As it does every year, this season’s Champions League has impressed. Its quality, flair and controversy have entertained all football fans alike, neutral or not.
The competition that can combine the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is undoubtedly the undisputed Champion of club tournaments, and it will continue to be so.
But who will be the champion of the ultimate tournament this year? Who has excelled themselves, and who has fallen short? Let’s take a look at the over and under achievers of the latest edition of the Champions League.
Who got it right?
Juventus – By far the tournament’s greatest over-achiever. They are Italy’s first semi-finalists and now finalists since José Mourinho masterminded Inter Milan’s incredible win in 2010. It is not that they don’t have the capability within their ranks however; Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez all of course have immense quality and are some of the best players in the world. But no-one expected them to get this far.
Massimiliano Allegri has changed Juvé’s style from a risky back three into a more solid back four, with full-backs Patrice Evra and Stephan Lichsteiner pushing on. The god, that is Pirlo, has anchored the defence impeccably, with Arturo Vidal, a rejuvenated Claudio Marchisio and an increasingly improving Pogba, supplementing the attack.
Against Madrid, Gareth Bale was non-existent, Ronaldo only managed a penalty, and Tevez’s partner Alvaro Morata came back to haunt his old side and exploit their defensive weaknesses. Allegri’s tactics are absolutely perfect.
Monaco – Yes they’ve got bags of money, but have they really got any world beaters? Their centre-forward played for Fulham last year. However, they got to the quarter-finals, only to be outdone by Juvé. Their defence has been unbelievable. They’ve conceded 26 goals in 36 games in Ligue 1 this season, and in all competitions they’ve amassed an unbelievable 28 clean sheets.
The partnership between Aymen Abdennour and Andrea Raggi has been impenetrable. Twin this with their quick counter attack, namely Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Bernardo Silva. The French outfit takes a lot to beat, and so it proved; completely embarrassing Arsenal at the Emirates is one to remember.
Barcelona – Unbeatable. Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez have to be one of the best front-threes to have ever played football. It’s intoxicating to see them play. Last week they made one of the best centre-halves in the world, Jerome Boateng, look mediocre. It’s hard, despite Juvé’s discipline at the back, to imagine that they’re going to be able to stop the South American spearhead.
Luis Enrique has not been afraid to leave Xavi on the bench, with Ivan Rakitic taking his place. But what seems to be different to last year under Gerardo Martino, is that Enrique can get the best out of them, that he is able to manufacture charisma, chemistry, class.
Who bottled it?
Liverpool – What I’m about to say is already pretty obvious. The money they spent in the summer in accordance to what they did this season just isn’t good enough. Simple as that. In comparison to the other Champions League groups, they were given a reasonable route into the knockout phase. Yes, they had Real Madrid, but they also had Ludogorets and Basel. A Bulgarian and Swiss team. A loss and a draw to Basel and a draw against Ludogorets instantly threw out the good work that they put in a season before, and they weren’t even able to retain any sort of European dignity in the Europa League, as Demba Ba’s Besiktas sent them packing. A shame for Steven Gerrard really, but then football is unforgiving.
Napoli – Rafa Benitez’s men didn’t even make it to the group stages. Despite performing so well the season before, they were unable to see off Athletic Bilbao. However, unlike Liverpool, they have managed to retain some sort of dignity. They have reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, but really should have beaten the Dnipro to reach the final. With players like Gonzalo Higauín, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik at Benitez’s disposal, they should’ve done a lot better.
Chelsea – A disappointing year for a manager who is normally so much more prolific in the Champions League. It’s Mourinho’s natural habitat. But the man who has won the tournament on two separate occasions failed to deliver, despite controlling the Premier League. Chelsea’s form in Europe over recent years has kept English sides in touch with the continent’s elite, but this year they were outdone by two headers from Thiago Silva and of course, David Luiz. Fate, like Morata, had its say here, too.
So, who’s going to win it?
I can’t look past Barcelona. Enrique has his side performing so cohesively that they seem impossible to beat. But who knows; Juvé have surprised us so far. One thing is for sure – the controversy will continue, as Luis Suarez lines up against Patrice Evra and Giorgio Chiellini.