With only half of the group stage games played, the Champions League has already revealed who the big favorites and disappointments are. Unsurprisingly, there are no new names on the big stage; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich are all back again, hungry for yet another season of European glory. On the other hand, former powerhouses such as Milan, Valencia, Roma and Ajax are struggling to find the form that saw them win trophies in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Finally, the usually dangerous teams of Olympique Lyon and Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as debutants Tottenham Hotspur, are again in a good position to surprise some of the favorites.
This new-old status quo comes as a sharp denial of last year’s suggestions that English and Spanish teams’ dominance was diminishing. After all, Barcelona was the only team from those two countries to reach the semifinals, where they were outwitted by Jose Mourinho’s Inter. However, nothing so far is implying that a similar disaster could happen again. Arsenal have already scored 14 goals and conceded only two, whereas Chelsea are not too far behind with their plus-seven goal difference. Manchester United, as usual, have gotten off to a slow start, but are still well on course for the top spot in their group with seven points. Barcelona are also having a solid start and are a few points away from securing the winning place in Group D.
However, it is Real Madrid that have been the most impressive of the favorites so far. After being accused of not scoring enough and not playing offensively enough as behooves the greatest team in the world, Real scored 19 goals in their last four games in La Liga. In doing so, manager Jose Mourinho shut the mouths of all critics who said his style was very defensive and economical. What is more, his team now looks to have adopted the best of both worlds. With their great attacking talent – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema, to name a few – Real are a great threat for any opposition. At the same time, Mourinho’s excellent defensive tactics have also allowed them to play very well defensively and not concede many goals.
From this point of view, it is not surprising that Real Madrid is my pick for the Champions League title this season. In addition to everything else, Jose Mourinho has already won this tournament with Porto (2004) and Inter (2010) and reached the final with Chelsea in 2008. Thus, he is aiming to become the first coach to have won four different European leagues with four different teams and three Champions League titles with three different squads. No matter what critics say, Mourinho knows how to win and will certainly show it in Madrid, this year or next.
Another reason why I think Real Madrid are the main favorite is the lack of serious opposition. Despite everything I said above, I still do not believe that those teams can match Madrid’s power. First of all, despite their strong start, Arsenal always tend to lose their key players for the big clashes and are never quite good enough to pull off a big upset. Manchester United are going through a change of generations which, combined with Wayne Rooney’s slump in form, will probably lead to an exit from the early knockout rounds. Barcelona can hardly repeat their record-breaking run from last year, and it seems only logical that they will have lost some of their hunger for trophies after all of their wins in the past few seasons. As for last year’s finalists, Inter and Bayern, I would be very surprised if they get anywhere near repeating their achievement. After all, Inter have always been a dangerous squad, but it was not until Mourinho took over that they finally won the trophy. Now that he is gone, it seems likely that they will revert back to their status as a strong side that is not quite good enough.
That leaves Chelsea as Real’s major opposition. The Blues have had a very solid start so far, both in the English Premier League and in the Champions League. They also have a very long bench which means they will probably be able to compete successfully in both tournaments. Yet again, though, Real’s main advantage is their coach. Having managed Chelsea for three years, Mourinho knows exactly how to beat them and he did it magnificently last year with Inter. For this reason, I have no doubts that he can do it again should the two teams meet at some point down the road.
So, with three games left before the knockout stage, all teams have a little more time to prepare for the big battles at the end of the winter. We soccer fans, however, will get no respite because all major domestic leagues will continue without a break throughout the winter and the holidays.