Are Juventus Favourites? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group D

Atletico Madrid

The summer transfer window was one of the most critical windows for Atletico during this decade. They lost an entire back-line, alongside their best midfielder and attacker in Rodri and Griezmann respectively. They went about fixing these problems in quite exciting ways, with a combination of experience and younger talent, including the addition of one of the hottest prospects in Europe; Joao Felix. It keeps Atletico Madrid competitive in the short term while allowing them to improve over the next few years.

Simeone’s side is currently top of the league, winning all of their games. However, they’ve shown an unusual trait in the opening 3 games. They’ve remained defensively solid as ever, with only Sevilla, Bilbao and Getafe facing fewer shots per game. They are deservedly top of the table, but what stands out is in the attack, where their shot numbers are fascinating. No side takes fewer shots per game than Atleti’s 6, but they’re managing to get 4 of them on target, the joint 7th best and by far the most efficient. In fact, Barcelona is taking 4.3 shots on target in 13 shots per game. It seems Simeone’s side are focusing on only taking shots from strong locations. Their xG per shot is 0.29, better than Sevilla, Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s an approach I doubt is sustainable, but the idea of your players focusing only on high-quality shots is delightful.

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While Morata and Costa have started the season brightly, their big-money signing Joao Felix has to be the player that rest of the teams here have to keep their eye on. The Portuguese international broke onto the scene with a bang. In his first full season of top-flight football, he scored a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt, making him the youngest player to score on in the Europa League. A lot of clips of the young forward went viral, showcasing his skill and ability on the ball in training. While that is great to watch, by far his best quality is his movement. Felix plays as a second striker, making him effective wherever he plays. The 19-year-old can find pockets of space to expose the opposition in different ways. He can either find room to receive the ball and bring others into play or go for goal himself. Playing in such a forward position has put pressure on him to contribute to goals, but it hasn’t had an effect on the way he plays. It’s by far one of my favourite things about him. Felix enjoys playing football, and you can see it on the pitch whenever he plays and makes the game look so natural. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops under a defensive coach like Simeone, but Felix possesses the qualities right now that can make him a world-class talent. His shot location and movement off the ball are genuinely excellent but offers so much in terms of dribbling and creativity that will make it so difficult for his opponents to handle.

My only worry regarding Atletico is during the knockout stages, but right now, I don’t expect them to have any issues in terms of reaching the round of 16. Their games against Juventus will undoubtedly be exciting, just to see if they continue their consistently high-quality chance creation.

Bayer Leverkusen 

One of the more attacking sides in the competition, Leverkusen have the forward talent to match nearly any team in Europe. Even with Julien Brandt’s departure, Leverkusen still possesses arguably the best forward options in the league, with Volland, Diaby, Demirbay, Bailey, Bellarabi and Havertz all being extremely useful for any coach to have. Ever since Peter Bosz’s appointment midway through the season, they’ve been an absolute joy to watch. Last season, he managed to improve all of the attackers’ output, while ensuring the side weren’t leaking goals nearly as often. Before the Dutchman’s arrival, Leverkusen were struggling to remain in competition with the other teams seeking Champions League football. The change in management was a real boost for all involved. Brandt and Volland were the two who benefitted the most. Out of Brandt’s 18 goal involvements, 14 came after Bosz’s appointment, and Volland scored 8 out of his 14 goals during the second half of the season. A change to a 4-3-3 with the players reaching their expected talent level ensured they deservedly finished inside the top four.

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As mentioned, there are a lot of players that Juventus, Atletico and Lokomotiv have to watch, but by far their biggest threat is Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old is not only the best player for his club but the future of the German national team. At such a young age, Havertz has shown so many qualities that will make him one of the best in the world. While goal-scoring has attracted all the attention, his creativity is his best quality. The midfielder, capable at playing from a six to a ten, is a fantastic passer. His teammates, primarily Bailey and Brandt last season, were great at stretching a defence, which allowed Havertz to pick up the ball in dangerous areas. The German consistently picked out the likes of Volland and Bailey through defence-opening through balls or accurate crosses into the box. It’s tough to stop Leverkusen from scoring goals, but stopping Havertz is the best way to ensure they’re not a threat.

The only problem with Bosz, and it’s a big one, is his naivety. It all goes back to that Europa League. He fell right into Mourinho’s hands and played the way the Portuguese tactician predicted. Ever since it’s been a consistent worry for whenever his sides play one of the big clubs. Bosz possesses a lot of good qualities like other Cruyffian thinkers. The difference between him and other managers like Pep and Koeman is he doesn’t make the necessary changes for specific opponents. His sides will consistently play the same way week in and week out, and while that is good when facing weaker opposition, it makes it so easy for a good thinker to outsmart him. In a group containing the best defensive coach of the decade and a Juventus team famed for dealing with sides like Leverkusen, I just can’t see a world where they finish ahead of either of them.

Juventus

The way Juventus were eliminated in last year’s competition was worrying. A poor, but effective performance to earn a 1-1 draw away against Ajax gave them an advantage during the second leg in Turin. The problem was Juventus just decided to sit on their small lead, instead of taking the game to Ajax. The Dutch side was fantastic and highlighted not only their old-fashioned approach but the weaknesses in their team, especially the midfield. Frenkie De Jong and Donny Van De Beek walked right through Can, Pjanic and Matuidi. Since Pogba’s departure, The Old Lady have failed to adequately replace him, settling for older players who could do a job, instead of improving the team.

It’s what made Juventus’s summer quite perfect. Aaron Ramsey added a player who could offer a lot in goals and creativity from deep, something the previous crop of midfielders could not give. Rabiot is by far their best acquisition. While the Frenchman’s off the field issues put off a lot of clubs from signing him, there is doubting his talent. Rabiot is quite similar to a younger Luka Modric, arguably the best compliment to give him. He makes a lot of defensive actions per game, with the 24-year-old making 5.5 tackles and interceptions last season for PSG. He is an elite progressor of the ball, completing 1.3 dribbles and over 10 deep progressions. He is what Juventus needed, a midfielder who could actually transition the ball through dribbling.

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So far this season, Juventus haven’t been playing their new signings, with Sarri still opting for Khedira, Matuidi and Pjanic. What’s so fascinating about this is just how good they’ve been this season. If Sarri continues to get this output out of these ageing stars, I wonder what he can do with Rabiot once he is settled. Juventus now have a more attacking coach who could help guide Juventus to the Champions League they’ve been trying to win for years. With a solid defence, an improved midfield and Ronaldo still scoring goals, it’s hard to look past Juventus as one of the favourites for the competition. Simeone might cause them problems, but I can’t imagine Juventus failing to escape this group.

Lokomotiv Moscow 

It’s difficult to see how Lokomotiv Moscow find a way out of this group. The Russian side ended the 18/19 season in second place, finishing 8 points behind champions Zenit and equal on points with Krasnodar. Out of the top teams in Russia, Lokomotiv was arguably the worst. They overachieved xG and were lucky to finish so high up the field. Even after losing a lot of their older talent through free transfers, they have made some exciting additions. Joao Mario arrives from Inter Milan on loan, and while I’ve never been his biggest fan, he can offer a lot to a Moscow side who have just lost Manuel Fernandes. Grzegorz Krychowiak was signed permanently during the summer, after being on loan in the 18/19 season. The Polish international had a torrid time in Paris, but his move to Russia has been an enormous success. Usually playing as a defensive midfielder, Krychowiak has already scored 3 this season and is taking 3 shots per game. It’s clear he’s enjoying his football again, and it’s the best he’s been performing since his time for Sevilla.

