Andy Townsend and Gareth Southgate have dusted off their average-looking suits and punditry shoes. The summer is over and the world’s biggest club competition is back, the Uefa Champions League. It won’t be long until we are serenaded with Tony Britten’s adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ performed by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Confused? As was I until a quick Wikipedia check 5 minutes ago. I am of course referring to the Champions League anthem played at the start of all Champs League matches. Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgomX3qD-iA if you are still confuzzled.
The 1990’s were generally a barren period for English clubs in the European Cup / Champions League. After the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985 where 39 fans were killed, English clubs were banned from European club football for 5 years. Whether this was fair or not, English clubs definitely suffered because of the ban. They could no longer attract the better players in Europe and many of their own went abroad for European competition, Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker for example. After a long spell of not being able to compete against Europe’s elite teams initially struggled after being introduced back to the European Cup. In fact in the first 14 years after the ban was lifted an English team reached the Champions League final ONCE, Man United’s unbelievable win in 1999.
Even United’s win was somewhat of a false dawn. It was then a further 6 years until we saw a team from Blighty in the final again, Liverpool with again another outrageous victory in 2005. Since then English teams have flourished with one of our clubs making the final every year apart from 2010. That is a fantastic record and one I hope we can continue. After an interesting transfer window I look ahead to what our 4 teams can do this year. Here goes, in alphabetical order:
After a quite traumatic transfer window, Arsenal currently sit 11th with 4 points from 4 games and a goal difference of -7. No, -7 is not a typing error. More than ever in his 15 year reign, Arsene Wenger is being questioned and this is a huge season for the Frenchman and his team. Arsenal lost Fabregas and Nasri in the transfer window and they needed to make several signings even before these two massive departures. After a deadline day spree can Arsenal be challenging for the big trophy at the end of the season?
Well Per Mertersacker is fairly proven and even if he performs poorly he is still big enough to at least scare some of Europe’s top strikers. The jury is out on left-back Andre Santos but he does have 22 Brazil caps to his name so does come with some pedigree. His influence however (good or bad) is unlikely to be season defining. Mikel Arteta? Cesc’s replacement? A decent player, no doubt about it. But minimal Champs League experience and no senior international caps? Hardly going make the Arsenal fans forget about Fabregas in a hurry. Nor is Yossi Benayoun I am afraid. Again he is certainly a player of quality but the ease in which Liverpool and then Chelsea let him move onto rival teams surely shows he’s not the most dangerous of players. Unfortunately BenTeta does not match up to NasRegas.
Arsene Wenger has a proven record of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League. Since 2003/04 when the tournament was expanded to have a last 16 phase, Arsenal have featured every year since in the latter stages. They have also been unfortunate to have come up against Barcelona for the last 2 years. With a not-so-easy but not-so-tough group of Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund I would expect Arsenal to once again be reaching the last 16 this season. However I wouldn’t look too much beyond that. If the draw doesn’t go right for them then I would think Arsenal will struggle. They are also in real danger of not finishing in the top 4 in the Premier League this year so the Champions League could be an unwanted distraction at times. I think the league will have to be their main focus this season, if they miss out on qualifiying for Europe’s major tournament then we could see a few more players and perhaps a manager saying “Au Revoir” next summer.
‘Chelski’ are a team in transition. They have a young, dynamic manager but unfortunately quite an ageing squad. Drogba, Lampard, Terry, Malouda, Anelka and A. Cole are all in their 30’s now. It will be a strain for these players to be at the top of their game in both the league and in Europe every week. ‘AVB’ has brought in younger players but you cannot transform a squad overnight. I think the signing of Juan Mata is very shrewd though, he’s a talented player and will add a creative spark that Chelsea have lacked in recent years.
