2012-13 UEFA Champions League Forecast

September 25, 2012 5:24 pm

On the face of it, this season’s premier European competition is excitingly wide open. Prior to it all kicking off again, at least six of the teams involved can be realistically considered as contenders for the trophy; as well as one or two dark horses which could really shake things up. This wealth of strong teams makes it exceedingly difficult to predict the winner, but let me try…

The Contenders

Chelsea

The current Champions League holders aim to make history. Not one team has successfully defended the trophy in its present format, not even special sides such as the Manchester United squad in 1999 and the Barcelona team from two seasons ago. Roberto Di Matteo will have his work cut out if he is going to repeat last year’s remarkable achievement, particularly considering the fact that a certain Ivorian striker has left for pastures new.

The Blues have been impressive in the early games of the new Premier League season with £32 million summer signing Eden Hazard shining bright. However, they haven’t exactly been tested with fairly comfortable games against Wigan Athletic, Reading and QPR; matches they were expected to win.

Chelsea should qualify out of a mixed bag of a Champions League group. The second seeds Juventus are a famous European name and due to their Serie A title victory last season, will be the main threat to that coveted first place. Shaktar Donetsk is an awkward fixture due to the distance that has to be travelled (in Ukraine), but the Southwest London club can be confident of dealing with them.

If Chelsea are going to retain the most prestigious prize in club football, getting out of their group will obviously not be enough.  Progressing through the Last 16 and quarter-final ties may prove less simple but I believe they will advance again. Beyond that will just be a step or two too far for this team in this seasons competition, with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona likely to be lurking around.

Manchester United

For me, Manchester United have to be acknowledged as serious contenders for this season’s Champions League crown. Hurting from the major disappointment from last time round, Sir Alex Ferguson will not allow a repeat. Due to this, and the addition of some key players, the red side of Manchester will surely be a force to be reckoned with.

This season has started reasonably well for United with three wins out of four in the Premier League. Now, these victories weren’t exactly against top teams, but the manner of the performances in the Fulham game and the second halves in the Southampton and Wigan bouts, suggests that the team on a whole are in some decent form. New signings Robin Van Persie has already made an impact scoring four goals in two starts, if he can keep this up, even the bigger European teams will be concerned if drawn up against the Red Devils.

This seasons Champions League group appears to be an easy ride, but so did last years. The manager has publicly stated that he failed to take the group stages seriously last season, promising that it will not happen again. Having Braga, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj make up Group H, United’s chances of qualifying are very high, supposing that the players can live up to the bosses words. I simply think that the squad has too much quality to not top the group and progress to the next round.

Following the passage through the group, The Reds will advance in their Last 16 match. After that the quarter-finals shall prove more difficult, but the semi-finals are the earliest Manchester United will exit the tournament.

Barcelona

Barcelona have an irresistible starting eleven and have done for many years. In the past, my only doubt was that the squad did not possess the strength in depth that their European rivals had; this has changed. Players such as Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and newly acquired Alex Song who would ease into most teams, but now they aren’t guaranteed starting positions, leaving the bench to be excitingly strong. The returning David Villa (from a serious leg break) will be like a new signing, however the departure of Pep Guardiola as manager has seen the inexperienced Tito Vilanona promoted from assistant to main man, a move that seemed to be a risk, but has actually looked to have paid off.

The Catalan giants have begun the season very well, but as should be expected of them. Having won all of their league games so far, the new boss has been getting it right. The Super Cup defeat to arch rivals Real Madrid was only on away goals and therefore shouldn’t dishearten them too much. Nevertheless, the fact that they did lose will only motivate them even more to claim some silverware this season.

The group stage draw saw Barcelona put in Group G with Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Celtic. None of these games will be a walk in the park, but Barca should have way too much quality to be troubled by any. Topping the group will be their objective and they will do just that, leaving all of the second placed teams pleading to avoid them in the next round.