Lokomotiv’s most significant threat has to be the Miranchuk twins. A rare occurrence to see twins playing for the same team, and makes it even more unique to see them being their team’s best players. Let’s start with Aleksey. The 23-year-old is more experienced than his brother, making his debut at 17 while his brother Anton, didn’t play for the first team until he was 20. Aleksey primarily plays as a number 10, using his incredible passing ability to create for his brother and the other forwards. Last season, Aleksey was making 2.6 key passes per 90, and it’s risen to 3.4 this season. Most of Lokomotiv’s attacks run through the attacking midfielder, which has made him not only one of his club’s best players but one of the stars of his national team.

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Aleksey’s attacking output has been improving as he gets older, mainly his shot volume; something his brother already excels at. Anton Miranchuk had to wait four more years to play alongside his brother in the first team, which is very surprising considering just how good he is. While his brother plays in the middle, Anton sees most of his game time on the left, cutting inside to shoot or create for his teammates. Aleksey is slightly more creative, with Anton averaging 2.2 key passes per 90, but Anton is far more of a goal threat. Last season, the wide player was scoring 0.51 goals per 90, a massive difference to his brother’s 0.13. This is primarily down to the pair having different roles in the side, but it’s good to see where they differ.

It might be slightly unfair to write them off before the competition even begins. But it’s difficult to imagine a world where Lokomotiv can escape this group. Atletico possess a fantastic manager, Juventus have talent across the pitch, and even Leverkusen have some of the best attackers in Germany. It’s one of the many flaws with the Champions League group stage structure, and it seems each of these previews showcases this perfectly. I’m still unsure how to necessarily fix this, but something needs to be changed to benefit those who did win their league titles. After all, it is called the Champions League, not the super club’s league.

The Best Team in Europe? – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group C

Arguably one of the least competitive groups in the competition. It’s undeniable who will top the group, but that second place is still very much up for grabs.

Atalanta 

After missing out from a playoff defeat back in 2017, Italy’s new hipster club are finally making their first appearance in the Champions League, and they fully deserve it. Atalanta have been one of the best sides in Italy for the past 3 years, credited for their attacking football and the value they’ve managed to uncover from a wide variety of talent. Back in the 2016/17 season, they were also famed for the young players they were producing. The likes of Franck Kessie, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Bryan Cristante all flourishing at the club. Atalanta seemed like the breeding ground for both Italy and Europe’s next generation of footballers, with the 4 players mentioned now playing for Italy’s more established big clubs. 

What last season did show was not only how Atalanta should now be considered one of Italy’s most dangerous sides, but just how they are doing that. Instead of focusing on young talent, their primary focus seems to be getting the best out of players who were written off by other clubs. This ability at finding value in the market made their 3rd place finish, with the best attack in the Serie A, even more impressive. Their front three revolves around Duvan Zapata, Papu Gomez and Josep Illicic. The trio are all over 28 and were brought in for a combined £22.05 million, some of the best value for money you’ll see. Gomez and Illicic play as inverted playmakers, given free roles to create for Zapata, as well as score themselves. While Gomez adds that unpredictability and skill to forward line, Zapata was by far their best performer last season. I can’t stress enough just how good his teammates were at creating chances for the Colombian, but Zapata’s knack for shooting in generally good positions turned those chances into goals. A majority of his goals were coming from inside the six-yard area, whether from set-pieces or from open play. These players can cause any side in Europe a lot of problems, and I fully expect them to bring their A-game to the rest of the teams in their group. 

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There is more to Atalanta than just their attack. In fact, their midfield has remained a force even with the departures of Kessie and Cristante. Remo Freuler and Martin De Roon combined to form a midfield pairing focused on winning the ball but remain adept at progressing it to their gifted attackers. De Roon’s massive defensive output does deserve praise, but Freuler is comfortably the best out of the pair. The Swiss midfield combines massive defensive actions of 4.4 tackles and interceptions alongside over 9 deep progressions, placing him in the top 10 in Serie A for progressions from deep. The pair cover the wide areas of the pitch so effectively that it has enabled their wing-backs to push up and give Atalanta width. 

While I can expect Dinamo and Shakhtar to have a shot at escaping this group, La Dea is by far the favourites to finish 2nd. A great coach in Gasperini, the best attack in Italy, a solid midfield and marauding wing-backs, they could indeed turn the heads of many casual fans.

Dinamo Zagreb

The Croatian side has garnered a reputation for producing some of their country’s best talent. Luka Modric, Matteo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic and Marko Rog all played and eventually departed to join some of Europe’s elite. Dinamo Zagreb’s production line earns more plaudits than the actual team, but the team do deserve some praise. Their performances in the Europa League last season were excellent, topping Group D and going undefeated in a group containing Fenerbahce and Anderlecht. A Round of 16 departure to Benfica is respectable enough, considering they managed to take the Liga NOS champions into extra-time. They brought the same impressive form to their qualification, easing past Rosenborg, Saburtalo and Ferencvaros. They’ve earned their place here and were always going to struggle to get out of the group based on Dinamo being in a low pot. 

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Dinamo has a chance to get to the round of 16, but it rests on the form of Dani Olmo. The 21-year-old is a player who I have a lot of respect for, possessing the courage to leave La Masia at 16 and move to Croatia. It’s not a path you see Spanish players take, but joining Dinamo Zagreb must be a decision he doesn’t regret. It allowed him to start playing first-team football at a young age, enabling him to develop as a more refined player than you see from other players at his age. Olmo has primarily played as a winger but has recently moved inside, which is the best move for his future. He is calm under pressure and can dribble in wide areas. Playing him in a wider position does make sense when Olmo wasn’t fully developed as a man but has grown and increased in muscle, making him even more challenging to dispossess. Last season in the Europa League group stages, Olmo completed 19 dribbles, more than any other player in the competition. He isn’t just the best player in Croatia but is at the level where he could start for an established Champions League club. The young midfielder has a varied skill set, being an excellent dribbler while also being one of the most prominent distributors in the Dinamo side, with no other outfield player completing more than his 33 passes per game in the Europa League. He is everything for Dinamo in the attack, and his form could decide their outcome in this year’s competition. 

Manchester City 

Manchester City is placed in a group where their chances of losing or near the land of impossibility. It’s hard to argue against Pep’s side is the best in Europe. They boast the best forward line, some of the best creators and one of the best goalkeepers. Not only that, but they are managed by one of the best managers the game has ever seen. Many like to lambast Guardiola for the money spent on fixing this side, but you can’t argue just how much better a lot of these players have become since moving to the Etihad. De Bruyne is now one of the top 5 players in Europe, Bernardo Silva is far more than just a good winger, and Sterling has been completely transformed. This Manchester City side is the best the Premier League has ever seen and is likely to retain the title once again. 

