UEFA Champions League 2013-14 Round of 16 Preview

It is only in four years that the UEFA Champions League is seen as a prelude to something even bigger down the road. It also provides Champions League an opportunity to establish the murmuring claims that FIFA World Cup is no longer the most sought after trophy in world football. With some mouth watering and some easy-on-face-value to be played out, Debojyoti Chakraborty comes up with a detailed preview of UEFA Champions League round of 16 in Goalden Times.

Breathtaking. Blockbuster. These were the first expressions I had when I came across the Champions League round of 16 clashes on 16th December, 2013, being drawn in Nyon by UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino, UEFA competitions director Giorgio Marchetti and Luis Figo, ambassador for the final to be held in his home city Lisbon on 24th May, 2014. These teams have come through the rigours of group stages and are supposedly the best 16 teams of the continent. So a tie involving any two of these teams – starting on 18th February and culminating on 19th March, 2014 – should be a tough one on the paper. But even then there are few clashes which would catch a few more eyeballs compared to others which have eased mounting pressure on some managers. Let us dissect the ties to see what lies beneath.

Barcelona vs Manchester City

Manchester City, the star-studded (or assembled?) side, tipped by many to win the domestic league in England, is up against Barcelona, one of the legendary sides of modern era. Such has been the impact and wave created by the sky blue side, that none seem to realize that they are the only debutants at this stage of the competition in the mix of 16 teams. Loss of Sergio Aguero – at least for the first leg – that too in lethal form would no doubt be a tremendous blow for Manuel Pellegrini. But he will surely try to make the most of his knowledge of Malaga days to tame the Spanish giants. And he will get plenty of support from the Spanish internationals Alvaro Negredo, David Silva, Jesus Navas, ex-Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure and ex-director of football at Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain – the man who formed a unforgettable partnership with Pep Guardiola during his heydays. Citizens have already accounted for the defending champion Bayern Munich – which happens to be the only loss of the season for the German side – and they will not be in awe of the Catalans who are performing well below their standard. Just a small warning –after coming through a frustrating and injury hit 2013, a certain Lionel Messi has racked up 6 goals in 5 matches in February so far. Bad Omen for the Citizens!

Sergio Aguero will be missed in the first leg
Sergio Aguero will be missed in the first leg

Bayern Munich vs Arsenal

Bayern Munich are in red-hot form in their pursuit for the retention of the Champions League. If they can do so, they will become the first team to achieve this rare feat since the great Milan team of 1990. But they will face a tough opposition in the form of Arsenal. This will be a repeat match up from last season’s round of 16. And Philipp Lahm might not be playing mind games when he commented that Arsenal are “the toughest team we could have drawn”. After all they were beaten 2-0 at home by the Gunners in last year’s fixture. But the German champions, after their treble-winning season last year, have evolved even further under the supervision of Pep Guardiola. Arsenal have only themselves to blame. They not only lost to Napoli in the last group match, but also surrendered their chance to top their group and thus being drawn against possibly the toughest team in the competition. Bayern might just start as favourites, Arsenal fans may beg to differ. But one thing is for sure – we are going to witness a cracker of a match.

Arsenal will possibly face the toughest team in the competition
Arsenal will possibly face the toughest opponent in the competition

Atletico Madrid vs AC Milan

AC Milan is going through a transition period and entering the knock out stages of Champions League is a sort of achievement for the San Siro side. Languishing towards the end of top half in Serie A, newly appointed manager Clarence Seedorf knows that Milan will be absent from next season’s edition and hence would like to derive maximum out of this term. But they have been drawn against a highly inspiring Diego Simeone managed Atletico Madrid team. Not only are the Madrid side challenging for La Liga, they have fetched an impressive 16 points out of a maximum 18 in the group stage. With an attacking line up featuring David Villa and Diego Costa, the Colchoneros would look to eliminate the Italian challenge from this year’s competition.

David Villa and Diego Costa would look forward to a score a few against the Italians
David Villa and Diego Costa would look forward to a score a few against the Italians

Chelsea vs Galatasaray

Chelsea should be content with the opponent they have got. They could have been handed over a much stronger opponent at this stage of the competition. Galatasaray would be, on the other hand, buoyant after knocking off Juventus en route to the knockout stages. Jose Mourinho would also definitely not undermine the tricky first leg in front of a passionate and vocal Turkey crowd at Turk Telekom Arena. Neither would he want to make the homecoming of a certain Didier Drogba in the return leg a memorable one. After scoring an astonishing 157 goals in 341 matches for Chelsea, Drogba would not be wrong if he feels more at home in London. His strike force partner Burak Yilmaz also may want to justify his decision to snub Chelsea and stay in Turkey during the summer transfer window. But Galatasaray need a massive improvement, at least defensively, which cost them the most number of goals (14) in the group stage, among all the teams alive in the competition.

