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Checking in on the Champions League

in Sports by

Europe’s top soccer tournament, the UEFA Champions League, is well under way. The Champions League puts the best teams from a multitude of different European soccer leagues (England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, etc.) against each other in one tournament. There are several stages to the Champions League. Teams must first qualify by either winning their domestic league or placing very high in their league table. This is dependent on the quality of the league each team comes from. For example, only the winners of the Belgian league qualify but the top four English teams qualify, due to the competitive nature of the English Premier League. Overall, there are 32 teams divided into eight different groups of four. The teams in these groups will all play one another twice, and the two teams with the highest number of points (3 for a win, 1 for a draw) advance. This leads to the knockout stage, in which the 16 remaining teams compete the traditional tournament format, with the winner moving on. Currently, the tournament is 75 percent through the group stages.

The groups of the Champions Leagues are extremely influential in the results of the tournament. Since they are randomly chosen after the 32 teams qualify, the quality of teams in each group can vary immensely based on the sorting. This year, a terrifying “Group of Death” is composed of Tottenham Hotspur (England), Real Madrid (Spain), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), and Apoel Niscosia (Greece). The first three teams in this group are world class teams: Tottenham and Dortmund are some of the top teams in their own countries and Real Madrid is arguably one of the best teams in the world, winning three out of the four last Champions Leagues. Currently, the table has Tottenham in first, Real Madrid in second, Dortmund in third, and Nicosia in fourth.

Another “Group of Death” has AS Roma (Italy), Chelsea (England), Atletico Madrid (Spain), and FK Qarabag (Azerbaijan). Similar to the irst group of death, three of these teams have been historically very successful in the Champions League. Chelsea and Roma are two of the top teams in their respective leagues and Atletico Madrid has been the tournament’s final twice in the last four years, both times losing to Real Madrid. Roma is on top of this table, with Chelsea in second, Atletico in third, and Qarabag in fourth.

There are six more groups, each riddled with very capable soccer clubs, but there a few names more recognizable than others. Manchester United, one of the most recognizable names in English soccer, is on top of their group, having won all four of the games they’ve played. One Swarthmore student, Oliver Steinglass ’20,  is a fan of Manchester United, and was asked a few questions on the English club’s Champions League chances:

Obviously, tensions are high with most Manchester fans these days. Both clubs, United and City, are playing exceptionally well. With good play comes high expectations, so there’s good reason for Oliver’s bold predictions and sensitive nature.

Manchester City is flying high in their group, having won all four of their games. Also in City’s group is Napoli, the top team of the Italian League table. They, however, are struggling in third place with only one win. The English club Liverpool is narrowly in first in their group, with Spain’s Sevilla in hot pursuit. Barcelona, another world famous club, is sitting atop their group through four games. Juventus (Italy), last year’s runner-up, is right behind Barcelona in that same group. Finally, giant clubs Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) (France) and Bayern Munich (Germany) are locked into a tight race for first place in their respective group.

The round of 16 will be finalized in December with the first games of the stage played in February and March. The knockout stage will conclude with the finals on May 26, 2018. As of November 5, 2017, it’s tough to pick out a winner. Both Manchester clubs have been excellent, but with their focus also on their own league race back in England, it’ll be tough for the teams to field fresh players for Champions League games. The two Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are always in the running. However, after Real Madrid’s recent shocking 3-1 loss to Tottenham and lackluster play in the Spanish league, one can wonder how they expect to turn their play around. Meanwhile, Barcelona have been excellent, despite losing their young star Neymar Jr. to PSG, who are also making noise in Europe. Juventus and Bayern Munich also can’t be ignored: both teams have always been historically successful in European play. Additionally, it’s tough to ignore Tottenham after their defeat of Real Madrid and fantastic play in a “Group of Death”.

As for me, a fan of Tottenham, I would love to see my club win. However, despite their victory over Real Madrid, it’s hard to imagine that other massive clubs won’t pick up their form. I don’t think Manchester United has enough to win the league, and Manchester City certainly cannot keep up their amazing form. Barcelona will go far, and I’m sure Real Madrid will sort themselves out in time for the knockout stage. I expect Juventus to exit early and for Bayern to go deep into the tournament as well. However, it is PSG who I think will win the entire tournament. The team that consistently falls short in the tournament will finally have their dream finish.

