Why Zidane is a Problem! – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group A

The competition I never stop talking about has finally returned, full of the same juicy fixtures that excite all football fans. There are plenty of talking points in all of the groups, and group A is no exception. While this group doesn’t look competitive on paper, the specific context has made it slightly more open. On a side note, there will be particular clubs (like the first one here) that I don’t know that much about, so apologies if I lack any depth with specific teams.

Club Brugge

Starting with arguably the weakest side in the group, let’s look at Club Brugge. The Belgian club finished runners up in their domestic league, allowing them to qualify through the third round. Their place was finally secured after victories over Dynamo Kyiv and LASK. 

They’ve become a European regular in recent years, with their performances last year being better than expected, finishing third in a tight group including Dortmund and Atletico Madrid. While smashing Thierry Henry’s awful Monaco was a surprise at the time, they still managed to stop Atletico and, most impressively, Dortmund from scoring. They didn’t necessarily offer much in attack, yet they shouldn’t be looked down upon by any side. Last year, they adapted to their opponents, changing to a 4-4-2 to suppress Dortmund’s attacking talent, then switching to a 3-5-2 to stop Simeone’s side. 

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Their summer window saw three of their first-team players leave the club, with Wesley and Nakamba both joining Aston Villa, and Danjuma joining Bournemouth. Yet, the summer did include the arrival of Philippe Clement as head coach. The former Brugge player arrived after winning the league with Genk and started the season well with his new club, getting 11 points out of a possible 15. They’ve looked the best side in the league and are arguably in a better position than last season to reach the round of 16.

However, even with their strong start to the season, I don’t expect Brugge to escape this problematic group by any stretch. It’s still tough to tell just how good the Belgian top-flight actually is, to know if their players are genuinely talented or just performing well in a bad league. Two of the other teams in this group are arguably favourites for the competition, making it very hard to expect any surprises. They’ll most likely finish bottom of the group, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the big sides frustrated away from home. 

Galatasaray

With data being available from the Super Lig, it makes predicting how they will play a lot easier. Galatasaray have been one of three big names in Turkey, alongside Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, to consistently partake in the competition every year, yet barely make an impact. This primarily goes down to the reliance on players who simply aren’t good enough to be playing at the top anymore. Turkey has been seen as one of the many favoured retirement leagues, due to the clubs willing to pay the high wages of ageing stars. We’ve seen Pepe, Quaresma, Fernando, Van Persie and now Falcao all move in search of one last payday. 

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What makes Galatasaray so much more enjoyable this season is a slight change in that tired approach. In fact, the club have brought in Jean Michael Seri, Mario Lemina, Emre Mor and Florian Andone all arrive on loan this summer. Their profile is different to who you expect to be coming in Turkey. All are under 28, are in their peak years and are ready to contribute now. While Seri and Mor have had minimal impacts at their previous clubs, Andone and Lemina were let go when they were clearly good enough to be playing in the Premier League. I expected Manchester United or Tottenham to pick up Lemina, yet unfortunately, he has joined a club where you have to feel his talents are slightly wasted. 

Yet, they’ve paired those attractive acquisitions with two ageing stars in Falcao and Steven Nzonzi. While Falcao has something to offer, I do not like Nzonzi’s signing at all. The Frenchman was very poor for Roma last season, being a shadow of the player he was at Sevilla. I don’t expect his legs to suddenly work as they used to, making it hard to believe he will succeed in Turkey.

The club have had a mixed start to the season, but I fully expect them to finish third. Their chances of escaping this group rest entirely on how well they perform at home. If Ryan Babel can continue with the form he has displayed in the past year, there is a chance one of the big sides will be left disappointed.

