City to Conquer Champions League

Now that we’ve reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and the draw for the last 16 has taken place, Emabis assesses the various contenders' prospects of European success this season.

Manchester City

City topped Group F but failed to beat Lyon in either Group leg – losing at home and drawing away.  As such, despite being favourites for the competition, concerns for some remain over City’s credentials in Europe.  For me, City are the team to beat. 

City’s season thus far has been impacted by injuries to key players such as Mendy (long term), De Bruyne and Fernandinho.  Of all, the Brazilian’s absence was the most keenly felt as defensive vulnerabilities were exposed and City suffered two successive league defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester.  He has now returned better than ever – as a Man of the Match performance against Liverpool showed – and Guardiola will be hoping all key players remain fit for the rest of the season.

Drawing Schalke in the last 13 – a team lying 13th in the Bundesliga with 9 defeats in 13 – is a dream draw for City.  And assuming they can keep the irreplaceable Fernandinho fit, very few teams will be able to beat them. Especially over two legs.

Barcelona

Barcelona has sailed through the start of this season.  In Europe, Barca topped Group B will plenty to spare over Tottenham, Inter and PSV.  At home, they are ten points clear of Real Madrid and lead La Liga by five points over Atletico Madrid.  But that lead may owe as much to issues surrounding the Madrid clubs (see below) than to the brilliance of Ernesto Valverde’s side.

Despite their dominance on all fronts so far this season, I don’t believe Barcelona carry the same level of overall quality they once held.  A fact hidden by the genius that is Lionel Messi.  This season, Messi has scored 15 goals in 15 La Liga games and 6 goals in 4 Champions League games … not to mention his assists and overall contribution.  It may be odd to suggest that Messi is carrying players like Coutinho and Suárez on his back … but the evidence suggests that he is.

On paper, Lyon should pose few issues for Barcelona.  But, in practice, the Frenchmen caused Manchester City problems in their two Group legs and Barcelona have been forewarned. 

Juventus

Winner of the last seven Scudetto titles, and currently unbeaten leader of Serie A by 9 points, Juventus is the dominant force of Italian football.  But not so in Europe where, despite being beaten finalists in 2015 (Barcelona) and 2017 (Real Madrid), Juve has only won two Champions Leagues.  The last in 1996.  By contrast, their main European rival, Real Madrid has collected four European titles since 2014.

In an effort to redress their European deficiencies, Juventus splashed out a whopping €100m for 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer.  A high stakes gamble.  But with 122 goals in 164 European appearances – of which 105 goals were in 101 Madrid appearances – its clear that the four-time winner has a unique affinity for this competition.  The only question is whether he will have more pressing matters on his mind.

Juventus topped Group H against a subpar Manchester United, Valencia and Young Boys.  However a last 16 draw against Atletico Madrid could scarcely have been worse.  Assuming they overcome Atletico … a significant assumption given the Spaniard’s expertise in knock-out competition … they are beatable without Buffon in goals and a midfield featuring Matuidi and Bentancur.

PSG

Acquired by Qatar in 2011, PSG has spent vast sums of money assembling a roster of star names – most notably Neymar and Mbappé whom they paid €222m and €180m for respectively.  Add in the likes of Buffon, Thiago Silva, Alves, Verratti, Di María, Draxler and Cavani; and it’s clear that PSG’s line-up is one of significant quality and experience.

As you would expect, PSG has dominated French football with five consecutive titles since 2012.  But Europe has been different.  In the Champions League, Paris has frequently underwhelmed and been tagged as a squad of overly-pampered millionaires.

After topping a strong Group C ahead of Liverpool and Napoli, Tuchel’s side has been handed a favourable draw as they’re ideally equipped to exploit the defensive frailties of Manchester United.  But having watched several PSG games this season, I’d be very surprised if they go on to Champions League success.  Too many egos and too little emphasis on a balance team with defensive solidity.

Liverpool

Last season’s beaten finalists can definitely win the Champions League this season.  The reason is clear.  Liverpool started last season’s final with Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren.  The emergence of Joe Gomez in central defence, and the addition of Alisson in goals, has seen Liverpool lose just once in the Premier City (away to Manchester City) and concede only 10 goals in 21 games on the way (6 fewer than the next best club).

Whilst significantly improving their defence, Liverpool has lost none of their attacking process.  Their attacking stars of Mané, Firmino and Salah – ably assisted by Shaqiri on occasion – continue to combine superbly with Liverpool scoring 49 goals in 21 Premier League games (second only to Manchester City). 