Man City already had the best team in Europe but went about improving the only weak areas they possessed, by bringing in Angelino and Rodri to cover Zinchenko and Fernandinho respectively. Angelino is unlikely to start often in the league, but gives that needed depth for next to nothing, after Fabian Delph departed the club. Rodri was the addition that the champions required since 2017. City lack proper central midfielders. David Silva, Bernardo and De Bruyne play there, but they’re more like free-roaming 8’s. Gundogan and Fernandinho are all they had, so signing a successor to their Brazilian powerhouse was the most crucial signing in recent history, and they have nailed it with the Rodri’s arrival. While the Spaniard isn’t nearly as quick as Fernandinho, he has a vast range in passing and puts in a lot of defensive actions. At the moment, he isn’t as good as Fernandinho, based on the fact that the Brazilian can do everything in midfield. However, he is now 34. Pep has consistently evolved his defensive midfielders. Busquets was a fantastic passer and reader of the game, and one of the main reasons Barca have been so good in attack for over a decade. Arturo Vidal was different, being more of a box to box, aggressive ball-winner to help against sides like Dortmund under Tuchel. Fernandinho is similar to Vidal but could read the game on a higher level than the Chilean, sensing danger and stopping attacks through a well-timed tackle or a tactical foul. It’ll be interesting to see how Rodri grows into the role, but it’s hard to deny that Pep’s side is somehow even better than last season. 

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Depth at centre-half is a slight issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Walker or Fernandinho fill in there until Laporte’s return, but City should ease through this group. This isn’t to say the teams in group C are weak, but City is that far ahead of the competition. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the elite clubs when the knock out stages arrive, but for now, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge for City.

Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar, similar to Atalanta and Dinamo, have garnered reputable status as one of the best feeder clubs of Brazilian talent. Fred, Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira are a handful of players who flourished in Ukraine, eventually moving on to star-studded leagues. Yet, Shakhtar’s reputation in Europe is pretty respectable, even with some glaring off the field problems, primarily down to tensions between Ukraine and Russia. They’ve been a mainstay in the Champions League since their first inclusion back in 2001, and have even gotten as far as the quarter-finals in 2011, losing to Pep’s Barcelona. They also managed to win the UEFA Cup back in 2009 and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2016. They have European pedigree and mostly kept their side from last season together, alongside some improvements. Yevhen Konoplyanka arrives after having a torrid end to his time at Schalke and could add some creativity and pace from the wide areas, with Taison and Marlos both 31. 

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The Ukrainian side does have a chance of getting out of this group. They have started the season in perfect form under new coach Luis Castro, winning all 6 games. They are against a Dinamo side who are heavily reliant on a single player and an Atalanta team who have never played in the Champions League before. Shakhtar has performed well under more stringent circumstances, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them finish above their competition. That said, I do think they will finish in the Europa League spot. Their best players are now another year older, and I’m unsure how long they can keep performing in Europe. They’ll perform well, but it won’t be enough against two sides, who in Atalanta and Manchester City, have a more talented group of players and better coaches.

Should Tottenham Fans be Worried? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group B

The second group of this year’s competition, while not as competitive as others, still could be full of surprises. Two teams, you expect to progress and two that have been difficult in the past, there is still a chance for an upset

Red Star Belgrade

The Serbian side have garnered a reputation for being one of the scariest grounds to visit. Passionate and aggressive fans in an old stadium make an atmosphere some rarely experience in the modern game. We first saw Red Star at their best in recent memory in their surprising 2-0 win over Liverpool. It could be placed on Liverpool having an off game, but 2 first-half goals mounted a lot of pressure on the eventual winners that they couldn’t overcome. 

I fully expect Red Star to continue in their consistent enjoyment of causing problems for teams during their visit to Serbia, but it still won’t be enough. They’ll continue to struggle away from home, and while Marin, Van La Parra and Pavkov have their moments, It’s improbable they’ll escape this group. 

Bayern Munich

Bayern under Kovac have been tricky to describe. They did deservedly win the Bundesliga once again, but many issues were exposed. Weaknesses in midfield, lack of players in the wide areas and an overreliance on Lewandowski showcased a dominant team with so much work needed in keeping the side competitive in the future. 

Bayern’s first plan of action was to resolve their defence through the added additions of Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. It’s strange how they’ve spent so much money fixing their defence when it was already the best in the league. Clear areas were needing of improvement, but I can understand their desire to add numbers. Hummels and Boateng were approaching the latter stages of their careers, and Kovac seemingly wanted more athletic defenders than the options at his disposal. Pavard and Hernandez were World Cup-winning defenders, capable at playing at either full-back or at centre half. 

Their acquisitions would have made more sense if they actually resolved the issues regarding wingers. Robben and Ribery finally departed the club and left huge holes that needed to be fixed through the transfer market. Bayern’s summer was dominated through the continual pursuit of Manchester City forward Leroy Sane. The German international would have been a sensational signing, giving a perfect winger, able to create and score. Unsurprisingly, The Premier League champions were unwilling to sell, and it left Bayern in a real predicament. Bayern are one of the few big clubs who are usually reluctant to pay more than their valuation. We’ve seen Manchester United, Barcelona, PSG, Liverpool and Juventus spend too much on individual players in their goal of being the best in Europe. Bayern are more traditional in a sense and do not want to get involved in the mess that is the transfer market. While it is respectable to have such an approach, sometimes beliefs just have to be sacrificed if you want to compete with the best teams around. 

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We even saw how they aren’t nearly as frightening as they once were in last year’s Champions League. Bayern were the first team to be absolutely ripped open by Ajax. It was the first time since in years we’ve seen Bayern struggle so much against opposition that isn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona, and it continued in the round of 16, where they were drawn against Liverpool. Their performance in both legs was poor. Bayern went to Anfield with conservatism in mind, opting to stop Liverpool instead of playing them. The Bavarians have been so imperative at the Allianz for years, that it made sense to take a point and attempt to beat the Reds back on their own turf. The problem is they were playing the second-best team in Europe, known for their ability to tear open big sides like Bayern, and were comfortably beaten by the eventual winners. This game displayed just how much needed to be done in turning Bayern back into the juggernauts they were under Heynckes and Pep.

Nevertheless, I expect Bayern to win this group. They will struggle when the round of 16 arrives, but for now, they’ll be at their usual best. They’ve started the season in extraordinary form, and I expect Kovac and his players to ease past a relatively weak group.

Olympiakos

After missing last year’s competition, Olympiakos return after qualifying in extremely comfortable fashion, beating Viktoria Plzen, Krasnodar and Başakşehir while only conceding a single goal, while scoring 13. There is a possibility they could cause a threat to either Tottenham or Bayern, but it’s improbable. Their best attacker, Konstantinos Fortounis, suffered an ACL injury back in July and isn’t returning until 2020. It leaves them with Mathieu Valbuena, Daniel Podence and Masouras as their main attacking threats, which just isn’t enough to worry their opponents. It may sound harsh to write them off completely, but I cannot see Olympiakos escaping this group at all, but will most likely finish in 3rd if they manage to overcome Red Star. 

