With the imminent conclusion of the Champions League qualifying rounds, Greg and Dan thrown down their thoughts on the European campaigns ahead for clubs in the Champions League and Europa League this season.
With the Champions League qualifiers are well underway, who are the teams to watch slinking in from the side entrance this year?
Greg: Villarreal are a team more than capable of mixing it up with the best of them in this year’s competition. The ‘yellow submarines’ have a world-class front man in Giuseppe Rossi, who is more than capable of torpedoing the clean sheets of even the most polished defenses. As Dan mentioned in our European league predictions, they’ve lost a couple of important first-teamers in Capedvilla and Carzola, but with the arrivals of Javier Camunas and Cristian Zapata, Villarreal are more than capable of hurting any opposition placed in front of them.
Dan: With the final being held at the Allianz Arena this year Bayern Munich have extra incentive to have a good campaign. I’m hoping Udinese will be able to demonstrate their attractive footballing ability on the big, starting with a result against Arsenal at the Friuli.
Greg: Lyon look dangerous again this year and are another side capable of getting at any team put in front of them. They’ll be looking to put together a decent run that will hopefully steer them clear of Real Madrid. Variety is the spice of life after all!
In terms of pre-tournament favourites, most bets must be on Barcelona surely? Can they answer the hype and become the first team to defend a Champions League title?
Dan: Becoming the first team to successfully defend the Champions League seems a bit more significant that it actually is. Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Nottingham Forest, Benfica, AC Milan and Liverpool all defended the European Cup before Sky invented football in 1992. I think they will win it though. Watching this Barcelona team feels like a privilege, and there aren’t many sides you can say that about. Albeit now with added Scott Minto.
Greg: Whilst its true that the European Cup’s old format saw many of Europe’s great club sides dominate the competition over a number of years, I think its fair to say that with the buying power, performance levels, professionalism and sheer, physical intensity of the modern game, its never been harder for one club to truly rule over the continent for a successive number of seasons. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are special however, and look a level above every other contender. For all the detractive criticisms thrown our way, Manchester United have held one of the most impressive records in the Champions League in recent years and twice now this Barcelona side have taken us apart. They will go down as one of the greatest sides ever. Making history as the first team to retain the new-style European Cup will just be yet another step along that path to greatness.
Who else do you expect to go far in this year’s competition? Any tips for potential dark horses?
Dan: After last season’s Bundesliga success, Borussia Dortmund are more than capable of making an impact, although depending of how the play-offs finish, they could end up in pot 4, potentially leading to an extremely difficult group. Making their Champions League bow, Manchester City will be an unknown quantity for a lot of sides.
Greg: A lot of people were caught off-guard by Shaktar last year, treating their progress into the last eight as something of a surprise. They’re a huge club though and could perhaps even better their run of last year if they find a more sympathetic route into the final stages (eg. Not having to face Barce!)
Can they really be called dark horses though? Probably not! In that case, I’ll say Napoli. Again, they aren’t exactly some obscure band of part-timers from a league known only by the research team for Borat, but it’s doubtful many on this side of channel truly realise the quality of player adorned in the colours of Naples these days. With the likes of Marek Hamsik, Edison Cavani, and now Gorkhan Inler, Napoli could well be the sucker punch side of 2012.
Which English side will get the furthest this season?
Greg: I think United will make it to the last four at least with Chelsea and City dropping out in the quarters if not sooner.
Dan: Mancini has molded this City side with the Champions League in mind. The often slower pace of European football coupled with the Barry/De Jong double pivot could prove to be key for two legged affairs. I can’t wait.
Can you see any country in particular dominating or could this be a more diversely representative year for the Champions League?
Dan: As long as they’re kept apart in the draw, I’m predicting Real Madrid and Barcelona to dominate all-comers up to the El Clasico final. I don’t think we’ll see a Schalke-standard team reaching the semis this year.
Greg: Germany are in ascendance both internationally and domestically, with the Bundesliga now firmly established as Europe’s ‘third’ league. If things don’t go to plan for the Spanish teams en masse, with Dortmund and Bayern at their head, the German contingent have the latent potential and necessary tools to go very far.