Paris Saint Germain

Now onto a team I have some knowledge about. Paris have been one of the most frustrating teams in the Champions League in the past 5 years. From giving up a 4 goal lead against a weak Barcelona side to letting an injury-riddled Manchester United team come back and win in the Parc des Princes. It’s always been a slight mystery to how PSG keep consistently fail in Europe. Personally, I think it’s been a combination of poor recruitment and individual mistakes in the big games. PSG’s signings before deadline day were generally excellent. The midfield finally was given some steel in Herrera and Gueye, two players known for high tackle and interception numbers, with some dark arts to help hold onto leads. They are both turning 30 this season, but they definitely offer something for Tuchel to deploy against tougher opponents. Pablo Sarabia arrives for a bargain £16 million after a stand-out season with Sevilla, where only Messi assisted more goals than the Spaniard. With Di Maria ageing and Neymar not playing enough, adding another creator for a very reasonable amount made a lot of sense. As mentioned in my Ligue 1 preview, Diallo was my signing of the season. PSG, like Sarabia, took advantage of a player being extremely undervalued by their club and took Diallo for as much as Dortmund bought him for from Mainz. 

However, I still have my doubts on whether PSG can finally have an effect on this competition. It all begins with just how poor they were at the end of last season, where they just couldn’t put the title to bed. It was a poor finish which also saw them lose in the Coupe de France final to Rennes, a team that comfortably beat Tuchel’s side at the start of this season. Even with the clear steps forward they’ve taken in terms of resolving some of their most pressing issues, they’ve still failed to address their most significant issue, being full-backs. Last season Tuchel said that the full-backs weren’t good enough, and funnily enough after failing to recruit there once again, they still aren’t. The whole Neymar saga seemed to turn their attention away from fixing their most significant issue, and it’s hard to see PSG as a serious contender once again. 

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What makes things even worse for Tuchel is injuries. During their 4-0 win against Toulouse, Mbappe, Cavani and Diallo all suffered injuries. While Diallo’s wasn’t something to worry about, Mbappe isn’t returning until October, and a question mark still resides over Cavani’s return. This is a huge problem that is difficult to ignore when predicting how they will do in the group. Mbappe is everything to Paris. He is the attacking player that can add that moment of magic to any game. We saw this last season against Manchester United, where his blistering run through Bailly and Lindelof allowed him to finish past De Gea efficiently. Without the young Frenchman, Paris lose their ace.

I mentioned before how I liked PSG’s business up until deadline day, where they made one final deal which baffled me. I liked Keylor Navas’ arrival a lot, who needs to be appreciated by one big club before he retires. My issue is with the loan signing of Icardi. I’ve said before that all clubs should stay away from him. He is not worth the trouble for anybody, and if PSG do decide to sign him permanently, I worry if they’ll ever be able to get rid of him once he begins causing problems. His quality cannot be questioned, but in a summer which saw Leonardo state the club were moving away from the superstar approach from the past, it’s strange to see the club sign one of the worst ones out there in terms of all the off-field problems he will bring. 

Nevertheless, PSG will escape this group. The other opposition, bar Real Madrid, shouldn’t be too much of a problem for them and I fully expect Tuchel to figure out a way for his side to continue performing at the same high level without Mbappe for the first couple of games. 

Real Madrid

The record champions go into the competition with familiarity. Zidane is back in the dugout, with plenty of expensive additions to add to an ageing squad that just isn’t good enough to be winning the Champions League anymore. Their new additions made a lot of sense in terms of their importance. Eder Militao joined an ageing defence and can also play right-back. Ferland Mendy is one of the best attacking full-backs in Europe and is an ideal replacement for Marcelo. Luka Jovic is by far the most interesting of the new arrivals, with his goalscoring earning him plenty of praise in Germany, making him a great choice to bring much-needed goals to the side. Eden Hazard arrived for an insane amount of money, and while they have definitely overspent, there is doubt he is an improvement over what they had. 

