LONDON – After Real Madrid broke records last year with a stunning 13th Champions League trophy, which was the headline football news with it being their 3rd in a row, Europe’s premier football competition kicked off again on Tuesday, 18th September, 2018.
It was quite a contest last year, with favorites, Barcelona and Manchester City crashing out in the quarter-finals to AS Roma and Liverpool respectively. Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning overhead kick against Juventus, Liverpool pressing Manchester City out of the competition and AS Roma’s heroics against Barcelona were a few of the highlights in last year’s contest. The final at Kyiv was quite a contest, a resurgent Liverpool taking on a star-studded Real Madrid side. Gareth Bale’s stunning double and Loris Karius’ series of howlers sunk the Red ship, and Los Blancos claimed their 13th UCL title.
The group league fixtures for 2018-19 season are simply mouth watering, even better than last years. Runners-up Liverpool have drawn Paris St-Germain and Napoli in their group, while Manchester United faces Juventus. Barcelona, Tottenham and Internazionale will battle out for the two spots in their group.
Matchday 1 provided a lot of exciting encounters. The biggest sports news from midweek came with Liverpool defeated PSG by 3-2 in a mouth-watering clash, with Firmino coming off the bench to score a last minute winner. Lyon pulled off a surprise victory against Manchester City at the Etihad. Tottenham were beaten at a jam-packed San Siro by a late Inter comeback led by Icardi.
With more exciting fixtures to come in the coming weeks, we list out the 5 favorites to win the UCL trophy this year.
Real Madrid – The high profile departure of Cristiano Ronaldo haven’t slowed down the Los Blancos. They have gone off to a slow start in the league, behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid already. But Julen Lopetegui’s men have started their UCL campaign on the front foot. Isco, Bale and Asensio have torn last year’s semi-finalists, AS Roma apart.
Their new number 7, Miranda, looks to be an exciting prospect, while the perennial presence of captain Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varane keeps things tight at the back. Dani Carvajal and Marcelo are arguably their best full-backs in the world right now. Gareth Bale has started to take on the mantle of the firepower up front now. Spaniards Isco and Asensio provide the technical talent in the attacking third. Los Blancos look to be a set unit, vying to win their 4th trophy on the trot.
Juventus – The Italian giants have given it all, with their 100 mil USD transfer of perhaps the best player in the world on current form. Cristiano Ronaldo still remains ageless, and adds a lot of experience and charisma in the front line, along with Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala. With a strong midfield comprising of world cup winner Blaise Matuidi, Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic, Juventus looks solid.
The reunion of BBC (Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini) at the back is an added bonus. The bench comprising of talented Columbian Juan Cuadrado and Brazilian Douglas Costa, along with exciting youngsters like Can and Bernardeschi. Two time finalists in the past 4 years, The Old Lady from Turin will hope to go the extra mile this year. Cristiano Ronaldo will look to add another chapter in his already heavy book of accomplishments.
Barcelona – You simply can’t count the Blaugrana out of UCL. The five-time winners might not have been at their best in the past 3 years, but talisman Lionel Messi’s presence is more than enough to see off matches with style. 30 and still going strong, Lionel Messi is arguably the best player of this generation.
The Argentine is supported by Luis Suarez and young Frenchman Ousmane Dembele in a three-pronged attack. The acquisition of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool have bolstered their midfield and provided an outlet for goals from there.
Busquets remains the metronomic midfield metronome, dictating the play in all games. The defensive pairing of Pique and Umtiti forms a perfect balance of athleticism and experience, and was responsible for seeing out matches in the La Liga last season. Having thrashed PSV mercilessly, courtesy of a Messi hat-trick and a Dembele stunner, Barcelona will face sterner tests against Spurs and Inter. But with the amazing squad and Ernesto Valverde surprisingly good tactics, Barcelona might rejuvenate themselves in the UCl this season. The arrival of Arturo Vidal isn’t bad either.
Bayern Munich – It was a toss-up between the Bavarians and Manchester City. On current form, the Citizens slip off. Five time winners of this competition, Niko Kovac’s squad depth is enviable. Misfiring Thomas Mueller is seldom missed, as Lewandowski, Wagner and James Rodriguez provide enough firepower to wreck the opposition. The midfield machine is run by the brilliant Thiago Alcantara and new signing Leon Goretzka. Tolisso and Kimmich are lovely to watch. Added to this is the combined experience of Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben and Javi Martinez. Although they don’t face any stern test in the Bundesliga after the downfall of Dortmund, the squad is powerful enough to take out any opposition in Europe.
The Allianz Arena is a difficult place to visit, and the Bavarian crowd make most of it, driving the opposition out of their wits with the din they create. Last year’s semi finalists might not have attracted headlines and Germany’s untimely exit in the World Cup this year might be a concerning factor, but it is never wise to count off Bayern Munich. They are only a campaign away from becoming the dominant force of Europe again.
Liverpool – Perhaps the most exciting team in the competition right now, Jurgen Klopp’s men went so close to winning the trophy last year, but were let down by Karius’ howlers. The Reds have progressed a lot since then. After a busy summer window, Liverpool’s squad looks unbelievably solid. Alisson replaces Karius, and has so far been a reliable presence between the sticks.
Virgil Van Dijk is touted as the best Centre-back in the world right now, and the full back pairing of Trent-Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson is one of the best in world football. Liverpool lacked the midfield depth last season, but Naby Keita and Fabinho’s arrival have fixed the holes left by Coutinho and Emre Can. James Milner seems to be getting younger everyday and Gini Wijnaldum has been a revelation in the centre of the park.
Captain Jordan Henderson might divide opinions, but the Englishman is a proven leader on the field. The front three of Salah, Mane and Firmino were the best in Europe last year, each netting 10 goals en route to the final. The addition of Shaqiri and the resurgence of Daniel Sturridge provide able backups. With the high octane football they play, it remains to be seen if the players can remain fit in May.
If the entire squad stays strong, Liverpool do have everything they need to become 6-time winners of the UCL. The fearsome Kop at Anfield Road is something which the opposition doesn’t want to face. If in doubt, ask Pep Guardiola.
By Harsal Nagarkar