Drogba will return to the Stamford Bridge in the return leg
Drogba will return to the Stamford Bridge in the return leg

Real Madrid vs Schalke 04

The most successful team in the Champions League history, Real Madrid, is going through a lean phase in the competition by their own standards. Their last triumph came 11 long years back – since then they have been eliminated at the round of 16 stage six times. But the newly crowned FIFA World Footballer of the Year, Balon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo will have his sight set on this year’s trophy. Having already set up a competition record of maximum (9) number of goals scored during the group stages with only five appearances, Ronaldo would give his all to get La Decima home. Presenting a challenge to Los Blancos is Schalke 04. New manager Jens Keller is yet to find a formation and role to suitably accommodate both Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler. After progressing through a relatively easier group, if Schalke wants to have any chance of putting up a fight against Real Madrid, they need to sort out this problem very quickly.

Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler : Will they play together ?
Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler : Will they play together ?

Manchester United vs Olympiacos

During a dismal Premier League campaign, the Champions League provides a welcome break for the struggling David Moyes and his Manchester United side. Not only do they got a relatively easier draw, the sell of main striker Kostas Mitroglou makes the tie even more daunting for the Greek side. Wayne Rooney might not have scored many but he leads the assists chart (6). On the other hand, David de Gea has kept the most (4) number of clean sheets. It looks likely that the Red Devils would be continuing their impressive showing against all Greek opponents in the competition – seven meetings so far with a 100% win record.

Wayne Rooney : Most number of assists in Champions League this year
Wayne Rooney : Most number of assists in Champions League this year

Paris Saint-Germain vs Bayer Leverkusen

This is the only tie where a team can break the dominance of Holy Trinity. PSG remains the only team capable of challenging for the title alongside the Spanish, German and English sides. And they get a very winnable proposition in the form of Bayer Leverkusen. Leverkusen is one of the very few sides to progress this far in the competition with a negative goal difference. This is even more baffling for a side marshalled by such a competent ex-defender like Sami Hyypia. No wonder that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani should be licking their lips in prospect of a leaking defense.

Zlatan - Edison - Duo to watch
Zlatan – Edison : Duo to watch out for

Borussia Dortmund vs FC Zenit

If the Russian team wants to be competitive against the last season’s runner up, then they have to make it count in the (freezing) first leg at home. Zenit qualified from the group stages with a mere 6 points and a solitary win,least among all the qualifiers. Zenit shot stopper Yuri Lodygin though has been in excellent form as he has made the most number of saves (30) so far in the competition. On the other hand, Dortmund topped a very difficult group that saw Napoli bow out even after being equal on points (12) with both Dortmund and Arsenal. So the German outfit might argue they rightly deserved the rub of the green in the first knockout stage draw. Even with their unconvincing form in the Bundesliga, they should be able to win this tie quite comprehensively.

Yuri Lodygin : the most number of saves in  Champions League this year
Yuri Lodygin : the most number of saves in Champions League this year

Trivia

● Manchester United, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are still unbeaten in the tournament. Diego Simeone can rightfully claim his side to be the best in Madrid and thus Atletico’s impressive run does not come as a surprise. Real is also not surrendering the city honours and keeping their reputation unharmed. What is amazing is the contrasting fortunes of the Manchester sides domestically and in the continent. It will be fascinating to see how long these three teams can keep their records intact.

● Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have notched up maximum points (16) in the group stage.

● Among the 16 teams in the knockout stage, with one win and three draws in the group stage, Zenit have qualified with least points (6). Napoli, on the other hand, were heartbroken as they got eliminated even after getting to 12 points, same as the group topper Dortmund and runner-up Arsenal.

● Olympique Marseille got the wooden spoon as they bowed out from the group stage without any point.

● 277 goals have been scored in the group stages, 2.89 per match on an average. This figure is expected to come down in the knockout stages as the weaker teams get filtered out eventually.Last season 284 goals were scored,at an average of 2.96 goals per match in the group stage. The average came down to 2.75 in the round of 16.

● Real Madrid lead the goal scoring charts with 20 goals.

Real Madrid strikers are in a terrific form this year
Real Madrid strikers are in a terrific form this year

● Real also enter the knockout stages with the best goal difference of 15.

● Zenit have scored the least number of times (5) among the teams featuring in the round of 16. In the group stage, Real Sociedad scored the least overall – only once.

● Atletico Madrid, along with Manchester United and Chelsea, have been the meanest of them all defensively. They have conceded just three goals in the group stage. Among the three teams, Chelsea’s feat is quite astonishing considering that they were beaten twice in the group stages.

● Galatasaray have the worst defensive record; they have conceded 14 goals so far.

While some in UEFA are contemplating how to spread the beautiful game towards unheralded territories, it is worth noting that the traditional powerhouses are not letting it go so easily. Decline of the Azzuris is a sickening site but unfortunately no other new nation has emerged to grab the limelight. Even though the final 16 teams have representatives from eight different countries, England, Germany and Spain count for 11 of them. And there is very realistic chance that they will outmuscle others to reach the next stage of the competition. Goalden Times will be with you through out the journey. Follow football, follow us.

