The Champions League Round Table is back!
It's been a few months since we previewed the group stages when we were like giddy schoolboys in the run up to Christmas (I guess kind of like now) with the idea of the groups to play out before us.
But with the group stages now completed and this year's knockout round participants decided, we now look back on the decisive events of the past few months: the highs, the lows, and of course, a look forward to the pivotal knockout rounds which will culminate in this year's final in the Bernabau.
Joining me today are familiar faces from the last round table: Adamo Digby (Juventus), Barney Corkhill (Liverpool), and Anurag Bhatt (Barcelona). But today we welcome new blood in the form of the ever-awesome Mohammed Eldin Masri (Arsenal) and Samrin Hasrib, Bleacher Report's resident German football specialist (Bayern).
Unfortunately, on this occasion, however, in protest of UEFA and FIFA’s recent handling of events leading to the end of my country’s world cup qualification dream, I will no longer be representing UEFA for the foreseeable future.
MM: Ahem, well now with that out of the way, gentlemen, let's start with your general reaction to the groups. How do you feel about your team’s group stage performance? And how do you feel about your manager in relation to this? Let’s start with last year’s winners, Barcelona, again in Group F.
AB (Barca): Group F was being touted as one of the "formality" groups. Many
independent observers had predicted that Barcelona and Inter would
breeze through, with Dinamo making the cut for the Europa League and
Rubin being the group's whipping boys.
Well, the group was anything but that. Though Rubin did not give their cause much ammunition with a 3-1 loss early on to Kyiv, their performances after that included a draw against Inter and a win over Barcelona.
The loss and draw against Rubin Kazan were a trifle disappointing, and even left Barcelona in doubt of making the knockout stages. But Barcelona recovered superbly against Inter. It was a fantastic performance without both Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the pitch, and while some may argue that Inter played badly, they do not understand that Inter played badly because Barcelona did not let them play.
All in all, Barcelona had a good group stage campaign, finishing at the top of the group. Pep Guardiola proved his ability to charge his team up for the biggest of games once again, and Barcelona fans now have a relatively easy draw to look forward to.
MM: In contrast to Barcelona's resurgence at the midway point things went all wrong for Juventus and Liverpool. The biggest shocks of the group stages undoubtedly lay in the tale of Groups A and E.
AD (Juve): Sadly this season's Champions League has seen the worst of Juventus. In Serie A we've been inconsistent, but there is no place to hide in Europe's top competition.
Two narrow wins over Haifa did nothing to disguise the fact that this Juve [team] is disjointed and has vital pieces missing. Drawing in Munchen was a good result, but the key to progressing is winning your home games, and Bordeaux held us to a draw while [Bayern] Munchen embarrassed us 4-1 in the final game.
Ciro Ferrara has to shoulder some of the responsibility for Il Bianconeri coming up short, but he was severely handicapped by a flawed transfer campaign in the summer. He has tried to gel five new players into his starting lineup, tough for any coach.
The number of injuries has been crippling, none more so than the loss of Vincenzo Iaquinta, who was in the best form of his career before he went down. Ferrara's inexperience has shown at times, his substitutions often wasted.
However his effort, energy, and ideas remain great bonuses, and I for one, believe he can lead us back to the summit of Italian football given time.
BC (Liverpool): Needless to say, [I am] highly disappointed. I think in the first Champions League round table I predicted that Liverpool would get to the semifinal at least, and I wouldn't be surprised if they won it. I've got serious egg on my face now!
When the teams in our group were revealed, sure we thought that Lyon would be hard and Fiorentina would be no pushovers, but I think the vast majority of people, Liverpool fans or not, expected the Reds to get through. The fact we only just scraped past Debrecen is bad enough, especially considering how easily the others dispatched them.
The manager has to take some of the blame. He has completely rebuilt this squad and the fact is, he hasn't done it well enough. The strength in depth is poor, so much so that we had to try and play an unfit Fernando Torres on a number of occasions because the likes of David N'Gog just aren't up to playing against Europe's elite yet.
Still, I think the whole state of the club is what has contributed to the poor Champions League performance more than anything. I truly believe that, had Liverpool been performing as expected in the league, they would have cruised through to the next round.
MM: Of course, for while there were losers, there is a victor...
SH (Bayern): I feel that Bayern had a very up and down campaign. In fact, I feel that they showed three different faces against three different sides.
Against Maccabi Haifa, they looked average but managed to win in both their clashes. Against Bordeaux, they lost twice due to the problems behind the scenes and against Juventus, funnily, in both the clashes, they oozed class.
