Some great points throughout, as always, by Michael Cox.
A lot of European clubs, not just the big boys, want to play stylish, attacking football. Or, at least, they want to present the idea that they can. The 1-0 game between Atletico Madrid and Arsenal did seem boring in comparison to the Champions League semis but it was simply a matter of excellent defending by Atletico. The idea of the club’s brand playing a part in that decision is very interesting and makes even more sense when you compare to international football.
Each continent certainly has stylistic similarities in terms of play but, ultimately, each international teams approaches the game differently. What makes the difference at the club level is that players spend months together learning each others patterns along with being constantly drilled in a specific style by their coach. There is much less time for international teams even during tournaments.
Perhaps that’s another reason the upcoming 2018 World Cup is yet to fully excite. There are sure to be some painful games early on as players, coaches etc get accustomed to each other again after exhausting seasons. Hopefully enough quality shines through and it doesn’t become a case of playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
My piece for the Boot Room on Juventus’ chances in the Champions League
Juventus are one step closer to returning to the top of the European hierarchy.
The Old Lady travel to France to play Monaco in the first leg of the semifinals on Wednesday in what will be an intriguing encounter.
Juventus have had a good few weeks since their impressive defeat of Barcelona at the quarterfinal stage. Their lead in the Serie A currently stands at nine points with four games remaining, thanks to Roma’s loss to Lazio on Sunday. Massimiliona Allegri’s men would also have been pleased to learn that Monaco, and not Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid, were their semifinal opponents. The French side are impressive and potent in the attack, as Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund will attest, but they are the least experienced of the Champions League semifinalists.
Juventus know they will still face a tough test but will be confident after nullifying the trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez over two legs. That’s not to say the thought of facing either Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid would’ve had hearts skipping a beat. The Old Lady would have faced any of the semifinalists confident of reaching the final.
This Juventus side has to be considered the favorite to win the Champions League from this point on.
If the attacking prowess Il Bianconeri showed in the first leg against Barcelona wasn’t enough then the defensive masterclass at the Nou Camp should’ve vanquished any doubts. Of the four finalists, only Juventus has no questions marks over their path to the semifinals. Whether it be dubious defending, poor refereeing, weaker opponents or otherwise, Monaco and both Madrid sides haven’t been fully tested.
Juventus have gone about their Champions League campaign effectively, having topped their group while only conceding two goals in 10 games thus far. They made little fuss in dealing with Porto in the Round of 16 and upped their game against Barcelona. The confidence they showcased in those two legs are indicative of a side convinced they have what it takes to win the competition.
Juventus need not focus on the perceived luck of others though.
Allegri continues to enhance his reputation as a tactician and did so again earlier this season. The switch from the usual 3-5-2 system to a well-balanced 4-2-3-1 setup has put Il Bianconeri on the path to a treble. In each third of the pitch Juventus can match, or surpass, the main strengths of their fellow semifinalists.
With Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci as organizers and leaders at the back Juventus are a fortress defensively. The varied talents of Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio and Miralem Pjanic in the two midfield roles mean Allegri’s side can control a game and withstand a physical battle. The front four of Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzuki, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain has a solid mix of speed, creativity, work-rate and clinical finishing. Juventus’ odds of a treble look very good with this group provided there are no serious injuries between now and the season’s end.
With the Serie A title virtually wrapped up, Juventus can focus fully on their two-legged encounter with Monaco even with the derby against Torino this weekend and the trip to Roma after the second leg. Monaco have a three point lead and a game in hand in Ligue 1 but the young side will be tested mentally in such an important time in the season. Interestingly enough, Juventus has a recent history with all three sides.
The Old Lady played these teams at various stages of the 2014/15 Champions League season on the way to final against Barcelona. Juventus lost and tied against Atletico in the group stages and finished behind the Spanish side in their group. A tightly contested tie against Monaco ended with 1-0 aggregate win while Real Madrid were beaten 3-2 on aggregate without a loss. Allegri’s side can take solace in the fact that only Monaco has undergone similarly significant changes in terms of playing style and personnel and the Italians will have two legs to overcome them.
Juventus have all the tools at their disposal to conquer their remaining rivals who all have flaws despite their strengths. Monaco’s potent attack leaves them wide open defensively. Atletico have the defensive resilience and tenacity to match the Old Lady but they don’t have the firepower of Juventus. Real Madrid have shown an ability to win all sorts of games while playing poorly but their defense is suspect and if Cristiano Ronaldo is marshaled properly, as you expect with the likes of Chiellini and Bonucci, then they will struggle. One wouldn’t bet against Allegri finding a solution to any problems these opponents will pose.
