The Champ-yaaarns do do do-do doooooo
Its back. The biggest tournament in club football, the ultimate prize: The Champions League. Although we’ve already had the qualifying rounds, this week is where we really get under way 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 Big Four of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal? Three of last season’s 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 Blues 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 the summer transfer window bucking the global recession by spending silly money. After a trophy-less season, Real Madrid splashed out on more than £200m worth of talent, which included some of the most 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 Samuel Eto’o and £35m of Camp Nou cash exchange clubs with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But what of the Premier League’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 Champions League remains the one jewel missing from Chelsea’s crown. They come close 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 silverware.
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 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 to be a blessing in disguise for the Blues.
Arsenal are the final English representatives. 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 Andrey 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 Lionel 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. Florentino Perez is back in the president’s chair and wasted no time in bringing Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema to Madrid, to name but four. Will it take the newly assembled side too long to gel 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 challenge. 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.
The next 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 ageing but talented and experienced squad from his predecessor. 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 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 compliment the industrious Esteban Cambiasso. The 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 rivals. 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 Franck Ribery, and Arjen Robben should prove to be a superb bit of business coming in from Real Madrid, but recent years have promised much and delivered very little at the Allianz Arena. Likewise in France, the traditionally strongest outfit Lyon have lost the 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 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. They’ll be thrills and spills aplenty on the route to the final on 22 May, 2010, at Madrid’s magnificent Santiago Bernabeu stadium.