La Liga returns this weekend, and it will surely be a lot of fun to see our footballing icons running again. However, the Champions League is set to relaunch after the leagues, and these are the five favourites to win the coveted title.
The Champions League is a festival of football many are eager to see in action again. The hundreds of actors that are going to participate in it could not wait more for the competition to resume. After the first legs of the last 16 were played, some teams came out as clear favourites, and others showed glimpses of their talents. From those teams, five are clear favourites for the Champions League title.
Atlético de Madrid
Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid is the clear favourite for the title, and there are three reasons for it. The first one is that Real Madrid lost at home against Manchester City in the first leg. So the team that knocked out Atleti the most in recent Champions League history is on the verge of elimination and the Rojiblancos have already booked their ticket for the quarter-finals after beating last year’s champions Liverpool.
Secondly, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus are also in an uncomfortable position to qualify after losing 1–0 to Olympique Lyonnais at the Groupama Stadium. A little reminder that Atleti have always failed to qualify for the next round after playing a Cristiano-led side. If Juve gets eliminated before playing Simeone’s squad, the Colchoneros‘ chances could increase.
The third reason is that Atlético look like fierce rivals this season, especially in the Champions League. Of course, their superb win against Liverpool showed the world that they had everything to win the cup. Atleti fans would be excused if they fancied their chances a little more this year.
Bayern Munich are the best team in Germany, and their form suggests that they are the best in the world. The Bavarians have a team that could win it all come the end of the campaign. With a 3–0 advantage over Chelsea, they are inevitably going to advance to the next round, and they have got the most in-form striker in the world. Robert Lewandowski is having the best season of his Bayern career, and the team around him doesn’t look too bad either.
❛ He’s having the best year of his career. Everything goes in. He’s an animal – the best number 9 in the world ❜
on teammate Robert Lewandowski
Manuel Neuer is back to his best, Jérôme Boateng is finding his feet again, David Alaba is proving to be a superb centre-back as 19-year-old Alphonso Davies is shocking everyone at left-back, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcântara are pulling all the strings in midfield, Thomas Müller is reaching his peak form as Der Raumdeuter or space explorer, and Serge Gnabry is playing at the top of his game.
Hans-Dieter Flick’s side has recovered from Niko Kovač’s underwhelming stint and is now feared all over Europe. The return of the Bundesliga has shown no slowing down from Bayern, and the confidence they had displayed against Borussia Dortmund two weeks ago and Bayer Leverkusen this weekend was frightening for any team in Europe. They will be a force on the next rounds of the continental tournament, and they are undoubtedly favourites.
Manchester City are also the best team in England left in the Champions League and one of the best in the world. This season in Europe and England, they have showcased their talents even if they are only second in the league. However, it is worth noting that Liverpool have obliterated the league this season and City still have had stellar games. Under Guardiola’s leadership, they have scored eight against Watford, three against Arsenal and have won against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Now, with the Premier League surely out of reach, they can focus solely on their primary goal, the Champions League. Beating Madrid is a step forward in their bid for European success and City have one of the best elevens in the world on their day. The likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling have the experience of big matches and will want to avenge last year’s demons.
Barcelona haven’t shown the kind of football that was expected of them regularly this campaign but have demonstrated at times that they what it takes in big games. Being first in La Liga shows that the culés have been somewhat consistent and the returns of Luis Suárez, Ousmane Dembélé and Arthur Melo to full fitness in August the latest will boost the team as they looked physically and mentally drained in February.
Their performance against Napoli in the last of 16 first leg, which ended in a 1–1 draw, wasn’t that complete, but that’s partly because of Gennaro Gattuso’s style. More importantly, the away goal they got in Naples showed that players not called Lionel Messi could score away from home in the Champions League. In that case, it was Antoine Griezmann.
Are Quique Setién‘s expectations of Barça winning the Champions League realistic? | Photo by Michael Steele via Getty Images
The quality the Catalans possess in their squad is frightening, and the rest could benefit them a whole lot now. With Quique Setién‘s tactics now instilled in the squad, good football might come back at the Camp Nou. The position in which Barça are in isn’t too bad, and the break will have a considerable benefit on the squad as they will look on to win a double this campaign.
Paris Saint-Germain is another team that advanced to the quarter-finals before football was halted. The Parisians finally have it easy in the Champions League. First, they topped their group after humbling Real Madrid in France. Then, they got a manageable tie in Dortmund, and they completed the comeback in Paris to advance to the next round, and now they find themselves in the best position.
Already crowned Ligue 1 champions, they can entirely focus on the Champions League to finally get to the final and ultimately win it. Also, this time Neymar Júnior is fully fit, and every player will be at its best physically. It’s up to them to own up to the status of one of the five favourites. Their main problem: with the Ligue 1 cancelled, they will have no official games of preparation until the Champions League resumes.
All in all, this year’s international content is more open than ever, especially with Liverpool being knocked out already. With the coronavirus break and the inconsistent form of many of the European giants, predicting a winner had never been harder. The next weeks of competition will determine how teams return to action, but it’s not one or two sides anymore who are the favourites to lift the big trophy in August.
Despite the 1–2 loss to Man City, Real Madrid are still alive, and if they come back against the Citizens their options will increase exponentially. Similarly, Juventus were defeated by Lyon in the first leg, but the 1–0 by no means is a definitive result. Other contenders like RB Leipzig or even Atalanta will put up a fight in the next stages. With the 2020 Champions League final expected to take place in Lisbon, instead of Istanbul, and with the remaining matches all being behind closed doors and one-legged, nothing truly is predictable anymore.