Juventus aren’t clear favorites but are certainly the strongest side remaining in the Champions League. Barring a freak accident or poor decisions from referees they should be in the final. Their experience two seasons ago will serve as motivation to hoist silverware the club hasn’t seen for over two decades. The Italian side has an air of destiny about them and Buffon’s quest for the one major club trophy to elude him can galvanize the legendary goalkeeper and his teammates.
Juventus’ resurgence from the days of the Calciopoli scandal will finally be complete with a European title in hand.
We’re halfway through the group stages of the Champions League and the Premier League are yet to receive their usual dressing down by the media. Well, Manchester City are sure to get an earful in the next couple days after the loss to Barcelona but we’ll get to that later.
As things stand Arsenal, Leicester City, Tottenham and Manchester City are all in a decent positions to progress from the group stage. Leicester are, of course, the surprise of the bunch with three wins out of three. The last time all English teams made it out of the group stages was the 2013/14 season in which Chelsea made it to the semifinals and Manchester United made it to the quarterfinals. A similar return wouldn’t be too disappointing given the respective pre-tournament doubts about Leicester and Tottenham.
Right now the most likely opponents, meaning those in first or second in each group, are Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Besiktas, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, FC Copenhagen, Juventus and Sevilla. Other teams within touching distance in third place include Borussia Mochengladbach, Benfica, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Lyon. Admittedly, it is easier to see who will progress after four rounds but even that isn’t a given. The Premier League clubs wouldn’t face each other in the Round of 16 regardless of position or seeding given they are from the same league and who knows what form they or their opposition will be when the tournament returns next February. While the current standings means each team would face some unwanted opponents should they reach the knockout rounds, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Atletico Madrid stand out, it would be hard to fully count them out for a variety of reasons.
Leicester have, as expected, benefited from being a top seed as champions of the Premier League and were put in a manageable group. While their domestic form leaves little to be the desired, Claudio Ranieri’s side has produced some professional performances their first time on the European stage. Progression is expected at this point and there’s a high probability they will be seeded again after finishing first. As ESPNFC’s Iain Macintosh pointed out, the club’s focus on European football is admirable but a Champions League trophy to follow-up last season’s Premier League is out of the question. Leicester could certainly compete with many of the teams still in with a chance of progression but their preseason losses to PSG and Barcelona are indicative of what would occur should they face the elite. A soft draw could lead to a Cinderella run but this side’s inexperience and lack of real quality in midfield will be their undoing. That’s not the case for Tottenham.
With two home games remaining, Tottenham could very well end up first in what is currently a very tight group. Even if they don’t, their intensity and quality will be enough to unsettle any of their more illustrious opponents. Spurs want to join the elite in the Premier League and part of that will be showing they can compete on multiple fronts. Mauricio Pochettino’s squad now has some decent depth even if they don’t have the Champions League experience of Arsenal and Manchester City. Last season’s Europa League run will be beneficial despite the disappointing end and Spurs will hope to do one better than their London rivals.
Arsenal seem to be benefitting from finishing second last season and thus having a higher seeding in the draw. Funny how that works. Paris Saint-Germain, especially this work in progress version, aren’t the most daunting nouveau-riche side to face. If the Gunners don’t pull their usual deer in the headlights performances away against Basel and Ludorogets then the home game against PSG should decide first place. Oh, what a day that would be. This Arsenal side look a lot more focused and efficient up front with Alexis Sanchez leading the line, again, no surprise there, and they may finally get over the Round of 16 hump. We hope. It may come down to how tight things are in the Premier League race in February but this is the trophy missing from Wenger’s cabinet so Arsenal will be expected to give it their all.
And lastly, Manchester City.
The 4-0 loss to Barcelona was a blow, especially when coupled with Borussia Mochengladbach’s win over Celtic, but it’s not the end of the world. Were it not for Fernandinho’s slip and Claudio Bravo’s horrendous decision the game would’ve played out differently, and there may even have been talk of Manchester City finally becoming elite. That didn’t happen but they are on the way there. City finally has a manager to make the difference on this stage in Pep Guardiola. If he continues to get his tactics right as he did against Barcelona, and the players can cut out the mistakes and step up their game, then City have the best chance of the English quartet. A draw against Barcelona at home and win against Mochengladbach in their next two games and second place is all but assured. Of course, those aren’t the targets to set but the minimum needed. This team wouldn’t be huge underdogs against the elite like their fellow Premier League sides.
