Champions League Preview 2018/19
The following article is written by a close friend of mine, who so happens to be a die-hard Manchester United fan, for his sins. We’ve been close friends since the age of 5 and have always relished a bit of football banter. I enjoyed reading what follows and hope you do too. Liam takes a look at the English challengers and some possible bets of interest. There’s plenty to get stuck into and as always your thoughts on this year’s competition are welcome. I know a few of you like a dabble on the football so do share your thoughts…
With that said, over to Liam…
Knowing only too well how much satisfaction it would give him, I have my suspicions that Josh is finally expecting me to scribble down something positive about his mob. But, whatever the motivation might be, our esteemed host has decided to let me loose on the site once again, so hello all.
Football is my game and also my day job in the world of journalism, and while I do not profess to be a ‘tipping expert’, I do like to dabble and find myself doing okay. Having said that, I am also the man who cost my mates several hundred quid a few years back by backing MK Dons to win an away match in our combined accumulator, so perhaps it’s best to read on with a pinch of salt!
Now, with all the mind-numbing squabbling over Brexit at the moment I am well aware Europe is a sensitive subject, but much of this piece will focus on the Champions League, which of course gets under way this coming week – it’s almost like Josh and I planned it, hey?!
And, in tribute to our host, let’s start with last season’s runners-up and England’s champions in 1990, Liverpool! (Editor’s note: cheeky git, he couldn’t help himself!)
I will hold my hands up, watching that god awful long drawn out affair UEFA call a group stage draw was made all the more bearable by seeing the cards that Liverpool were dealt. Will they get through it? Probably, but Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli are going to be very tricky assignments, particularly away from home, while Belgrade is a lengthy trip. Whichever way Jurgen Klopp tries to put a positive spin on it, you could not have hand-picked a much tougher draw.
With my Manchester United connections, I was of course highly amused by Loris Karius’ performance in last season’s final (and equally disappointed when he was farmed out and replaced in the summer!). But, at the same time you must give Klopp some credit for getting a side that had that goalkeeper, that defence and those midfielders all the way to the final.
Worryingly they have improved in all the areas in which they were weak, and when Daniel Sturridge is also not picking up injuries, you know you are on to a good thing.
Will it be good enough to go one better this time? I personally have my doubts. Having forked out a fair wad of money over the summer, as well as on Virgil Van Dijk in January, the pressure is on Klopp and his players to mount a serious challenge to Manchester City in the Premier League. For me, Liverpool also need to win some silverware this season for it to be regarded a success, and a title challenge plus either lifting the League Cup or FA Cup seems much more obtainable than going all the way in the Champions League.
The Bet: If recent history is anything to go by, this group is going to be dominated by goals. PSG have only failed to score in one of their last 22 Champions League games, while Liverpool’s record is one shut out in their previous 17. As for Napoli, they have an identical record as PSG, while both teams have scored in eight of the Italian club’s last 11 Champions League matches.
Those three also have very good home European records, so backing both teams to score and the home team to win when they face each other could well be profitable.
And one added tip: Wednesday sees Liverpool play host to PSG. In all of PSG’s last 15 Champions League games there have been over 2.5 goals – with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino versus Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani on show, that looks a good shout.
In contrast to Liverpool, for me City are fast approaching the stage where they NEED to win the Champions League. And not just the club – their manager has to add another cup with the big ears to his admittedly impressive CV for him to go down as one of the true greats.
He won it twice with the very best players of this generation at the helm of Barcelona, and since then has failed to deliver the trophy with highly talented Bayern Munich and City sides. He has not reached the final of the competition since the night Lionel Messi and co destroyed Man United at Wembley way back in 2011.
With the greatest of respect to Lyon, Shakhtar Donestk and Hoffenheim, City will almost certainly cruise beyond the group stages. But, I still feel they are going to come up short when it truly matters around March/April time. Their only summer addition of note was Riyad Mahrez, who while he improves their squad, doesn’t enhance the starting line-up. Guardiola was aware his team needed further improvement, hence the long and ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Jorginho. Yes, City remain a great side and will probably defend the Premier League, but it is vitally important to strengthen while you are on top and where the Champions League is concerned, they did not do that.