Tottenham Hotspur

Mauricio Pochettino’s side spectacularly reached the Champions League final. Their historic comeback to beat the neutral’s favourite team Ajax will go down as one of the best comebacks in Champions League history, but their whole season can be best described as overperforming. They were laughably placed in the same title-chasing bracket as Manchester City and Liverpool by Christmas when they were never close to them. Spurs were overperforming expected goals throughout the season. The only reason they managed to finish in the top four was down to their strong start, because their form during their second half of the season was relegation worthy, losing to Bournemouth, Burnley, Southampton, West Ham and Manchester United. 

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Tottenham finishing in the top four and reaching a cup final should all be credited to their manager. Pochettino managed all this without signing any players and missing crucial personnel through vast stretches of the season. Not only that, he had to work without any competent midfielders. Spurs went from a generally fun side to watch to be more direct and efficient, due to their lack of midfield talent. When attacking, they would continually skip the midfield and attempt to play it long to the attackers, which worked well considering their situation. The reality is that Tottenham should never have reached that far in the Champions League. They narrowly escaped their group and got lucky with wins over City and Ajax. 

After a summer which saw significant improvements in midfield but weakened in other areas, I’m expecting Spurs to struggle again. They’ve started the season poorly, and their performances against Newcastle and Aston Villa highlighted some glaring issues in attack. I still expect Tottenham to escape the group, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them limp over the line in worrying fashion. 

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. 

What Is WRONG With PSG? Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain – UEFA Champions League Review

When this tie was drawn back in December, it looked like the game was already over. PSG were flying under Tuchel, and while they had their defensive problems, having Mbappe, Neymar and Cavani instantly made them favourites. United on the other hand were having their worst season in a very long time. Mourinho had clearly lost the players and was almost asking to be sacked, however this all changed before the first leg. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in and gave United the boost they needed, and looked like they couldn’t be stopped. Paris were in a worse situation. They weren’t playing Rabiot because of his refusal to sign a new contract. He was carrying that midfield for a majority of the season, and it looked like they would massively suffer without him. What made it worse was that both Neymar and Cavani both picked up injuries, leaving that front 3 missing 2 of it’s most senior players. It left the tie more open than anyone expected.

Let’s start with the first leg, with ended 0-2, thanks to goals from Mbappe and Kimpembe. Many were truly underestimating the French champions in this game. Many pundits and fans thought without Neymar and Cavani, it would be difficult for PSG to pick up a result. But they all forgot how good of a coach Tuchel is. He is one of the best around, able to adjust his system for whoever he is facing, while also having a very clear identity. He was able to turn both Pulisic and Dembele into some of the most desirable players in Europe. Tuchel got his tactics spot on against United. His plan was to cut their supply lines by putting Marquinhos very tight on Pogba, United’s best player. This worked, with Pogba having a difficult game, ending up with the Frenchman getting sent off for a stupid challenge on Dani Alves. While Paris looked like they set up in a 4-2-3-1, it looked more like a 3-4-2-1. Dani Alves looked more like a wing back, and Draxler and Di Maria were playing more like second strikers, with a weak United defence being quite easy to exploit. PSG nullified United’s attack, while also taking advantage of their weaknesses. It was almost a perfect performance in a knock out stage, and was a massive step up from their struggles against Real Madrid last year.

United on the other hand has massive struggles, but it’s hard to place blame. The Red Devils lost both Lingard and Martial to injuries, and were forced to bring on Sanchez and Mata, who both could not replicate the same energy and speed on the counter attack as the players they replaced. While Martial and Lingard weren’t exactly great, they are more of a threat. They would have always left United with an option to get back into the game. What PSG noticed and took advantage of is just how left sided United are. With Pogba, Shaw and Martial/Sanchez being their most creative players, PSG decided to double up in that area, and it left them much easier to deal with. United have almost no option on that right side, with Young being very wasteful in the final third, and Lingard being given more of a free role to move inside. It’s a problem they need to address in the summer, and with rumours of Jadon Sancho being possibly brought in, it could leave that problem being resolved very quickly. United failed to create any good chances in this game, and were punished with effieciency from PSG, and Solskjaer was taught a big lesson by one of the best managers around.

The tables were turned for the second leg. Thanks to a tough game against Liverpool, United were left with even more players out injured, with the total being 10. The possibility of United advancing to the quarter finals was at 4%, making it an impossible challenge. Yet they managed to do it. I will go on later about the main reasons on why they did so, but there were still impressive parts to United in this game. While Paris were missing good chances and were so much worse than they were in Manchester, United still defended very well, with Lindelof, Smalling, Shaw and McTominay all putting in great performances to ensure they could hold on to their advantage, when the game was getting tough. I saw some United fans say it was some master class approach from Solskjaer, when it really wasn’t that impressive. He started Eric Bailly as a right back, which as seen under Mourinho, doesn’t work. He gets caught too easily and seems to not understand what a defensive line is. While Solskjaer did bring on Dalot to replace him, moving Ashley Young to the right back position, it did seem like that was the decision he should of made in the first place. United weren’t as incredible as many said they were. Now with time to reflect and emtion out of the window, it’s clear to see that United took advantage of 3 mistakes, but held on impressively.

What even happened to Paris on this night? They arguably were deserved of the win, but that isn’t saying much considering United as a whole only created 2 chances in the game. Mbappe and Di Maria both had chances to win the game for their side, but didn’t take them. There was still an element of a side who already thought they were through, so didn’t have to try their hardest to win it. It’s an approach Madrid also favoured against Ajax, but there is a difference. Madrid are the holders so they have a somewhat right to be arrogant. Paris on the other hand do not. They have failed 3 years in a row now, to reach the quarter finals and prove that their costly investments are paying off. Instead they looked so casual and didn’t have the same desire they showed in the first leg. You can question United all you want in this game, believe me I have, but one thing that cannot be argued is they went in there with the hope to win that game. All the players on pitch turned up and players like Fred and McTominay had arguably the best games of their United careers. PSG didn’t and were punished for their lack of concerntration throughout the game. I do think they still have plenty of room to improve. Those full backs still need improving, with Alves and Meunier not being good enough to win this competition. Lo Celso is also set to return, which will give them a player who I am very fond of, for being able to do everything in midfield. They’ll need another midfielder, with Rabiot on his way out in the summer, but if they improve these areas, they will become more competitive than ever before. I just wish they took advantage of the gift of being the only big club in Paris. Players like Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, N’golo Kante, Anthony Martial and former PSG midfielder Blaise Matuidi. No other city produces talent like this. PSG seem to be taking advantage of this on a small scale, with Moussa Diaby, Nkunku and Kimpembe all finding their feet in the first team, but they have to start dominating from the academy level. They let Mbappe slip out of their hands to another rival, as well as players like Kante leave the country. They also do not dominate on the domestic front as Juventus and Bayern do. Juventus are great at this. They sign players from all over Serie A, to show the domination and weaken the sides around them. Paris do not do this. It’s frustrating because I believe that every side in Ligue 1 has a talent that could be at a bigger club. Thuram, Savanier, Jullien, Sangare, Lala and Atal are a few players that Paris could sign. While most wouldn’t start, they could send some of the younger players on loan, and find out if they are worth keeping. Something at Paris needs to change, if they ever want to be taken seriously as the European powerhouse they claim to be.

Monchi’s Failure! Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Review

Let’s move on the next game in the Champions League, which saw a struggling Roma side face a Porto side which are quite difficult to break down. While other games were being spoken more on, this tie still had some excitement to it, so let’s look at a game where Roma showed their best and worst sides, and Porto battled for their place in the quarter finals.