I liked their business, but there are still plenty of problems in the side. The first being Zidane. After Lopetegui and Solari failing to get Madrid contesting with Barcelona and overseeing an embarrassing Champions League run, Zidane returned with all the power given to him. I’ll definitely credit Zidane for getting his way, but Madrid bringing him back just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. My worry with the Frenchman’s return is how willing he seems to completely ignore the new talent, and continue using the players who should start being faded out by this point. Zidane’s treatment of many players is frankly awful. At one point, Isco seemed to be his favourite player at the club, and suddenly his game time was gone, similar to what’s happened with James Rodriguez. The Colombian playmaker was thought to be the first player out of the club as soon as the window began, but he’s still there, with Zidane seemingly changing his mind. While the treatment of the pair is confusing, how he has acted towards Bale and Jovic is even worse. Zidane publicly stated that Bale was not in his plans, hoping the Welshman would leave the club after having arguably his worst season for Madrid. However, once again he has changed his mind, with Bale now staying. There were rumours Zidane was far from a fan of Luka Jovic, with the Serbian seemingly likely to go out on loan. While Zidane did deny those rumours, it is worrying when he wants to get rid of a player after one injury in pre-season. 

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I just worry that Zidane will continue to ruin the reputations of the players that gave him success at the beginning of his reign. After the sales of Llorente and Kovacic, as well as Ceballos going out on loan, we’ll still likely see the same old midfield of Modric, Casemiro and Kroos. The trio should not be starting together anymore. Modric is now 33 and is unable to do everything to the same level as he once could. Kroos is such a liability out of possession that even Casemiro won’t be able to cover for him adequately anymore. What makes their situation even worse is how Ramos still remains to be so important. Their club captain is now 33, and I worry that his evident decline will hinder not only the team but his reputation. This is my problem with Zidane. His reliance on these older players does not only limit them in moving on but could ruin their legacies. He’ll still be starting Benzema and Marcelo week in, week out until they are unable to run anymore.

Madrid’s failure to recruit midfielders and the many injuries throughout the squad means they are at their weakest in years. If PSG can get their act together, I can’t see Los Blancos topping this group. 

Why Madrid Deserved to Lose! Ajax vs Real Madrid – UEFA Champions League Review

I wanted to wait for both legs to finish, to gather thoughts and to reassure that I had the time to get these out. Since doing the previews, I thought it would make sense to discuss the games, starting with by far the most interesting game so far, a battle between underdogs Ajax and holders Real Madrid. We’ll go through each leg and finally discuss the situation of each team.

Let’s start with the first leg, played in the Dutch capital. This was a game many were looking forward for, because of how well Ajax represented themselves in the group stages, where they drew twice to Bayern Munich. Ajax showed this quality against Madrid. They put out a line up similar to their line up against the Bundesliga champions. They played Tadic as a false nine, with Ziyech and Neres adding support from the flanks. While they were the much better side, they struggled to deal with the players in the wide areas of the pitch. Bale, Vinicius, Benzema and Carvahal all cause Ajax a lot of problems. But it didn’t stop Ajax from playing their game. While their forward line deserves a lot of praise just for the amount of chances they were creating, with Neres, Tadic and Ziyech creating a combined 8 chances, Donny Van de Beek deserves a lot of credit. He has been playing as a very hard working number 10, putting in a lot of pressure on the opposition defence, and works to ensure that Madrid were unable to reach Kroos and Modric as easily. He put in 6 tackles and interceptions, with only Mazraoui putting in more defensive actions, and created 4 chances. His workrate and ability to add a bit of grit to a side full of talented players. While they did play well, they just couldn’t get in behind Madrid, and Ziyech was quite wasteful in some areas.

