As Europe’s finest clubs begin their pursuit of the coveted Champions League tonight, Ciarán Ó Braonáin discusses the possible outcomes
IN RECENT YEARS the UEFA Champions League group stages have become a drab, insufferable trudge through a host of tedious and uninspiring encounters. Groups have come to be a mere formality, with the majority of qualifiers easily predicted before a ball is kicked. The past five years have seen an average of 13 of the 16 top-seeded teams progress to the next round, most doing so with considerable ease.
This year, however, sees the first stage of UEFA president Michel Platini’s attempt to readjust the balance of power and “level the playing field” in European football. The 2009-10 Champions League boasts the highest number of actual European champions for a decade as well as eight clubs making their debut in the competition. Amongst the newcomers only the German and Dutch champions, Wolfsburg and AZ Alkmaar respectively, have any conceivable chance of advancing to the next round.
Although the remaining six new teams – Zurich, APOEL, Debreceni, Rubin Kazan, Unirea Urziceni and Standard Liege – face a sobering experience, the fact they have even made it to the cash-rich promised land of Europe’s premier football competition bodes well for the future.
Platini’s slight tinkering with the qualification system is only a small step. It will be a long and arduous journey to promote substantial growth of football outside the traditionally dominant nations, but his dedication and enthusiasm must be commended.
Despite this restructuring of format, things are almost as predictable as ever. Each group has a clear favourite with Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Barcelona, Sevilla and Arsenal all expected to top their respective pools.
The battles for second place however seem to have more of a competitive edge about them than usual with Juventus and Bordeaux (Group A), AC Milan and Marseille (Group C) and Lyon and Fiorentina (Group E) all too close to call. The most intriguing group is probably Group B, where the evenly matched CSKA Moscow, Besiktas and Wolfsburg are all in contention for the runners-up spot to Manchester United.
When it comes to predicting the eventual winners it is difficult to look past the established order of England and Spain with Barcelona, Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United being the clear favourites. Barcelona are the bookmakers’ pick, and deservedly so, but might Pep Guardiola be left ruing his questionable decision to trade Eto’o for Ibrahimovic?
All eyes will be on Madrid after their unparalleled spending spree and in particular on whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo can ever justify their valuation of him. As for last year’s beaten finalists, Manchester United have yet to prove that they are capable of maintaining the highs of recent years after the loss of crowd favourite Tevez and club talisman Ronaldo.
Arguably it is Carlo Ancelotti’s rejuvenated Chelsea side that are best equipped to go all the way. Despite a lack of transfers, the new manager has given a new lease of life to the squad. Provided that injuries are kept to a minimum, the FIFA-enforced transfer ban shouldn’t impact considerably on Ancelotti’s side, who may even benefit through a siege mentality. All this, coupled with a hunger derived from the near misses of the last two seasons, could well be the driving force that sets them apart from the rest.
AC Milan and Liverpool can never be ruled out of course, but must be considered veritable outsiders. The one other side capable of challenging is José Morinho’s Internazionale. Nothing seems impossible with the enigmatic Portuguese maestro at the helm and with the addition of Eto’o to the squad they may be this year’s dark horses.
The Champions League gets underway this week with many small teams quietly harbouring big dreams. Despite the odd memorable scalp or two, actual progression for these minnows will remain the stuff of dreams, for this year at least. But, if Platini gets his way, in a few years time we may well be talking about the dominance of the Cypriot and Israeli – and perhaps even Irish – giants of European football.