With the group stages kicking off in less than two weeks, the qualifying rounds complete, and with the dust finally starting to settle on the historic domestic and European campaign waged by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona last season, it's time we now fete a brand new edition of the Champions League fast approaching.
A Champions League that we hope, will provide us with more cracking contests and the basis of more passionate debates and discussion all over Europe in the coming months.
In this first-ever edition of the BR CL roundtable I have invited members of the BR football community to represent the views and opinions of the clubs they support as we preview, and hope to provide some insight on, what we might expect to see this year.
Joining me at the roundtable today are: Barney Corkhill (BC)—Liverpool, Deepak Israni (DI)—Real Madrid, Adamo Digby (AD)—Juventus, Salomon Gonzales (SG)—Chelsea, Anurag Bhatt (AB)—Barcelona, Salaar Shamsi (SS)—Manchester United, Rocky Getters (RG)—AC Milan and Ismail Ayub (IA)—Arsenal
Who will I (MM) be representing at this roundtable?—UEFA, of course! We can't have a UEFA Champions League discussion without a UEFA representative!
So without further ado, lets get underway.
MM: New season, new signings, new coaches...even new presidents: What are we looking forward to seeing this season concerning our teams in the Champions League, gentlemen? Let's start with last year's winners, Barcelona.
AB: I am looking forward to seeing Barcelona disprove their critics who said that last year's win was a one-off; that they never deserved to get past Chelsea, and are now criticising the purchase of Ibrahimovic. Seeing Ibra score his first Champions League knock-out goal would also be nice.
My most ardent wish is that Barcelona continue their philosophy of playing the same attractive, attacking football, and lifting the trophy in the Santiago Bernabeu.
DI: I am just looking forward to Real Madrid clearing the Round of 16 this time, they have not been able to do that for five years running now! Just joking, I am looking forward to Real Madrid play in the finals (as it is at the Bernabeu) and winning the Champions League for the 10th time, the squad is good enough to make that possible.
SG: It's quite simple!—Chelsea have to win the Champions League this season.
We've been too close for far too long and it's about time that we went that step further and conquered Europe. The club didn't sign that many players with Zhirkov being the only one to potentially command a starting spot this season.
I'm looking forward to seeing him back in the side, because he looked really good against AC Milan during pre-season, in which he of course scored in.
I have high hopes for Sturridge, and his attitude so far has been commendable. I can see him making a big impact both in the league and champions league, once Drogba and Kalou jet off to Africa.
I haven't seen much of Matic but I've heards loads of good things about him. He could well play an important part this season when Essien and Mikel join Drogba and Kalou in Africa.
RG: AC Milan have always been very strong in the Champions League. Despite the rebuilding we are doing in the team right now, I expect nothing different.
Coach Leonardo, earlier, talked about having the right attitude, and that's all that'll matter here. On the big European stage, Milan need to be stable, relaxed and yet positive.
The loss against Inter last Saturday in the Serie A, was a good lesson for the Rossoneri. The players got nervous after the first goal and they really collapsed after that. They cannot let that happen on the European stage.
Milan may not be the dominating force they were, say 3-4 years ago, but Milan still have a quality squad and all the players are motivated and hungry. The Rossoneri want to show Europe that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
BC: I'm looking forward to seeing how Glen Johnson will get on featuring in regular European competition. He has been excellent so far in the league, and has impressed in some of his international appearances, although not without some criticism, so the Champions League should be another interesting test for him.
I'm also looking forward to how Alberto Aquilani adapts to it, or rather how Liverpool adapt their tactics now that Xabi Alonso has gone. Alonso's style of play was more or less perfect for Europe, so Aquilani has some big boots to fill in that respect!
Rafa Benitez has a great record in Europe and has made Liverpool into a team no one else wants to play. Hopefully, he can improve his already impressive European resume with another good performance this season!
What am I looking forward to most, though? Stevie G lifting ol' big ears above his head again!
SS: Manchester United came agonisingly close to retaining their European crown last season, however on the night Barcelona was clearly the better team, and by a country mile.
United don't have Ronaldo, who chipped in with his fair share of goals to assist United's progress in Europe last season. However, Wayne Rooney appears to have taken his game up a notch and this is quite a boost for the Red Devils.
They will need Darren Fletcher, Micheal Carrick, Nani, Dimitar Berbatov, and new signings Micheal Owen and Luis Antonio Valencia to back up Rooney with consistent performances if they are to shut the gaping hole created by the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez.
AD: Juventus should finally be competitive in Europe this season after being handicapped by the Calciopoli scandal in recent years. The summer transfer campaign has been the first to excite me as a Juve fan since 2001, when we brought in Buffon, Thuram and Nedved.
