spending on Gareth Bale. The squad has quality throughout and depth. It’s really just an issue for Ancelotti to shoehorn the players into the line up. It’s a skill that Ancelotti has but striking the right balance is still ongoing at the moment.
The games against Juventus are likely to determine who will qualify as group winners. Juve will have an advantage here so far as continuity goes with only a few alterations to the squad whereas Madrid must adapt to a new style of play under Ancelotti. Not meeting Juventus until Matchday 3 in late October is a clear benefit. If Los Blancos can navigate a tricky away game at Galatasaray, they should welcome Juve to Madrid with full points. Although Madrid dispatched Galatasaray in the knock out phase last season, the Turks had plenty of chances that they failed to take. With the talent of Sneijder and Drogba at their disposal, they will present a challenge. The structure and organisation from Conte’s team will pose a different test for Madrid. Individually, the Spaniards are better but whether they have transferred that superiority to the collective by that point remains to be seen. Copenhagen will offer little resistance to Madrid and should be overcome with the minimum of fuss. It’s an opportunity to score goals and the sort of game that Ronaldo will look to take advantage if he wants to be the leading scorer in the competition this season.
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid should negotiate the group stage with relative ease. Both are still adapting to new coaches though and one or two hiccups along the way cannot be discounted particularly in the early group games. With qualification for the latter stages a pre-requisite, the real test for both will arrive after Christmas. Can either win the competition? Yes. Will either win the competition in their current guise? No. But then, prizes are distributed in May and not September.
Group B: Galatasaray, Juventus, Copenhagen.
Real Madrid 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||6.00||6.00||6.50||6.00||5.50|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.04||1.05||1.04||1.04||1.07|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Atletico Madrid (Group G)
As per usual, the two Spanish giants are amongst the favourites to win the Champions League yet Atletico Madrid, favourites to win Group G, must surely be worth consideration. Perhaps not to win the tournament but certainly to qualify for the latter stages and possibly even the quarter finals with a favourable draw. Successive Europa League winners, los rojiblancos have demonstrated that they can match the big two in Spain over 90 minutes but lack the depth of squad to do so over the course of a season. Simeone has moulded a team in his own uncompromising image and with a little bit of luck, Atleti could do some damage to more illustrious opponents.
Atleti return to the Champions League for the third time. Way back in season 96/97, los rojiblancos reached the quarter finals where Ajax defeated them before more recently reaching the last 16 in season 08/09, losing out to Porto on away goals. Already favourites to win the group, nobody will underestimate Atleti. They have demonstrated in recent times the ability to sustain their league campaign with games in the Europa League and them the Copa del Rey. The squad is as strong as it has been in recent times and the style of play is set. Home or away, Atleti will allow opponents to come forward, absorbing pressure before attacking swiftly. The side is disciplined, organised and contains one of the most potent counter attacks around. Only against the weakest team in the group, Austria Vienna, will Atleti need to adapt and force the game a little more. It’s a position they are not comfortable with and it shows on occasion.
Expect them to gain belated revenge over their Iberian rivals for that defeat five seasons ago and top the group with Spalleti’s Zenit finishing in third place. Diego Costa has infuriated defences in Spain with a combination of his goalscoring ability and somewhat questionable tactics on the field of play. It’s time the rest of Europe experienced that first hand.
Group G: Austria Wien, Porto, Zenit.
Atletico Madrid Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||41.00||34.00||34.00||34.00||41.00|
|Qualify For Last 16||1.29||1.30||1.29||1.33||1.29|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Real Sociedad (Group A)
There is no doubt that La Real are the outsiders in Group A and the bookmakers confirm this position. As fourth seeds, La Real have been handed a tough but not impossible draw. Making their second appearance in the Champions League, La Real last featured in season 2003/04, finishing second in a group containing Juventus, Olympiacos and Galatasaray. Olympique Lyon would eliminate the Basques in the next round, a case of delayed revenge for Sociedad with their recent aggregate defeat of Lyon in the final qualifying round. Although Lyon has declined in recent seasons, they were still no match for an energetic and vibrant Sociedad in the qualifiers with the Basques winning home and away.
Man Utd are considered favourites for the group but there must be some doubt as to this tag with their less than impressive start to the season and questions being asked over Moyes. Although the squad has operated at this level, the manager has not. Will he be outmanoeuvred tactically? Shakhtar and Leverkusen represent quality opponents too but neither are at the top level of the European game. La Real should have no inferiority complex in this group.
The group could be substantially closer than many imagine and if all teams take points from each other, it’s not inconceivable that La Real could sneak through in second place. The key issue for Arrasate and his players will be how they cope on two fronts simultaneously. They have the talent and ability in their squad to compete at this level but whether they are able to sustain the weekend – midweek – weekend routine is another matter.
A lack of experience at the highest level may become an issue too but an attacking trio of Griezmann, Vela and Prieto will create and take chances against most defences. The real enemy for La Real could be themselves. Are they willing to make the required effort to progress or are they simply happy to have reached the Champions League? Has their ambition been satisfied already? There has often been an accusation levelled at Sociedad in the past that the side settles far to easily, not pushing itself to reach its maximum. If they approach the group in the wrong frame of mind, they will be punished.
When the competition resumes in the new year following completion of the group phase, don’t be surprised if all four La Liga representatives are still there.
Group A: Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk.
Real Socieded 2013 Champions League Odds
|Win Champions League||151.00||151.00||81.00||101.00||151.00|
|Qualify For Last 16||2.50||2.63||2.75||2.75||2.50|
Odds as at 13th September 2013.
Follow Chalk On The Boots on Twitter: @chalkontheboots.
And read more of his work on his blog ChalkOnTheBoots.Wordpress.com.
- Tag: Football