Spanish Corner | Looking beyond FC Barcelona and Real Madrid

In this feature we will bring in stories from Spain. In the first of its series, Indranath Mukherjee looks beyond Barça and Real Madrid and shows how Spanish football is more than the sum of the two giants

The 2012-13 La Liga season started earlier than usual and after five games, FC Barcelona is sitting at the top of the table with a perfect record while the defending champions, Real Madrid are 8 points behind. But we all know that by the end of the season the 7 teams that separate the two champion sides will fail to keep pace and the league will turn out to be a two-horse race.  To quote José Mourinho, Barcelona and Real Madrid will make any football league in the world a two-horse race. On the basis of the last two-three years, there is merit in what José has said. Look at the nominees for the Ballon d’Or awards for the last few years and you will see that arguably the best players of the world today play for either of the two clubs. They have been playing incredible football weekend after weekend and it’s not easy to end the season with 99 or 100 points, however superior they may be, compared to rest of the clubs in the league. Barcelona and Real Madrid look like two sides from a different planet and we shall talk about their rivalry throughout the season. But for now let us turn our attention to the other clubs in Spain and see if there’s an interesting story somewhere.

Football is a way of life in Spain and it reflects the country’s regional cultures much more than any other country in Europe. Each region feels so special about their identity that many could even take offense to the term ‘Spanish’ in the title of the story. Many pundits call the Europa League the true test of a league’s depth and if there is any element of truth in it then La Liga would certainly claim to be one of the strongest leagues in the world. And this is despite the criminally discriminating television rights that are systematically destroying any possibility of the other clubs to be competitive in the league. Yet Spanish football cannot be about its two giants only.

Most recently, we saw Atlético Madrid completely destroying the Champions League winners, Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup final. Last year, in the UEFA Europa League we saw how Athletic Bilbao dominated Manchester United both home and away. Valencia was perhaps a relatively familiar name in Europe even before the beginning of the millennium. They, in fact, made it to consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 but football historians perhaps remember them from the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup final when they beat Arsenal FC 5-4 on penalties. Celta de Vigo came from the wilds of Galicia to knock out Aston Villa and Liverpool, in the 1998-99 UEFA Cup. Deportivo de La Coruña, from the same region, won La Liga in 1999-2000 in some style finishing five points ahead of the runners-up Barcelona. In 1999, Real Mallorca from the Balearic Islands stormed into the final of the last Cup Winners’ Cup only to lose out 2-1 to Lazio at Villa Park in Birmingham. The rise of Alavés, in 2001, was brief but astonishing to say the least. In the 2001 UEFA Cup final at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund they came from behind twice to finish the match 4-4 against Liverpool. Pool went on to win the final on the golden goal rule, thanks to a Delfí Geli header in his own net and thus completed a treble of Football League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.

Valencia Club de Fútbol came into European prominence after winning the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1980

 

With the advent of the likes of ESPN, Sky Sports, Eurosports, Ten Sports and more importantly the World Wide Web, football fans across the world now know a lot more about Spanish football. For instance, they know that there exists another football club in Barcelona called Espanyol, but what they may not know is that the club have officially changed the spelling of their name in Catalan since 1994, using the ‘y’ in place of the previous Castilian ‘ñ’, as in Español, the provocative name given to them back in 1902.

Villarreal CF, the small town club in the province of Castellón within the Valencian Community won the Intertoto Cup in 2003-04, thus qualifying for the old UEFA Cup where they went on to reach the semi-finals only to lose out to the eventual champions, Valencia CF. But their dream season in Europe was 2005-06 when they qualified for the UEFA Champions League by defeating Everton in the play-off. In the group stage, they had drawn both their games with Manchester United and eliminated Internazionale on away goals in the quarter-finals. They went out in the semi-final against Arsenal after Jens Lehmann saved a Juan Román Riquelme penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg at Villarreal. But by then The Yellow Submarine had won the hearts of millions of football fans across the globe.

Miguel Pérez Cuesta, nicknamed Michu, has gained instant popularity in England for his display at Swansea City. Folks there know that he hails from Rayo Vallecano, a football club based in Madrid, in the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Another Madrid club, Getafe made it to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2007-08 and gave a gutsy performance against Bayern Munich to draw 3-3 in Madrid but lost out on aggregate.

Three Spanish clubs have won five of the last nine UEFA Cup / Europa League competitions, and we are not talking about Barcelona or Real Madrid here. This in itself is ample testimony to the fact that Spanish football is more than the sum of the Madrid and Catalan giants.

The infamous missed penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg of the UCL semi-final against Arsenal

 

The football rivalry within Spain also goes beyond Madrid and Barcelona and by some distance. The rivalry in Spain exists in two layers: one among clubs competing from different regions and the other among clubs competing from the same city. The atrocious animosity that exists between Sevilla and Betis, for instance, may make the British derbies, except the Glasgow one, look like friendly matches. The primary difference between the two clubs stems from a socio-economic divide – Betis representing the relatively poorer, working class in the city while Sevilla is more a club of the bourgeois. We know that there is no discrete charm in the coexistence of the working class and the prosperous ones anywhere in the world; the economic gap between the two classes in Spain is much less than it is in England. Probably because football is a way of life in Spain, they need it to allow class consciousness to manifest itself. In 1998, when Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera announced the most expensive transfer of the season with the £22m acquisition of the over-hyped Brazilian Denílson, it was actually a statement made to the other side of the city.

