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Champions League

Reaction to Liverpool’s Champions League group: Qualification expected

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Look at Group B of the 2014/15 Champions League and two names stand out – Liverpool and Real Madrid, two powerhouses of the game with 15 European Cup triumps between them. The Reds theoretically could not have drawn a more difficult top seed than the reigning champions, who are not resting on their laurels judging by their summer transfer activity.

Liverpool’s other two group opponents are not as well known, but will both provide their share of challenges. FC Basel dumped the Reds out of the Champions League group stage 12 years ago and have also ended the European dreams of Manchester United and Tottenham in more recent times. Very little is known of Ludogorets Razgrad, the Bulgarian champions making their first ever appearance at this stage of the competition, so Brendan Rodgers and co cannot treat them lightly.

 

REAL MADRID

No introduction needed here – the very name of Real Madrid screams class and glory, particularly in 2014 after securing that much-coveted 10th European Cup in Lisbon last May. Their stellar line-up of ‘galacticos’ was further enhanced by the summer arrivals of Colombian World Cup star James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, a winner of that tournament with Germany. Carlo Ancelotti could even afford to dispense with the services of two quality midfielders, Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, such is the strength in depth at the Bernabeu.

Madrid’s biggest obstacle this year may well be the same problem that has afflicted every defending European champion since 1990 – finding the wherewithal to successfully retain their title, with the rest of the continent’s elite out to overthrow their reigning kings. Los Blancos know all about the position of their competitors, having emphatically killed Bayern Munich’s hopes of a second successive title last season. Since the birth of the Champions League in its current name, Real Madrid have never failed at the group stage and it would represent a huge surprise if they were to finish anywhere else but first in Group B.

Danger man: Cristiano Ronaldo

The reigning Ballon D’Or holder might not have had the best of World Cups, but in the white of Real Madrid he is almost untouchable. Even in the Super Cup against Sevilla, he straddled the battlefield like a man on a mission and put the finishing touch to two superb goals. While his egocentric demeanour is certainly not to everyone’s liking, it is impossible to claim that Ronaldo is anything but a top class player, and one who has developed into an inspirational leader at the Bernabeu. The thought of Glen Johnson possibly lining up against him is sobering.

One to watch: Dani Carvajal

With the eyes of the public primarily directed elsewhere on the Real Madrid team that conquered Europe last season, the 22-year-old right-back was allowed to quietly blossom into a player of real substance, to the extent that he was on the brink of being included in Spain’s World Cup squad. His eventual omission would have been a huge blow at the time, but hindsight has taught us that it has probably been a blessing for him after the 2010 winners’ horrendous summer in Brazil. Expect this young talent to hone his game even further over the coming months.

 

FC BASEL

If there’s one team that can repeatedly upset the English apple cart on the continent, it is Basel. The Swiss club came to prominence in 2002/03 when, in their debut Champions League campaign, they edged out Liverpool for a place in the last 16. Nine years later, they famously beat Man United to send the Old Trafford club packing before the knockout rounds and in 2012/13 they eliminated Tottenham from the Europa League. Last season they did the double over Chelsea in the group stage, so Liverpool are most certainly forewarned as they prepare to do battle with the club from St Jakob Park.

Basel’s success has come at a price, though. Over the summer they lost key players in Yann Sommer and Valentin Stocker, both of whom impressed for Switzerland at the World Cup, although highly-rated defender Fabian Schar remains for now and, considering that they have sold off previous crown jewels in Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri while remaining competitive, they will still pose plenty of danger to Liverpool. There is an interesting new name in the manager’s dugout at Basel, ex-QPR and Leicester boss Paulo Sousa, who has made bold proclamations about the club’s potential in his first few weeks in the job.

Danger man: Marco Streller

A rare breed of Swiss player that has earned a long-term living within his home country, Streller brings plenty of experience up front, as well as an eye for goal. He developed under the tutelage of former strike partner Alexander Frei and he now leads the line with composure for Basel. Also, he is a man to be monitored very closely on set pieces.