We’ll begin with the first leg, which saw Roma come out deserving 2-1 winners over their Portguese opponents. This was the game that Roma needed to win, and was arguably their biggest game of the season. Roma were missing Cengiz Under for this game, someone I didn’t realise was actually out until that first leg. It didn’t matteer much, since it was Nicolo Zaniolo who came in to replace him. The Italian has been one of the few bright sparks for Roma this season, and showed it in this game. He was the man of the match, scoring both goals and put in a very good performance for his side, taking 3 shots on target and completing 2 dribbles. I do think there are elements of his game he needs to improve, mainly his passing, but he gets into good areas and plays the role of a second striker very effectively. While Roma didn’t exactly dominate this game, they did put in a performance that was worthy of the victory, even with a complete collapse in defence costed them that clean sheet.

Porto weren’t exactly good at all, but not all is their fault. They were missing Moussa Marega, their top goalscrorer in the competition with 5 goals. While he isn’t the most technically gifted footballer around, he uses his physicality and aggression to his advantage. Without him, Porto just lacked that bite up the field, which was needed in this game. I mentioned how they needed to win the battle in midfield, and they struggled to do so. Pellegrini ran the show, creating 5 chances and having 4 shots. Pereira and Herrera just couldn’t get near him, and allowed him to pull the strings. I mentioned before that Porto were very fortunate in their away games so far in the Champions League, and they showed that against Roma. They managed 2 shots on target in the game, showing how much they struggled to take advantage of the possession they had. This is down to both of their strikers on the night, Soares and Fernando, just not being very good. Fernando only managed 18 touches, and both forward kept drifting out wide, making it very hard for Porto to create anything of note. They did manage that important away goal, thanks to Adrien Lopez getting on the end of a good ball in the box. While Roma had the advantage, Porto were definitely still in this tie.

The first leg showed Roma at their best, and the second leg showed them at their worst. I said in my preview that they needed to take advantage of that first leg because they had Lazio right before their visit to Portugal. To say their form took a cataclysmic drop after that win is an understatement. They scraped by with wins against struggling Frosinone and Bologna, but a huge 3-0 loss to Lazio hurt the side. Lazio aren’t nearly as good as they were last season, but showed a spark of their attacking prowess shown when they were so close to Champions League football. It left Roma low on confidence and going to face Porto, who had Moussa Marega back from injury. Roma were so much worse in this game than their first leg victory, and some of it has to go down to some of the changes made to the side that fought valiantly in Rome. He went back to a back 3 and changed an energetic midfield of Cristante and Pellegrini to accompany De Rossi and went to a midfield 2 of the captain and N’Zonzi. It gave the side zero protection from Porto, and allowed their opponents to comfortably control the game without the bite and speed that Roma had in the last game. It baffles me why Di Francesco would change a winning formula like that, in favour of a more pragmatic approach that didn’t work. It’s all down to Di Francesco because the players to have to take some of the blame. Manolas gave the ball away early in the game and allowed Corona to gift Soares with an open net. These players showed in both legs that they seem unable to keep track of runners, and the second goal showed that. Karsdrop was not tight enough on Telles, and Marcano just allowing Marega to make a run at the far post. It’s been a consistent theme of what has went wrong in the capital this season. With Di Francesco gone and Monchi close to Arsenal, the whole Roma project that looked so promising has now fell into ruin. While Di Francesco always has his doubters, me included, I do think Monchi should face some of the blame. I think he was hoping to have the chance to bring in prospects like Under and Kluivert time to develop into the players they are showing they could be. But the difference has been what changed since his arrivals. Both Milan clubs had massive investment which instantly put them back into the conversation for top 4, while Lazio and Atalanta were both making smart moves to push for those European football. Roma were lucky to even qualify for Champions League football last season. If it wasn’t for Inter dropping the ball, and Lazio having a slight consistency problem, I doubt they would have even qualified. Allison was the 2nd best goalkeeper in Europe last season, and saved Roma a lot of points. Replacing him with a relatively average keeper in Olsen was not a good move. Allowing both Strootman Nainggolan to leave, and replacing them with Cristante and N’Zonzi, two players who are not better than the ones who departed, left them weak in a position they were strong in for so long. Monchi seemed to change the plan of long term success to just trying to succeed on the short term. While signings like Pellegrini and Kluivert showed plenty of promise, it just wasn’t enough at the end of the day, to justify missing out on the attraction of Champions League football.

Porto were much better in this game, as it was expected. While their away record is fortunate at best, no one can argue just how good they’ve been at home in Europe. In the group stages, they scored 8 and only conceded 2. They showed Roma why teams fear them in their homeland. They were aggressive and attacked with plenty width. I complained that Pereira and Herrera didn’t do enough in the first leg, but they definitely brought their best in the home leg. Pereira especially was outstanding. He dominated that midfield, where he won 3 tackles, created 3 chances and had 4 shots. A good display from a player we know is capable of them. However the man of the match was comfortably Moussa Marega. He returned to the team in style. He forced Manolas to make the mistake, which lead to the first goal, and scored the second to ensure that Porto would go into extra time. He also created 2 chances and had 4 shots. While I don’t think he’s a great or even a good player, you cannot deny he is very useful and key to the way his side attacks. It is great to see Porto and Ajax, two historic clubs progress to the round of 16, in a world where the Top 5 leagues dominate every year. It gives hope that these leagues will only improve and continue to make smart business, the more their bigger clubs progress. Porto will not be an easy tie in the next round, and if they can just improve their away form, they could make it a tough tie for whoever they are drawn against.

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.

 

Are Juventus Favourites for the Competition? Atletico Madrid vs Juventus – UEFA Champions League Preview

As we come on to the last day of fixtures for the round of 16, let’s look at one of the most interesting games of the group stages. The 2016 finalists Atletico Madrid against the 2017 finalists Juventus. While they were both very good in those respective seasons, a lot has changed since then, so let’s look who will come out of this round victorious.

Let’s start with Atletico Madrid, who have arguably had their worst seasons in recent years. While that may be a strange statement considering they are still in the top 4 and have advanced to the round of 16, but elaboration is needed. Let’s start with the summer. This was arguably one of their biggest summers of the decade. It seemed with Barcelona showing vunerability, Real Madrid losing Ronaldo and Sevilla having a poor season, it meant it could be Simeone’s time to reclaim the title. They brought in Lemar for more than £60m, Rodri, Arias, Kalinic and Gelson Martins. All of these players were hopefully going to improve an already good side, and finally make a title challenge, so why hasn’t it happened? The signings should instantly looked at. While Rodri and Arias have worked out, Lemar and Martins have not worked out. Lemar might go down as one of the worst signings of the season. In 21 games in La Liga, he has only contributed to 3 goals. Considering how good he was for Monaco, especially during their title winning season, it’s just not good enough. His numbers aren’t good to see either. When they declined last season, it was just presumed that his numbers dropped because Monaco lost a lot of their key players, Like Mbappe, Silva and Mendy. A team getting worse is going to make the players look worse too. Soon as he went to Madrid however, me and many others thought he would improve because the team was better, but that’s simply not happened. His chance creation has halved from the title winning Monaco season, going from 2.2 to 1.1. He’s also shooting so much less, from 1.7 to 0.7. While the player does need to be questioned, Simeone is the one who truly needs to be questioned. I think he is an excellent coach, but his handling of some of these huge signings needs to be questioned. Gelson Martins has already left the club, to join Monaco on loan, Kalinic has only started 6 games, Diego Costa has been awful this season and Vitolo has only played 428 minutes. Out of the 18 players that were involved in the 2016 final, 12 of those players are still at the club. My point is that Simeone has a problem with finding replacements for some of these players. Vrsaljko, one of the best players at the 2018 World Cup, was allowed to leave. Carrasco was great for Simeone, yet was still allowed to leave. My point is that the club are spending a lot of money on players, only for their manager to not play them. It’s now getting worse because that solid defence is finally starting to show its cracks, with their 4-0 defeat to Dortmund earlier on in the season being their biggest ever defeat under Simeone. He has to adapt and fit these players in, or all this work he’s done will feel like a waste.

