Champions League Preview
By Joe Phelan
Europe’s premier club competition is almost back! For the first time in 19 years there will be no Champions League outing for Manchester United, but the tournament welcomes back 2005 winners Liverpool who have not made it to the group stage since 2009. After a summer of extensive upheaval among many of the English and European giants, there are a number of clubs that will be confident of glory this season. But who will be the key men in this year’s tournament? Here’s a rundown of my top 10!
10) Javier Pastore (PSG)
Pastore arrived at Parc des Princes for around £40m in 2011 and, although not an instant success at PSG, has now found his feet and is arguably the club’s key man. He scored a fabulous goal against Chelsea in last year’s competition and had a great season as PSG ran away with the French league title. PSG have threatened to reach the latter stages of the competition in each of the last two seasons and, if Pastore performs to the best of his abilities, they could well go all the way this year.
9) Diego Costa (Chelsea)
We’re going to be seeing a lot of Costa this season in the domestic competitions, but where he really seems to thrive is on the European stage. He managed 8 goals in last year’s tournament, the same as Lionel Messi despite playing 50 fewer minutes than the Argentine. Many have backed him to be the top scorer in the Premier League and you could do a lot worse that backing him to achieve the same result in Europe. If Chelsea manage a solid run in the Champions League this season, it’ll be largely down to the efforts of this man.
8) Mario Mandžukić (Atlético Madrid)
It’s easy to feel sorry for Mandžukić. He never performed poorly for Bayern; he was their top scorer in the Bundesliga last season with 18 goals – 7 goals ahead of the Ribery, the club’s second highest scorer – yet has been seemingly forced out of the side by new signing Robert Lewandowski. However, it’s not as though he’s ended up at a small club; Atlético surprised a lot of people last year with their successes in both the Champions League and La Liga and they’ll be hopeful of an equally positive season this time around. Although I don’t think they’ll get close to winning the Champions League, I do think that Mandžukić could push for the title of top scorer.
7) Kevin Strootman (A.S. Roma)
Many Man Utd fans will already be watching this man amid rumours of a January transfer to Louis van Gaal’s side. Come January we will have a much better indication of what positions Man Utd need to strengthen but, while the club’s attacking line up is already fearsome, there’s no doubting that Strootman would be a solid acquisition. While he can score goals, his main attribute is his ability to provide steel in the middle of the park. He’s a key man for Roma and, should he perform in the tournament, it’s likely that Man Utd won’t be the only club sniffing around when the transfer window reopens.
6) Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
The greatest free transfer in history? Very possibly. Lewandowski will get goals for whichever team he represents and, now that his attacking partners include Robben, Ribery and Gotze, it’s likely that he’ll be scoring for fun. Bayern are always one of the favourites to win the tournament, and Lewandowski could well be the man that helps them do just that.
5) Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
Sterling has never appeared in the Champions League but he’s been playing at the top level for a couple of seasons now and it’s not likely that the competition will faze him. While English football fans know what he’s all about, I think that he could take his European opponents by surprise. His speed, agility and eye for a goal mean that I wouldn’t be shocked to see him finish as Liverpool’s top scorer in the tournament.
4) Alvaro Morata (Juventus)
Morata was never really given a fair crack of the whip at Real Madrid. His scoring record of 10 in 37 games doesn’t look all that impressive, but when you factor in that most of those appearances came as a substitute in the last 15 minutes it doesn’t look so bad. It’s always going to be difficult to break into the Madrid first XI, especially when those around you have cost umpteen millions of pounds. A move away was probably necessary so as to establish himself as someone that can lead the line for 90 minutes, and he should get that opportunity at Juventus.
3) Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund)
Immobile had a fantastic season with Torino last year which culminated in going to Brazil as one of Italy’s strikers. However, he didn’t really get the opportunity to show his quality as Italy – along with England – exited Group D in humiliating fashion. Immobile, who really has to step up to a different level this season in order to take the place of Lewandowski, has already shown that he has the quality, but can he help to take Dortmund to Champions League glory? Perhaps.
2) Lionel Messi/Neymar/Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
When it comes to Spain’s big two there are just too many players to pick from, and so instead I’ve decided to compare their front 3. While Barcelona have boosted their ranks with the purchase of Luis Suarez, I still don’t think they quite have the same quality as their Clasico rivals. That said, it’s still a formidable line up and it’ll cause problems for every team that has to line up against Barcelona this season.
1) Gareth Bale/Cristiano Ronaldo/Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
The quality in this trio is frightening. Bale, in my eyes, is the best player in the world. That’s probably the Spurs fan in me speaking but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t rate him as one of the globe’s top footballers. As for Ronaldo and Benzema, their talent has been on display for all of Europe to see for many years now. They will both, as usual, bang in the goals, but I think that if Real are to retain their title it’ll be because of the Welshman.