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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

What will the Champions League bring us in 2013/14?


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Bayern Munich's late winner from Arjen Robben against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley last month brought the curtain down on another pulsating and engrossing tournament. From the dramas of the group stage, the returning greats and the shocking results of the semi-finals, it was a competition laced with intrigue and excitement.

This coming campaign will have an awful lot to live up to. Looking forward, here are some of the things I believe all football fans can expect from this season's elite club competition.

DAWN OF A NEW ENGLISH HUNGER

The 2012-13 Champions League campaign was a genuine low point for English teams, accounting for their worst collective outing in Europe’s premier club competition in 17 years.Chelsea and Manchester City were both drawn in tricky groups, and while the Blues redeemed themselves with an exhilarating run to claim the Europa League crown, the Citizens disappointed with some limp, naïve displays. Arsenal and Manchester United advanced to the knockout rounds but failed to progress further as hoped. Both received unenviable draws in Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, respectively, but while the Gunners were outdone by their own incompetence and the Red Devils — partly at least — by the referee’s incompetence, neither side will be proud of their European campaigns.

Mourinho, Pellegrini, Moyes and Wenger will be back hungrier than ever to bring the biggest prize in Europe back to English shores. The new season bring fresh optimism, and as last season’s four prepare for renewed efforts, an improvement can be expected. Chelsea will surely be better under the near-inevitable stewardship of Jose Mourinho, while Manchester City would be devilishly unlucky to receive as tough a group stage draw as they've had in the last two seasons. The competition will be a major test for incoming United boss David Moyes, but I strongly believe he will have the backing of the squad to take the Red Devils into the latter stages. As for Arsenal, they may not have been the neutrals' choice to take the final top-four spot, but the Gunners will still be hoping for vigorous summer transfer activity that will result in improved form in Europe, as well as on the domestic front.

A NEW DAWN AT DORTMUND

It must have been particularly galling for Dortmund fans to witness the squad’s final assembly to salute the travelling support after Saturday’s Champions League final defeat. The lineup—and the applause—felt not so much like an extended show of gratitude, but a long, lingering farewell. This talented young side surely won’t be held together for much longer.

As the Wembley clash demonstrated, these boys are more than ready to fly the nest and seek their futures beyond the confines of Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. Mario Gotze has already agreed a £31.5 million move to Bayern Munich. Judging by the fall out of Wembley’s final, Robert Lewandowski may soon be joining him. According to reports, classy defender Mats Hummels has been attracting attention from various Spanish giants. Ilkay Gundogan shows the maturity as well as the effortless poise to play almost anywhere while it was also reported in March that Marco Reus might be a pertinent addition to Chelsea's glitzy squad. While the exodus and inevitable scattering across Europe will surely be fascinating to watch, the club’s recruitment choices moving forward will be just as interesting to watch.

THE BRIGHT LIGHTS FOCUS ON PEP & MOYES

While next year’s Champions League will doubtlessly throw up numerous fascinating sub-plots and subtle narratives, few stories will dominate quite like Pep Guardiola’s return to European management at continental champions Bayern Munich and Moyes leading the English powerhouse Manchester United.

With Pep, after a sabbatical year spent re-energising himself over in New York City, the doyen of Catalonia is back in action and takes over the dominant force of German and European football. The face of football has changed dramatically since Guardiola called time on his spell at Barca. The team he built has become decidedly ragged over the last 12 months, and with their demolition at the hands of Bayern, the complexion of the sport and the dynamic of an era changed beyond recognition. Every move by both managers will be scrutinised this season, and while each mark of success will boost his reputation, any sign of failure or complacency will find manager and team firmly under the microscope.

ENORMOUS EXPECTATIONS IN CATALONIA

In Barcelona, the acquisition of Neymar has once again made expectations sky rocket. While the Brazilian starlet’s arrival won’t erase the nightmarish memories of the Catalonians’ flaying at the hands of Bayern, his move will go some way to raising morale and injecting a sense of superiority and dominance back into the Spanish heavyweights. The proposition of Neymar playing alongside Argentina’s iconic forward Lionel Messi is tantalising. While not everyone is totally optimistic about the potential pairing, they will be expected to once again make Barcelona’s forward line the most exciting in world football. However, deficiencies remain in defence and their thin squad that has been exposed in recent times. Neymar might not be the optimal solution to all of Barca’s problems and any evident, early failings may provoke panic and further fragility in the Tito Vilanova regime.

A SURPRISE WINNER IN THE OFFING?

First-time winners of Europe’s premier club competition have been few and far between in recent seasons. Before Chelsea’s maiden triumph last season, you have to return to Dortmund’s own victory in 1997 to find a new name etched onto the famous old trophy. However, the colours of European football are gently changing and numerous clubs could emerge as significant contenders next season. The most prominent are Paris Saint-Germain, who are beginning to be considered a genuine powerhouse after the significant investment that has taken place in recent years. Their quarter-final defeat against Barca this term was a step in the right direction and there is no reason why a few more key signings this summer couldn’t take the French champions into yet another stratosphere.

Investment at Zenit Saint Petersburg continues and the Russian giants should be more competitive this season. And what of Ukrainian champions Shakhtar? They qualified from Group E at the expense of Chelsea before going down away in Dortmund in the last 16, the Donetsk-based side will surely be targeting at least a quarter-final berth in 2014. If they can hold on to the likes of Douglas Costa as well as add to their ranks, there is no reason why they couldn’t advance even further this season.

Article by Adbul Rashid Zakari

Calling all football fans: Do you agree? Do you think the Premier League clubs will bounce back with avengence this season in the Champions League or do you believe the German and Spanish giants remain the teams to beat? How will Moyes fare at Manchester United? Can Mourinho keep Chelsea as champions of Europe? Will Pep Guardiola continue Bayern's dominance? Whatever your views we'd love to hear from you.

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Colin Illingworth

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