In the Europa League, who do you expect to be pushing through to later stages?
Dan: I don’t believe Lazio will be able to qualify for next season’s Champions League, but they have a very good chance of winning the Europa this year. They have enough options up front to rotate as the games pile on – even if Zarate leaves. PSV Eindhoven could also be a threat. Their squad has plenty of Europa League experience and in keeping their captain and talisman Ola Toivonen, they have a real quality player.
Greg: Spurs may find themselves in a similar situation to Lazio should their Premier League campaign fail to ignite. If Champions League qualification via league position does begin to slip away, ‘Arry could turn his attentions to the continent. Even with their focus elsewhere for the moment, I expect Spurs to make it through the group stages, where they can then prioritise the latter stages against their league commitments.
And a similar question in terms of the English sides involved, all of which, so far, seem to be taking it quite seriously. Who do you think will want to make the most of their Europa League adventures?
Dan: I’m genuinely glad for the Stoke fans that they’re getting to experience european football. There’s nothing quite like following your team on the continent and they’ll be savouring every second of it. Fulham had an extraordinary run to the final in 2009/10 but I can’t see them replicating it this year. Birmingham fans will enjoy it, but to Chris Hughton it will most likely be a distraction to his promotion charge.
Greg: Spurs have the individual quality on their roster but, as stated above, may lack the required focus to drive on up through the knockout rounds. Stoke are a side capable of punching above their weight (almost all too literally at times) but their shock trooper tactics will surely be found out by some the more accomplished teams that pepper the competition, along with Birmingham who really will have their eyes turned to more pressing matters; promotion back into the Premier League. This leaves us with Fulham, a solid and deceptively sophisticated side developed through the organizational rigors of Roy Hodgson, street fighting smarts of Mark Hughes, and now the expansive tendencies of Martin Jol. They have the collective drive, spirit and talent to once again to turn reputation-based predictions on their head.
How do you see FFP affecting the European competitions in the present and near future?
Greg: We’re yet to see if Platini’s belly fire rhetoric has any teeth to bear. With City already exploiting the most obvious of loopholes with their sponsorship deals, of a stadium they only rent might I add, it’s not even clear whether UEFA’s threats hold any substance. Whilst many have suspected the FFP as an attack on the Premier League, it shouldn’t be forgotten that both Barcelona and Real Madrid, the former so often held up as an example of how a club should be run, are also heavily in debt, and at the mercy of such financial regulations should they truly come in with force. The clubs to truly benefit of course will be those run well and responsibly, assuming the FFP rules have their desired effect. That seems idealistic however, and it is likely the ‘big clubs’ will jump ship and take their business elsewhere to form their own competitions and super leagues if they cannot find their own loop holes and super sponsorship deals.
Dan: It’s the dream made reality for the G14. Keeping the rich clubs rich and stifling pesky upstarts with ambitions above their station. We probably won’t see transfer fees such as Ronaldo’s £80m for the foreseeable future, however I can see ticket prices being raised even further to increase revenue. A winner for the current European top clubs and their huge television-oriented fanbases, a loser for match-going fans of those teams.
With the Mexican and Brazilian leagues growing stronger each year, both financially and in terms of retaining quality, is there need for fresh intercontinental competition?
Dan: Hands up if anyone can name the team Internazionale defeated in the Club World Cup final last season? Tout Puissant Mazembe. I had to search the internet for that, and I watched the entire tournament. The current format just doesn’t generate a great deal of interest (or if you prefer, sponsorship) and with the Champions League, Europa League and Copa Libertadores already in place I just can’t see room for a longer competition.
Greg: It’s telling that the World Club Cup matters far more to the clubs and fans of South America, Asia and Africa than it does to those in Europe. I’m sure that if European dominance were to be consistently challenged over a number of seasons, becoming World Club Cup champions would begin to mean a lot more as, for the moment, European sides are rarely committed to such tournaments, and even more rarely need to be in order to compete. Even with Brazil reclaiming many of their foreign based starlets, and the economic might of the gulf states and China offering players handsome bounties to ply their trade in less fashionable leagues, its doubtful we’ll see the imbalanced dynamic of international club football change any time soon.