I think the main obstacle to Liverpool winning this season’s Champions League is focus. Liverpool are favourite to overcome Bayern Munich in the last 16 but Klopp must surely prioritise Liverpool's first league title since 1990

Real Madrid

After claiming their third successive Champions League title last season (their thirteenth in total), and topping Group G ahead of Roma, it’s highly unusual to see Madrid priced at 12/1 to reclaim their title.  But it’s not surprising.  In fact, I think the odds are understated.  To explain why, some background to events at the Bernabéu over the past nine months or so helps. 

Only five days after winning the Champions League final last May, Zidane announced his resignation as Real Madrid manager citing a "need for change" at the club.  Appointed in January 2016, Zidane had won one La Liga title and three Champions League titles during his tenure.  On the eve of the World Cup, Real Madrid inexplicably decided to announce the appointment of Spanish manager Julen Lopetegui.  On the news becoming public, Lopetegui was sacked by Spain a day prior to the World Cup and, after a string of poor results for Madrid, he was also sacked from that position in late October 2018.  Lopetegui was replaced by Santiago Solari, then manager of Real Madrid’s B team, but his position is currently perilous following continued poor performances.

But the key change in Madrid last summer wasn’t Zidane’s departure.  It was the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus.  Although eye-watering money for a 33-year-old, Ronaldo scored 450 goals in 438 games for Madrid (including 105 goals in 101 Champions League games).  No replacement of equivalent calibre exists and without the goals provided by their record goal scorer, Madrid are a shadow of their former selves.

Bayern Munich

After sacking Carlo Ancelotti in September 2017 and appointing Jupp Heynckes until the end of the 2017/18 season – for Heynckes’ fourth time to manage Bayern – the Bayern hierarchy felt the club had been successfully positioned for future success.  A belief vindicated by their sixth consecutive Bundesliga title that season.  However, the biggest challenge was yet to come … replacing Heynckes and rebuilding an aging squad. 

Former player, Niko Kovač, was appointed manager on a three-year contract in April 2018.  But despite qualifying top of Group E, ahead of Ajax and Benfica, Bayern’s performance levels slipped below their high standards and they currently sit six-points behind Borussia Dortmund.  Rumours of Bayern targeting emerging young talent in Spain and England are unsurprising as their aging squad needs a comprehensive overhaul.  Key German players like Neuer, Hummels, Boateng and Müller have all underperformed whilst Ribéry (35) and Robben (34) are nearing exit. 

Even at their dominant best, Bayern haven’t won the Champions League since 2013.  So even if they improve their levels of performance and consistency during the German winter break … something by no means assured … I still believe they fall short.  If not initially against Liverpool in the last 16, then almost certainly against other leading title contenders like Manchester City, Barcelona or Juventus. 

Atletico Madrid

Atletico has experienced on-field and off-field problems this season.  On the field, despite being undefeated at home and having the meanest defence in Spain with only 13 league goals conceded, Atletico has only secured 2 wins in 9 away matches.  Drawn away games have been all too common for Atletico this season.  Take their Champions League group qualification.  Leading the Group into the final matchday, a goalless draw in Bruges saw Atletico finish second to Borussia Dormund on goal difference.  A mistake they were punished for by drawing Juventus in the last 16.

Off the field, avarice has taken hold of the Atletico players.  Started by the salary increase earned by star striker Griezmann (to persuade him to turn down a move to Barcelona last year), key defenders Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran Torres have run down their contracts to June 2019.  First out of the blocks is Godin with the announcement that he will join Inter Milan on a 2-year deal this summer.  The others may soon follow.  In addition, Hernandez has indicated his desire to join Bayern Munich and Oblak and Costa are angling for improved terms or an exit.

But despite this, Atletico have some appeal at double-digit odds.  They know how to win knock-out European Cup games – as shown by their final participation in 2015/16 and their semi-final exit in 2016/17 – and this year’s final is being played in their home ground, the Wanda Metropolitano.

Tottenham

Spurs have been very impressive in the Premier League this season.  Despite not signing a single player in the summer, or returning to a renovated White Hart Lane as anticipated, Spurs have won the same number of league games as Manchester City and just one fewer than Liverpool.  Something overlooked by many due to their third-place position. 