One to watch: Fabian Schar

As mentioned above, the 22-year-old has remained loyal to the red and blue of Basel despite intense summer speculation over a move abroad. He was one of several Swiss players to catch the eye at the World Cup in Brazil and he is a surprisingly adept goalscorer, with a ratio of nearly one every other game for his country.

 

LUDOGORETS RAZGRAD

What a story this has been. Founded as recently as 2001, Ludogorets only made their debut appearance in the Bulgarian top flight three years ago, but have been champions in every season since then. They served notice of their potential to perform on the continent when reaching the last 16 of the 2013/14 Europa League, knocking out Lazio along the way, and battled through three qualifying rounds to take their place in the Champions League group stage for the first time.

Their play-off success over Steaua Bucharest was a fairytale in itself. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg and scoreless going into stoppage time, Ludogorets struck to force extra time, towards the end of which goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off, forcing defender Cosmin Moti to take the gloves. In the subsequent penalty shoot-out, he scored a spot kick as well as saving two of Steaua’s to send Ludogorets into the promised land. They have landed the group of their dreams, with two of the biggest names in world football among their opponents, and they are now gearing up for a truly special chapter in their short yet incredible history.

Danger man: Cosmin Moti

The Romanian defender became an overnight hero in Bulgaria for his aforementioned display in the dramatic play-off win over Steaua, having been a prolonged servant with the club’s city rivals Dinamo Bucharest prior to joining Ludogorets in 2012. Moti quickly established himself as a fans’ favourite for his wholehearted performances and, if he was to never kick a ball for the Bulgarian champions again, he is already assured a special place in the history of Razgrad.

One to watch: Roman Bezjak

The Slovenian striker signed for Ludogorets two years ago and, after a nondescript first season with the club, he was considerably more prolific last term, finding the net several times in their surprisingly lengthy Europa League campaign. Liverpool will be well advised to keep close tabs on him when the Bulgarians visit Anfield in mid-September.

 

LIVERPOOL’S PROSPECTS

With Real Madrid almost certain to top the group, Liverpool will have their sights set on qualifying for the last 16, something they failed to manage in their last Champions League campaign five years ago. It will be a first venture into this competition for the majority of the Reds’ squad, but considering the way they fearlessly went about challenging for the Premier League title last season, they won’t be fazed by the famous pre-game music. If anything, the raucous Anfield atmosphere for European nights will galvanise a team that is not lacking in confidence, although that confidence needs to be kept in check.

It could be a race for second between Liverpool and Basel, with the Swiss side now well versed in the rigours of this competition, something that may give them an edge over Brendan Rodgers’ men. It is vital that Liverpool get the better of it in their duels with Basel and the Merseysiders will have the advantage of welcoming them to Anfield on the final group matchday.

The Reds must also be careful not to underestimate Ludogorets, either. In that ill-fated 2009/10 Champions League campaign, Liverpool also met a group stage first-timer from an unheralded league, but Debrecen ended up causing far more problems than they should have been allowed to. Six points over the Bulgarians is a must for Rodgers and his side; anything else could be fatal.

It is unlikely that Liverpool will go through the group without at least one defeat, but if they can register three wins and perhaps a couple of draws, that should be enough to see them into the knockout stages. I believe the Reds can see off the challenge of Basel for second spot behind Real Madrid.

1st: Real Madrid, 2nd: Liverpool, 3rd: Basel, 4th: Ludogorets

27-year-old Liverpool supporter from Ireland with a keen interest in Irish, English and European football. Been writing about football in either a personal or professional capacity since I was 12.

Champions League

Are Tottenham Hotspur potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Of the five Premier League clubs that have progress to the last 16 of the Champions League,  Tottenham Hotspur are the surprise package.

Their lacklustre domestic form, coupled with a devilishly difficult group that featured European heavyweights Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, meant few expected Spurs to be in the draw for the knockout stages.

But Mauricio Pochettino’s charges, playing their home matches at Wembley Stadium while they await the completion of their brand-new stadium at White Hart Lane, exceeded all expectations.

Their reward is a daunting two-legged tie with last season’s runners-up, Italian powerhouse Juventus. Here, The Boot Room assesses Tottenham’s chances of lifting the trophy.

Performances so far

When the groups were announced, the odds were stacked massively against Spurs finishing in the top two.