The additions this term look great—a home grown defence of Italian guile, grit and cunning: Buffon, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Legrotaillie, Grosso, De Ceglie and Molinaro.
Then Brazilian flair and ingenuity going forward of Melo, Diego and Amauri complementing Trezeguet, Del Piero, Iaquinta and Sissoko; A strong squad with the potential to win it all.
IA: Well I for one am looking for Arsenal to make a strong run in the Champions League and seeing Arsenal do battle with some of Europe's leading lights and big spenders. The idea of an Arsenal vs Barcelona tie would be something that would get everyone off their feet, I'm sure.
I'm hoping to see more maturity in the players when playing in Europe and of course exceptional performances. Each year we are treated to some exceptional games from the Gunners; Arsenal 7, Slavia Prague 0 and Fenerbahce 2, Arsenal 5, to name but a few. Hopefully this year we achieve some more large scorelines.
In terms of new players, I think that Vermaelen has settled in exceptionally well and will add an extra layer of steel to our backline. Also I think we'll see the best of the 4-3-3 in the CL. This is simply because of the fact, that in Europe, teams try to play good football against us. This just plays into our hands and will mean that we can dominate our opposition. MM: As I'm sure most of you are aware, the Champions League draw for the group stages has already taken place last week in Monaco, throwing up some interesting fixtures. Not least a clash or two between some major Italian and Spanish sides.
RG: Milan have been drawn in Group C with the strongest and most hyped team in Europe right now—Real Madrid. Though this is a bit worrying—after seeing Milan's performance against Inter—I'm definitely excited.
Both the encounters will be an absolute treat. Kaka's visit to the San Siro, especially, will be something special. We still love him here at Milan, still call him as one of our own; and though he'll be wearing a Madrid jersey, seeing him play here will be great.
But it's serious business in the CL: If we are not up to the task, we could really suffer against them. We will need to elevate our game and get everything right in order to get points off Madrid.
The other two teams cannot be taken for granted either—Especially Marsielle. But I think Milan have enough quality and hunger to get maximum points out of these two teams, at home and away, to seal a place in the knockout stage. From then on, anything can happen really.
DI: The teams drawn in Real Madrid's group are tougher compared to other teams, Marseille and AC Milan are going to be tough to beat but I think they'll go through to the next round. I am looking forward to Real Madrid vs. AC Milan at the San Siro, just because I want to see what kind of reception does Kaka gets.
AB: The draw is not a very difficult one for Barcelona. Inter Milan is a great team, and I feel they could pose a stiff challenge to Barcelona for winning out the group, but I do not feel Dinamo Kyiv or Rubin Kazan have the necessary quality to qualify in place of Barcelona.
I am glad that they have avoided potential pitfall teams in pot three, like Atletico Madrid, and Wolfsburg from pot four. [MM's note: Teams from a country can not be drawn against another from the same country in the group stages anyway! Although some Catalans do indeed consider themselves a separate nation from Spain!]
AD: The draw was mixed, but could've been much worse. Avoiding the English clubs and Barcelona was good, but Bayern and Bordeaux will still test the squad. The Bayern away game should be the decider, we won there three years ago, a repeat would be great this time around.
I like how we match up, their strong wide players—Ribery, Robben and Schweinstiger—will trouble our fullbacks, while our main focus is centrally through Diego and the strikers: Lucio leaving has caused a hole in Bayern's central defence.
MM: How about the English teams? Has the draw unsettled you or given you cause for cheer?
SG: I'm very pleased with the draw. Not the toughest group but not the easiest either so there should be some quite tasty matches in store for us. Porto and Atletico are two very good teams and capable of posing danger to any team in the world on their day.
To finish top, Chelsea must be extremely focused throughout the group stages because one lapse in concentration and both teams will be ready to pounce. If Chelsea win all their home games and take six points off Apoel, top spot shouldn't be a problem.
I'm looking forward to playing Atletico home and away. It's fair to say the outcome of those two matches will shape the group.
BC: I'm happy with Liverpool's group. It is by no means an easy group, or a guaranteed pass into the next round, but I would be very surprised and disappointed if we didn't progress.
Lyon and Fiorentina will be tough games home and away, while Debrecen could be a potential banana-skin, especially away in what will be an undoubtedly hostile environment.
Liverpool never make it easy for themselves in the group stages, and I am bracing myself for another rollercoaster of a Champions League season.
Lyon is the match I'm most worried about, simply because I can see us slipping up against them; which will put the pressure on to finish top of the group, which is what we should be aiming for.
