Champions League Preview: Real and Barca the teams to beat

It seems that in almost every aspect of the game, two clubs dominate the footballing world. They are Spanish super heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona. Any team boasting multiple stars is said to echo Real’s Galactico era, while teams – from League Two to the K-League – are said to be a mini-Barcelona. Even the duopoly of Spain’s La Liga is now also increasingly becoming the template in other major European football leagues.

The two clubs are, in a very true and clichéd sense, storied, expecting every year to be contenders for UEFA Champions’ League title. Both teams appear stronger than last year. Only an idiot or a savant would predict against either side’s success and going by online bookmakers, these two will be contesting the Champions League final this year.

2011 Summer Transfers

Real Madrid have spent rather inconspicuously over the summer when compared to their past two sprees. The major buys were Turkey’s Nuri Sahin, of Borussia Dortmund; and Portugal whizz-kid Fabio Coentrao to reinforce the left side. Other purchases have been smaller (eg. Hamit Altintop) and aimed at providing depth at positions 15-25, rather than at supplying instant first-teamers. It seems José Mourinho is content with a power lineup; even Madridista rumour-mongers have been quiet. Impressive names (Canales, Adebayor, Garay, Dudek, Gago) were shunted through the Bernabéu’s exits, but only Adebayor and perhaps Garay had any hope of seeing significant minutes.

Barcelona have further strengthened their attacking prospects by signing Europe’s favourite Chilean, Alexis Sánchez. They also ended to the longest saga of unrequited love since Shakespeare and purchased Cesc Fabregas. These creative midfield and forward types arrive at the expense of youngsters Oriol Romeu, Jeffren, Keirrison and Bojan; while defenders Henrique and Gaby Milito have returned to South America. It’s unlikley that any of these players were to feature prominently – Keirrison and Romeu, especially – but Bojan provided a certain thickness to the squad. The defensive reserves have implied (rather than obvious) quality, meaning Barca’s backline looks oddly thinner on paper than on the field.

Squad structure

Barcelona’s squad has undergone their first summer without significant addition-by-subtraction since Pep Guardiola took over in 2008. In his first offseason in charge, he farewelled Deco and Ronaldinho, before the year after trading Samuel Eto’o and cash for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in hopes of giving Barca’s attack a different look. Ibrahimovic lasted only one year, replaced by David Villa. Their back four – which at times featured Javier Mascherano, looks especially susceptible to infirmity given their relative ages and lack of proven backups. Carles Puyol – half teddy-bear, half grizzly-bear – leads the defence alongside the best young Centre-back in the world, Gerard Piqué. In midfield, the Catalans are well-stocked; the forward corps will upon the incredible Lionel Messi, Villa and Sanchez to score goals.

Real’s defence highlights their effective central defenders, Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe. Carvalho, at 33, remains the commander of Los Merengues‘ defence and allows his counterpart to occasionally rampage further upfield. Carvalho’s ageing must be of concern to Mourinho, even given his recent retirement from international duty; should he be injured, replacements Raul Albiol and Raphael Varane (or Alvaro Arbeloa when Ramos shifts into the middle) will have more athleticism but less positional ability. Mourinho has often opted for 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations; this enables him to focus play through whirlwind talents Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Özil, who can then score or create for the likes of Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema.

Champions’ League Group Stages

Both clubs perhaps breathed a little easier after the Champions’ League group stage draw. Real were dealt a trip to former bogey-team Olympique Lyonnais alongside a signficantly weakened Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb. All three clubs are adept, but imagining them defeating los blancos is an act of admirable and misguided fantasy. The travel involved in such a group is also quite reasonable.

Barcelona are faced with a lengthy away trip to BATE Borisov, as well as a matchup with Czech outfit FC Viktoria Plzen, whose stadium fits only 8,500 fans. A match against AC Milan without Guardiola’s arch-nemesis Zlatan Ibrahimovic looms as their first game; the return leg at Giuseppe Meazza on November 23 is their trickiest tie of the group stage.

How can these two clubs not succeed?

The questions for Real Madrid don’t concern their outfield, but goalkeeper and manager. Jose Mourinho has the chance to win the Champions’ League with a fourth club and appears driven almost to megalomania by the desire to defeat Barcelona. Should his personality become too much of a distraction, he could attract the attention of UEFA or even President Florentino Perez and find his club suddenly in the hands of a different, less able manager – temporarily or permanently.

Spain captain Iker Casillas has been his country’s best goalkeeper for almost the entire millennium. Defensive blunders for club and country have increased in recent seasons, indicating perhaps his powers as a goalkeeper could be on the wane. He’s still of the utmost quality, but one mishap in the second phase could be destructive.

It’s amazing that there are three linked questions for the popularly-acknowledged “Best Team in Europe’s history”; all concern Barcelona’s durability. Considering Abidal’s health and Puyol’s age, is their defence deep enough to stand up to another punishing campaign? Secondly, can they overcome the Curse of the Repeat and claim an unprecedented* second straight win? Thirdly, will Guardiola, who has made noises about the high levels of stress he is under, be the first one to burn out?

Barcelona and Madrid – alongside United and City, if you turn your head to the side and squint really hard – have the best teams in Europe, yet both appear to have their weaknesses in defence. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perception – both midfields are so strong that even weakened defences are likely to get absolutely the best protection. Both will make the semi-finals; this year’s Champions’ League victor is likely to again come from Spain.

* No team has repeated as winners of the Champions’ League since its inception in 1992-93; several teams won its predecessor, the European Cup, twice – or more – in a row.

Also See: Champions League Preview: Manchester Plots European Domination

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