Guardiola must resist temptation of complication
Pep Guardiola insists he isn’t obsessed by winning another Champions League trophy, that he’ll still be the same person regardless of whether he eventually lifts that huge trophy, just as he did in 1992 as a player and both 2009 and 2011 as a coach. The evidence suggests that the quest for European dominion does occupy his mind, and that it affects his approach to games.
In the last two seasons, City have been dumped out of the Champions League by fellow Premier League sides, and on both occasions Guardiola diverged from his usual process. He left out Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane in the first leg against Tottenham last season, concentrating on the physical challenge that Mauricio Pochettino’s team would present. That 1-0 defeat proved costly, as Spurs went through on away goals. The season before, City were blown away 3-0 at Anfield by Liverpool. Again, Guardiola was questioned – his decision to deploy Aymeric Laporte on the left of defence backfired, and the omission of Raheem Sterling raised eyebrows. There was a similar pattern at Bayern Munich, as Guardiola failed to reach the UCL final during his three-year reign.
As a domestic force, City have snatched the breath and quickened the pulse. The collection of 198 points in the last two Premier League seasons trumps anything that has gone before. In Sterling, City have one of world football’s brightest forwards, and the squad is bursting with quality. As I wrote in my Premier League season preview, I expect City to once again pip Liverpool to the Premier League title, as their consistency over 38 games is undisputable. However, the Champions League is a competition of fine margins, and to some extent clubs are slaves to fortune. City are yet to reach a Champions League semi-final under Guardiola, and I feel they are too short in the Winner market at [4.7].
Barcelona can banish Champions League ghosts
No team has encapsulated the dizzying highs and crushing lows of the Champions League better than Barcelona in recent seasons. Their extraordinary “Remontada” comeback against PSG in 2017 was followed by horrendous collapses in Rome (Barca led Roma 4-1 but lost the second leg 3-0) and Liverpool (Barca squandered a 3-0 first-leg lead.)
These stinging failures have blotted the copybook of coach Ernesto Valverde, who has delivered back-to-back La Liga titles, and the man they call “The Ant” must now show he can walk tall in Europe’s top competition. I believe Valverde has the tools for the job.
If you block out the Neymar noise, Barca had a great transfer window. Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who excelled in the UCL last season for Ajax, should prove an astute capture because of his impressive mobility and technique. The lavishly gifted but hard-working Antoine Griezmann can take a bit of pressure away from the talismanic Lionel Messi, and the failure of the Neymar swap means that wing wizard Ousmane Dembele and classy Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic are still in the building. At the back, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet make for a solid pairing, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of Europe’s best goalkeepers.
And then of course there is Messi. 112 Champions League goals and counting, and at least six goals in the competition in each of the last 12 seasons. The Argentinean has flourished under Valverde, and last term he scored 48 goals across La Liga and the Champions League. You can see why he’s the favourite to be the competition’s top scorer at [5.5].
I think Messi can lead a very strong squad to success, and I’d back Barca to win the competition at [6.6].
Klopp’s consistency is a modern marvel
It’s fair to say that Jurgen Klopp likes to do things differently, and while most of the big names around Europe were embroiled in transfer sagas, Liverpool didn’t make a single major signing. While some will suggest the European champions have stood still, Klopp is content that he has a settled and strong squad.
Liverpool became champions of Europe for the sixth time as they overcame Tottenham in Madrid, but theirs was a tale of survival and miraculous escapes. The 4-0 semi-final win over Barcelona will leave a permanent imprint on the club’s already-rich folklore, but had the Catalans taken just one of several good chances at Anfield, it would surely have been a story of brave failure. After losing all three of their group-stage away games, Klopp’s side almost didn’t make it to the knockout phase.
Anfield truly is a fortress these days (LFC haven’t lost a competitive home game since last September), and the Reds have made a stellar start to the season. They have to be seen as strong contenders to reach the final for the third season running. My only concern is whether defensive behemoth Virgil van Dijk and the front three of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino can maintain their extraordinary levels of durability. They missed just six league games between them last season.
Don’t dismiss Zidane’s “Dad’s Army”
Santiago Solari looked a broken man, ashen-faced as he stared into the middle distance. In the background at the Bernabeu, Ajax were celebrating a thoroughly deserved 4-1 victory, a result that saw Real Madrid’s era of domination come crashing down. The Spanish giants had won the trophy in 2016, 2017 and 2018, but this time they fell at the first knockout hurdle.
Solari was inevitably replaced as coach, but Zinedine Zidane’s return was a surprise. The Frenchman had delivered that hat-trick of UCL successes, but had gone out at the top. Now he is back, and although he didn’t get the transfer prize he wanted (a Mr P.Pogba from Manchester), he still has a squad that had 300 million euros spent on it over the summer.
Whether Zidane likes it or not, the core of the side that won four Champions Leagues in five seasons remains. Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema are all at his disposal, and the addition of Eden Hazard gives the attack extra sparkle. Real’s clumsy start to the domestic season is a concern, but by the time the knockout phase comes along (Real should comfortably qualify from a group involving PSG, Galatasaray and Club Brugge) some of those issues should have been resolved, and the new signings will have had time to settle.