All the English clubs have got a fairly kind draw and I'd expect them all to progress. When you get into the latter stages, you start to get the exciting matches.
Any prospective ties between us and any of the English teams (including the inevitable Chelsea match), Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, or Juventus will be huge matches as usual. I'd fancy our chances against anyone, though.
IA: In terms of the draw, I don't think it's as easy as some people think. Standard Leige are a team that pushed Liverpool all the way in the CL qualifying round last year (with Kuyt scoring an extra-time winner in the 117th minute to win the tie, after COUNTLESS Leige chances over the two legs) and won their league last season.
Also AZ Alkmaar, while losing their manager and some players, will still be confident opponents because of their league triumph last season.
Olympiakos in Diogo have a good striker (Liverpool were rumoured to be interested in him before they purchased Keane) and again won their respective league.
As they are all Champions, it shows these teams have a certain amount of quality (even if they are in so-called weaker leagues) and grit, which may come in handy for them.
The fixture that excites me most is Leige away, as they were tough opponents for Liverpool and also because Arsenals biggest ever European away win was 7-0 at Leige.
I think the final group table will be this: first Arsenal, second Olympiakos, third Standard Leige fourth AZ Alkmaar.
We could still finish as runners-up if Wenger chooses to rest players for the later games, but I'm confident of a first-place finish.
SS: United have a decent group, you'd expect them to win against teams like CSKA Moscow, Wolfsburg, and Besiktas but travelling to Russia, Germany and Turkey will tremendously fatigue the Red Devils, which will mean Sir Alex Ferguson needs to rotate his squad efficently.
Outside of United's group, I'm anxiously looking forward to Real Madrid vs AC Milan though United's game in Moscow should be a close encounter.
MM: OK, an axe murderer has escaped from the local mental asylum. One morning while brushing your teeth he appears in the mirror behind you! You drop your toothbrush (you're only means of defence goddamit, how could you?!) and slowly turn around, he then barks: "Realistically with the squad at your disposal and with the closing of the transfer window, will your team be lifting the European Cup next year?"—What do you say?!
The summer transfer window may have arguably left the Premier League weaker, but it has certainly made the Champions League stronger, so it won't be easy.
However, as I said above, I fancy Liverpool's chances against anyone and everyone in the Champions League under Rafael Benitez.
Last season we were, according to the UEFA coefficients, ranked as the best team in Europe due to our performances in the previous five years. Benitez has turned us into a formidable European side capable of beating everyone over a two-legged tie.
Real Madrid should be a force again after their spending spree, while Barcelona will be incredibly hard to knock off their throne. Man United have reached the final in the last two seasons while Chelsea are desperate to grab that elusive crown. Arsenal share that desperation, and a semi-final place last year shows they should be considered serious contenders.
All these teams are more than capable of beating Liverpool, but Liverpool are also capable of beating them, so it should be a very interesting season. I predict a semi-final place at least for the boys in red, but I'm hoping for a repeat of 2005!
The squad has been more or less the same for a number of years now. The core of the team hasn't changed in the last five years. Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba are still in top shape and in their prime. I'm also expecting big seasons from Ashley Cole, Essien, Bosingwa and Ballack/Deco.
Every season, Chelsea seem to ease their way to latter stages of the competition only to find themselves fail at the last hurdle. It's almost become a mental barrier and something needs to change. I'm hoping Ancelotti is that change.
He's already shown he can handle big teams with big players. He's also shown he is willing to change the side around according to the next fixture.
I liked the way he dropped Carvalho in favor of Ivanovic (vs Sunderland) to cope with the height and speed of Kenwyne Jones. It worked and Ivanovic had Jones in his pocket all game.
Carvalho was then back in the side for the following game. It shows Ancelotti has prepared himself and studied the opponent...spells good things for the future!
SS: Sir Alex Ferguson is content with his squad and that's all there is to it.
Indeed, Ronaldo and Tevez have left but I still feel United have enough quality within their ranks to challenge their rivals for European supremacy. However, they've made it to the final twice in a row now and face a rather uphill task in getting to Madrid.
The competition will tougher and United are slightly weaker although if the likes of Berbatov, Rooney and company have the best season of there respective careers than I wouldn't write them off.
It's not impossible but I can't see United winning the Champions League, at least this season, although they are favourites for the Premier League despite the high flying start that Chelsea and Arsenal have had, Europe is different ball game altogether.
IA: I do not think Arsenal can win the Champions League, with our squad. Our First XI could, but the chance of all our key players being fit (especially at the back, where we suffer from a lack true quality at CB if Vermaelen or Gallas are struck with injury). I don't see it happening realistically.