I had my doubts about Louis Van Gaal at the beginning, but currently, I think he has found the correct formula, one that doesn't need Arjen Robben or Franck Ribery.
MM: Group H? Many expected Arsenal to pull through easily. No surprises there then!
MEM (Arsenal): Overall I think the team was good. Bare in mind that Arsenal had the easiest group in the competition. (MM's note: Apologies on behalf of MEM to Olympiacos, AZ and Standard Liege diehards!)
That being said, Arsenal wasted a victory against Alkmaar, and they should learn to kill matches off once and for all.
MM: Any particular highlight or nadir of the group stages you'd like to share. Remember, let it all out guys; you'll feel much better for it.
AB: The group stage's highlight for Barcelona has to be the fantastic 2-0 win over Inter at the Camp Nou. It was a game which had elicited many whispers about "Eto'o seeking his revenge against his former employers."
The critics were able to argue even more vociferously against Barcelona, who were coming off a 1-1 draw to Athletic, and had just relinquished the domestic top spot to Real Madrid, and were also without the services of Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the "cracks" as the Spanish press calls them.
The suggestions were, of course, laughable. Barcelona literally and figuratively played Inter off the park in a beautiful performance, and the scoreline could have been much higher if Julio Cesar would not have saved Inter on some impossible occasions. It was the sort of performance that a Barcelona fan could have watched over and over again.
This performance can also be added to the list of games where Barcelona have responded magnificently to a must-win cause.
Few Barcelona fans will forget the green and maroon clad Rubin supporters celebrating in the away end of the Camp Nou. The 2-1 home loss to the almost unknown Russian side was undoubtedly the nadir of the group stage, and was one of the chief reasons for the whispers of the doubters.
MEM: The highlight would definitely be the 4-1 thrashing of Alkmaar in the second round which was good for the eyes. I would also put the quality of Aaron Ramsey as a highlight in this campaign.
Although the youngsters lost 1-0 to Olympiakos in the last game of the group stages, that didn't bother me much seeing how it was more of an experiment that didn't have any serious consequences. What I would consider as a nadir of the group stages was the 1-1 draw to Alkmaar and Carlos Vela wasting easy chances.
MM: Once again a tough campaign for the Turin and Merseyside giants. Anything worth salvaging or highlighting as particularly painful?
AD: The campaign was low on highlights for Juve, but securing a draw at Munchen has to be it. Forced to defend for much of the 90 mins, it was a return to the old Juventus style, the trademark "grinta" on display. The defence was superb that night, every inch the immovable object to Munchen's irresistible force of Bastien Schweinstieger, Franck Ribery, and Arjen Robben.
Sadly the same team provided the worst moment of the campaign too. Needing only a draw to progress, Juventus blew a 1-0 lead before collapsing in spectacular fashion to a final 4-1 scoreline. Indeed it is the manner of that loss that hurts more than elimination.
BC: Highlight? Tough question really. It comes to something when you're considering a narrow victory over Hungarian minnows as the highlight, but seeing as they were our only wins, I may have to go for both of them! The only real competition would be Ryan Babel's fantastic strike against Lyon.
Nadir, take your pick. Any one of the late goals, be it against Lyon (twice) or Fiorentina would be the main choice, but if I had to choose one, it'd be Lisandro Lopez's late goal for Lyon to all but send us out of the competition. Either that or the moment when we were officially dumped out.
MM: Bayern have punched below their weight for the last few years they've been involved in this competition. Juventus' 4-1 defeat in Turin was their first loss at home in Europe for 26 years and their worst ever defeat...surely the highlight Samrin?
SH: The highlight of the campaign was undoubtedly the victory against Juventus. The goal which stands out for me was Hans-Jorg Butt's penalty. The nadir was the second match against Bordeaux more than the first.
The team deserved a penalty after Michael Ciani handled the ball in the box but the referee just waved it away. That could maybe have saved us from a second defeat against Bordeaux, even though I am quite happy with the way things eventually turned out at the end.
MM: Who was your group stage MVP and villain?
AD: The hero, if indeed there is one in such a poor campaign, has to be Giorgio Chiellini. He has been Juve's stand-out defender all season, but has shone even more on the European stage. His performance in Munchen was outstanding, and he even scored a winner against Haifa.
When Juve needed to stand up and be counted it was Chiellini who showed the way, a sure-fire future captain of the Old Lady.
It is hard to single out one person to vilify in what has been such a poor showing in the competition. Fabio Cannavaro's instant slowing has hurt the side, although at his age this is somewhat expected. Felipe Melo has put in some poor performances, but none have disappointed as much as those of his compatriot, Diego.