When talking about their key players, there is no one else to mention other than Antoine Griezmann. The World Cup winner is one of my favourite players currently playing, because there is so much to his game. While I think he would easily score more goals in another team, playing in this more defensive side has brought out qualities in him not any other coaches would find. He is just a perfect player to lead the line or play as a second striker. His ability to find space in the box and between the midfield and defence is expectional. He also does plenty of defensive work and is willing to drop deep, because he is still incredibly useful when he does this. He is currently taking 3.2 shots a game, which is solid. What makes this even better is that he’s creating 2.2 chances a game, the highest in the squad. This is what I meant when saying different qualities have appeared. In other sides, he wouldn’t have to create these chances , but playing for Atletico has revealed just how good he is at chance creation. For the first time in his career, he isn’t massively overperforming xG. Last season he scored 19, yet was meant score 14. This season he’s only overperforming by a couple of goals. He plays for a very defensive side so it’s expected that he will always run a little hot. He’s been great in the Champions League too, getting a goal contribution in every game he’s played. He will be the key for dealing with one of the best teams in Europe. With Koke missing for this game, it means there is a lot of pressure for the other midfielders to step up, mainly Rodri. He has been one signing that has worked out so well from their spending spree last summer. He came in to replace their former captain Gabi, and has filled his boots with ease. He is averaging 60 passes a game, making 4.5 tackles and interceptions a game and is even winning 2.2 aerial duels. He is so solid defensively, and is able to distribute the ball so effectively. This is a difficult match for any player, never mind someone who has never played in the Champions League knock out rounds before. Let’s hope he brings all these qualities into this round.

Juventus have been very good this season. After a season that saw them pushed to the very edge by Sarri’s Napoli side, they seemingly wanted to bring back their domiance, and after signing Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Perrin and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s Juventus in a good position to earn instant success , and it’s meant a lot of pressure for them. What makes this side very lucky is they have one of the Top 5 managers in the world in Max Allegri. The Italian’s ability to change and adapt to whoever he’s playing, and bringing the absolute best out of any player he has, makes his teams so difficult to play against. Serie A this season has went back to its predictable self, thanks to Juventus just walking away with it so far. Ronaldo, Dybala, Manzukic and Pjanic are all performing as good as ever to make sure they win their 8th Scudetto in a row. What I like most about this side is how quickly they have learnt to play to Ronaldo’s strengths. While Dybala and Mandzukic aren’t playing as good as they have in the past, they have been so selfless in making sure Ronaldo gets all the chances like he did in Madrid. The 3 of them are just so flexible. They are all able to play on the flanks, and through the middle. It means Allegri is given so many options in how to approach these big games. I truly do think that this is their chance to take advantage of weaker competition. Juventus have a striker who gets in amazing positions and knows how to turn up on the big stage, and have a defence with incredible full backs and 2 defenders who are some of the best of the modern era. While losing Buffon is a massive blow, Szczesny is more than good to play for this side. Juventus couldn’t have picked a better time to sign the 5x Champions League winner in Cristiano Ronaldo, but it has put a lot of pressure on them to succeed instantly. This squad’s average age is 28.3, with only 2 other sides in Serie A having older teams than the Champions. While Ronaldo still has a couple of years left at the top level, players like Chiellini, Bonucci, Matuidi, Cuadrado, Khedira and Mandzukic are all over 30. This could be the last chance for Allegri to win the Champions League with this set of players, which makes this arguably the most difficult season of his career to date.

Ronaldo is definitely the biggest threat in this game. Atletico is one of his favourite sides to face, a team in which he has scored 21 goals against. It’s a game where he usually able to turn up against, so it’s important to create as many chances as possible for him. He is already taking nearly 7 shots a game in Serie A, which is just outstanding for a 34 year old. The problem is he has had one of his worst Champions League campaigns for a long time. He is the competition’s all time top goal scorer, yet he only managed a single goal. Having that red card early on did not help him, but it puts even more pressure on him now. He came to Juventus for the sole reason of winning this compeition, so he has to go back to his scoring ways. Another who could be a massive threat is Paulo Dybala. With Ronaldo not performing, it put a lot of pressure on the Argentine to carry the side, and he did. He scored 5 goals in the compeition in only 4 starts. While he won’t be as much of goal threat as his teammate, his chance creation and movement in the final third will be key in finding goals against such a solid side.

My money would be on Juventus to advance. I just think Ronaldo’s goal record against Atletico is too good to ignore, and with their defence finally starting to weaken, it has made them arguably the worst they’ve been in a long time.

Why Barcelona Have Been Underwhelming – Lyon vs Barcelona -UEFA Champions League Preview

These previews have been some of the best posts I’ve put out, and judging by the views they are attracting, it seems others agree. With only 3 left, it seems we are finally so close to finishing them. Let’s look at one of the final previews, being Lyon’s huge game against La Liga leaders Barcelona. With both teams having game defining players, it could be a very memorable tie.

Let’s begin with Lyon, who are having a fine enough season so far, but I have had some problems with them. It just bothers me when they drop points against such poor opposition, and with Lille 4 points clear and Marseille and St Etienne not far behind them, it begs the question of why aren’t Lyon doing better? Well defence is a massive problem. While their full backs are actually pretty solid, with Mendy, Tete and Dubois all performing very well, it’s put more pressure on Lyon’s defenders. While I think Marcelo is a solid defender, I don’t think Denayer is not a good player in the slightest. Jeremy Morel is now 34, and is still getting plenty of game time. It worries me that a team with such a good attack, might be held down by a central defence that is old and easy to expose. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of their manager, Bruno Genesio. I can give him sympathy for having deal with a club who aren’t willing to spend much on defenders, which is why Denayer is even at the club. He has also added some impressive flexibility to the side, with Lyon deploying 8 different formations this season. It has mostly worked, but it was more to get the most out of what he has, and he seems to be unsure on what his best team even is. He’s played Aouar, Depay, Fekir and Traore in so many different positions, because he doesn’t know where to fit them all in. He’s tried Fekir and Depay as a striker, mainly due to both lacking a great work rate. However while both have played a lot of games there and can work on the occasion, they are better behind the striker. Depay is an amazing creator, so having him on the left or behind the striker is much more effective. Fekir is similar. He loves to get on the ball and run at defenders, and his shot locations aren’t great, with half of his total shot coming from outside the box. He’s another who shouldn’t lead the line. While Genesio’s masterclass against Manchester City and PSG is very impressive, I just don’t think he has taken advantage of Marseille and Monaco falling off as much as they have, in the same way Lille have capitalised.

