After all of the talking, bargaining and sales over the summer, the football season is finally underway. While it is always intriguing to read about who is going where and the potential contenders for the season ahead, it is nevertheless a relief to finally begin the action.
The Premiership season has taken no time in getting back up to full speed, with Everton’s brilliant opening victory against Manchester United, Eden Hazard’s excellence for Chelsea, and Arsenal’s surprisingly sturdy defence.
Despite all this, the true action begins on Tuesday September 18th, as the UEFA Champions’ League rolls noisily back into view. The best players in Europe have to do their talking on the pitch now. Although we say it every year, you can’t help feeling that this year’s race for the trophy, currently residing at Stamford Bridge, will be more keenly contested than ever.
Every major footballing club in Europe will be targeting the tournament with great hopes and dreams of glory. Even the minnows can look forward to outings in such iconic venues as Camp Nou, the San Siro or Old Trafford.
This year, the favourites are probably Real Madrid, the Spanish champions. After losing on penalties in the semi-final last year to Bayern Munich, José Mourinho will have his team hungry to prove that they are superior to everyone else in Europe, and especially Barcelona, by emerging victorious.
Madrid will relish the opportunity to prove their superiority with victory against fellow big-spenders Manchester City in the ‘Group of Death’. The Madrid-City match-up is a dream draw and one that could provide the tie of the year. Ten years ago, Manchester City fans would never in their wildest dreams have imagined their team playing against Real Madrid in the Champions League as English Champions and with a fighting chance of victory.
Yet, for City’s owners, conquering Europe is the next step up. City are confident that their big-name players, names like Touré, Nasri and Tevez, will not bow down and submit to Ronaldo et al. The talent and egos that will clash on the pitch when these two sides meet should give substance to Sir Alex Ferguson’s belief that the Champions League is the best competition in the world, including the World Cup.
Barcelona are faced with a huge challenge this year. Everyone foresaw an ‘El Clasico’ final last year, but the Catalans were felled by Chelsea in Europe and topped by Madrid on the domestic front. Barcelona’s group should not pose too many difficulties and, like the Kilkenny hurling team, Barcelona are the defeated masters who will be hungry to re-assert their dominance.
Proud stars like Messi, Xavi and Pique will not wish to sit and watch Madrid dominance take over, and this could result in a Barcelona side with renewed vigour. In addition, having David Villa back at full fitness will be like a new signing for the Copa del Rey holders.
The same could be said for Nemanja Vidic at Manchester United. If United can get Vidic back to even close to his full level of match fitness then it would do a great amount to solidify the side. Attacking options like van Persie, in ominous form again this season, Kagawa and Rooney mean that United should easily get out of their group and will fancy their chances of remaining involved into the early summer.
Meanwhile, their Premiership rivals Arsenal face a tricky group containing French champions Montpellier, 2010/11 semi-finalists Schalke ’04 and consistent qualifiers Olympiakos. If Olivier Giroud does not start firing, Arsenal could struggle to compete with the really big sides in this competition.
London rivals, and last year’s champions, Chelsea have looked stunning in attack at stages of this season, with Eden Hazard a class apart in most of the matches they have played. Yet there is weakness at the back, which teams as varied as Reading and Atletico Madrid have exploited this season. That vulnerability could come back to haunt the Blues when faced with Europe’s best forward units. They will not be able to rely on the undoubted luck that was on their side last year.
One side that will attract much interest will be one of the emerging big spenders in Europe, Paris Saint-Germain. PSG new recruit Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored four goals in three Ligue 1 matches so far and when blowing hot can cause any defence serious headaches. Although, his inconsistency is legendary, making Ibrahimovic is one of the most infuriating strikers in the world. Realistically, PSG cannot rely on ‘Ibra’ to carry them through the tournament.
There are many more important questions that remain to be answered. Can Bayern Munich recover from last year’s heartache and produce another huge effort? Will Celtic be terribly exposed? And will the Italian clubs upset the apple-cart of Spanish and English favourites? It should make for intriguing viewing, and the only thing that is predictable about this year’s Champions League is its unpredictability.