Highly touted, expensive yet seemingly worth it, he simply has not delivered. Signed to be the new focus of attack he has not been a factor in any Champions League game this season.
SH: To me there were two heroes: One of them was Ivica Olic and the other was Hans-Jorg Butt. There weren't really any villains. If we had been knocked out though, Thomas Muller and Daniel Van Buyten would be deemed as villains due to their respective red cards in France.
MEM: I believe Fab [Fabregas] and R.V.P. [Robin Van Persie] were the MVPs for Arsenal, but many players were outstanding as well; Nasri and Andrey Arshavin are a few to name. The villains are easily Lucasz Fabianski and Carlos Vela. They pissed me off big time in the last game; it felt like a bad climax to a great movie, what a waste.
Although Fabianski made a few good saves after conceding, his timing was terrible at that point. Vela wasted a couple of good chances as well.
AB: MVP? It is a tough decision. There were some standout games and one or two absolutely mediocre ones. However, if pressed, I would go with Xavi Hernandez. He was consistent in all the games, as he always is, and as far as I can recall, he did not have a single bad outing.
Villain: This is much easier. Rafael Marquez, without a doubt. He has been a shadow of his former self, and when he played, his errors resulted in both of Rubin's goals at the Camp Nou.
BC: Wow, you're asking a lot with these questions! An MVP for Liverpool? Defensively I'd have to go for Pepe Reina, as he made some vital saves that stopped us going out of the competition even earlier. Yossi Benayoun could make a claim for the attacking MVP, but I honestly don't believe anyone deserves that accolade. Failing to score more than one goal in a match is just not good enough.
It's hard to pick out any individual villains really. The whole team was below par, and I think singling out one player for extra criticism is harsh. Some may say Lucas Leiva, but being compared to Xabi Alonso every game can't be easy. David N'Gog has the same problem trying to back up perhaps the greatest striker in the world.
Jamie Carragher's name may be mentioned as well, but while he may have made one or two errors, his overall importance and contribution to the team far outweighs any mistakes he may have made.
MM: Ok as we head into the knockout stages of European competition, the question now arises about what changes or perhaps tweaks your team needs to go further.
BC: Our team should change their channels so they don't have to watch the latter stages on TV. In terms of the Europa League, it is a great chance to salvage some pride and confidence from what has, so far, been a pretty miserable season. Winning the competition would make things look a whole lot different, especially if we capture a spot in the top four along with it.
However, winning the competition is certainly not going to be easy. There are some top teams in there, the likes of Roma, Ajax, etc. Some people seem to think that because Liverpool are a big team and have dropped down from the Champions League, the Europa League will be a walk in the park, but it will be anything but.
Personally I'm hoping for a Liverpool-Roma tie in the next round (so Liverpool can capture the UWCC title, of course), and a Liverpool-Everton final so we can snatch their dreams of a rare trophy from under their noses!
MEM: I believe that with the current injuries, Arsenal need to buy a few players during the transfer window. They need to get a new goalkeeper, an extra defender, and a tall, physically strong striker to fill the gap left by RVP. They also need to stop wasting the chances they get every five minutes.
SH: The squad has much more depth than it had during last year's campaign. They had a much better group stage though last year. Tactically, they are sound and Van Gaal knows best as far as that's concerned.
I would like some additions in defence, even though now with the versatile Holger Badstuber, we might not need it. Badstuber is inexperienced, and I would like someone experienced. Jose Bosingwa would be a good buy from Chelsea. Up front, we have a wealth of options. If Olic or Gomez gets injured, we always have Miroslav Klose (and Daniel Van Buyten).
AB: Barcelona, in my opinion, lack the quality depth that is necessary to compete in the remaining Champion's League rounds with maximum effectiveness. Players like Lionel Messi and Xavi have no quality deputies, and an injury to both before a crucial knockout encounter could see Barcelona's chances severely jeopardized.
The defense has seen some good news with long, long-time absentee Gabi Milito finally coming back to full fitness. In my opinion, one attacking winger or one central midfielder are both options that should be looked into in the January window. If an attacking winger is bought, then it will ensure that Iniesta retains his place in midfield and does not need to shift up to either the left or right wing, as need calls.
A defensive midfielder, though seen as a requirement by many, is not a pressing need, as the African Cup of Nations ends before the knockouts, and both Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita will be back with the squad.
I also believe that Thierry Henry's time in this squad is now up, and should be offloaded, either in January or in June.
