The battle for European club football’s most coveted prize, the UEFA Champions League, gets back down to business with the knock-out stages and as expected, Europe’s most celebrated clubs remain in contention for the most sought-after piece of silverware in football after the World Cup.
The iconic status of being crowned Europe’s greatest football club was first established back in 1955 and was known as the European Cup, until it was rebranded in the 1992/93 season to what we now know it as, the UEFA Champions League.
The last 16 clubs left in the draw feature seven past winners of the competition, amounting to 25 titles, and if that isn’t enough to get the blood flowing, then perhaps Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Bale, Ibrahimovic, Sanchez, Robben and Rodriguez might just grab your attention, as some of the big name stars get ready to showcase their talents on Europe’s biggest stage.
Here is a brief rundown on who is left in the competition and who potentially will take to the field on the 6th of June at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.
The Bavarian giants have been crowned champions of Europe on five-occasions and have reached the final an additional five-times. More poignantly they have featured in three of the last five finals, lifting the title in 2013 when they defeated bitter German rivals Borussia Dortmund 2-1 at Wembley.
The German Champions, on no fewer than 24-occasions, remain unbeaten in the Bundesliga and are on the brink of a third consecutive domestic title. Make no mistake, confidence is running high through the Bayern squad.
Their group stage effort in Europe has been almost as impressive as their domestic form, winning five of their six matches which included a brilliant 7-1 annihilation of Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.
Bayern topped Group E on 15 points, seven clear of their nearest rivals, Manchester City, the only team to beat them, or should I say on this occasion they were undone by a brilliant Sergio Aguero.
The Germans only conceded four-goals during the group stages but scored 16, underlining the fact that they are the most complete side left in the competition.
Guardiola has World Cup winners and world class talent at his disposal when you consider the likes of Gotze, Muller, Robben, Lewandowski, Schweinsteiger, Neuer, Lahm, Ribery and Alonso, however it is the latter, Xabi Alonso, a former Champions League winner with both Liverpool and Real Madrid, that has been most impressive.
The 33-year old Spaniard, also a double European Cup and a World Cup winner, came home from a disappointing Spanish campaign in Brazil to find himself surplus to requirements with Los Blancos. Bayern Munich came calling with a two year deal that has seen the Spaniard become their most influential player which has seen him clinch a host of man-of-the-match performances with a pass completion above 91%, a phenomenal return for a player that many thought was coming to the end of his career.
Bayern Munich look good to make it a German double, however being one of the toughest competitions in the world, perhaps at 3/1 odds it might be worth a lay.
Defending champions Real Madrid added a 10th European title to their trophy cabinet last season with a 2-1 win over surprise finalists and bitter city rivals Atletico Madrid, and at 3/1 on WBX, it would be tough to bet against Carlo Ancelotti’s men becoming the first team since AC Milan in 1989/90 to win consecutive titles.
Ronaldo reigned supreme in Europe last season with a remarkable nine goals in the group stages and a record 16 throughout their winning campaign. Much will depend on the goal-scoring brilliance of the Portuguese superstar in the knock-out stages if Los Blancos are going to be crowned champions again.
Ronaldo’s goal-scoring exploits in La Liga have been nothing short of spectacular this season, with 28 goals from 18 matches, and make no mistake, if he can add to his European tally of five at that rate, there will be no stopping the Madrid giants.
In saying that, where Bayern are running away from their domestic rivals, Real look set to be locked in a battle right down to the wire with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, which could very well test the focus and resources at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Los Blancos topped Group B with a perfect six wins from six matches, scoring 16 goals and only conceding 2 and you can bet that the demanding Madrid faithful will be expecting more of the same from their beloved champions.
While the big four, Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Rodriguez always get the plaudits for their devastating ability in front of goal, German World Cup winner and Real new boy Toni Kroos, has been one of the unsung heroes this season, especially when you take into account the midfield maestro has completed 450 from 475 passes in Europe this season, a statistic that will inevitably make an impact when you have more than €400 million worth of talent on the receiving end of the completion.
In 2013/14, Barcelona suffered their first trophyless season in six years, a statistic new coach Luis Enrique will not want to repeat.
During a 13-year playing career with Real Madrid and Barcelona, Enrique won 10-major trophies, although the Champions League doesn’t feature in the collection, something he will want to rectify in his managerial career.
If the Catalan giants are going to bring the UEFA Champions League trophy back to the Camp Nou, it will be down to the brilliance and experience of Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Xavi and Iniesta, simple.
One can’t begin to imagine what must go through an opposition manager’s mind when he looks at a team-sheet featuring such incredible talent.
Barcelona finished top of Group F, losing just once, (to PSG), and winning five. Lionel Messi, as expected, was the main contributor in front of goal finding the back of the net on 8 occasions, however if recent form is anything to go by, the Argentine superstar is beginning to showcase the sort of devastating form we have been accustomed to seeing over the years.
Like Madrid, in order to get the big names firing, there needs to be an unsung hero providing an immense work-rate off the ball and ability on it, and that man is Javier Mascherano.
The Argentine midfielder’s defensive work and 96% pass completion rate is a phenomenal effort and a critical contribution to the cause.
BEST OF THE REST
Chelsea comes in as fourth favourite at 15/2. When you compare their team-sheet with the above three that are littered with World Cup winners and sublime talent, they almost seem like non-starters, however there is collectiveness about their play and to bet against them is betting against Jose Mourinho, not something that many people would contemplate doing.
Manchester City at 100/7, only won two of their group stage matches, yet still qualified. The reality is, that if they go all the way, the responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of Sergio Aguero, a big ask for one player.
Atletico Madrid has been the surprise package over the last few years and at 18/1, who knows how far Diego Simeone’s team can progress.
PSG at 28/1, have plenty of quality in the shape of self proclaimed best player in the world Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, while Arsene Wenger will be hoping that the brilliant Alexis Sanchez will fire Arsenal at 20/1, all the way to Berlin.
The only other side that could potentially upset the odds is Serie A leaders, Juventus. The “Old Lady,” last tasted European success back in 1995/96, when they beat Ajax on penalties at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and then followed that up with a further two consecutive runner-up spots for good measure.
Andrea Pirlo is like a vintage bottle of Piemonte wine, and if the aging craftsman can boss the midfield for the Turin giants, then at 28/1, you might very well be celebrating with a bottle of Turin’s finest red.
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