Madrid weren’t great. For a majority of the game, they were without the ball and were mainly focusing on attacking the wide areas. It’s understandable because this is Mazraoui’s breakout season, and while Tagliafico is a very good full back, does focus more on attacking. Mazraoui was excellent in this game, but there were occasions where Vinicius did get the better of him. Speaking of the Brazilian, he was great in this game. He is just so unpredictable, and adds this raw energy to Madrid. He is probably the first player to do so since Di Maria. I do think he is getting way too much praise, but there are signs he could be a player who has a future at Madrid, but doesn’t have the same maturity as a Sancho or an Mbappe. It was such a Madrid performance. They famously never play well in these knock out games, but use their elite players to drag them through these tougher games. Zidane understood this, and while Solari seems to have attempted this, with giving Ceballos and Llorente some chances in the XI. The difference is he doesn’t have the same attackers as Zidane had, making him force to use Benzema way too often. Even though Benzema was okay in this game, he just isn’t good enough to carry this attack, and has never shown the ability to be able to. Their best performer was by far Sergio Ramos. For the past 5 years, they main defensive strategy is to hope that Ramos drags them out of being an awful defensive side. He did this against Ajax, putting in 7 tackles and interceptions and 5 clearances. Ramos has such a presence on the pitch, that it makes him excel when being relied on like this. It left Madrid with an advantage going into the second leg, with the chances of Ajax progressing seemingly very low, so low in fact, that Ramos decided to get himself book delibaretely just because he trusted his side to progress with ease.

Oh how wrong Ramos was. Madrid were outclassed by every sense of the word in this game. Let’s begin with the now former champions, who were just awful in this leg. I mentioned how poor Madrid are without Ramos, and they just showed once again how disfunctional they are without their captain. It’s very reminiscent of their defeat to Juventus last season. If it wasn’t for Benatia losing his head near the end of the game, Ramos would have been at fault for Madrid exiting the competition. It amazes me how he even thinks this was a good idea. I’m not going to blame Solari for Madrid being awful defensively. They’ve been bad in that department since Mourinho left the club. Relying on Sergio Ramos magic is not a way to build a defensive structure. The problem they suffered from was a huge lack of midfield protection. It’s something that has became more apparent as the years are going by. Casemiro was hugely disappointing in this game. He has been one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe since his sudden emergence into the Real Madrid side back in 2015. This was by far one of the worst performances I’ve seen the Brazilian put in. When Kroos and Modric are putting in more defensive actions than him, there is a clear problem. Van De Beek and Tadic were also given so much freedom to move around in the final third, and Casemiro wasn’t being his usual aggressive self. Kroos and Modric weren’t exactly good either. Kroos’s mobility has always been non existent, and when he is making defensive errors, it’s not helping his case. No matter how good he is at transitioning the ball in the final third, it’s getting to a point where his defensive vunerability is starting to get a lot worse. While Modric is an excellent footballer, he is now 33. It’s been shown before with players like Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville and Mikel Arteta, that when you age, your basic football ability just kind of vanishes. Frenkie De Jong was sensational in this game, and was everything Modric wasn’t. Modric didn’t have his usual drive and that bit of everything he offers. It looked as if the batton was passed to the next generation of players.

To move on to Ajax, they put in one of the best performances in the Champions League I’ve ever seen. They approached Madrid without fear and weren’t willing to allow them to get into the game. With Ziyech. Van De Beek and De Jong all made it difficult for Madrid to even transition the ball. By far their best player on the day was Dusan Tadic. The Serbian is having the season of his life after leaving Southampton, and has arguably been the best player in the Champions League, and this performance showed it. The balls he put through for Neres and Ziyech were simply outstanding, and his goal was one of the goals of the season, for the build up and the finish. In this game, Tadic was at his best, creating 5 chances, having 2 shots on target and completing 3 dribbles, numbers of a player who doesn’t know how to slow down.

Madrid massively underestimated Ajax, and it’s hard to even understand why. They showed against Bayern Munich that they can go toe to toe with any side around, but this is Real Madrd we’re talking about. A side full of arrogance, that they have constantly lost games in the Champions League, but thanks to Ronaldo always firing them ahead, it jusified it. Now with him gone, they don’t have that cutting edge anymore, and will now hopefully learn from this mistake. Ajax meanwhile are flying. While their rivals PSV seem to have won their fingers on the Eredivise title, Ajax have done themselves proud in Europe, and it’s good to see the teachers of football give one more lesson.

