Thursday, 17 September 2015

Champions League 2015-16: The Favourites

by Oliver Clark

This seasons Champions League main stages will kick off again on September 15th, with the final due to be played in Milan's San Siro on May 28th. According to numerous betting websites, there are 3 clear favourites for the competition, and somewhat unsurprisingly, it is the 3 most recent winners of the competition, last year's victors FC Barcelona, 2014 champions Real Madrid, and German giants Bayern München. Various sites view them in different orders, and so I will give a run down on the transfers each team has made and their respective chances of success, as well as a look at chances of a first English Champions League success since 2012.

Arda Turan
Barcelona - Last year's Champions certainly look like strong candidates to be the first team to win successive Champions League's since A.C Milan in 1989/90. Have they upgraded their squad in this summers transfer window? No, with the exception of Turkish winger Arda Turan acquired from rivals  Atletico Madrid (who cannot play until January due to the current transfer embargo). Although the player possesses a large amount of talent, he is likely to only be part of a midfield rotation providing depth, not a major game changer such as the signings of Neymar and Luis Suarez of last year. However, is the lack of signings an issue? On the face of things, no. Barca were a cut above the rest last year, with a great balance of attacking flare and defensive consistency. They also have a great mix of youth and experience across the pitch. There are however two crucial issues that Barca will have to face this year. The first of those, cliché as it is: History. No team has managed to retain the title since the modern format of the competition was introduced, and although it seems like a poor reason to discount a team, there have been numerous teams who were expected to dominate European football following a Champions League win (most recently Bayern in 2013 and Barcelona in 2011) who then have struggled to get back to the final in following years. Another potential stumbling block for Barcelona could be a lack of squad depth. Messi, Neymar and Suarez, the MSN trio that dominated football last year all managed to stay fit for the vast majority of last season, but Barca have yet to be tested when more than 1 of the three players have been unavailable. If they suffer the same fate as Bayern did towards the end of last season, this may prove to be the downfall of the Spanish club due to a lack of threats beyond their starting 11. The loss of Pedro to Chelsea may be crucial, as this leaves only Sandro and Munir as back-up to the big 3, two players who are far from the calibre of player you want to be leading a Champions League contending side. I still expect a run to the semi-final for the Catalan side, but fate will once again win over as the wait for a successful Champions League defence continues.

Iker Casillas
Real Madrid - It has been a torrid few months for the Galacticos. A disappointing season where they failed to challenge for the League and fell at the semi finals of the Champions League to a far inferior Juventus team, has been followed by the firing of manager Carlo Ancelloti and the appointment of former Liverpool, Chelsea and Napoli manager Rafa Benitez. This was followed by numerous issues throughout the summer, including the eventual sale of the clubs legendary veteran Goalkeeper Iker Casillas to Porto (a decision met with huge scrutiny by the footballing community, mainly due to how poorly Casillas was treated in his removal), the eventual last minute failed acquisition of David de Gea after over 3 months of twists and turns, and the struggle to meet the wage demands of new club captain Sergio Ramos. There have also been rumblings of discontent amongst players adjusting to the new manager, with Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo making headlines for their antics. Ignoring off the pitch incidents, Madrid have never looked stronger on paper, with almost unfair depth in every single position on the pitch (the one exception being their centre forward/striker position, with Karim Benzema facing no real competition for his starting 11 space).  However, towards the end of last season, there appeared to be an air of doubt in the team. Gareth Bale still had still not fully settled into the team, key players such as Toni Kroos, Luca Modric, Benzema and Isco would go anonymous in countless crucial fixtures, most notably both legs of their Champions League semi final against Juventus, and the team was simply not gelling as a unit. Will a new coach in Rafa Benitez, a manager who throughout his career has split opinions in his style and techniques, inspire some life into this Madrid team full of stars but apparently lacking the confidence and motivation to work to their full potential of European supremacy? Will the lack of a world class keeper like Casillas or de Gea ultimately lead to dropped points? Will the egos of stars such as Ronaldo and Ramos get in the way of the teams success. In my opinion, yes. Although I could see Real once again reaching a respectable quarter final, I believe that they will ultimately once again falter when the stakes are raised.

Arturo Vidal
FC Bayern München - As Pep Guardiola enters the third and final year of his contract at the club, if he wishes to be offered the chance to remain at the club, he needs to deliver European success. Bayern have fallen convincingly in the semi-finals of the competition to the fore mentioned Spanish sides, 5-0 on aggregate to Madrid in 2014 and 5-3 to Barca in 2015. Now although falling to the eventual champions at the second from final hurdle in successive years may be deemed as a huge achievement for other clubs, fans of the Bavarian outfit are becoming unsettled (some of whom claim that Guardiola's appointment was a sabotage mission in order for the Spanish clubs to regain European authority!). In regards to transfers, Bayern, despite losing club legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, have done extremely well in the market, acquiring Douglas Costa, a winger who despite only playing a handful of games is already looking like a successor to injury prone Frank Ribery (despite possessing a tendency to pass when shooting is the better option) and Arturo Vidal, the feisty midfielder who was the centrepiece of Juventus' run to the final, both at relatively cheap bargains in comparison to some highly inflated prices this summer (yes Raheen Sterling, that one is for you). What worries me about Bayern is their current lack of identity. Guardiola appears to be implying a system that simply does not fit the players, with 3 at the back, forcing Phillip Lahm into defensive midfield and reducing the attacking prowess of David Alaba. If Bayern are able to once again find the German powerhouse identity that they possessed in 2013 (hopefully reverting back to a 4-2-3-1 formation), I believe that they have the squad depth to win the competition. If they fail to do this, I could realistically see the club falling at a stage as early as the quarter finals, a sight we have not seen since they fell in the last 16 in 2011, and the Guardiola reign will be seen as a dark period for the German Giants in European football.

So what about the English clubs?

Last season marked a low point for English clubs in European football, with all sides having been eliminated before the quarter final stage. With Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and a returning Manchester United representing England in the top club competition, will there be any redemption? Whereas the favourites are almost guaranteed to reach the latter stages of tournaments, English clubs are far more dependant on the luck of the draw upon exiting the groups. I believe each team has the capability to exit the group stages in one of the top 2 positions this year, but the importance of finishing first instead of second is more apparent than ever. Chelsea and Manchester United both have been drawn into relatively easy groups, but the ability to secure top spot may be difficult if they continue the questionable form of the first few matches of the season. Arsenal should still be confident of a runners up spot in their group featuring Bayern, but as shown by their last 16 matches with Monaco last year, their consistency is a major issue even against supposedly inferior teams. Ultimately, I believe due to the quality of their signings and defensive strength, Manchester City pose the greatest threat to Europe's elite, despite facing the most difficult group of all the English clubs. They have the goals in them, with Sergio Aguero being arguably a strong contender for third best player in the world, and signings such as Raheen Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne will inject more flair into the City team that has looked jaded in Europe the last 2 seasons. However, their form in Europe has been far from the calibre that you would expect from a squad worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Will their poor form in Europe continue for a fourth consecutive season? Only time will tell, they have the players if a top European side, but do they have bottle?
The Dark Horses

So I run you through the favourites and have still not given you an answer to the initial question? I believe that if Bayern do not lift the trophy, it could be the turn of a dark horse to take the crown. Paris Saint Germain have a squad that now looks good enough to compete with the worlds best, the signing of Angel di Maria injecting a bit of pace and trickery into a midfield already filled with star quality players. Although this season is perhaps the hardest to predict a winner due to the increasing amount of talent in the competition, I think we can all agree that it shall be great to watch!

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