Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! With more UEFA Champions League group games kicking off, we ask writers Stuart Hood and Mark Bailey if the gigantic trophy could be heading for Leicester, London or Manchester…
YES! The trophy’s ours
“Any English team that makes the final will have a significant mental advantage” – Stuart Hood, sports writer, Virgin Media
They’re made of the right stuff
Pop quiz, sports fans! What do the last six UEFA Champions League winning teams have in common? If you just screamed: “They all featured a goalkeeper with a Z in his name,” you’re very, very wrong. But if you said: “They all had at least one Spaniard and one Frenchman in their squad for the final,” you’re very, very right. And guess what, folks? As of this moment, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City’s first team squads all feature at least one Spaniard and one Frenchman. So sing “allez!” and scream “vamos!”, because we’re on our way to victory.
The cash has been splashed
All hail the Premier League’s mega-gazillion TV deal. This summer, while Real Madrid secured just one marquee signing and Barcelona lost their goalkeeper, England’s UEFA Champions League contenders splashed out over £400m on squad improvements. And do you know what? Early signs suggest the money has been well spent. German centre-back Shkodran Mustafi and Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka have strengthened Arsenal’s defence, Leicester’s record signing Islam Slimani is scoring goals, Tottenham’s £30m French star Moussa Sissoko is easing the pressure on Dele Alli and Man City is getting a bona fide fear factor from Claudio Bravo, John Stones, Leroy Sané, Nolito and İlkay Gündoğan.
Man City are trending in the right direction…
Prior to last season, Man City looked about as comfortable in Europe as Nigel Farage. Then came their big breakthrough. They topped their group, before defeating Dynamo Kyiv and Paris Saint-Germain in the first two knockout rounds to reach a semi-final against Real Madrid. Disappointingly, the Spanish giants snuck that tie 1-0 on aggregate but, pleasingly, there is a silver lining to City’s defeat. Which is – drumroll, please – six of the last ten teams to win the UEFA Champions League were knocked out in the semi-finals the previous season.
… and they’ve found their Special K
Forget Xavi. Ignore Andrés Iniesta. Discount Dani Alves and don’t even think about Arjen Robben. Pep Guardiola believes the second most talented player he has ever coached is Kevin de Bruyne. “Lionel Messi is on a table on his own, but Kevin can sit on the table beside,” lauded the new Man City boss after watching the Belgian magician inspire his team to eight successive wins. “He is an outstanding player. He sees everything and he makes the right decision in the right moment every single time.”
We’ve got home advantage (sort of)
On Saturday 3 June 2017, the final of this season’s UEFA Champions League will be played in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. And while I am aware that Wales is a different country, it is far closer to Leicester, London and Manchester than it is to Barcelona, Madrid, Milan and Munich. This will give any English team that makes the final a significant mental advantage and if that team happens to be Arsenal, then this psychological boost will be doubled. Why? Simple. Six FA Cup Finals were played in Cardiff between 2001 and 2006, and the Gunners won three of them.
NO! Euro teams have the edge
“On the back of Euro 2016 and the Copa America, exhausted English sides will crack” – Mark Bailey, writer, The Telegraph
Winter is coming
It’s late summer, Pep Guardiola’s fresh-legged Manchester City players are on fire, Arsenal are in the goals and anything seems possible. But by spring the Premier League’s brutal winter schedule will have left Nolito, Granit Xhaka and co pining for a relaxing spa weekend. While Premier League stars are freezing outside on Boxing Day, players in Spain and Italy enjoy a cosy three-week winter break, and Germany’s finest get a whole month to play with their Christmas toys. Fatigue really matters: more goals were scored in the final 15 minutes of UEFA Champions League matches last season than in any other period. On the back of Euro 2016 and the Copa America, exhausted English sides will crack.
The competition is hotter than ever
Continental clubs are rightly worried about the experience of Arsenal and Man City and the threat from newbies Leicester and Spurs, but the feeling should be mutual. Barca and Real are favourites but Bayern Munich boast a world-class squad, the Diego Simeone-inspired Atletico have reached two finals in three years, Juventus have strengthened with £80m striker Gonzalo Higuaín and triple Champions League winner Dani Alves, and cash-soaked PSG mean business. Beating Madrid or Barca in the final in Cardiff would be hard. Getting there is just as daunting.
Spanish sides have smarter tactics
Fast-passing, incisive Spanish teams have left their Champions League rivals dizzy in recent seasons, with Barcelona or Real Madrid winning six of the last eleven editions. The UEFA Champions League Technical Report, an in-depth analysis by UEFA’s tactical boffins, highlighted the importance of “structured transitions”, “building from the back” and “variations in play” among successful teams last year and not even Arsenal can match the Spanish sides for technical intelligence. Pep could transform Man City into a tactically dynamic team but this is his first season in charge and even after three years of trying he couldn’t get Bayern past the semis.
English clubs are too cautious
With well-drilled teams neutralising each other in midfield, rampaging, overlapping full backs have quietly become the UEFA Champions League’s most potent attacking weapons. Europe’s elite competition saw a 24 per cent surge in goals stemming from crosses and a 21 per cent rise in goals from cutbacks last season. Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín and Tottenham’s Kyle Walker have the speed and the desire but cautious tactics mean they don’t get to unleash as many devastating attacking bursts as Atletico’s hyperactive Filipe Luís, Madrid speed king Dani Carvajal or Barca’s jet-heeled Jordi Alba.
Europe’s goal kings are on another planet
Man City’s Sergio Agüero hit 29 goals last season and Tottenham’s Harry Kane bagged 28 but Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo chalked up 51, Bayern Munich hitman Robert Lewandowski grabbed 42, and Barcelona duo Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez scored 100 between them. In the tense knockout stages you need either a magic spell or a superhuman goalscorer to make that crucial winning breakthrough – and Europe’s finest have the A-list match-winners. That’s why the only way the jug-eared trophy will be coming to England next summer is if Ronaldo brings it with him on his next pants-shopping trip to Bond Street.
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