The road to Berlin has begun. That is where, on the night of June 6, 2015 at the Olympiastadion, the new Champions League winners will be crowned. Before then, however, there are stories to be written; 32 teams, 93 matches, and an unquantifiable amount of goals, drama and heartache. Let’s get into the bones of the competition by dissecting ten major talking points of the Champions League.
Mourinho’s Quest Continues
If anything pierces the impenetrable wall of self-confidence that Jose Mourinho has constructed around himself during a career of coaching excellence, it’s the reminder that he has failed to win the Champions League with Chelsea. It must surely rankle; Mourinho guided Porto to triumph in 2004 and repeated the achievement with Internazionale in 2010 but won’t feel complete until he’s delivered it for the Premier League club. He won’t have overlooked the fact that Roberto Di Matteo coached Chelsea to the trophy in 2012. Now into the second season of his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho has a squad capable of mounting a serious challenge – Diego Costa and Loic Remy are ridiculously good upgrades on Fernando Torres and Demba Ba, while Cesc Fabregas adds creativity and guile to the midfield. The group stage should be a breeze for them.
You have to admire Real Madrid. How many other clubs would win the world’s most prestigious club tournament and then proceed to dismantle the heart of the team? That’s exactly what the La Liga club have done, reconstructing their midfield by selling on Xabi Alonso and Angel di Maria. True, their direct replacements are undeniably talented, but James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos bring different qualities to the group and there’s a suspicion Real may have again pursued a Galactico policy of sacrificing team shape for superstar presence. With holding midfielder Sami Khedira struggling with knee and hamstring injuries, there’s a lot of expectation on Asier Illarremendi. Will Real’s attack-heavy strategy backfire on them in the knockout stages? Maybe not – Vernons.com still have them as tournament favourites.
The return of Liverpool
Champions League nights at Anfield guarantee a special atmosphere and returning to the competition for the first time since the 2009-10 season means there’ll be a collective hunger from players and supporters whenever The Reds take to the field . “It’s the number one competition in the world to play in,” captain Steven Gerrard told the Mirror recently. The preparation could have been better; Liverpool will be without Daniel Sturridge for the first of their group matches and possibly longer, depending on his recovery from a thigh injury. But Liverpool should certainly fare better than the club’s last experience, when they exited at the group stages. Brendan Rodgers’ team will be hugely disappointed if they fail to finish above both Basel and Ludogrets.
What have Atletico got left?
Atletico were arguably the neutrals’ team of choice last season. Ballsy and brave, they had the temerity to break the Barcelona-Real Madrid domestic dominance in Spain by winning the La Liga title, and were literally within seconds of lifting the Champions League before Real equalised deep into injury time and ran away with it in extra time. It will be fascinating to see how the club respond in 2014-15. Atletico have lost Diego Costa, their primary goalscorer, and left-back Felipe Luis – both to Chelsea – but the club has actually bought very well, with Mario Mandzukic and Alessio Cerci more than capable of replacing Costa. The real steal is French winger Antoine Griezmann, however. Driven on relentlessly by their animated coach Diego Simeone, Atletico should be a difficult opponent for anyone.
The Pep Project
Pep Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich will probably be judged a success or failure based exclusively on whether he wins the Champions League. After all, the parting shot from the man he succeeded at Bayern, Jupp Heynckes, was securing the trophy with a 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund in 2013. A hard act to follow. Last season’s attempt ended horribly, with a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid, which must have hurt Guardiola, former coach of Barcelona, immensely. Transfer policy has been shrewd evolution over revolution though, at £22m, the Roma centre-back Mehdi Benatia is a big investment and the free signing of Robert Lewandoswki from Dortmund will be significant. The most intriguing arrival is Alonso, from Real – a player Guardiola has had a chequered history with according to this article on ESPN.
Bayern have been pitched in a pig of a group, incidentally: Group E includes Manchester City and Roma.
Ludogorets – the ultimate minnows
The remarkable story of Ludogorets lives on into the competition proper. The Bulgarian club are possibly the ultimate minnows, and their qualification journey will long be remembered. Trailing to Steaua Bucharest in the second leg of qualifying, a 90th minute equaliser took the tie to extra time, but not before goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off. Central defender Cosmin Moti donned the gloves – and saved twice in the deciding penalty shoot out. “I was just taking last-second decisions on where to jump,” he told UEFA.com. “Sometimes in training I pretend to be a goalie but it’s the first time I’ve done it with gloves.” Ludogrets’ reward are dream fixtures against Liverpool and Real Madrid. Could be fun.
Just the name is enough to get the pulse racing. Luis Suarez in a Barcelona shirt – the levels of anticipation may just go through the roof. His suspension, imposed after that biting incident during the World Cup, expires at midnight on October 24 so the Uruguayan won’t be available for Champions League action until Matchday Four when Barcelona travel to Ajax (coincidentally one of his former clubs). The flaws in his character may never be corrected but the striker remains tremendously gifted and capable of brilliance. Once he’s been fully assimilated into the Barca style, he may genuinely overshadow Lionel Messi as the player to watch.
Will Manchester City ever make the grade?
Premier League champions? Been there, done that. If Manchester City are ever going to make the transition from domestic title winners to one of Europe’s truly great clubs, they have to win the Champions League. Until that happens, they will always be in the shadow of those who have, including, of course, their Manchester rivals. For the past three seasons City have failed to make any discernable impression, falling at the group stage in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and then last season beaten in the first knockout round by Barcelona. In fairness, they’ve always been drawn in tough groups and this season is no different, alongside CSKA Moscow, Bayern Munich (City faced both last year, too) and Roma.
The Serie A revival is long overdue
Much has been written about the demise of Italian clubs in the Champions League, perhaps unfairly: it was only four seasons ago that Inter (2010) won the trophy while Milan succeeded in 2007 and before that, 2003. But the struggles of Serie A clubs become clearer when analysed further. No Italian team has even reached the semi-finals in the last four seasons and in 2013-14 the nation wasn’t represented in the quarter-final stage. There are just two Italian clubs in this year’s competition. Juventus would seem the best placed to progress, though early season injuries to Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal, Andreas Pirlo and Alvaro Morata need to clear up quickly. The Old Lady gave a poor showing last year, winning just one of six group matches. Roma are back after a three-season absence and have a difficult series of games to negotiate. They’re in Group E, Manchester City’s group. Ouch.
PSG’s back pain
Stop laughing – Paris St Germain have somewhat hilariously reunited the Brazilian World Cup central defensive partnership which was openly ridiculed during the summer. To be fair, Thiago Silva is rightfully recognised a top class centre-back and was absent from the team humiliated 7-1 by Germany but it’s unclear why the French side felt the need to spend around £40m on David Luiz. Luiz is a talented footballer going forward but susceptible defensively and too often caught out positionally. Group games against Barcelona could be painful and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may need to be at his goalscoring best if PSG are to progress.