115 days since Gareth Bale & Co lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy aloft in Lisbon, claiming ‘La Decima’ for Real Madrid, the prestigious European club competition returns, with more excitement, more drama and more memorable moments a certainty!
After a pulsating final back in May, which included a rare Iker Casillas error, a last-gasp Sergio Ramos headed equaliser, a first goal from a Welshmen in a European Cup final, a penalty (converted by local lad Cristiano Ronaldo) and a raging manager who was subsequently sent to the stands, this year’s tournament promises to deliver more of the same! There has already been one unforgettable moment and the group stages haven’t even started! Cosmin Moti became a national hero after the centre-back stepped in for his Ludogorets team-mate and goalkeeper, Vladislav Stoyanov, who was sent off in the dying moments of extra-time in their play-off match against Romanian side Steaua Bucharest. The match went to penalties and Moti, himself a Romanian, scored his penalty before saving two to send his side through to the group stages for the first time in their 13-year history!
However, Ludogorets are 2500-1 to win the tournament and will do well to pick up any points at all in their group which includes current holders Real Madrid, FC Basel and five-time winners Liverpool, who make their return to the tournament after a five year absence. Real Madrid will be hoping to achieve a feat no other previous winner of the revamped Champions League has ever done: to win back-to-back tournaments. The 10-time champions have added James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos, Keylor Navas and Javier Hernandez to their squad this summer, are the 7-2 favourites to win the trophy. If they want to accomplish this, though, they will need a serious improvement in form after successive defeats to Real Sociedad and arch-rivals Athletico Madrid in recent weeks.
The bookmakers are also tipping Bayern Munich, winners in 2013, and Barcelona, winners on three occasions in the last nine tournaments, as the favourites to go the distance with the Bundesliga champions 4-1 and the Catalan club 6-1, along with last season’s beaten semi-finalists Chelsea. Under Pep Guardiola’s guidance, Bayern Munich will be hoping to replicate their 2012-13 campaign where they won their fifth European crown – this time they have the additions of Robert Lewandowski, Xabi Alonso and Mehdi Benatia, who all joined the club this summer. Luis Suarez will be eligible for Barcelona’s return fixtures in the group as they face a group with big-spenders PSG, former winners Ajax and APOEL, as they hope to bounce back after the disappointment of crashing out embarrassingly to Bayern Munich in 2013 and then being defeated by finalists Athletico Madrid last season.
Once again, Manchester City and Arsenal face tough groups with the Sky Blues facing Bayern Munich (for the third time in four seasons, the other year they faced three league winners in Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax), CSKA Moscow and AS Roma in Group E. Meanwhile, Arsenal face Dortmund (for the third time in four seasons), Galatasaray and Anderlecht in Group D. Both are expected to progress from their groups but, like last season, will face difficult Round of 16 matches should they not win their group. Liverpool will also hope to progress from their group but are 11-4 to win their group which contains the holders, Real Madrid. According to the betting companies, Chelsea are the favourites to be the most successful of the English teams with their fantastic array of talent, their genius of a manager plus their recent triumph and experience in the competition (although only four players from the final squad are still in the first team at present). However, I believe that Manchester City will also go quite far this year, especially if they manage to win their group.
There will surely be a few surprise packages also. I expect Juventus to reach the latter stages (they’re in Group A with Athletico Madrid, Olympiacos and Malmo) and, although in a group with PSG and Barcelona, Ajax could surprise a few at 300-1 to win the competition. I’m not saying that either of these teams will win the tournament, but I can see them both reaching the knockout stages, with Juventus potential quarter-finalists. I also think that one of Manchester City or PSG could reach the semi-finals this year: these two cash-splashers haven’t quite delivered on the biggest stage as of yet since their spending-frenzies but there’s a strong chance they’ll reach the semi-finals or final and maybe, just maybe, they could go all the way…
Whatever happens, there is sure to be plenty of excitement, some cracking goals, thousands of passionate fans and a few mouth-watering ties, even before the knockout stages, with Juventus vs Athletico Madrid, Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid vs Liverpool, Bayern Munich vs Manchester City and Barcelona vs PSG. And of course, there will be, undoubtedly, the simply USELESS officials who stand by the goal with their batons and do absolutely nothing! Anyway, the winners of the 2014-15 Champions League are just 13 matches away from lifting the 74cm, 11kg silver trophy in Berlin on 6 June 2015. Competitors, over to you – take it away…