What cannot be denied about Lyon is they have some of the most desirable players in Europe, starting with Memphis Depay. The Dutch international is in the form of his life at the moment. It has actually surprised me why a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid have not even considered him. While I did say I do not like him as a sole number 9, he is still an absolutely amazing attacker. He is taking 2.9 shots a game, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. These are all signs of a complete forward. Since Lacazette’s departure, he has been the main man at Lyon. With Fekir having consistent injury problems, Depay has been so important for everything Lyon have been doing. With his versatility, arrogance and ability, he makes for a forward who could fix any attack. It’s just so good to see Depay finally reach that potential we all knew he had. Barcelona might truly struggle to deal with him, because he can just do so much. He is so unpredictable. While Fekir and Traore could all be huge threats in this game, Aouar deserves some praise here. With incredible XGBuildup numbers and a great dribbler, it’s just amazing he’s still only 20. He is one of the best young players in Europe and has continued his amazing form from last season into this one. What has made him more impressive is the drop off of his teammates. Tousart and Ndombele have both not been nearly has good as they were last season, so it’s made Aouar look even better. I just love how good he is on the ball, and how good he is when it comes to transition. Ndombele’s dribble numbers have dropped, so it’s helped massively that Aouar has actually improved. A lot of clubs have been looking at him too, and it’s so easy to see why. He is a guy with a bright future, and is vital to Lyon getting a result in this game.

Let’s look at Barcelona. I have titled this post why Barcelona have been underwhelming, and I’ll explain. This La Liga season has been very confusing. With Villarreal and Valencia all dropping off a cliff this season, one would assume that a team that brought in huge talents like Malcom, Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal, you’d think they would be so much further ahead than they are. Real Madrid are having their worst season in years, yet they’re only 6 points behind them. While they have been winning and mostly deservingly so, but there have been consistent problems, and it all comes back to Valverde. His time at Barcelona can only be seen as satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is a bad manager. He is a very good manager, but isn’t a Barcelona manager. Thanks to Cruyff and Pep, they have such a high standard for the football that is being played, that anything that isn’t at the level, isn’t good enough. He has had a mostly successful time in charge, but he has individual moments that have soured his relationship with the fans. Letting Messi leave early last season for a friendly, which lead to the club losing their unbeaten run on the last day of the season against Levante, losing 5-4 in humiliating fashion. While that was bad, losing a 3 goal advantage against Roma in a truly awful performance in the Italian capital. It’s these moments where the fans and neutrals get frustrated, because he just struggles on the big stage at times. While I can see this as his biggest fault, the biggest problem is definitely his player managment. I do think he has been given players he doesn’t neccessarily want (I’ll get to that) and he has nearly no idea how to use them, and has instead relied heavily on Suarez and Busquets, and playing them even if they are tired. Both are aging and need to be managed carefully. Rakitic is another who is loved by Valverde, but wants to play him so much, that the fans are becoming tired of him. These are all good players, but they are all becoming old, and shouldn’t be relied on as much as they are. He has massively struggled with dealing with some of the bigger signings, starting with Coutinho. His signing in the first place was strange, because there wasn’t neccessarily a place in the squad for him. He was seen as an Iniesta replacement, but I don’t think they are as similar as thought. He cannot play as an 8, because he isn’t good defensively as an 8 should be. He also isn’t and has never been a winger, but can play there. He is a 10, but Messi occupies that area so where does he fit? He is useful to have in the squad, but Valverde seems to have no idea what to do with the £142m player. Malcom is a much worse situation, because Coutinho at least plays. But that blame is more on Malcom that Valverde, because he should be at Roma, but decided to go to Barcelona, when there wasn’t even a place in the squad. Valeverde is struggling in some aspecs in one of the hardest manager job’s in the world.

Talking about Messi as a key player is pointless, because of course he is. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he’s easily the biggest threat on the pitch. Let’s look at someone else instead, that being Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman’s time in Barcelona has been mixed. Don’t get me wrong, he has been amazing whenever he has played, but because of his issues with Valverde, and the board seemingly not liking him, it’s taken a while for him to establish himself in the side, but he’s been great. His performances in the Champions League have been outstanding. His shot numbers, chance creation and dribbling went supernova. He scored 2 in the group stages, with only Messi scoring more. He adds that creativity from the wide areas and is one of the dribblers in Europe. He is still such a promising player, and it’s good to see him finally showing it for a side that don’t deserve him.

If Lyon wish to win the round, they must deal with Busquets. The Spaniard is the best defensive midfielder in history, but he is 29 now. He is such a smart player but if Lyon attempt to deal with him, it’ll make Barcelona so much easier to deal with. The other is to hope Sergi Roberto is playing. He is good offensively, but is so easy to expose. They have to attack fast and keep hold of the ball. If they fail to do that, Messi and co will punish them.

If Barcelona want to advance, they have to play 2 in the middle. Lyon advanced as one of the few unbeaten teams, but only managing a single win. Those defenders are old, so if they play Messi and Suarez together, it might put a lot of pressure on the players at the back. Denayer and Morel aren’t good defenders, and Barcelona should find it easy to break them down. They need to use their experience. This team still has plenty of the winners from their 2015 Champions League win, and need to beat a side full of young players. Show them how winning is done. It’s why I think they will win. While a shock could definitely happen, I think Barcelona just have so much going for them to lose in the same way as last season.

Is the League More Important? Liverpool vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League Preview

With the first week of fixtures over, let’s start looking at next week’s games, starting with by the most interesting, Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and title challengers and last year’s finalists Liverpool. It’s a game between 2 European heavyweights, but do they both even want to win this tournament?

We’ll start with Liverpool, who are arguably having their best season in the league since Suarez’s time in Anfield. A combination of a forward line whoj just get each other and defensive improvements have truly made them worthy challengers, but not deserving of a title. If their closest opponents were not this one in a million Manchester City side, I’d say they would definitely earn they praise. When talking about Liverpool, their summer window was one of their highlights. They fixed a majority of the issues I had with their squad. They fixed their hard working midfield by bringing an excellent defensive midfielder in Fabinho and a one in a million in Naby Keita (even if he hasn’t been at his best so far). The best part about bringing in these players is the added competition they’ve given. Wijnaldum and Milner have both improved this season, and have became regulars in the side. While I don’t like Wijnaldum in the slightest (his inconsistency and underwhelming numbers just make him not very useful player to me), it’s hard to deny he has had his best season at Merseyside. Milner is another who is in the form of his career. He is been the best creator in that midfield and balls to the full back have been intrusmental. I do say they haven’t deserved to be how close to city as they have, but they deserve credit for that. Klopp has weakened his press and put Salah as the point man in the team, and it’s been so successful. Firmino still leads the press, but it gives Salah the freedom to lead the line, and he might be in the best form of his career. He leads his team in every category, shots, chance creation and dribbles, and keeps that attack ticking with his pace and movement. The most important element of this side is the new found flexibility. When you move Firmino in a deeper position, it really helps give that midfield an option and doesn’t leave such a gap between the forward line and the midfield. It’s been a success, and now Klopp has even more options on how to set up his side. While their league form has been sensational, their performances in the Champions League have been worrying. Their defeats away to Paris, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade were very worrying, because it highlighted their weaknesses and their occasion to just forget the basics of football. Away games in the Champions League are tough, and Liverpool just dropped off. They were taking less shots and giving away way more big chances than they usually do. Their usual aggression and general effort just seemed to drop off, especially against Napoli. It’s left them with clear weaknesses, that if you deal with the midfield, it makes them so much easier to handle. They are still one of the best sides in the competition, and will be very hard to stop.