The Bet: Anything other than nine points from nine at home for City in the group stages would be a major surprise, so simply backing a home win on each occasion is not worth your time.
But, when you consider Lyon have won just three of their last 14 Champions League games, Shakhtar have lost seven of their last eight Champions League away games and Hoffenheim have won just three of their last 14 competitive away matches, why not back City to win with a handicap of -2 in each of the home fixtures.
Spurs came through a very tough group last season and it’s going to take a similar sort of effort for them to get into the last 16 again this time around. Their group – which also contains Barcelona, Inter Milan and PSV Eindhoven – is as tough, if not tougher, than Liverpool’s.
And sorry Tottenham fans, I have a feeling your boys will come up short this time around. The fact that no players arrived during the summer is well documented and in fairness, I understand the reasoning behind it. Spurs have a very good starting 11 and to find a player better than Christian Eriksen for example, or Jan Vertonghen or even Kieran Trippier, would have been pricey and way beyond the club’s financial capabilities, especially with the new stadium (whenever it opens!) in mind.
But it has left them worryingly short of options and alternatives. Take the recent 2-1 defeat at Watford – when Tottenham were in desperate need of a goal, all Mauricio Pochettino had to turn to on the bench was Fernando Llorente. That is why the likes of Harry Kane are being run into the ground and the inability to rotate becomes all the more concerning when you factor in that after four of their Champions League group games, they have London derbies with West Ham United, Arsenal and Chelsea, plus a date with Manchester City. Something is going to have to give, and I have a sneaking feeling it’s going to be the Champions League.
The Bet: Go with Barcelona and Inter Milan to qualify for the next round, which at the moment is widely available at 4/1.
And one added tip: As all England fans will know only too well from the summer’s heartbreak, Ivan Perisic has a knack of popping up with important goals. Back the Croatian to find the net during Inter’s home encounter against Spurs this week.
Save the best until last, right?! Where do I even start? To be honest, I could bore you all to tears with page after page of what has gone wrong at Old Trafford in recent years. And yes, I’m also well aware that there will be supporters of other sides that would give a right arm for their clubs to have the sort of ‘crisis’ United are enduring. After all, they won two trophies in 2016/17, finished second and reached the FA Cup final last season and are now preparing for another campaign in the Champions League. When you put it that way it is far from awful, but in football terms, I have been brought up as a spoilt brat!
Where the Champions League is concerned, I’m not actually as down on the group as some have been. Juventus of course have signed a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and do have a decent European pedigree. They will probably win the group, but I do fancy United to pip Valencia into second. Last season’s exit to Sevilla is still giving me sleepless nights, but United are generally good at home in Europe, losing just four of their last 53 home matches. And if they can pick up seven to nine points at home and win one of their away matches, that should be enough to be involved in the competition after Christmas.
One thing is for sure, if United are to get themselves through, it is not going to be thrill-a-minute stuff. They will huff, they will puff and from my point of view, hopefully that is going to be enough. Do not be surprised if many of the wins are by narrow margins, with the odd draw thrown into the bargain.
The Bet: As already mentioned, United are generally good at home in Europe, so back them to win each of their home games by one-goal margins. Also, it is not a surprise when United go in at the break 0-0, so for added value back United to be drawing at half-time and winning at the final whistle.
And the winner is…
For all my waffling regarding the English sides, I cannot see the trophy being won by a side from this country for the first time since 2012.
Nor do I fancy Real Madrid or Barcelona to do the business. Bayern Munich? No. Surely Juventus then? Wrong! After some recent heartbreak at the hands of their city rivals, Atletico Madrid have my money this time around.
Everybody knows how well drilled they are under Diego Simeone, who has done a fantastic job in charge. They have some top, top players in the ranks – see Saul Niguez’s performance at Wembley against England last week as the latest example.
And another key player is Diego Costa. His presence and desire to fight with defenders helps to free up the talented Antoine Griezmann, who is also my tip to be the competition’s leading goalscorer.
Atletico are a top price 16/1 and Griezmann is a 25/1 shot – that would certainly give us some decent spending money for your summer holidays!
As always, enjoy the football