However, Spurs were extremely fortunate to qualify from Group B ahead of Inter Milan.  They shared points and goal difference, but the fixtures fell in Tottenham’s favour by scheduling Barcelona away in the final Group game when the Catalans were already qualified. 

Next up for Mauricio Pochettino’s side is Borussia Dortmund.  Tottenham – and predominantly Harry Kane – will undoubtedly benefit from Akanji’s season-long injury.  But even if Spurs overcome the German league leaders, their preferred midfield of Sissoko and Winks will get found out by better teams.  I also personally feel their captain, and World Cup winning goalkeeper, Lloris is on the decline.

Borussia Dortmund

At the Bundesliga’s winter break, Dortmund have only suffered one defeat and sit 6 points ahead of Bayern Munch on top of the division.  Key to their success has been the German’s continued brilliance in the transfer market and the capacity of head coach, Lucien Favre, to get the very best out of his mix of youth and experience. 

Always adept at finding high-quality talent and turning them into big money sales – think Ousmane Dembélé (bought from Rennes and sold to Barcelona), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (bought from Saint-Étienne and sold to Arsenal) and İlkay Gündoğan (bought from FC Nürnberg and sold to Manchester City) – Dortmund are currently sitting on a wealth of talent other European heavyweights are keen to plunder.  Pulisic is the first to leave (although he has been loaned back to BVB for the rest of this season) with Chelsea splashing out €64m for the 20-year-old American.  Expect Weigl (23), Akanji (23), Zagadou (19) and Sancho (18) to soon follow.  And Alcácer after a spell learning his trade like Aubameyang. 

In the meantime, until sold, Favre continues to benefit from their quality alongside experienced internationals such as Reus, Götze, Witsel and Delaney.  But similar to Liverpool, a battle on two fronts may prove too much for Dortmund and I expect them to prioritise domestic silverware over a European cup run.   

The Others

The return of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has returned some positivity to Manchester United.  However, they still lack the quality – particularly in defence and midfield – needed to win the Champions League.  Neymar, Mbappé and Cavani will relish the prospect of running at Lindelöf, Bailly and Jones.

Roma play Porto in their last 16 with the winner unlikely to progress to the latter stages of the competition.  Porto topped the worst Group in the Champions League – Group D – ahead of Schalke, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow and sit 5 points clear in the league after 16 games.  They’ve done what they’ve needed to do but, in the absence of high-calibre opponents, it’s difficult to truly judge the level at which Casillas, Militão, Herreram, Corona and Marega can operate.  Much easier to assess, however, is where Roma are at.  The Italians currently sit sixth in Serie A – a whopping 23 points behind Juventus after only 8 wins from 19 games – and qualified runner-up to Real Madrid in a poor Group F ahead of Viktoria Plzeň and CSKA Moscow.  Whichever team wins, they can’t win it.  Neither can Lyon (who next play Barcelona), Schalke (who next play City) or Ajax although the Dutchmen could beat Real Madrid in the last 16 given the state of the champions. 

Conclusion

Let’s start by ruling out the teams that can’t win the Champions League –Ajax, Lyon, Schalke, Roma and Porto. 

And also exclude the traditional European heavyweights in the midst of significant rebuilds – Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

PSG have never won the Champions League and there’s little to suggest that this season will be their first.   I think Liverpool and Dortmund will focus on league success this season and I’m happy to overlook them on this basis.  I also believe Spurs lack either the squad depth or European experience to win it.

Which leaves Manchester City, Barcelona, Juventus, and Atletico.

It’s no coincidence that Barcelona and Juventus have the two best players in the world – Messi and Ronaldo.  But, as noted above, I feel the quality of both players mask deficiencies across their respective teams which better opponents will exploit.  The fact Juventus face Atletico in the last 16 also makes them easy to overlook at the price.

Not so for Juve’s opponents, Atletico.  They’re currently 22/1 and have a recent tradition of progressing through Champions League knock-out games.  Should they beat Juventus, their price will shorten significantly. I think now is the time to get them onside.

By process of elimination, Manchester City are the team with the fewest questions hanging over them.  They may be short priced at 7/2 but, with so many questions over the other contenders, it could look like huge value come May.  It’s not for everyone but I’m taking it.

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Manchester City to win the 2018/19 Champions League: 3 points @ 7/2 with Sportingbet.

Atletico Madrid to win the 2018/19 Champions League: 0.5 points e/w @ 22/1 with Sportingbet, Boylesports and others.

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