For Barcelona and Real Madrid, anything less an appearance at Munich’s Allianz Arena in May will be a disappointment. For Villarreal and Valencia, it is not too much of a leap to suggest that anything after the group stages is a bonus.
Barcelona begin their defence of the European Cup with Milan’s visit to the Camp Nou. Despite being held to a 2-2 draw by Real Sociedad at the weekend, it would be a surprise to see Milan leave with much from the Spanish champions, particularly in light of former Blaugrana man Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence in attack through injury.
Rossoneri midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng has identified the, rather obvious, midfield pairing of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta as the predominant threat: “If we don’t give Xavi and Andres Iniesta time to think, then it becomes very difficult for them to find the net. Those two are the right and left side of the Barcelona brain. Without the brain, teams cannot play.”
Unfortunately for Boateng, and for every other team with ambitions in the Champions League, Barcelona’s continued success is down to the fact they are a collective, with a shared brain, if you will. Whilst there are important figures, undoubtedly people such as Xavi and Iniesta, there is a roster of quality players who can power the side now.
Lionel Messi and Carles Puyol’s presence at either end of the pitch often drives the team just as much as the midfielders. Consider there is also Dani Alves, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, Javier Mascherano and Thiago Alcantara. More than Xavi and Iniesta, Barca are for more than Milan, the team to beat in this season’s competition.
However, one team who believe they can beat the Camp Nou outfit is Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. An clear second to their rivals in everything except the Copa Del Rey final last season, Mourinho’s men are on a mission. The whole club is geared towards the duel assault on the League title and European Cup and has undergone significant reworking this summer in a bid to catch, match and beat Barca.
Summer signings Fabio Coentrao and Nuri Sahin, as well as youngster Raphael Varane, strengthen an already impressive team, whilst if Milan’s Boateng was headed to the Bernabeau this week, he would probably identify Xabi Alonso as the brain controlling Mourinho’s team.
Once again though, it would be wrong to look to one man to power this side. Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira, Gonzalo Higuain, Iker Casillas, Ricardo Carvalho and Sergio Ramos all set the imagination racing.
Meanwhile, whilst Valencia will against struggle domestically to achieve more than the ‘best of the rest’ title, expectations are that despite losing Juan Mata this summer, that the team improve on last season’s Last 16 compeittion exit. Coach Unai Emery has even stated his belief the team can win the competition.
Indeed, despite notable departures in recent summers, there is still quality to the side, with an interesting mix of promising youth – Pablo Piatti, Victor Ruiz and Sergio Canales – blended with high quality experience – Roberto Soldado, David Albelda and Ever Banega.
Los Che are in a group with Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen and Genk, and where they believe they can progress at least as runners-up to Chelsea, their fate in the knock-out stages could be very much reliant on the draw they receive.
Just north of Valencia is the town of Villarreal, one that barely registers between the cities of Barcelona and Valencia, but has a ground some of Europe’s biggest names continue to find challenging to visit.
The Champions League draw has thrown Villarreal into the group of death, and the challenge for Juan Carlos Garrido is to continue El Madrigal’s hold on bigger names, with Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Napoli set to visit in the coming months.
Garrido’s side will definitely challenge their far grander visitors, but the possibility of overcoming them remains uncertain. They carry Champions League experience above Napoli and Manchester City, but also the smaller squad.
At the same time, in Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar, El Submarino Amarillo possesses a potent strike force that will cause trouble. The hardest group looks to be the most uncertain to predict an outcome from.