So, favourites for the trophy? Maybe. There is no doubt that their possession keeping abilities and lethal goal scorers (notably Lionel Messi) will be too much for the majority of sides they will come up against. However, it shouldn’t be ignored that in both last year’s competition and a couple of seasons ago, Chelsea and Inter Milan did emerge victorious by playing a negative but effective style of football. By defending deep and catching them on the break, Barcelona are vulnerable. That being said, they players they have will almost always find a way to unlock a team’s defence and because of this, they have to be considered as one of the potential winners.

Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich are always there, or there abouts when it comes to the Champions League. The biggest name in German football have lifted the trophy four times and still remain as a major force.   Having lost in the final as recently as last season and two seasons prior, all concerned will be determined to go that one step further.

Bayern Munich have started the Bundesliga season in blistering form as they look to reclaim the title which they lost to Borussia Dortmund a year ago. Scoring twelve goals in three games has led them to three comfortable victories top kick-start their campaign. Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao was a great acquisition in the summer and will definitely make them a better defensive unit, other new signings Mario Mandzukic and Xherdan Shaqiri are good talents, with the former impressing for Croatia at Euro 2012.Bayern now have a strong team in terms of depth and look well equipped to challenge for the title.

A group containing a decent Valencia, a weakened Lille and an average Bate Borisov shouldn’t create too many problems for the Germans. The away trips will be awkward but winnable, home games: a definite nine points. Bayern have consistently qualified out of their groups over the years and this won’t be any different.

The latter ties of the tournament will be interesting as no team would fancy going to the Allianz Arena requiring a win. As all but guaranteed quarter-finalists, Bayern should be confident. Issues arise after that. Coming up against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United would make me doubt whether they could go all the way. I just don’t feel that they would be able to compete with the really top teams; therefore, a quarter/semi-final finish is what they will have to settle for.

Real Madrid

The famous name of Real Madrid has remarkably failed to capture the Champions League crown since the 2001/02 season. This is surprising to say the least as they are always touted from the beginning of each campaign as possible victors on the European stage, but never deliver, as yet. But by having one of the best managers in the world and one of the best players in the world, they are better equipped than ever to fulfil the fan’s demanding expectations.

To proclaim that Madrid have had a mixed start to the season is an understatement. In La Liga, they have been poor, claiming just four points out of a possible twelve, whereas the Super Cup saw them beat Barcelona on the away goals rule. The ‘Cristiano Ronaldo is sad’ saga emerged in the summer and could prove to disrupt the camp, despite all parties claiming that it has been blown out of proportion. Real Madrid will hope this is the case, as he could be the difference between them winning the competition or coming up short for the eleventh year running.

Probably the toughest group that a top seed got, Mourinho and his team will face a stiff test just to qualify for the knock-out stages. Having the Premier League, Bundesliga and Eredivise champions in their group would usually never happen to a top seeded team as they themselves would be top seeds. Manchester City are dangerous but new to the tournament, Ajax are not the force they once were and Borussia Dortmund simply do not have enough quality players to compete with European powerhouses like Madrid, more so due to the fact that one of their star players from last season’s title winning efforts, Shinji Kagawa, left the club in the summer transfer window. All these factors culminate to mean that the Spaniards are favourites to finish first in their group.

Looking past the group stages, Real Madrid is a team that most will hope to avoid; regardless of their average start to the season. The players in the side make up a great team and Mourinho knows how to beat teams. Therefore, after eleven agonising years, they appear to be in a powerful position. Most will assume that they will come close, but I think this will be their year.

Manchester City

The Premier League champions return to the Champions League having dropped out at the group stage last time. The club Manchester City is very inexperienced in European football; however, players such as Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero have competed in the competition with their former clubs. This coupled with their ever rising ambitions, makes for a side that could be challengers for trophy.

City’s spluttering start to the season has come as a surprise to many, including me. Not taking a boost from last season’s title win, they have won two and lost two without keeping a clean sheet. If they recapture the form they showed at times during last season, they will be tough to knock out.

Due to Manchester City’s relatively low coefficient ranking (determined by European success), they were always going to face a difficult group. Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund are all quality teams (especially Madrid), but with the players City have got; only Madrid should cause tem major problems. They should and probably will progress out of this group, likely in second.