Although Cypriot outfit Apoel Nicosia appeared on paper to be favourable opposition, the presence of two clubs with an enviable Champions League pedigree, in Real and Dortmund, looked to be too big a challenge to overcome.

So for Tottenham to remain unbeaten and qualify as group winners was a huge fillip for Pochettino. The victory at home to Real on a magical night at Wembley will live long in the memory, as will the hard-earned point they earned in the corresponding fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu.

That was the only match in which they dropped points, having completed noteworthy doubles over Dortmund and Apoel.

Squad strength

Although Tottenham finished second in the Premier League last season, questions continue to be asked about their strength in depth.

In Harry Kane, the north London club boast arguably the most in-form striker in world football, while the likes of Dele Alli, Cristian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld are regularly rated among the elite footballers in Europe.

Beyond that, however, Spurs have some issues.

Despite signing Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente last summer in an effort to bolster his resources, the suspicion remains that Pochettino is over-reliant on a few individuals – especially Kane. If he were to get injured for a prolonged period, then Tottenham’s goal scoring potency and their effectiveness would be severely diminished.

Manager

Pochettino has been a revelation since swapping the Southampton hot-seat for Tottenham’s in 2014, taking the club to the next level.

The Champions League was not new territory for Spurs, who had qualified for a single season under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship, but the Argentinian manager has made their presence in the competition commonplace.

One criticism often aimed at Pochettino is that, for all his good work in transforming Spurs into a genuine force to rival the very best in the Premier League, he is yet to win any silverware.

He twice lifted the Copa del Rey with Espanyol, but his time in England has so far proved fruitless. With such a talented squad at his disposal, it is high time he saw tangible reward.

Chances of winning

Despite their magnificent effort to top Group H, Spurs are one of the outsiders to win the Champions League this season.

Their potential path to the final has already been complicated after being drawn against Juventus in the last 16. However, should they achieve the not-so-small matter of knocking out last year’s finalists, who would bet against them going all the way?

Domestically, Tottenham have struggled to reproduce last season’s form and have dropped far too many points, particularly at home. But this has been in stark contrast to their performances in Europe.

They can take great heart from their displays against Real and Dortmund and should believe they belong at this rarefied level. And with a striker as prolific as Kane in their team, anything can happen.

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Champions League

Are Manchester City potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Manchester City
Photo: Reuters

With a seemingly unassailable advantage at the top of the table, Manchester City are all but guaranteed to be crowned this season’s Premier League champions. However, manager Pep Guardiola, not to mention the club’s fiercely ambitious owners, will have an even greater prize on their minds.

The Cityzens have never won the Champions League, but such has been their form in all competitions that they must surely be in contention to lift the most coveted trophy in European football. Here, The Boot Room analyses Manchester City’s prospects of becoming the first English club to win the Champions League since 2012.

Performances so far

Mirroring their fortunes in the Premier League, Manchester City dominated the first stage of the Champions League, qualifying for the last 16 with ease as Group F winners.

Drawn with Napoli, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk, City won their first five fixtures – scoring 13 goals in the process – before an unexpected defeat with a weakened team to the Ukrainian outfit ended their 100 per cent record and removed some of the gloss.

The two wins over Italian giants Napoli – 2-1 at the Etihad and 4-2 away – were particularly impressive given their form in Serie A. Paired against Swiss side Basel in the last 16 – the round at which they bowed out of the competition last year – City are very highly fancied to book their spot in the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Guardiola has assembled one of the strongest squads in European football; one to rival the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Since last season, the Spaniard has focused on strengthening his defence. Out went Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, who were all deemed surplus to requirements, while in came upgrades Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy. Goalkeeper Ederson has been a revelation since arriving from Benfica and shored up a back line that had been their Achilles heel.

Another summer arrival, Bernardo Silva, has been used more sparingly but provides depth in central midfield. City also boast in their ranks arguably the best player in Europe this season, Kevin de Bruyne, who has been a tour de force in central midfield alongside the guile and subtlety of David Silva.

Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, currently sidelined through injury, provide genuine potency in front of goal.