The fan in me sees us reaching the final, but my head doesn't see it as being possible. Arsenal can beat anyone on their day with their best XI out but with the champions league, 15 bad minutes in a two-legged tie can essentially end the tie (see: Arsenal 1, Man United 3).
However I feel that the experience we have gained from the last year (especially from the Roma tie) will help see us through to the semi's. The final? Well, I just don't know yet...
MM: Its safe to say after last year's disappointing results against the English teams in the so-called "Premiership vs. Serie A" knockout ties last year, Italian teams will be looking to at least improve on their last 16 performance. Can Italian teams come back? Remember it wasn't so long ago Italy had three teams in the semi-finals, in 2003.
AD: I do think Juve can win the CL this year. The exciting young players like Marchisio, Chiellini, Giovinco, Sissoko, De Ceglie and Diego have been carefully mixed with the wealth of experience and quality provided by Del Piero, Buffon, Cannavaro and Grosso.
Ciro Ferrara will remind the squad of the club's past, its spirit and where its future lies. If the squad gels, which it certainly looks like it has if the victory in Rome is anything to go by, then the monopoly enjoyed by EPL clubs and Barcelona may just come to a premature end at the hands of a familiar Old Lady!
RG: Milan have a really good, quality side. New star signing Huntelaar will look to prove himelf on the biggest stage of them all, superstar Pato is already in great form. Ronaldinho is improving.
This golden triangle really is as sharp and potent an attacking force as you can have. Milan have a good midfield. Leo has persisted with the 4-3-1-2, meaning that Pirlo-Gattuso-Flamini will be seen in the middle.
The main concern will be Gattuso' injury—If he can stay fit, Milan can dominate midfield. We saw old warriors Clarence Seedorf and Massimo Ambrosini come on in the second half in the match against Inter and give good performances.
Their experience and cool heads will be of immense importance, especially in the big matches against Madrid. We might see young Abate tested in the earlier matches as well—he is an interesting prospect.
Young Thiago Silva has looked good in the center of the defense, and Onyewu was considered a good signing. With Nesta, this defense looks solid. It may not be the best defense Milan have had, but it's still good.
The fullbacks need to do more, though. The entire defensive line will be tested heavily in the Madrid game. Milan have a solid first team, full of quality—they just need to click.
But maybe when we look to the bench, it may not be as strong as we'd like it to be. Milan will have to depend on the veterans, yet again, to deliver.
But you cannot measure the passion that sprouts in a player wearing that glorious red and black. Milan should go a long way in the CL, and winning the trophy isn't totally out of question.
MM: And finally having made up a combined 75 percent of La Liga total transfer spending during the summer, can La Liga's perennial titans Real and Barca consolidate their status as European superpowers by adding yet another European cup to the trophy cabinet?
AB: I feel Barcelona is one of the few teams that looks fully capable of defending the Champions League title this decade.
Pep Guardiola has got the striker he always wanted in Ibrahimovich, a great left back who can add more to offense as well as provide solidity in defense in Maxwell. He can also call upon some talented youth players when necessary.
Sadly, Chigrinskiy will not be featuring in the CL for Barcelona this season, having played an unsuccessful set of qualifiers with Shakhtar already.
A lot of people are complaining about the lack of depth in the squad, with the number of players released being far greater than the number brought in. I don't think this will be much of an issue.
Hleb and Gudjohnsen were never prominent members of Barcelona's CL triumph last year. Henrique was brought in and loaned back, while Caceres was loaned out too. Eto'o? I personally feel Ibrahimovic is an upgrade over him, though I know many will disagree with me.
With Maxwell, the left flank is, it is safe to say, is almost as dangerous as the right. I see Guardiola relying on Marc Muniesa and/or Andreu Fontas for the thin centre-back positions, while Thiago and Jonathan could also make a few appearances, especially in the group stage ties.
The current squad definitely has enough quality to win the CL for a second year running.
DI: Of course Real Madrid can win the Champions League; it's going to be tough but it is possible!
MM: I'd like to thank everybody who appeared in the roundtable for their time and efforts in bringing this to fruition. Without you guys, the fans, I can sincerely say we at UEFA would be nothing.
And so that brings me on to you. Do you have any comments you'd like to make? Is there something you're looking forward to seeing this year in the CL? What did you make of thoughts and opinions presented? Will the axe murderer ever be caught?
Finally I would like to apologise to supporters of the other clubs involved in this year's competition. Unfortunately, space and time constraints made it unfeasible to have too large a roundtable. However, that said I'd be very interested to read what the fans of these clubs felt about the issues we've discussed. So don't hesitate to comment below.
As for the roundtable, hopefully we'll see you again in a few weeks' time!
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