 

Will Madrid Hold On to Their Title? Ajax vs Real Madrid – UEFA Champions League Preview

While I’ve already previewed 3 very exciting games, with 4 other games which haven’t even been mentioned yet, this game does catch my interest. A game including the current Champions League holders, against former champions Ajax, who are currently having a new lease of life.

Let’s start with Ajax, who after having a disappointing 2017/18 season. They finished runners up to PSV Eindhoven, and failed to even qualify for any European compeition. They saw to quickly fix the problems they had last summer, by bringing in Dusan Tadic and Daily Blind for a combined £24m. They needed to improve their league form, while replacing Justin Kluivert in the process. Both have been very good this season, and when you add that with 2 of the best young talents in world football in Frenkie De Jong and Mattijs De Ligt. It gave them this balance of experience and youth, and showed that they had finally learnt from their past mistakes. Ajax have been simply incredible in the league. While their defeat to Feyenoord wasn’t their lowest point of the season, it has still been a very good domestic campaign. It’s just a shame that PSV have been even better. Nevertheless, they have still managed to score 72 goals, 1 more than PSV and 25 more than Feyenoord. Both top sides are in a league of their own at the moment. The difference between the two this season has so far been the Champions League. While PSV were stuck in a group of death, Ajax were given a group that gave them a chance of getting out. The group included Bayern, Benfica and AEK Athens. They came out of the group as one of the few teams to go unbeaten. Their biggest achievement of their campaign so far was their showings against Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga champions were shown up twice by Ajax, thanks to a tactical masterclass by manager Erik ten Hag. He used Tadic as a false nine, and Bayern has absolutely no idea how to handle him. They have shown enough evidence this season to prove that they can pull off anything, and could truly surprise everyone.

Speaking of Tadic, the Serbian must be recognised as one of his sides biggest threats. He has been magnificient since arriving in the capital, and showed this in the Champions League too. He played every minute of Ajax’s Champions League campaign, scoring 5 and assisting 1, while stats dropped from his numbers in the Eredivise, they were still very impressive. He was creating 2 chances a game, completing 1.7 dribbles and making 1.3 tackles a game. While his shot numbers weren’t great, but as a false nine, his role was more to bring others into play, which worked. He is a very talented player, is finally given the chance to show it in an attacking side. While Tadic, De Jong and Huntelaar have all been stand out this season, there is only one player who stands out, Hakim Ziyech. The phrase “too good for their league” has been used many times over the years. Whether it’s Celtic going unbeaten, Neymar getting a goal a game or Giovinco getting a goal contribution a game in MLS, there are different examples, but the one that cannot be argued is that Hakim Ziyech is way too good for the Eredivise. To briefly go over his numbers, he’s been awarded the man of the match 9 times this season, he’s taking 6 shots a game, making 4 key passes a game, completing 2.7 dribbles and even putting 1.8 tackles a game. These numbers are Messi like. He obviously isn’t nearly as good as Messi, but my point is that he is taking this league for a joke. He’s only 25 and it’s amazed how not a single club is looking at him. He should be starting for an elite side, not playing in a sub-par league. He has still shown his incredible ability in the Champions League too. He’s still taking 5 shots a game, and creating 1.8 chances a game and completing 3 dribbles. He is a superb talent and could cause Madrid massive problems.