There’s no telling what’s in store for any of these teams with the group stages not finished but anything can happen. Of course, they could render all the above thoughts useless by failing to progress in the tournament but the odds do seem in their favour. Arsenal and City will expect to progress further given their experience and the quality in their squads. Both Tottenham and Leicester can revel in the fact that they are lesser know quantities, as much as can be in this digital age, and can use that to their advantage.
It’s unlikely that more than one of these teams will make it to the semifinal but stranger things have happened. The Champions League its still in infancy but these might turn out to be a good season for the Premier League clubs.
Agreed. I really hope the final will be a spectacle with these two teams fully fit and firing. Atletico Madrid can finish one of the best UCL campaigns in a while, having already beaten two teams favoured to win the entire competition ahead of them, and could add the third with Madrid. Madrid could add further gloss to an illustrious history with an impressive 11th title.
Great piece here. Some good points throughout. La Liga teams just have a clearer idea of how they want to go about things even if, as the author said, it may not be perfect. Barcelona’s La Masia, Athletic Bilbao and the all-Basque selection, Villarreal and their sensible approach. Having better coaching and some very underrated players also helps. Simply put, the Premier League is more competitive but regardless of the dominance of the big two in Spain, there are some quality teams throughout.
My piece for the Boot Room on the Champions League and Europa League semifinals. I don’t think there’s one clear winner for either. We are in for, hopefully, some really good football.
The Champions League and Europa League return this week and nothing is guaranteed. Manchester City play Real Madrid while Bayern Munich face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Europa League sees Liverpool take on Villarreal as Sevilla battle Shaktar Donetsk. Each tournament has its favourites but their competitors are just as likely to progress. Each tie has its own fascinating tactical battles and the story lines for each team to consider as well. Barcelona’s defeat at the hands of Atletico mean that Bayern are the favourites for the Champions League. It’s certainly ironic that they face the team best-placed to stop them short of that goal.
Bayern will expect to dominate any of these teams in possession but the level of defensive intensity they face against Atletico will be huge test – just ask Barcelona. Pep Guardiola certainly has the options to match Diego Simeone’s team physically but the Spaniard won’t want to deviate from his preferred method of play unless absolutely necessary. Atletico are one of the few sides that are well-prepared to give up possession as part of their game plan yet pose a dangerous threat in attack. If the likes of Antoine Griezmann or Fernando Torres make the most of their chances then Atletico could be headed for another upset. The worry for the Spaniards is that too much focus on defensive endeavours will leave them toothless in attack. Bayern may well have preferred to face Real Madrid or Manchester City despite their more potent attacking threats as both have had their defensive issues this season.
The tie between City and Real Madrid could be an open affair. City may be more comfortable with the ball in their possession, but their performances against Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round show just how potent they can be on the counter, especially with Kevin De Bruyne leading the way. Madrid have been in really good form since the victory over Barcelona in the most recent Clasico. A comeback victory against Wolfsburg in the recent round and domestically against Rayo Vallecano this past weekend means Zinedine Zidane’s side will be full of confidence. Madrid haven’t particularly impressed when favoured to win a tie, as their victories over Wolfsburg and Roma could well have ended up in defeat with better performances from their opponents, but City will like being the underdog. Throw in Manuel Pellegrini’s interest in getting one over the club that unceremoniously let him go, and they most certainly will not lack motivation.
The Europa League is Europe’s second tier competition but there was some quality play in the knock-out rounds. The four teams in the semi-finals were key to that quality and deserving of their current position. Sevilla will be favourites, they are looking for a third straight tournament victory after all, but there’s plenty to be excited about as the tournament comes to a close.
Sevilla face a winner of the predecessor of the Europa League; the UEFA Cup, in a Shakhtar side that had become much more accustomed to life in the Champions League. Their experience in that competition, generally reach the knockout rounds, has shown in their run to the semifinals. Attacking talents such as Taison, Wellington Nem and Bernard along with experienced heads such as Darijo Srna and Eduardo make them tough opposition. Sevilla will be well-prepared with Unai Emery at the helm but this has the looks of a very tight tie.