The knock-out stages will be a test, even more if they do end up in second place in the group. Coming up against City won’t be on top of team’s wish lists, but most will prefer them to the likes of Barcelona. Overall I can see Manchester City being a potent threat that may go far in this tournament, but not win it.

The dark horses

Juventus

Another superb European name, Juventus are back in the greatest club competition going. Not the amazing force they once were, teams won’t be too disheartened to play them.

Amid match-fixing controversy that resulted in a ten month ban for their manager Antonio Conte, preparation for the new season hasn’t been ideal. Despite this, Juventus have won all of their games so far this season and look like contenders to retain the Seria A championship.

Their group consists of holders Chelsea, Shaktar Donetsk and. Donetsk will pose a tricky away day but shouldn’t be too hard. Chelsea are their main threat and they may have to resign themselves to a second placed finish.

I don’t think Juventus will win the trophy, however they will give most teams a game. Sadly for them, the majority of teams that will advance into the latter stages will just be too strong for them to handle. A quarter-final finish will be likely, which they should be delighted with considering that they weren’t even in this competition last season.

PSG
The substantial spenders of the summer have acquired some outstanding talents and if they gel, will pose a mighty problem to the top teams. With the vastly experienced Carlo Ancelotti as manager, Paris Saint-Germain have someone who can lead them to the next level.

The beginning of the Ligue 1 season has exactly been perfect for PSG. Nine points out of a possible 15 is decent, but a lot more is to be expected due to the new arrivals. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi are all major coups for Ancelotti and the club.

Although the second seeds in their group, it would be quite a surprise if they weren’t to top it. Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Kiev and Porto are all sides that shouldn’t pose much of a problem to the lofty ambitions that PSG have now got, with the latter even weaker due to the summer loss of Hulk to Zenit St Petersburg. Despite this, you would expect Porto to be the main challengers to the top spot, but the team from Paris should have too much quality for them to handle.

Further into the tournament will prove move difficult. This team will very much a dark horse for the other competitors as they are newly built outfit, with a thrilling mix of sought after talent. I don’t think they will win, or even reach the semi-finals, but they surely will be a threat to look out for.

AC Milan

AC Milan are normally talked about as one of the favourites to win the whole tournament. Things have changed. The summer departures of two of their top players in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva surely has got to have a negative effect. A great name with a slowly diminishing squad, if they are not careful.

A disappointing start to the season has seen Milan lose both home games by one goal to nil. The previously mentioned absentees are a large reason for this poor kick off.

Milan’s group shouldn’t be too difficult for them to top. Zenit St Petersburg, Malaga and Anderlecht are all good, but that’s it. Zenit have splashed the cash on Hulk from Porto and Axel Witsel from Benfica making them a bigger threat, Malaga have had money trouble and sold their best player, Santi Cazorla to Arsenal, so they will be weaker. The Italians should finish first and the rest will fight over the remaining qualifying spot.

The quarter-finals are the furthest Milan can hope to get. Many sides are now stronger than them and over two legs, they won’t survive.

Arsenal
Arsene Wenger, despite always losing his star players, inevitably leads his team into Champions League qualification. Each time round, Arsenal are there, but never really considered as genuine contenders for the trophy. This year is no different.

Their Premier League season has opened reasonably well, to the surprise of many. Two wins out of four and only conceded once. This and the sensational form of new boy Santi Cazorla has almost made the departures of Robin Van Persie and Alex Song seem insignificant, almost.

Comparing Arsenal’s Champions League group to last seasons, it is eerily alike. Ties against teams from Germany, Greece and France have cropped up again, with the teams this time being Shalke, Olympiakos and Montepellier. The Gunners should and likely will top this group.

As for the knock-out stages, I’m afraid it will be more of the same. I just cannot see Arsenal progressing through if they come up against the likes of Real Madrid etc. They are a level below and a quarter-final finish is the best they can hope for.

In conclusion, I feel that either Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid will be lifting the Champions League trophy at Wembley on the 25th May 2013.

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