Now onto the holders Real Madrid. This season has gone as badly as one could have expected. I’ve discussed previously where everything went wrong with Lopetegui, so how is Santiago Solari doing? Well he’s doing okay. They have risen to 2nd in the table and haven’t lost in the league since the 6th of January. They have gained massive ground on Barcelona, and while that is impressive, context is very important. La Liga has arguably been at its worst for a very long time. Villarreal, Valencia and Bilbao have been rather underperforming or just been plain bad all season. Everything bad with Real Madrid this season jut always goes back to last summer. Their failure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo might be the dumbest decisions of the past decade. The argument was made that the goals would spread out more evenly, thanks to Ronaldo being such a vocal point, that players like Benzema and Asensio eneded up sacrificing their game to help him. The problem with this argument at the time and especially now is the goals they were replacing. They weren’t replacing 20-25 goals, they were replacing 50. Madrid needed to bring in a guy with a huge reputation, like Icardi, Kane, Dybala or even Griezmann. A guy who will take that responsibility and embrace it. They didn’t do this however, and now look like so much less of a threat than they were. With Bale failing to have the impact we all thought he would, it has left Los Blancos with the requirement of bringing in a forward this summer. Let’s quickly touch in Solari. Not much blame can be placed on him, because a lot of the problems all go back to Florentino Perez. Solari has done some good things. Thanks to some of the senior players in the squad rather struggling for form or with injuries, it has left Solari with choosing to bring in the fringe players, to see what they can offer. Llorente, Ceballos and Requilon have all played a decent amount of minutes, and some of them have shown they can have a say in this side. He’s got Madrid winning again, but they just don’t look good doing it. This is a huge game and this could define their season.

Let’s look at 2 of Madrid’s biggest threats, starting with Luka Modric. The debate still continues on whether the Croatian deserved the Balon d’or. The quick answer is always Messi and always will be Messi. If Messi is still playing he should win it every single year. Since there have been 6 occasions of the Argentine not winning it then the award shouldn’t be taken seriously. I am happy he has won it. It was about time that Modric got the credit he deserved for being one of the best midfielders of the decade. He is one of the most complete midfielders the game has ever seen, and while Xavi and Pogba will always be my personal favourites, Modric is right up there. Modric did have a slow start to the season, but he cannot be blamed much for that. He wasn’t given much of a break after his Croatia side’s impressive run to the final of the World Cup. At the age of 33, he needs to be used more sparingly, but it shows just how good he is. Without him, their midfield just doesn’t function as well as with him there. Only captain Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema have started more games in La Liga than Modric. Even after his slow start, he has still been very impressive. He never stands out in any statistic, but he is solid in most departments. Out of the Real Madrid squad, only the full backs complete more dribbles than him. Only a handful of players create more chances than him and take more shots. He adds so much to your midfield that he can just fit into any team comfortably. Even with Ajax’s impressive midfield talent, they will find it difficult to deal with him. Vinicious Jr is a player who does need to be highlighted here, with Isco, Bale and Asensio all having arguably their least productive seasons, and it’s given the young Brazilian his chance to shine. he has been good in his 12 appearances in the league, and shown moments of real talent. While he isn’t as exciting as Mbappe, Jovic or even Sancho, there is definitely a talent here. We can go into the crazy decision to spend £40m on a player who has never started a game of football, but it’s had an effect on him. Imagine having your future planned out, without barely having to kick a ball. His game for me needs so much improving, mostly to do with his movement and his decision making. But he has been getting plaudits for his recent performances, and they are justified. His chance creation and shooting have have made him a useful player for Solari. He’s still so raw and adds this aura of unpredictably. It’s something they havent’t had for a long time, since Ronaldo’s winger days. He could be a real problem for Ajax in the wide areas.

If Ajax want to beat the current holders? They must attack them in the wide areas. If Marcelo starts, it will leave Madrid exposed on his side. While his attacking contribution is still solid, he has been caught out defensively a few times this season, and is finally starting his age. If Neres or Ziyech can just commit to staying wide, it will make their chances of getting through. They also have to play their game. They proved against Bayern that they are able to play against the best around, if they just be confident and believe in themselves, they have a huge chance of advancing. This Madrid side isn’t the same possession side as it was. Ajax can beat them. Get De Jong on the ball and he will drive through that aging Madrid side

But if Madrid want to keep their title, they must play the ball in the air. With Ajax having a small side, it makes them easier to push off the pitch. They are also inexperienced, so make sure to use the dark arts of football at their worst. Ramos does this all the time, so hope, like Liverpool, and will be key if Madrid want to get through. Madrid have never been a side that win pretty, but know how to win. Even on an off year, they have the players to get through these huge games. It’s what they do best. I think they will advance to the next round, but Ajax will really give them a tough game.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group G

Just 2 more groups left now. This group isn’t exactly a stand out compared to other groups, but there is still things to talk about. So let’s just get right to it.

