Friday, December 10, 2010

What We've Learned So Far in the Champions League

photo by edwin.11via PhotoRee

This piece could be really short, if I'm honest. Sure, there were a couple of minor surprises, but by and large the group stage of the Champions League has come to a conclusion with virtually no major surprises.  The tournament, especially at this stage, has begun to take on the feel of being just an opportunity for the largest clubs in the world to generate a little extra ticket revenue from their fan base, with almost no shock entrants or Cinderella teams trying on their glass boots for the knockout rounds, a la the Gonzaga Bulldogs in March Madness.....

Although there were moments of high excitement -- White Hart Lane for instance, on the night that Gareth Bale held his coming out party for football fans worldwide --  by and large the group stage has proved a mere coronation for Europe’s largest and wealthiest clubs.  In large part this is due to format: the cream really should rise to the top over the course of six games. But there's also no way of denying that there’s a signifcant talent (and money) gap between the “Big Five” leagues in Europe (EPL, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1) and all the other smaller leagues (Denmark, Russia, and Romania, just to name a few), and the Champions League group stage only serves to highlight the gaping chasm.

England, Germany and Spain produced all the group winners save one -- United, Chelsea and Spurs from England; Schalke and Bayern from Germany; and Barca and Real from Spain. The other top spot was reserved for one of the few minor surprises I referred to earlier: Shakhtar Donetsk from Ukraine.  The teams finishing second are again heavily weighted toward the Big Five: three from Italy, two from France, one from Spain and one (Arsenal) from England.  Once again, there’s only a small band of resistance from Europe’s second tier: FC København, and I’ll be absolutely shocked if they advance past the next round. 

So two teams in all from outside the Big Five – not a real eye-opener, and a result most analysts could have picked months in advance.  Perhaps the only two surprises I can think of are that Arsenal almost didn’t make the tourney’s latter stages, struggling to finish second in their group, and one of the German sides (Werder Bremen) finished last in a group in which many thought they’d finish near the top.

But despite the overall predictability of the results, the group stage of the Champions League hasn’t proved a total waste of time, and we’ve even managed to learn a thing or two that could prove useful as we get deeper into the tournament.  Here’s some of what we've learned so far:

Barca is Good. Really good. Potentially scary good, and I don't think La Blaugrana have hit top form in the Champions League -- certainly nothing approaching their utter destruction of Real Madrid from a couple weeks ago.  Even so, they've still managed to play some of the most mesmerizing football of the tournament. I love to watch Barca, with their ticky-tacky, intricate passing game, creating chance after chance, but I’d hate to have to play them. Based on current form, I think they’ve got to be considered the favorite. 

Spurs Can Play with the Best of Them. On any given night, Spurs can play offense against any team in the world. And they're able to do it both at White Hart Lane, and even more impressively, on the road in Europe, too. The problem comes when Spurs have to play defense. I love watching Uncle Harry's team going forward, but I think it's a bit naïve to expect this strategy to work in the knockout stages of this tournament in particular. Mark my words: Spurs’ penchant for weakness in the back will bite them, and most likely sooner rather than later.  

Real Madrid are an Enigma at Present. Real have been incredibly dominant in the Champions League, with only a certain Pippo Inzaghi standing in the way of perfection, but those performances have been overshadowed in my mind by the absolute shellacking the Royals received at the Nou Camp in mid-November.  In order to figure out how far Los Blancos will go in this tourney, one is forced to contemplate a very tricky question: “Which is the Real Real?”  

Shakhtar Donetsk Are Better Than I Thought. Tied with Chelsea and Bayern at 15 points, only one less than top point scorers Real Madrid, Shakhtar have been a true revelation.  Reaching the round of 16 for the first time due to some attractive, attacking football, it’s unclear what we should expect from the Ukranians.  Are they the side that won five of their six games, keeping four clean sheets along the way, or are they the side that were handed a right hammering at the Emirates, 5-1?  Only time will tell.

Manchester United's Defense is Fairly Tight. Not airtight, mind you, as the Reds finally conceded a goal in the last game of this round, but pretty damn good, nonetheless. I don't know if their defense is as strong as Inter's tournament-winning form from last year (the I-don't-care-if-you're-Lionel-Messi-we're-still-going-to-shut-you-down variety of good), but Sir Alex knows that defense is paramount in Europe. Blink for even an instant -- remmeber Arjen Robben, anyone? -- and all your good work can and will be quickly undone.  With a healthy Rio and Vida in the back, United appear less likely to blink than most other sides.

Inter's Just Not That Good sans Jose Mourinho. Maybe it's the teams’ age, but I think more and more it's the coaching.  I never thought much of Rafa Benitez at Liverpool (to be fair, I didn't think much of the rest of the team, either), and I haven't changed my opinion, despite his changing both team and country.   Internazionale is a mess right now, and don’t look near the team that lifted the trophy only seven short months ago.  If he can’t right the ship and soon, Rafa won’t need to worry about the knockout round, because he won’t be coaching in it.

Chelsea are Wobbly.  Much as in the EPL, the Blues looked strong to start the campaign, but their form has dipped of late in Europe.  Needing to rely on a late winner at home against Slovakian giants MSK Zilina and losing to Marseille mid-week can’t have inspired much confidence in the squad, and the Blues will be hoping they can rediscover their form before the tournament resumes.  If not, Roman Abramovich will spend yet another year searching in vain for European glory.

This is farlieonfootie for December 11.

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