Another derby in Spain which is among the bitterest is the Asturian one, when Real Oviedo visit Sporting de Gijón, supporters apparently wear blue helmets (symbol of workmen) to avoid the barrage of objects thrown at them as they approach the stadium. This ‘throwing of objects’ is symbolic too; the residents of Gijón throw coals (symbolic, or even literal at times) to accuse the visitors of having more to eat at the onset of the civil war. Although the Asturians in general were anti-Francisco Franco, and Real Oviedo’s own suffering was no less heroic – the local interpretation is somewhat ironical.

Similar class differences get manifested, although to a much lesser extent, between Barcelona and Espanyol, Deportivo and Celta, and Real Madrid and Atlético; in the capital though the actual working class is represented by Rayo Vallecano. According to Vicente del Bosque, putting regional tensions aside has helped Spain achieve international success. There is apparent merit in what he says but if one looks at the Spanish society in general, sense of nationalism is still strong in Catalonia and the Basque Country. It’s that Spain now has a golden generation of footballers and in players like Xavi Hernández and Iker Casillas, Spain have found leaders who understand the worth of defending the national side. Otherwise for the Spanish, ‘Provenance is Everything’ and it will remain that way. Football will always be among the key, if not the medium, through which the differences between the social classes will get manifested.

Coming back to 2012-13 La Liga season, it’s still very young and we will keep talking about what’s happening, in the course of the next nine months. But for now, it’s great to have Deportivo back in the top flight!

UEFA Champions League 2012-13: Group Stage Preview

As the excitement and drama returns with the biggest club tournament in football, Debojyoti Chakraborty goes through the groups to see how the teams are shaping up for the contest this year

 

The Prelude

Barely had the transfer window closed and we had the group stage draw for the UEFA Champions League 2012-13 in Monaco on August 31. It is typically an event which prompts club representatives to take out a pen and a piece of paper, desperate to keep track of who-is-drawing-whom, quite oblivious of the fact that the internet will be flooded with them very shortly. Such is the adrenaline rush for this mega event – hailed as the greatest honour in world football – permutations and combinations dominate to predict which team will be pitted against whom. Like each year, teams were slotted in four pots according to their UEFA coefficients – a ranking system which takes into account the club’s historical and most recent performances in the tournament – with the top eight teams in Pot One and the bottom eight in Pot Four. The ranking system is somewhat dubious as except for one team, all others in Pot Four are domestic league winners. For the first time a team finishing as low as sixth in its domestic league featured in the draw as it was the automatic choice – reigning champions, Chelsea. It was already known that teams in the same pot or from the same country cannot be drawn against each other. But that did not prevent us from having some great matches in the group stage.

Pot 1

Pot 2

Pot 3

Pot 4

FC Barcelona

Valencia CF

Olympiacos FC

Celtic FC

Manchester United FC

SL Benfica

AFC Ajax

Borussia Dortmund

Chelsea FC

FC Shakhtar Donetsk

RSC Anderlecht

FC BATE Borisov

FC Bayern Munich

FC Zenit St. Petersburg

Juventus

GNK Dinamo Zagreb

Real Madrid CF

FC Schalke 04

FC Spartak Moscow

CFR 1907 Cluj

Arsenal FC

Manchester City FC

Paris Saint-Germain FC

Montpellier Hérault SC

FC Porto

SC Braga

LOSC Lille

Malaga CF

AC Milan

Dynamo Kyiv

Galatasaray S.K.

FC Nordsjaelland

Group A

FC Porto                 Dynamo Kyiv         Paris Saint-Germain             GNK Dinamo Zagreb

FC Porto:

FC Porto, the Portuguese champions have done remarkably well in the recent editions of this tournament and Vitor Pereira should be happy to be in a group which looks easy on paper. Being in Pot One helped but they have earned it through strong performances in Estádio do Dragão and away. Even after the departure of Hulk, with João Moutinho in form, this side would cause some problems to their more accomplished opponents in the later stages of Champions League.

Dynamo Kyiv:

After the heartbreak in the qualifying rounds last season, Dynamo Kyiv, runners-up in the Ukranian Premier League, are back in the Champions League following two consecutive gruelling qualifying ties. Manager Yuri Semin would be looking at the brighter side thinking his troops are already prepared for the biggest stage of them all. Following the retirement of Ukraine’s greatest ever player Andriy Shevchenko, there is no such ‘star’ in the team and their hopes will rely heavily on their performances at home in Olimpiyskyi National Sports Complex.

Paris Saint-Germain:

The big spending French club failed to win the Ligue 1 last season but still they enter the Champions League stage as one of the hot favourites. Carlo Ancelotti knows he has to bring some honour to Parc des Princes in his second season in charge. And there is no reason why he cannot achieve that with the backing of oil-rich Qatar Sport Investment group. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva, Lucas Moura, Marco Verratti, Ezequiel Lavezzi – there is too much talent everywhere and it only needs to be directed through the right channel.

