football

OPINION: Who is Leading the Charge for the Champions League?

October 17, 2017

- Grant Whittington

Although we are barely into this football season, many of the top teams are already beginning to showcase their potential. Both Manchester clubs are looking imperious, while Catalan giants Barcelona have built an impressive lead over Real Madrid in La Liga.

The same logic applies to the coveted Champions League, where the usual suspects are beginning to dominate the group stages and stake their claim for qualification. The five competing British clubs have certainly started well, with United, City, Chelsea and Tottenham having taken maximum points from their first two games.

With this in mind, the question that remains is which clubs are leading the early charge to win Europe’s most prized trophy? Let’s take a look:

  1. Paris St. Germain (PSG)

While this may be a surprising selection to some, a team with PSG’s heritage and financial resources is bound to make its mark in Europe at some point. The question is when, with many doubting the capabilities of their club after their now infamous second leg capitulation at the Nou Camp last season?

After appearing to come of age during a 4-0 thumping of Barcelona in the first leg of the second round, the Parisians were thrashed 6-1 in the return match, meaning that PSG continued their sorry record of having never reached the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition.

The club seems determined the set the record straight this year, however, having invested heavily in a forward line that is now the envy of most European clubs. Firstly, they signed the architect of Barcelona’s masterful comeback win in Spain, with Brazilian Neymar having moved to Paris for a world record transfer fee of £200 million. Then came the loan signing of Kylian Mbappe, who joined from Monaco after a protracted transfer and is expected to complete a permanent, £166 million switch next summer.

These immensely talented forwards have joined Uruguayan hit-man Edinson Cavani in a thrilling three-man attack, and one which has stormed to the top of Ligue 1 amid a flurry of goals. After dispatching Celtic 5-0 in their first Champions League game of the season, the club also made a huge statement of intent by thrashing Bayern Munich 3-0 at the Parc de Princes.

With the experienced Italian due of Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta also anchoring the midfield and Dani Alves having injected considerable quality into the back four, PSG have also created a solid foundation that allows their exciting attacking triumvirate to thrive. Altogether, this has transformed them into genuine contenders to win Europe’s most coveted prize for arguably the first time in a history of under-achievement, while more than justifying their status as second favourites for the tournament at a price of 5/1.

  1. Real Madrid 

While Los Blancos may have endured a difficult start to the season domestically, they have continued to shine in Europe. After winning the European Super Cup with an impressive 2-1 triumph over a rejuvenated Manchester United, Madrid have also started their UCL campaign with two consecutive victories (including an excellent 3-1 win in Germany over Borussia Dortmund).

Their recent record in the Champions League has also been truly spectacular, with the club having become the first to retain the modern iteration of the trophy following a 4-1 win against Juventus back in June.

Make no mistake; Madrid boast a squad that simply oozes class and experience, with midfield stars Luka Modicum and Toni Kroos ideally suited to the tempo of the European game. Sergio Ramos also continues to provide leadership from the back, while in Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and young Marco Asensio the club boasts incredible pace and firepower.

The emergence of talented playmaker Isco has also added a thrilling dimension to Madrid’s play, with the young Spaniard’s touch, vision and eye for goal offering a little more guile to compliment Real’s forceful forward line.

When you combine these factors, it should come as no surprise that Madrid are the bookmakers favourites to complete a hat-trick of Champions League wins this season, with a price of 9/2 reflecting their pedigree. The club will certainly be there or thereabouts once again, while the prospect of a Madrid and PSG final at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex in Kiev is truly mouth watering.

  1. Manchester United

Our final choice was made between the two Manchester clubs, who have both looked in exceptional form both at home and abroad so far this season. The concern with City, however, is that they appear restricted to their fluid and front-foot style of play, which may make it difficult for them to progress against similarly progressive (and arguably superior) teams like Barcelona, Madrid and PSG.

In contrast, Manchester United have no such concerns. Like any Jose Mourinho side, they boast a winning mentality and a well-rounded squad, which enables them to adapt their playing style to suit the opposition. So, while United will usually look to dominate the ball and play on the front foot, they are also equally adept and defending in numbers, hitting opponents on the counter-attack and adopting a more direct approach if required.

This makes them a genuine threat this season, particularly with the prolific Romelu Lukaku seemingly guaranteeing goals in a quick, powerful and diverse attack. Anthony Martial also appears to be back to something like his best, while in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford the Reds have two intelligent and gifted footballers who are capable of the unpredictable.

The mercurial Paul Pogba will also be key to United’s ambitions in the Champions League, as while the French playmaker is injured at the moment he retains the drive and quality the belongs at the very highest level. Alongside Nemanja Matic in the heart of the midfield, Pogba can force United forward and enable them to compete against the very best that Europe has to offer.

Although United are outside bets at around 12/1 (and currently less fancied than City), they retain a diversity and willingness to ‘win ugly’ that sets them apart from their neighbours. This could stand them in good stead, particularly as they advance deeper into the competition and through the knockout stages.

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