Manager

Although the investment has been substantial, Guardiola must take credit for improving his young stars. The rise of Raheem Sterling is a pertinent example. The England star flattered to deceive last season but has been rejuvenated, scoring for fun and providing real creativity in City’s all-conquering side.

As a player, Guardiola never experienced Champions League glory with Barcelona but he twice guided them to the trophy as manager, in 2009 and 2011. He could not repeat the feat at Bayern Munich, although he did capture the Bundesliga title on three successive occasions.

Now in his second season in Manchester, the 46-year-old is yet to win silverware. However, given City’s current position as runaway Premier League leaders, that is sure to change – perhaps in spectacular fashion.

Chances of winning

It’s no surprise City are rated favourites by bookmakers to lift the prestigious cup later this year. One only needs to look at their record this season to see they are the form team in Europe. In a division as competitive as the Premier League, their 19-match winning sequence was an extraordinary feat.

With a favourable last-16 tie, City will believe they can progress to the last eight and beyond. Football is an unpredictable game, but nobody would be shocked to see them walking out in the showpiece final in four months’ time. And with Guardiola at the helm, they have the ideal manager to mastermind the club’s maiden European title.

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Champions League

Are Chelsea potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Antonio Conte will be looking to emulate his Italian counterpart Roberto di Matteo, by leading Chelsea to Champions League glory this season. The Blues’ champagne moment six years ago was the realisation of a dream Roman Abramovich had held since he gained ownership of the club in 2003.

Chelsea are the reigning Premier League champions, having claimed the title in Conte’s first campaign in charge. But the former Italy boss’s honeymoon period is now over, amid a run of mixed results and speculation of player unrest. Here, The Boot Room assesses Chelsea’s prospects of lifting the Champions League for a second time.

Performances so far

The Blues were in the same group as both Atletico Madrid and Roma – as well as minnows Qarabag – and they finished level on points with the Italian club at the top of the standings. The highlight was a 2-1 victory away to Atletico, courtesy of a stoppage-time winner from Michy Batshuayi. A routine double was completed over Qarabag, but it was their results against Roma that shaped the final standings.

Even though both clubs ended on 11 points to qualify for the last 16 and Chelsea had a vastly superior goal difference, the Blues could only follow up their 3-0 defeat in the Italian capital with a 3-3 draw at home. This proved costly, with Conte’s side finishing second and being drawn against Barcelona, which has significantly dented their chances of making it into the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Chelsea captured the Premier League at a canter last season, thanks largely to the goals of Diego Costa and the brilliance of Eden Hazard. Despite the summer arrival of Alvaro Morata, Costa’s departure has been a big loss. Surprisingly, Nemanja Matic was permitted to join Manchester United, while David Luiz has fallen out of favour under Conte.

Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko have added depth to the squad, while the rise to prominence of Andreas Christensen has been an unexpected bonus. Ross Barkley is the first of their signings in the January window and perhaps more will follow. Most important is proper competition for the misfiring Morata, with Chelsea currently lacking a cutting edge in tight games.

Manager

A three-time winner of Serie A with Juventus (to go alongside last season’s Premier League crown), Conte is without doubt a manager of immense repute. After Jose Mourinho’s reign had turned sour, the 48-year-old was the perfect successor. He revitalised Chelsea and turned them into champions after adopting a 3-4-3 formation that proved to be a masterstroke.

Conte has a unique style of management. His demonstrable shows of passion are loved by supporters, but his intensity has sparked rumours that he is not universally liked by his players. Costa fell foul of his wrath last summer, while Brazilian centre-back Luiz is the latest to be marginalised. Conte’s public clashes with his superiors over failed transfer targets have increased the tension.

Chances of winning

When Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, they had to beat Barcelona over two legs in the semi-finals. If they want to lift the prestigious trophy again this year, it’s a feat they will need to repeat. Although the Blues are more than capable of competing with the very best in Europe, they would much rather have avoided opponents of Barcelona’s class at this stage.

Chelsea only have themselves to blame for not topping Group C, which would likely have given them a smoother passage to the last eight. Barcelona, the runaway La Liga leaders, are by no means unbeatable, but they will be the favourites to progress and Chelsea will need to be at their very best over both games to stop them.

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