GNK Dinamo Zagreb:

They are the Croat champions but they bowed out of the Champions League last season finishing bottom of their group. Ante Čačić had a dreadful debut season, but he might just get second-time-lucky as the manager of this hardworking team. Watch out for Duje Čop, who has a thunderbolt but is criticized often for overusing that. He has already showed his knack of goal-scoring in the three qualifying ties. Their other weapon would be Stadion Maksimir which is nothing short of a fortress for them.

Group B

Arsenal FC            FC Schalke 04       Olympiacos FC      Montpellier Hérault SC

 

Arsenal FC:

Lost 3-4 on aggregate to AC Milan in the ‘Round of 16’ last season. They have qualified for this year’s edition by securing the third and last automatic place from English Premier League. Arsene Wenger, in his 17th season in the club, has a challenge to prove that the Gunners are not a mere feeder club to the best clubs in world football. Any club will find it difficult to cope with the departure of one of the best strikers in the world – Robin van Persie. But with fresh arrivals in the form of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, there is new hope in the Emirates Stadium.

FC Schalke 04:

Huub Stevens guided Schalke 04 to third place in the Bundesliga en route to automatic qualification for Champions League after a hiatus of two years. The buoyant supporters from Veltins-Arena will pin their hopes on their star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who was prolific last season with a tally of 48 goals in all competitions. Besides, they have some young and home-grown players who are ready to take centre stage.

Olympiacos FC:

Champions of Greek Super League could not progress to the knock-out stages last season and they will have to pull up their socks if they are to do any better this time round. Manager Leonardo Jardim is in his debut season but quite a few in the squad will know a thing or two about the Gunners after hosting them in 2009 and 2011 campaign at Karaiskakis Stadium. Departure of frontman Kevin Mirallas, who netted 20 goals in the league, to Everton will be a major blow and it remains to be seen how well the Greek army cope with this challenge.

Montpellier Hérault SC:

Montpellier won their first ever league title last season and they are now ready to debut in this season’s Champions League. René Girard and his troop have shown a rare consistency to overpower their mighty domestic opponents and the same ruthlessness will be required if they want to progress in this year’s competition. But with the departure of their main goal-scorer, Olivier Giroud and their lack of squad depth likely to be exposed during the course of the campaign, Stade de la Mosson may not get much action in its debut season in Europe.

Group C

AC Milan                FC Zenit St. Petersburg             RSC Anderlecht                 Malaga CF

AC Milan:

Lost 1-3 in aggregate to Barcelona in the quarter-finals last season. Qualified for this season being runners-up in Serie A. Manager Massimiliano Allegri is in his third season at San Siro. It is time to rebuild for the Rossoneri. Their long serving soldiers have either retired (Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf) or have been shown the door (Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi); their talismanic star players (Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva) have been lured away from the Red and Black. Milan has a young team and their hopes will rely heavily on the new face, Giampaolo Pazzini. Still, being in a relatively easy group should help them.

FC Zenit St. Petersburg:

The Russian champions reached the knock-out stages of the competition last term and they would like to emulate that feat this year. Manager Luciano Spalletti should fancy his chances from this group especially if his side can take full advantage of the home matches in the Petrovsky Stadium. Andrei Arshavin, who was on loan from Arsenal, will be missed big time. Much of the burden will be on the shoulders of Hulk, the marquee signing of the season who is a proven goal-scorer at the continental stage.

RSC Anderlecht:

The Belgian Champions are coming into the competition through play-off after a year’s absence. It will be an acid test for their new man in charge, John van den Brom. They will play in Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. It is a team full of unknown names and faces. But this is the stage where jewels have been discovered in the past.

Malaga CF:

The great Malaga story reached its pinnacle as it qualified for the Champions’ League by finishing fourth in the La Liga and came through the qualifying rounds. Or is it only the start from La Rosaleda for Manuel Pellegrini and his boys? Only time will tell, but there is no denying that this Spanish side will not let it go so easily. Their financial problem meant a series of summer exits which has created a dearth in squad depth and that might turn out to be a bit of a downer for them.

Group D

Real Madrid CF           Manchester City   FC            AFC Ajax            Borussia Dortmund

Real Madrid CF:

The most successful club in the history of the competition were eliminated from the semi-final last season but they did win the La Liga quite comfortably. José Mourinho has found his feet at the Santiago Bernabéu. Anything less than a trophy is considered a failure and this is one trophy which they have not won since 2002. So teams beware! Watch out for Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, Iker Casillas, Sami Khedira, Luka Modric, Karim Benzama, Gonzalo Higuain and Co.

Manchester City FC:

It was nothing short of a horror show for the big spending English champions to finish third in the group stage last season. The City of Manchester faithful will not be as patient as Roberto Mancini if they fail to make much wanted progress this term. This should not be too difficult with the talent and depth Manchester City have, even though they did not bolster their squad in the summer transfer window. Only thing is that they have been drawn against three other major European Champions and this could be another reality check for them.

AFC Ajax:

Bowed out of the competition in the group stages last year but claimed the Dutch Eredivisie. Manager Frank de Boer will expect a better outing in his third season in charge at Amsterdam Arena. It will be interesting to see how much Christian Eriksen can inspire Ajax to progress beyond the Group of Death. He does not seem to have much support apart from an ageing Christian Poulsen and some young lesser known players.