At [12.5], I believe Real are generously priced.
Too many questions hang over French champions
At [11.5], I believe Ligue 1 winners Paris Saint-Germain are a little too short to back to win the trophy. As a group they carry a collective anxiety in this competition, evidenced by that grim collapse against Manchester United last season. The Neymar transfer saga continues to dominate the discourse (he chased a move to Barcelona all summer, but it failed to materialise), and the Brazilian maverick is banned for the first three games of the group stage.
Mauro Icardi could prove to be an inspired acquisition from Inter Milan, but the striker and his agent wife Wanda Mara could just as easily produce another distracting soap opera. While new sporting director Leonardo has made some really smart signings (Real Madrid keeper Keylor Navas, Sevilla winger Pablo Sarabia, Borussia Dortmund defender Abdou Diallo, and midfielders Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera have all been brought in), the question remains: can PSG make the mental leap from the straightforward nature of Ligue 1 games to the huge Champions League challenges?
PSG haven’t made the Champions League semi-finals since the turn of the century, and I think there are sides better placed to reach the last four this time around.
Juventus stand out in best of the rest
Juventus are attractively priced at [16.0]. They have one of the competition’s icons in Cristiano Ronaldo, their options are so plentiful that Emre Can and Mario Mandzukic didn’t even make the UCL squad, and I expect Dutch centre-back Matthijs De Ligt to recover from a shaky start and show why Juve spent so much on him.
The doubters aren’t sure that Maurizio Sarri can succeed with his attacking 4-3-3 set-up, but if he can get his ideas across to a set of talented and experienced players, Juve will be a real danger. Sarri must juggle the egos, but similar doubts were expressed ahead of his season at Chelsea, and he delivered a top-three finish and the Europa League trophy. I think Juve will go deep in the competition, so I’d get on that price now, and I’ll happily add them to my portfolio.
Bayern Munich [15.0] have a world-class striker in Robert Lewandowski, and they added quality to their defensive line with the acquisition of World Cup winners Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. Barcelona bust Philippe Coutinho’s loan move gives him the chance to show he can still compete at the highest level, but there are big question marks over coach Niko Kovac’s ability to come up with something special against the big hitters. He looked frozen against Liverpool in the last 16 last term, imposing a passive and defensive mindset on his players that cost them dearly.
Given that they have twice reached the final under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid can never be discounted. Star players like Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, Antoine Griezmann and Rodri have all left, as have grizzled veterans like Felipe Luis and Juanfran. Some of the replacements are exciting – Portuguese teenager Joao Felix is a wonderful player to watch in attack, and England right-back Kieran Trippier should improve defensively under Simeone.
Atleti have a tough group (Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow), but they’ve made a superb start to their domestic season. If they can get through the group phase, then they’ll make for awkward and dangerous opponents. If you’re thinking of backing them, now’s the time, because their price of [24.0] will soon tumble.
Last season’s beaten finalists Tottenham are priced at [32.0] to win the competition, and they have made a stumbling start to the campaign. Coach Mauricio Pochettino has admitted the chemistry in the squad isn’t quite right at the moment, and the transfer saga that ultimately saw playmaker Christian Eriksen stay put was clearly unsettling for both player and coach.
However, there are reasons to be cheerful for Spurs fans. Harry Kane is fit and looking sharp, while Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura give the Tottenham attack some nice variety. Excellent centre-back Toby Aldeweireld is still in the squad despite being linked with an exit all summer, and the signing of agile and technically-gifted Lyon midfielder Tanguy Ndombele improves the starting XI.
While I don’t believe Spurs will go all the way to the final, they have taken some big scalps in the competition in the last few seasons, and I wouldn’t dismiss their chances of winning Group B at [2.6]. Olympiakos and Crvena Zvezda are awkward opponents, but top spot in this group will effectively be decided by who comes out on top between Spurs and Bayern. I see those sides as being evenly matched at present, so the value lies in backing Spurs to win the section.
Watch for the charge of the Red Bulls
RB Leipzig are priced at [85.0] to win the tournament, but just as they have made an early impression in the Bundesliga, they could be poised to raise some early eyebrows in the Champions League too. 32-year-old coach Julian Nagelsmann has been an extraordinary success, turning Hoffenheim from relegation candidates into a team that twice qualified for Europe’s top competition.
Now he has a better class of player to work with. Germany striker Timo Werner has just signed a new contract, and is averaging better than a goal a game this season. Wing-backs Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann have both broken into the national set-up, while Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano are two of the best young centre-backs in Europe.
Leipzig failed to escape the group stage last time, but they have a far stronger squad now, and the draw was kind to them. Zenit, Benfica and Lyon are all competent opponents, but it’s a wide-open group with no clear favourite. I think Leipzig can clinch a place in the top two, and they are a team not many clubs would want to face in the last 16.
Source: BETFAIR PREMIER LEAGUE