With Salah already highlighted. let’s look at 2 other players that will have an influence in this game, starting with Virgil Van Dijk. The Dutchman has single handedly fixed that defence and given them a monsterous aerial prescene and a great distributor. Liverpool were chasing Van Dijk for months, and finally landed their man for £75 million last January. He has arguably been one of Liverpool’s best ever signings in the Premier League era. He is just so reliable and leads that back line and has improved every defender who plays next to him. The best thing to say about Van Dijk is he is yet be dribbled past in the Premier League. That is absolutely incredible. He will be needed in a game against an opponents with true European pedigree, and Liverpool need a leader, especially at the Allianz. While I do like Van Dijk and mostly like Salah (the diving hasn’t helped him recently), I love Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian is the reason why that front 3 click so well. His pressing, creativity and work ethic make him the perfect partner for Mane and Salah. He has been so consistent during his time in Liverpool, He has contibuted to more than 15 goals in every domestic season for the Reds, and is a favourite for Jurgen Klopp. While Salah and Mane were great in the Champions League last season. He played every game and arguably gave his best performances. He contributed to 17 goals in 13 starts. He gave out the highest shot numbers and creative figures, and was the stand out performer for a majority of Liverpool’s games. Whether he is on the ball or off it, Bayern should be worried for what he can do to them.

Moving on to Bayern, who haven’t had as bad of a season as many have attempted to point out. The best way to describe it is unfortunate.  Just looking at thier xPTS, it shows that Bayern should be 8 points clear ahead of Dortmund, but thanks to a few unfortunate results and Favre breaking xG as usual, Bayern are 5 behind Dortmund and just in front of Gladbach. I’ve covered the negatives multiple times in the past so why not look at the more positive side? Well they still top the Bundesliga for shots, possession, pass accuracy and face the least amount of shots. They are still a very good side, but a lack of recruitment has made this squad weak in some areas. Niko Kovac is doing a good job, but has had the problem of relatively poor backing from the board have given Kovac criticism that isn’t entirely his fault. Bayern have an average age of 27,3, the highest in the Bundesliga. It’s worrying when their closest competitors, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, have average age’s of 23,9 and 24,9 respectively. While signings like Goretzka, Gnabry and Tolisso show that they have thought ahead in some areas, there are still players in this side that should be looking at moving on. Robben and Ribery are leaving in the summer, which is long overdue. Both have been some of the best wingers of the century, but they shouldn’t be relying on these players when they are both in their mid 30s. Some of their defenders also need to be looking at replacing. While I think Boateng and Hummels are still great defenders, one of them should move on, most definitely Boateng. The World Cup winner has struggled with injuries, and has relied on his physicality for years now. Hummels does not, which makes him more useful as he ages. Even with Pavard coming in the summer, they need to start truly future proofing the side, and now with Koman and Gnabry being the only attackers in the side that can be seen as young, their next few summers could possibly be the most important in the club’s recent history. I do think Bayern have been hugely unlucky to not be top of the Bundesliga, but their problems are all their own.

While Lewandowski is by far their biggest threat, with the forward scoring the joint most goals in the group stages, and his shot numbers being very good with 4 per game, it’s too obvious. We’ll instead look at two other players that will cause Liverpool plenty of problems. The first being, as previously mentioned, Kinglsey Coman. The Frenchman has had his difficulties while playing for the champions, with his game time limited thanks to Robben and Ribery’s continued persistence to remain as key players, it has meant he isn’t given as much game time as he so rightly deserves. Why does he deserve it? Well he has confortably been their best wide player. With Robben, Ribery and Gnabry all not being at their best, it has made Coman vital to this side. Even with the winger missing a majority of the season due to an injury he sustained in the first game of the season, Kovac as seen Coman as a player that must remain part of his first team plans. He put in a man of the match display against Augsburg, which saw him score 2 and assist another, which have been his only goal involvments this season, but his numbers have still been very positive. His xG90 and xA90 combined this season is a good 0.64, the highest in his career. He has only made 11 appearances this season, but it shows just how well he has played under Kovac. He has been unbeatable at times, with his pace, dribbling and chance creation all incredible this season. He has to play every game, but it’s a shame his injury record is still a worry. He’s now 22, which means it is about time for him to truly show the potential he’s promised for so long. Finally, let’s discuss Thiago Alcantara. The Spaniard has been one of the best midfielders in Europe for the past 3 years, but like Coman, he has also had his injury problems in the past. This hasn’t stopped the Spaniard in being almost a complete midfielder. He averages 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, completes 2.2 dribbles and averages 82 passes a game. Without Thiago in the side, they lack a player who isn’t afraid to get on the ball and help transition to attack, while relieving pressure off the defence. He is one of their most important players, and Bayern will need to get him on the ball as much as possible.

If Liverpool want to win this tie, they must attack down the flanks. If Bayern’s 3-1 loss against Leverkusen has taught us anything, it’s that they struggle when dealing with fast wingers, and Liverpool definitely have some of them. Bailey and Bellarabi cause Alaba and Rafinha plenty of problems, with the wingers completing 5 dribbles between them. Even with Kimmich coming back, it doesn’t change the fact that because Bayern advance their full backs so far forward, it leaves so much space for wingers to exploit. When Bayern struggle against teams, it’s against those who have more energy and hit them in the wide areas. Liverpool should deploy their 4-3-3. This kind of game is made for Firmino. His pressing will be key in dealing with an aging back line and a goalkeeper who is having his worst season in the his esteemed career in Neuer. Liverpool have been good this season, but it is time for them to turn on the spark of their incredible run last season, where their forwards that their best performances, and show this Bayern side that they aren’t top dogs anymore in European football.

However if Bayern want to advance to the next round, they must get Thiago on the ball as much as possible. I mentioned this before, but he is an excellent midfielder and if they are to get anything out of this game, Thiago needs to put his mark on this game. Modric and Kroos proved that if you play midfielders with game intelligence and great transitional play, it truly makes it hard for Liverpool. They cannot play anyone who isn’t afraid to run the length of the pitch. Coman. Gnabry, Rodriguez and even Goretzka have to play. Kovac might have to sacrifice everything that Pep has built and established, if they want to advance.

I’m going for Liverpool to advance here, and quite comfortably. This is still a good Bayern side, but this Liverpool side are still favourites. On their day, they can beat anyone, and they have the players and energy to break this Bayern side. The game at Anfield could be a battering, and it could be a massive statement for the Reds. Both want to win their domestic campaigns arguably more than this trophy, so it will be interesting to see how both will set up.