Koeman’s system in the Barcelona 4-0 Villareal
With a 4-0 victory at the Camp Nou, Koeman’s side has started the season on a positive note. Find out more about the tactical aspect of the match in this tactical analysis of Barcelona’s match against Villareal.
La Liga is finally back, and it’s back in full swing. We saw many high-scoring matches, with even Atleti scoring 6 goals against Granada. A very entertaining start to La Liga was capped off by Barcelona’s 4-0 Victory over Villareal. Koeman’s first La Liga game in-charge of Barcelona was a resounding success. The mindset of the players involved was clearly different from the mindset under Setien. With many players looking rejuvenated, Barcelona put in a performance which was desperately needed considering the fact that the wounds from Lisbon haven’t yet healed. Find out just how Barcelona managed to dominate a strong Villareal side in this tactical analysis.
Barcelona started out in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. The only surprise was that Messi’s starting position was more central than usual and Griezmann occupied the right-wing. Messi does eventually drift towards the centre anyway but the starting position is usually wider.
Villareal were in a 4-4-2 which later transitioned into a 4-4-2 diamond in the second half after the substitutions. Right from the start, Villareal looked to press from the front, with Chukwueze and Moi Gomez cutting out passing lanes to the full-backs and the two Villareal strikers pressing Barcelona’s center-backs. Here, an advantage of the 4-2-3-1 Koeman deployed was immediately visible. De Jong would drop back to receive the ball and then play it forward to Busquets, who was the other pivot. Had Barcelona played a 4-3-3, the pivot would have dropped back to receive the ball and build-up from the back in this case. But the midfield would be stretched vertically which we saw many times last season.
In midfield, Barcelona were prevented from playing through the centre by Parejo and Coquelin. The distance between Villareal’s midfield and defense lines was not much which forced Barcelona towards the wings. This strategy came back to bite Villareal in the form of Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old left-winger was unplayable against Villareal. Gaspar was unable to contain him. Jordi Alba was much better than in a long time. The work-rate Koeman demands and the many extra training sessions were really showing. After a 2019/20 season which wasn’t the best for Barcelona, yesterday’s performance was very impressive.
Both wingers would regularly tuck-in between the full-backs and center-halves. This allowed Barcelona’s full-backs to advance up the field much more. With the full-backs attacking and the wingers tucking in, the Villareal defensive line would be occupied. This allowed Coutinho more space than usual. Along with this, Busquets and De Jong would be available to either stop the counter, or to act as passing options. This assortment of many attacking roles allowed Barcelona to have sustained attacking possession.
Villareal had a clear game plan as well. Considering the fact that their two strikers are performing well and are well-synchronized, the wingers were instructed to cross the ball often. The full-backs would advance, but not overlap frequently. This could either not be a part of the game plan or because of the attacking threat, Barcelona posed from the start. With Dani Parejo in midfield, Emery would ideally be able to continue playing the possession-based football his teams play. Coquelin would offer a bit of dynamism in midfield along with the Spanish midfielder.
However, Koeman took an interesting decision and gave Busquets the role to man-mark Parejo. Though both were surprisingly not the best on the ball on the day, Busquets did well to restrict Parejo to lateral and back passes. In the second-half, Vilalreal’s game plan was executed better in the 4-4-2 diamond. This allowed Parejo to get on the ball more, wit him playing a major role in the build-up. Emery knows his players’ strengths very well. Parejo in the defensive mid role, with pacey wingers on either sides means fast transitions. For Barcelona s well, the transitions were key. Coutinho’s mediapunta role and the freedom Messi has both contributed to this.
We already saw the many benefits this formation has offered, taking the strengths of the players Koeman has into full consideration. The ease during build-up with one pivot dropping back, being able to sustain the attack with the mediapunta getting more space, the freedom Busquets had to man-mark Parejo, which would have been difficult in a single pivot, etc. Another one of the advantages is in defense.
Barcelona were vulnerable in defense throughout last season. Jordi Alba looks like refreshed and fitter than usual, and with Dest potentially joining the Blaugrana, the full-backs are looking promising. In case that Barcelona does get caught on the counter, Koeman does have a solution to one of the problems. When Barcelona are on the backfoot, De Jong and Busquets would need to make sure their positioning is immaculate. They were instructed to plug the gaps between the center-halves and full-backs, which would have a two-fold purpose. Firstly, through-balls against more creative players would be much more difficult, with the gaps being reduced and Coutinho and Griezmann helping in defense. Secondly, the opposition would be less likely to crowd the box, since Barcelona can now afford to get at least 4 players into the box if the pivots were to position themselves as such. However, this would be very dependent on the split-second judgment and whether the players decide to press or track-back.
For Koeman’s first La Liga match, the performance was quite promising. Barcelona looked better tactically and in terms of hard work than Villareal as we saw in this tactical analysis. The latter being something that Barcelona desperately need, what remains to be seen is how Barcelona will fare against teams that rely on individual ability more than Villareal and the unpredictability that follows. Apart from this, will the players be able to sustain the intense work ethic Koeman demands? If Barcelona do decently in these conditions and some others, we might see a much better season from them than expected.