CSKA Moscow

Starting with another regular of the Champions League, Moscow come into this year’s competition after a summer of a few key departures. They lost World Cup star Aleksandr Golovin to Monaco for €30m, and Vitinho went back to Brazil. Some of their older players have also retired. They were still involved in the first team, so a lot of replacing was needed. Some of their notable bits of business (and there is a lot) are Abel Hernandez signed on a free, Magnusson was signed from Bristol City, and Nikola Vlasic joined the club on loan from Everton. They have began the season is a solid 3-5-2. It brings the most out of the players they have, with Mario Fernandez being a very attacking full back. Vlasic is a very energetic player and can help drive the play forward. One of their key players so far has been their young forward Fedor Chalov. The world cup quarter finalist has started the season on fire, scoring 6 in 7 already. Hernandez also has started well for his new side. Scoring and getting 2 assists. As previously mentioned, Fernandez has excelled in this system. He’s been so good, that he has already got 3 assists as a wing back. They have a solid set up, a goalscorer and form. But it will not be enough for them to get out of the group. Both Roma and Madrid are better sides, but they will be getting Europa League football.

Real Madrid

One of the favourites for the tournament, talking about the qualities of Madrid is already getting tiresome. So let’s quickly go over what has changed since Ronaldo and Zidane’s departures. Madrid have looked much more balanced since their record scorers big transfer to Juventus. When playing under Zidane, their main approach to games was to create as many chances for Ronaldo as possible. It was why the full backs were so advanced and why Benzema didn’t contribute much, because he sacrificed a lot of his game for the Portuguese star. But he already has 4 goals. In the entirety of last season, he only managed 5 goals. His shot numbers are higher, he’s winning more aerial duels. He is also getting fouled more, showing his involvement in dangerous areas. Asensio has so far been the ‘replacement’ (I use that term lightly because they have different roles) for Ronaldo. He has started on that left side, helping Bale and Benzema through his great dribbling and creative abilities. He is completing 2.3 dribbles per 90 so far, and is putting in 2.8 shots per game. He has given balance that forward 3, and allowed the other forwards to focus on getting in goal scoring areas. Madrid do not have the same goal scoring machine, but they still look like a real threat. We’ll have to wait to see how they do against the bigger sides, but they will win this group.

Roma

The Giallorossi have not been great so far this season. A late winner against Torino, a draw against Atalanta, a defeat against an average Milan side, and then a giving away a 2 goal lead against Chievo, means Roma go into this game with only a single win. By now I thought Di Francesco would have his team playing better and stopping that over reliance on Dzeko. But yet they still lack good wide talent, and struggle when Dzeko isn’t on his day. Defensively they just set up poorly. They seem unable to play a high line, yet still continue to. However I think they will get out of the group. Moscow are tough to beat, but Roma just have a better side. It could be close but Roma will finish 2nd. However not signing Malcolm could be the biggest regret of the season.

Plzen

Another team I know very little about, FC Viktoria Plzen are back in the Champions League for the first time since 2013, where they failed to get out of the group. The same will happen here too. While they haven’t lost a game since their defeat to Sporting in March, they are still not near the level of Real Madrid, and cannot compete with Roma and CSKA. It’s fortunate that they are drawn in a difficult group. They have started their domestic campaign very well, with their main forward Krmencik scoring 7 in 8 games. They are currently second in their table and look on course to compete for the title in their league. My knowledge of the Czech top flight is extremely limited, but it wouldn’t make a difference. The sides are simply better.

Final Table

1. Real Madrid

2. Roma

3. CSKA Moscow

4. FC Viktoria Plzen