Friday, 21 September 2012

Champions League Wide Open?

Football fans know that only a select proportion of the elite are able to compete in the UEFA Champions League. Though there are many teams in the competition, only a few harbour to requisite talent to eventually win it; a stable of teams traditionally including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and, more recently, Chelsea. However, each of these clubs got off to decidedly underwhelming starts to the new European campaign this week, leaving many to postulate that, this time around, the continents premier club tournament is more wide open than ever.

It is notoriously difficult to defend the UEFA Champions League crown. No team in the history of the sport has ever achieved it. Thus, it was know that Chelsea were in for a tough time and, against Juventus, they certainly got it. The character, spirit and unwavering determination of The Old Lady was in evidence as the Turin giants roared back from two goals down to salvage a deserved draw. For Chelsea, this will become a familiar occurrence this campaign, with clubs more than ever viewing them as a major scalp; reclaiming the famous old trophy, then, may prove just too tricky.

What of the two Spanish giants? Seemingly bound together indefinitely in thinking of footballing cognoscenti, both Real Madrid and Barcelona have designs on this championship in perpetuity. However, in the embryonic stages of the La Liga season, it is possible to detect perhaps a cooling from the dizzy heights so cast in history a few years ago.

Under the ever-enigmatic Jose Mourinho, Madrid seem to have been affected by a hangover so far, with their start to the season littered with disappointing performances and results of ample frustration. Defeats at Getafe and Sevilla domestically were somewhat unconvincingly brushed away with a late resurrection against Manchester City on Tuesday evening, but questions still abound in the Bernabeu.

Real's arch nemesis, FC Barcelona, can too be questioned. Now seemingly diminished slightly from the absolute peak of their sublime powers from around 2008, Barca are, under Tito Vilanova, perhaps more vulnerable in Europe now. Spartak Moscow had the audacity, or perhaps the opportunistic bravery, to take a 2-1 lead in the Nou Camp in midweek, before Lionel Messi's brace bailed Barca out. It remains a source of profound puzzlement how this club can be so outrageously successful even when so frequently devoid of fully-fledged central defenders. During the game against Spartak, Vilanova at one point was reliant on a back three of Alex Song, Javier Mascherano and Dani Alves; an assortment of non-defenders that Barca surely cannot rely on as the competition develops.

Bayern Munich looked good in victory over Valencia, but don't they always? On occasion, the German powerhouse has been accused of flattering to deceive almost. Forever in possession of numerous world-class attacking and midfield players, it has always been the strength of defence that has been the Achilies Heel of German teams on the European stage. This was the case even in the Final last May, when Bayern's soft-underbelly was exposed by the brute force of Didier Drogba. Perhaps the record-breaking transfer of Javi Martinez may prove the antidote for Bayern this time round.

Contrary to Bayern, Manchester United have the quality in defence, as well as in attack, but it remains to be seen whether they have the midfield. Whilst Michael Carrick is a genuine force of both attack and defence at Old Trafford, many of his midfield counterparts are either too young or too old, some would argue. Are United able, at this stage, to rely heavily on Giggs and Scholes once again? Is Shinji Kagawa ready to translate his sparkling talent onto the continental stage? Will Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Tom Cleverly be able to provide?

The answers to the many questions that so currently litter European football will come soon enough. It may well be that Chelsea buck the trend and win two in a row; that Jose defies the critics and earns his third crown. It may well transpire that Vilanova is able to once again galvanise in Barcelona the imperious form of a few seasons past; that Martinez constitutes the final piece of Heynckes puzzle. All cannot come true. Some will be left unfulfilled. However, the ride along the way promises to be most enthralling.

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