It’s tough to liken the Champions League to any other sports tournament. It doesn’t meet the World Cup in terms of passion; nothing does. However, one could argue that the Champions League puts on display the best soccer teams on planet, and that the Champions League Final is the pinnacle of soccer for a given year. After all, the top club teams attract the top players each year: national teams are set from birth. Either way, it’s guaranteed that true soccer fans will feast their eyes on the tournament over the next seven months.

Will The Clasico Be a Classic?

in Columns/Out of Left Field/Sports by

What we have this week is really a treat, with Real Madrid fighting to save their season and to begin 2013 on the front foot. The match on Tuesday against Barcelona in the second leg of their Copa del Rey clash was a great start to a three game run that will decide whether Mourinho was a successful coach in Spain or not.  Starting with a 3-1 victory in this run of games sets the tone for how things should play out in the future, but really, the score line of this one game should not be exaggerated because what seems like Madrid’s dominance could also be seen as a symptom of Barca’s continuing failure.

The first thing to look at is the game itself and how for once Mourinho got the tactics right and a referee who was not willing to be bullied by Barcelona. This combination enabled Real Madrid to provide a solid defensive effort without the threat of being penalised for every challenge. Admittedly, Barcelona did try it on a bit despite the fact that Roura knew that he wasn’t going to get any favours, but old habits die hard and a lifetime of training can’t be overturned for one match. With Mallenco in charge Madrid had a chance to get their tackles in without being punished unfairly. However, the tactical battle during the match was much more interesting than what was happening with the referee. Much like in the Milan game, Roura had no idea what to do to tactically break down Madrid once plan A had failed. Against Milan there was no incision, there was little magic from Messi, and the ball simply moved from wing to wing via Xavi and Iniesta. The same things happened on Tuesday, with the occasional shot from Pedro and Iniesta when they cut inside. The Alba goal at the end was from a lovely chip over the backline by Iniesta but it was probably the only through ball in the final third that reached its target. Barcelona once again had 62% of possession and very little to show for it, but that was because of the Madrid game plan: bring the fullbacks in and keep one defensive line. By congesting the middle of the penalty area and letting the Barcelona midfield take long range efforts Real Madrid managed to nullify almost every Barcelona attempt. Varane was particularly impressive all game and proved that against Barca all you have to do is look for the interceptions and resist the urge to get stuck in, unlike Pepe. In the end there was only going to be one result once Ronaldo scored the first goal since it meant Barca had to chase the game against a team that was quite happy to give two thirds of the pitch up.

 

The next two games coming up will really show how Mourinho wants to be remembered in Madrid. The game on Saturday against Barcelona will give an indication as to the team for next week. Having played and beaten Barcelona in the match that mattered, there will be two possibilities for the Classico this weekend: either Mourinho will field a strong team and show that he wants to beat Barcelona for pride or he will bench several major players and set his sight on winning in Manchester. Either way, there will be a lot of politics in his decision and his legacy will rely on how well he does. If he sacrifices the next Classico then it will show that he has truly given up on La Liga and that he plans to focus on winning the Champions League. It will also show that Mourinho is willing to sacrifice his feud with Barcelona for a chance at some silverware, a decision that would be unpopular with the Madrid faithful but would be understood by the board. However, Mourinho has too much history with Barcelona to simply roll over in favour of beating Man U, all the eye poking and other shenanigans would have been for nothing.

But with the greater prize in the Champions League and most of the Real Madrid team available for the return leg, it would be silly for Mourinho to risk it all by trying to get a few points off Barcelona that probably won’t matter in the end. The Champions League is winnable because Real Madrid is in a good position and the competition shouldn’t scare them too much. United have been able to win despite playing poorly in Europe most of the season, and against a Madrid team hot off a Classico win they may just fold. Against QPR it took a Rafael wonder goal and a lapse of judgement at the end of the game from an overrated group of defenders to win. Man U have found a way to win a lot of matches playing poorly and have rode their luck a lot of the way too, but without Phil Jones to pick up Ronaldo and maybe without a fully fit Van Persie there is a good chance that Madrid could dominate the game by controlling the middle of the field. It might just be time to call the final as being a Bayern Munich – Real Madrid face off. Also with Barcelona 2-0 down against a Milan team than knows how to defend competently at times and Barca showing that their possession football is not scoring them a lot of goals against quality sides it should be a good year for Madrid to put in a CL challenge. Anyway, depending on what team Mourinho starts on Saturday we’ll know whether he plans to go all out for the rest of the season on all fronts or whether he is going to be more tactical and hedge his bets on CL success, his third and Madrid’s tenth.

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