Borussia Dortmund:

Borussia Dortmund had a contrasting season last time – while they won the German Bundesliga they got the wooden spoon in the Champions League. With some of the finest young talents – Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski – at his disposal, Jürgen Klopp would be disappointed if he cannot march his team to the knock-out stages. At least the Westfalenstadion faithful will not accept another failure at the world stage.

Group E

Chelsea FC             FC Shakhtar Donetsk           Juventus                FC Nordsjaelland

Chelsea FC:

Current champions. They had to win it to qualify for the Champions League as they failed to finish in the top four in English Premier League. Roberto Di Matteo won it as a care-taker manager and got the job on a permanent basis. That is history now. Following the summer exodus – Didier Drogba, Jose Bosingwa, Solomon Kalou – and induction of fresh blood – Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Oscar, Marko Marin – Chelsea look a completely new side, and a refreshing one at that.  The trophy has found a home at Stamford Bridge and The Blues will be on a mission to retain it.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk:

The Ukrainian champions did not create much of an impression last season as they finished rock bottom in the group. This was unexpected as they reached the last eight in the 2010-11 season only to be eliminated by the eventual winners, Barcelona. But Mircea Lucescu has been in charge at Donbass Arena for close to a decade and he knows how to plug the holes. The job is not easy though and a progress to the next round may just prove his biggest ever achievement.

Juventus:

Leaving their match-fixing scandals behind, the Turin club was crowned the Serie A champions last season. But their manager, Antonio Conte is still suffering from the scar as he is to sit out of the entire campaign and assistant coach Massimo Carrera will take charge for the Champions League matches. This is not an ideal set up, but like the Azzuri adversity might just prove to be an inspiration for the club from Juventus Stadium. With the experience of Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo at hand – especially the latter operating at the fulcrum of an intriguing 3-5-2 system – should see them through to the knock-out stages and beyond.

FC Nordsjaelland:

The Danish champions are making their debut this season. Known as a club dedicated to youth development, 2011-12 was a milestone season for them as they won the domestic title for the first time. Only Andreas Laudrup may draw some attention due to his more illustrious father, the legendary Dane, Michael Laudrup. Kasper Hjulmand has rightly set his sight to embrace the moment and not to overburden his young side with unrealistic expectations. It will be a huge occasion for some 10,000 odd spectators at Farum Park and they should enjoy the moment without thinking too much ahead.

Group F

FC Bayern Munich               Valencia CF            LOSC Lille              FC BATE Borisov

FC Bayern Munich:

Last year’s runners-up (runners-up in the German Bundesliga too) have bolstered their squad with some marquee signings – Xherdan Shaqiri, Mario Mandžukić and Javi Martinez. The latter will be expected to set the stage on fire, with his calibre and more so for his $50 million transfer price tag. Jupp Heynckes is back in charge for his third spell at Allianz Arena and he would have set his sight on making three finals in four years.

Valencia CF:

Valencia qualifies for the tournament finishing third in La Liga. With a new manager, Mauricio Pellegrino at the helm in Mestalla, they will look to do better than last year’s group stage exit. The club have seen a busy summer where star players, like Jordi Alba, have left but they have also ensured that there is no dearth of talent with the inclusion of Sergio Canales, Fernando Gago and Nelson Valdez. Canales, in particular, could be a star in the making if he can shed aside his injury woes and that will do no harm to Valencia’s chances.

LOSC Lille:

Another team to finish rock bottom in the group stages last year, Lille had to see off the rigours of qualifying rounds after finishing third in Ligue 1. With the departure of key player Eden Hazard life will not be easy for Rudi Garcia. Fans in the newly opened Grand Stade Lille Métropole and away will hope this will not deter their hopes. Just for football fans, Lille should progress through to the knock-out stages with their Barcelona-esque style of play where players roam around to create open spaces and finish opposition off with breathtaking passing.

FC BATE Borisov:

They finished fourth in the group last season and their manager Viktor Goncharenko would like to have a better outing this time round. They were crowned with the league title in Belarus and are ready to go with three back-to-back  wins en route to the final stage of Champions League. Their City Stadium faithful will be looking up to their own child, Alexander Hleb for inspiration but progressing to the next stage will be a tough ask.

Group G

FC Barcelona             SL Benfica               FC Spartak Moscow               Celtic FC 

 

FC Barcelona:

Back in the competition after a disastrous season by their own standards – crashed out of Champions League after losing to Chelsea on 2-3 aggregate and came second best in La Liga. Tito Villanova would like to continue the tradition of tiki-taka with a more or less settled team. If they had any weak points, they have addressed that with the signing of left-back Jordi Alba. Watch out for another great goal feast ahead, at least in Camp Nou.

 

SL Benfica:

Although they came second in the domestic league, Benfica topped the group last time which had Manchester United. Their progress was stalled by eventual winners Chelsea in the last eight but Jorge Jesus, their manager would be proud of their achievements. Benfica play their home matches in Estádio da Luz and are known to be the club with most number of supporters worldwide. Nicolás Gaitan impressed one and all last season and it would be him and a bunch of young, lesser known but highly skilful players who would like to carry their good form ahead.

