It’s back… The biggest tournament in club football.. The ultimate prize.. The Champions League. Although we’ve already had the qualifying rounds, but this week is where we really get underway with the group stages. The majestic theme music, the multi screen coverage, and thankfully this season.. No David Pleat commentary.
The question is, will Barcelona’s win last season see a shift in power away from the Premiership’s ‘top four’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal? Three of last seasons’ semi finalists hailed from England, and Liverpool only fell in the quarters to Chelsea. Also, a magnificent display in the final aside, Barcelona were very lucky indeed to triumph over the West London outfit in a bad tempered affair at Stamford Bridge. And lets not forget the Italians, will a renaissance in their prospects be forthcoming?
Many of football’s elite spent much of the summer transfer window bucking the recessive financial trends by spending silly money. Real Madrid after a trophy-less season splashed out on over £200m worth of talent, which included some of the prized players of their potential Champions League rivals. Not to be outdone, Barcelona replaced their temperamental yet prolific striker, with a brand new temperamental yet prolific forward in a £60m deal that saw Sammy Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic exchange clubs, along with £35m of Camp Nou cash going Inter’s way.
But what of the Premiership’s finest? Manchester United’s talisman in recent years Cristiano Ronaldo is now a Madrid galactico, and the industrious Argentine Carlos Tevez is now plying his trade on the blue side of the city.. It could be argued that despite the investment in Antonio Valencia from Wigan and Michael Owen on a free transfer from Newcastle, the squad doesn’t have the depth that took them to back-to-back finals, but you cannot put a price on experience and United have that in droves.
Liverpool, who showed so much promise of development last season, have lost playmaker Xabi Alonso; who followed Ronaldo to the Santiago Bernabeu. With direct replacement Alberto Aquilani still yet to shake off an ankle problem, any repeat of the 2005 success will again depend heavily on Steven Gerrard. The Merseysiders will also be hoping for an injury free season from the mercurial Fernando Torres.
The one jewel in the crown that is missing for Chelsea is winning this competition. So close have they come in recent years, denied by controversial decisions and missed penalties. With Champions League extraordinaire Carlo Ancelotti now at the helm, fans and billionaire owner Roman Abramovich expect. Unlike previous years, new signings have been limited to adding to the depth of the squad. The rumoured huge bids for the likes of Alexandre Pato, Andrea Pirlo, Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero and Franck Ribery bore no fruit, and given the recent FIFA sanctioned transfer ban, are now increasingly unlikely. Maybe a settled squad could prove highly beneficial?
Finally from England there is Arsenal. For all of their flair and guile, it is often difficult to know if they will be stubborn enough to mount a strong challenge. As much as Barcelona proved last season that a world class defence is not essential in lifting the famous trophy, Arsene Wenger’s style over substance approach could prove to be their undoing. However, any side with the attacking talents of Andre Arshavin, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie etc has to be taken very seriously.
So, if the continuation of English dominance is to be further threatened, from where will the greatest menace hail?
First and foremost, we have Barcelona. The all conquering side of last season, as mentioned previously, have added the often genial, sometimes frustrating, Ibrahimovic to their already astonishing side. Expect Lio Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to continue to create aesthetically wonderful attacks. Although question marks persist about the back line, any team will have to be at the peak of their powers to dethrone the Catalan giants.
Real Madrid were the talk of the summer. Breaking transfer records all over the place in the building of what they hope will be a repeat of the famous Zidane, Figo, Raul, Ronaldo et al side known as los Galacticos of five years hence. Florentine Perez from that era is back in the president’s chair and wasted no time in bringing Kaka, Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema to Madrid, to name but four. Will it take the newly assembled side too long to gel in order to mount a serious challenge? Only time will tell.
Sevilla and Atletico Madrid offer the other challenges from La Liga. Both are strong and now relatively experienced at this level, but one would think not quite enough to mount a serious effort. However, if Atleti keep Diego Forlan and Kun Aguero fit and playing as well as they can together, any team would be best advised in avoiding Madrid’s second side.
Aside from the Spanish and English contingent, the strongest challenge is likely to come from Italy. AC Milan now have a World Cup winning Brazilian at the helm, his first management job it may be, but such inexperience has done Pep Guardiola no harm at the Camp Nou. Leonardo, like Guardiola, cut his teeth with the youth sides. He has inherited a mostly aging, but talented and experienced squad from his predecessor, and despite the fact that the likes of Pirlo, Gattuso and Ronaldinho are not as sprightly as once they were they’re far from finished, and the young superstar Alex Pato is to be feared. Kaka, however, will be sorely missed.
AC Milan’s city rivals Inter go into this season’s competition with far more pressure. Domestically nearly untouchable in recent years, their efforts in Europe have been considered a major failing for Jose Mourinho’s men and much is expected. Having said that, they have bought well. The aforementioned Eto’o is the epitome of what Mourinho likes in his strikers, and Wesley Sneijder could prove to be a very canny signing as a playmaking midfielder to complement the industrious Esta Cambiasso. The self styled ‘Special One’ has made handling pressure look easy in the past, and there is no reason to think that the Italians cannot go all the way this year. A baptism of fire in their opening fixture with Barcelona may give us some impression as to how likely success is.
Italy’s two other entrants, Juventus and Fiorentina, do not appear to be quite as strong as their Milanese rival. Although Brazilian playmaker Diego should be a great addition for the Turin side, and they’ll definitely be worth a watch with Champions League legends Del Piero and Trezeguet still bothering opposition defences.
Elsewhere, it would have to be said that major competition looks unlikely. Bayern Munich managed to resist bids for their winger Franck Ribery, and Arjen Robben should prove to be a superb bit of business coming in from Madrid, but recent years have promised much and delivered very little at the Allianze Arena. Likewise in France, the traditionally strongest outfit Lyon have lost their star player in Karim Benzema to Madrid, and also failed to win Ligue Un last year for the first time in many a moon..
Having said that, one of the great beauties of the Champions League is its ability to spring a surprise, who for instance would have anticipated Porto’s success in 2004? Despite this, it is hard to see past the two Spanish giants and the Premiership elite. Although one thing is guaranteed – there’ll be thrills and spills aplenty on the route to the final on 22nd May 2010 at Madrid’s magnificent Santiago Bernabeu stadium.