Tactically, I feel Pep Guardiola needs to learn the importance of making the correct substitutions. Against Rubin, when Barcelona were drawing 0-0 away from home, he waited till the 82nd minute before bringing on the extra striker. Against Dinamo, even after it was clear that Barcelona's progress as group leader was assured, he kept Messi on the pitch, leading to his injury.
And, I also feel what could possibly be a personal feud between Yaya Toure and Guardiola is weakening the team. Pep often starts Busquets ahead of Yaya, who is one of the best DM's in the world. Pep needs to get over his personal prejudice for the good of the team.
AD: As with any Italian manager, Ciro Ferrara is only ever as good as the team his Sporting Director provides him with. Alessio Secco, on the surface, did well this summer, adding Diego, Felipe Melo, Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso, and Martin Caceres.
However only the latter two have performed well, filling holes at fullback that were glaring last season. Cannavaro is really struggling; Melo and Diego simply have not clicked. A passing midfielder is essential for the formation to work—a Pirlo to Diego's Kaka if you like. As good as Marchisio, Melo, and Sissoko are they cannot fill this role.
Moving down into the Europa League will hurt, but in order to be successful we need to make a few changes, and hopefully they will do this in January rather than wait for the summer. Legrottaglie deserves a run alongside Chiellini; he simply cannot be worse than Cannavaro. Securing Caceres permanently must also be a priority.
MM: Well, from a personal point of view it's been an intriguing group stage this year. Many of the goals and games were crackers but many propose, in the interest of tradition and maybe even football, that the CL be a knockout tournament from the beginning? Would the competition be best served this way? Would it be more exciting?
BC: It all depends on your perspective. Whether or not you prefer the best teams going through (fans of big teams in the competition will mostly be in this group) or whether you prefer the "magic of the cup" where a relatively unknown side can knock out a giant in a one-off match (neutrals and fans of smaller clubs are usually in this one).
This group stage has been a strange one. Usually the league format ensures the big teams go through, because over six games they prove they are the best, but this year we have seen Liverpool go out (although they deserved it), Barcelona beaten and then held by Rubin Kazan, and Unirea Urziceni make some serious waves too.
The filtering system of the league format worked for the most part, though, and I personally think that is the best way.
Had the Rubin Kazan-Barcelona match, for example, been a knock-out fixture, we would have been robbed of the best team in the world and the best players in the world and instead given a team who no one knows anything about.
Sure, the old argument that they earned their place still applies but, unless they come up against Liverpool, I would prefer to have teams that could reasonably win the competition (like Barca) than teams that harbour no such hopes.
That being said, the FA Cup shows that "cupsets" can be some of the most exciting things in football.
MEM: I honestly don't have an answer to that but if it was a straight knockout then probably it would've been less interesting. It sucks to see good teams knocked out because they had an off day. Every team has one once in a while. Also the contest would be considerably shorter.
AD: I enjoy watching the Champions League, with its intriguing and constant battles for qualification. This year has been no different, Rubin Kazan coming close to upsetting the established order of things, pushing Inter and Barca all the way. Those two seemed shoo-ins when the draw was made, but Rubin showed that complacency is dangerous.
However, imagine it had always been this way, that the Champions League format started in the 50's. What then if UEFA announced that from next year only the national champions from each country would qualify, that they would play one-legged, straight knockout ties?
If they added that there would be no seeding, no separating, no separating teams from the same country, just a good old-fashioned cup draw?! What then?
Imagine the interest? Real Madrid-Manchester United in the first round? Smaller teams reaching the latter stages?
It will never happen; too many people would lose too much money. But just take a moment to dream, and remember if your team won the European Cup before 1992, they really were the continents best, not the result of carefully manipulated draws to ensure the strong survive.
AB: The group stages have been more open than I can remember in a long time. Liverpool and Juventus were the big guns that crashed out, Bayern and Inter were made to struggle by relative minnows, and Bordeaux were the true surprise packages, topping a group few gave them a chance of even progressing from. The only groups that were decided early were those of Manchester United and Chelsea.
SH: I think the group stage has been better than the last one and it is better to have a group stage than to have a straight knockout system. Every team deserves a second chance, including high profile ones.
Bayern might have been knocked had their first hurdle been Bordeaux in the old format. Also, the exits of Liverpool and Juventus have to a certain extent opened the door for smaller teams in this year's competition.
MM: Well there you go. At the halfway point in this year's edition we've shared fond memories, disappointments, and hopes for the future and we haven't even seen the knockout draw yet.
I'd like to deeply thank all participants sharing their thoughts and views with us here today. I hope to have another round table out to preview the knockouts and review the draw in a few weeks time but until then, in the meantime, try not to get bogged down in the domestic grind everyone!