FC Spartak Moscow:

Spartak Moscow finished second in the Russian Premier League and were drawn against the Turkey runners-up Fenerbahçe in the qualifying round. They earned a hard-fought 3-2 win on aggregate to announce their return to the biggest club tournament in the world. Home matches in the freezing conditions of Luzhniki Stadium would be a big plus to Unai Emery and his team. They need to take full advantage of that if they wish to have any hopes of progressing through to the next round.

Celtic FC:

The Scottish champions appear in the final stages of Champions League after a gap of four years through qualifying round. Neil Lennon will know his side will fight hard for each and every ball but he must be realistic about his team’s chances of progressing through to the knock-out stages. The Bhoys cannot afford to let their guard down at Celtic Park if they hope to salvage anything out of this campaign.

Group H

Manchester United FC           SC Braga              Galatasaray S.K.          CFR 1907 Cluj

Manchester United FC:

After a disastrous season where the Red Devils failed to progress to the knock-out stages of Champions League and lost the English Premier League to their city rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson looks to reshuffle his squad with the addition of star striker Robin van Persie and playmaker Shinji Kagawa. Old Trafford is buzzing with renewed hopes with the addition of RVP in particular, who netted 37 goals last season in all competitions. This should be a stroll in the park for them but easy groups do not always guarantee result as the gaffer would second.

SC Braga:

Coming to the competition after sealing a third spot in the Portuguese Superliga and then defeating Udinese in the play-offs, manager José Peseiro would like to mark his debut season with a notable performance. They do not have any big names to boast of, but their attacking flair would surely catch the eye. Expect some gripping performances, at least on their home turf in Estádio Municipal.

Galatasaray S.K.:

The Turkish champions are back in contention after last year’s absence. Fatih Terim should be positive about his team’s chances being drawn in an easy group. They have some real good players in Hamit Altintop, Felipe Melo, Emmanuel Eboué and Johan Elmander. It seems their home matches in Turk Telecom Arena will play a big role in their progress to the knock-out stages.

CFR 1907 Cluj:

The Romanian champions made it to the Champions league final stages through two play-off tie wins after a gap of two years. This is a relatively unknown club, who play their home matches in Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu, are full of young enthusiastic players without any big name and the man in charge, Ioan Andone is also in his first season at the club. But sometimes no expectation serves as a major booster for a team to play to their fullest potential under a relaxed environment.

Parting Shot

The power shift in Europe is quite eminent. While three clubs from EPL – barring Manchester City – featured in Pot One, La Liga’s dominance is largely concentrated in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Italy has only two representatives in the finals which is an indication of their domestic turmoil. Two contrasting features dictate the rise of two other nations – France and Portugal. While the former has spent massively to lure the best talents across the globe, the latter has put together some strong performances over the years to climb the ladder. There are 17 nations participating in this year’s edition – no one knows who will emerge victorious, come May in London. To know about all that and much more: Follow Football, Follow us!


UEFA Champions League Final Preview

The biggest club team honour has reached its finale. Get the showdown of the Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty

 

FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs. Chelsea FC (ENG)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

May 19, 2012

14:45 ET

19:45 GMT

00:15 IST (May 20, 2012)

 

After two contrasting semi-final ties, we have the two finalists for UEFA Champions League 2012. Bayern Munich, playing at home, will take on the surprise opponent in Chelsea. Not a line-up many had expected, rather another El Clasico was being anticipated as soon as the road to final was clear following the quarter-final draw. Purists may argue that the best team in Europe, or possibly the best team ever, has not featured in this year’s final. But one must remember that the finalists have come thus far by knocking out the so-called best teams. Chelsea have shown us what a strong, determined and organized defence can achieve even against the fearsome display of attacking football. The two matches of Chelsea against Barcelona, especially the away leg once their inspirational captain John Terry was sent off for an off-the-ball incident through a straight red card, showcased an amazing strength of character. It established the fact that defensive tactics can also be engrossing, a team can fight against all odds as well as the statistics if they can keep their shape. It also proved that there is no point having the lion’s share of possession with more shots on target, during a match, if you fail to do the single most critical thing – score a Goal. Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo had admitted that his side would require a bit of luck to upset Barcelona and there is no denying the fact that Chelsea have been fortunate. The Catalans  hit the post four times over the two-legged tie besides missing lots of clear cut chances to add to the penalty miss by Lionel Messi. But Chelsea took the opportunities when presented. Playing with 10 men away from home, in front of a buoyant Camp Nou crowd, they took the lead through an audacious Ramires chip – no mean feat that. They might have been criticised for sitting back and hoping for the best, but their tactics have worked and they are in the Final of the Champions League – who cares how!