Nobody would have seen Liverpool and Villarreal as European semi-finalists at the beginning of the season. Jurgen Klopp has come in and transformed this Liverpool side, culminating in 4-3 second leg victory of Borussia Dortmund that vaulted them to this stage. Marcelino Toral’s Villarreal has progressed well in the last few seasons domestically, and are now reaping those rewards on the European stage. It will be the case of a well-organised, tactically sound Villarreal side against Liverpool’s ‘heavy metal’ football. Surely, it will be fun to watch and we are in for a feast of football.
All the semi-finalists are going through relatively good periods of form or recently picked up vital confidence-building results. Each team also has defining story-lines playing a part in their motivation.
Liverpool and City will feel the pressure of carrying the torch of the Premier League, having seen the league dramatically under-perform in recent seasons. A trip to the final would be a solid platform for a Liverpool resurgence while City will want to truly join the European elite. Shakhtar Donetsk have plenty of European experience but have ultimately failed to have success. Sevilla chase history while Bayern Munich look; hopefully, to repeat it and cement Guardiola’s legacy at the club. Atletico will want further vindication that their approach will work while Madrid can improve upon an astounding European legacy. Villarreal will see this as another step forward in their return to upper level of La Liga.
The final four of the Champions League and the Europa League will provide plenty of excitement. Despite supposed favourites, no team is a clear winner of their tie or the tournament. We’ve seen what happened to the teams previously in that category, Barcelona in the Champions League and Dortmund in the Europa League. European club football is considered the best in the world and the challengers in the continent’s two premier competitions have a chance to prove just that.
Just a look at where the money goes with the Champions League. And you’re telling me that the big clubs need more with all the revenue they make in other avenues on top of this?
It’s official. Arsenal are headed to the Europa League.
Okay, maybe that’s a premature conclusion. They are, after all, bottom of their Champions League table with a massive zero points. It seems more likely that there won’t be any Europe at all after December. Progress at it’s finest.
Still, it is more likely that the Gunners will at least make the Europa League spot at this stage.
Bayern Munich has the group wrapped up and should really make it six wins out of six even when Pep Guardiola decides to have Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer switch positions mid-game for the hell of it. Arsenal, because this is just simply how the Arsenal works, should get six points in their last two games. Just enough to make it seem like they may get second place. The hope will that be that one of Olympiakos or Dinamo Zagreb gets less than three points from here on out.
While those two exchange notes on how easy it was to beat Arsenal and, hopefully, take points off each other, the Gunners have to deal with Bayern Munich.
Grabbing a point off the German giants should be seen as victory and if all goes horribly wrong for the other two, draw their two games and lose to Bayern again, then second place is a possibility for Arsenal. That would leave the Gunners with seven points and those two with five presuming all the other results end up as previously stated. There’s little chance of that though. In this scenario, it would have been better had one of these first two losses come against the German giants. Now Arsenal has to face Bayern back-to-back in the two games they’ll be wanting to ensure qualification for the next round before cruising to first place in the next two.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich then Bayern vs. Arsenal. Sound familiar? Not in a good way for the Gunners. Arsenal fans, at least the more optimistic ones, will state the club still has a chance and shouldn’t give up so easily despite the consensus being otherwise. Sure, the Gunners shouldn’t give up but realistically the chances of progression are slim.
There’s no point talking about how the Gunners got to this point. Those issues have been beaten to death during the last few seasons. The recent losses to Dinamo Zagreb, Chelsea and now Olympiakos have only managed to highlight those weaknesses even more. There is
So, on to the Europa League and a new exciting adventure from the most enigmatic team in all of Europe.
Dare it be said that this side has the quality to go all the way. Not to mention they won’t have to suffer the ignominy, as far as English clubs are concerned, of those brutal group stages. Arsenal should make the most of a Europa League campaign if occurs. If being pretty close to when in this instance. A strong squad and good selections would make the Gunners big favorites. The Premier League is so topsy-turvy this season that a top four place is still very much on the cards so there’s no excuses in terms of selection. And no, the title was never a possibility. If disaster strikes domestically then a win in the Europa League assures a spot in the next season’s Champions League. It would be highly disappointing if the club doesn’t win it.
Arsenal will face no shortage of quality teams on such a journey should it occur. Their fellow Champions League failures and a host of solid sides already in the Europa League, oh hello Monaco, should make sure of that. Maybe, just maybe it may even entice Alexis Sanchez to stay. Maybe.
Oh, to be an Arsenal fan.
My piece for RantSports Predicting the Group Winners for the Champions League
Barcelona will be the favorites but it will be a very interesting final. Lot’s of storylines leading up to it. Hopefully the game won’t disappoint.