Chelsea are a powerful team and I think they have rather an average group to face, compiled of Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Genk. Valencia are the main danger and they have been forced in recent years to sell off their main talents, Villa, Silva, Mata etc. Despite having ex-Blue Michael Ballack to bring back to the Bridge, Leverkusen also pose a modest threat. So I would expect Chelsea to top this group with relative ease. Like Arsenal though, I am not sure how they will cope against a European giant in the knockout stages.
Chelsea were found lacking last season against Man United in the quarters last year. I don’t think they have made the kind of signings to suggest this wouldn’t happen again. They could also do with locating the form of the striker formally known as Fernando Torres, who may have labelled his team mates old and slow recently (investigation pending). The Champs League is an obsession for Mr. Abramovich and in AVB he may have a manager who could deliver it - but not this season. Roman will have to be patient and allow AVB to build his team. One thing I think we may have learned from Roman though is that patience is not one of his finer qualities.
Well there is always a ‘group of death’ and this year Manchester City are supposedly in it. They are however one of the main reasons it is the group of death along with Bayern Munich. City always spend big in the summer but this year they have spent very well. Samir Nasri has undoubted quality but Sergio Aguero has been worryingly good since his arrival. With a resurgent Dzeko and the likes of Silva, Tevez and Yaya Toure in support, City are an obvious threat for any team in Europe.
This is a big step-up from the Europa League however. City have a large, talented squad but unlike the Champs League’s little brother, they will not be able to get away with fielding a second-string in Europe anymore. In fact, it didn’t work for them last year when they crashed out against Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League’s last 16. They do have players with European experience. However as a team they have never been challenging for the league and the European Cup at the same time. They are a title threat now and will be expected by their fans to push for both trophies, playing their biggest stars in both competitions.
Manchester City are always surprising and I definitely expect them to qualify if not win their group. They may reach the last 8, perhaps the last 4 but the final is a stretch too far, at least for the moment. Roberto Mancini has done well at Eastlands and let’s not forget this is a man who transformed Inter into what is now Italy’s dominant team. He won 3 Scudettos in a row but was sacked, why you all ask? He did naff all in the Champions League. So this is as big a test for Mancini as it is for his players. Due to challenging on both domestic and European fronts I don’t think City will be in the final Champions League shake-up, it’s a little too soon. As I say though, they are always surprising and I am sure they will be entertaining whatever happens.
United did their transfer business earlier in the summer and will of course be looking to make it 4 finals in 5 seasons next May. The signings of Ashley Young and Phil Jones have been somewhat inspired so far, David De Gea less so. He is still just 20 years old though so he will be afforded time. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have both impressed since their return from loan and all in all United have looked somewhat formidable so far.
The Red Devils have immense Champions League pedigree and a hardly fear-inspiring group of Benfica, Basel and er...Otelul Galati? Romania’s finest apparently. So it would be somewhat ludicrous for them not to reach the latter stages. United have played more and won more games than any other team in the Champions League so do not be surprised to see them in the last 4 at least. This though, or perhaps earlier, is where they may enter trouble.
United’s season was tainted last year by the absolute demolition they suffered from Barcelona. Since then Barca have welcomed home Cesc Fabregas into midfield. Who did United replace Paul Scholes with? Well apart from Cleverley’s return, no one. Despite Fergie apparently learning from his team’s dismantling and the fluid manner with which they have so far played, the gap between United and Barca remains. United’s early form suggests it is going to have be a colossal effort from their rivals to stop Nemanja Vidic lifting the league trophy in 2012. And I fully expect them to be in contention for this Champions League, only though if Barcelona can be disposed of by someone else. The lack of midfield signings and the psychological hold that Barca have on United implies that United will not be the ones to knock Guardiola’s men out this season. Barca were unbelievable and at times unplayable last year. If anyone else is to win the Champions League this time then you would have to think that they will have to slay the Catalan dragon along the way.
These are my humble forecasts for the impending Uefa Champions League 2011/12. As we have learnt too often in football, predictions can stand for nothing once the first whistle is blown. Or in this case when Tony Britten’s adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ performed by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is played.