Stand up and be counted

Homecoming

 Bayern Munich on the other hand continued their fine showing in the competition. They have picked up at the right time and have been lethal as the tournament reached its knock-out stages. One has to think deeply amidst the hue and cry surrounding the goal-scoring duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that how can a player possibly score 40+ goals in domestic league? Surely the league is not sound in defence; Bayern surely caught Real Madrid off guard there. The German team showed no mercy for any defensive lapses Real presented them with and kept a tight back line – something the Spaniards are not used to back home. Besides, the Bavarians were proactive and took the game to the opponent even when 0-2 down at the Bernabéu. The German determination prevailed and they got one goal back which took the game to the penalty shoot-out. It is irony of fate that in one semi-final the better team over the two legs had to wait till the lottery of spot kicks to go through whereas in the other, the clear cut underdogs won easily – at least as per the score books (3-2 on aggregate).

Pressure will be on Bayern Munich as they enter their home turf at Fußball Arena München, to lift the biggest club team honour. The last time this had happened was way back in 1957 when Bayern’s semi-final opponents won the European Cup at the Bernabéu. Bayern’s midfield is in superb shape and it is vindicated by the fact that even a bad day in office (Franck Ribery at the Bernabéu) did not deter their chances too much.

 

Bayern will like to play a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which would change to 4-3-3 while not in possession of the ball. They have a makeshift centre-back pairing where Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is expected to start in the absence of suspended Holger Badstuber and injured Daniel van Buyten. This coupled with the suspension of David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo would make Toni Kroos to sit deeper as a safety valve in front of the back four. The lynchpin in the midfield will be the stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger – he will be responsible for dictating the tempo of the game and supplying the ball forward. Thomas Muller will be the most advanced among the midfield trio and would like to pressurize the Chelsea defenders as much as possible. The lone striker upfront, Mario Gomez is in superb form flanked by two deadly wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. The latter, in particular, has been lethal this season and the opposition wing-back will be in a dilemma to launch forward in presence of the Dutch assassin.

Chelsea will again enter the final on May 19 as underdogs – this might just suit them as there will hardly be any pressure to deal with. Following a season which has seen their domestic campaign fall apart, reaching the finals of the Champions League in itself is a massive achievement, that too under the  supervision of a caretaker boss (Avram Grant, anyone!).

 

With Captain John Terry, Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires missing through suspension, it won’t be surprising if Chelsea adopt a very defensive 4-5-1 approach once again. Garry Cahill is also a major doubt following his hamstring tear against Barcelona at the second leg of Champions League semi-final. If he fails to make it, Paulo Ferreira – with only one and a half Champions League games under his belt this season – might partner David Luiz, who is himself expected to be fit and available for the Bayern match. To shield the makeshift centre-halves, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel would be deployed as the holding midfielders who will complement each other in a double pivot role. Frank Lampard would like to link up with the front men whenever possible. But owing to injuries and age not being on their side, the midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are not the same players they used to be. It is likely to be a misfit against the superb Bayern midfield even in the absence of suspended Luiz Gustavo. On the wide right, Juan Mata would like to exploit any possible weakness in the German armour in the absence of Gustavo (left-sided midfielder), Alaba (left-back) and Badstuber (left centre-back). The opposite flank would be a toss-up between Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. Up front, the work-horse Didier Drogba would be fighting for everything with Fernando Torres being used as an impact player. It will be very interesting to see how Chelsea can keep a clean sheet. And if they happen to concede – which if they do, won’t raise many eyebrows as they are fitted against a well-oiled German horse – will they be more adventurous and push more bodies forward? If this happens, spectators will be in for a very open game of football.

Both Chelsea and Bayern have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout the season. Chelsea is still not sure if they would qualify for the next season’s finals. There is a controversy over dominance of senior players in the dressing room which has allegedly led to the premature sacking of former manager André Villas Boas. In a strange turn of events, the club which was heavily criticized for trying to buy a trophy is drawing unparalleled sympathy – for their underdog sticker as well as suspension ragged squad – at this stage of the campaign.

 

The Boss

Listen to me

Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have had to deal with egos of superstars for quite a while now.  Der Kaiser has often criticized the current bunch for their failure at the bigger stages. In a way he was asserting the glorious achievements of his own playing days. The chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is not far behind in blowing his (full) trumpet and that is not helping the team any bit but bogging them down with enormous pressure. Things have gone worse for them after surrendering the Bundesliga for two consecutive years due to some indifferent form. Their players are also nothing close to being innocent – Franck Ribery was recently involved in a brawl with Arjen Robben over a free-kick during the half-time of a match – which does not augment good team spirit.

Bayern Munich

Status

Chelsea

Status

Holger Badstuber (DF)

Suspended

David Luiz (DF)

Injured

Daniel van Buyten (DF)

Injured

Branislav Ivanovic (DF)

Suspended

Breno (DF)

Injured

John Terry (DF)

Suspended

Luiz Gustavo (MF)

Suspended

Ramires (MF)

Suspended

David Alaba (DF / MF)

Suspended

Raul Meireles

Suspended

Absentee Table

 As both the teams are hampered due to injuries and suspensions – mostly in the defence or defensive midfield position – goals are to be expected in the final showdown. With a compact and well organized midfield, supported by greater threat going forward, I would like to put my bet on Bayern to win the trophy at their backyard.