UEFA Champions League: Can Anybody Catch Real Madrid or Barcelona?
It's that time of the year again.
No, I'm not talking about Thanksgiving or Black Friday, although those are very important too. I'm talking about that time of the year when we start to seriously weigh up who's got what it takes to dominate Europe—or more specifically, win the UEFA Champions League title.
Obviously, as football fans, we've been talking about which teams are going to dominate or get dominated since the end of the 2010-11 season. That's just how we are—always looking forward to the next season and the next big thing.
But now that each of the top five European leagues has gone through at least 10 domestic league games and the UEFA Champions League group stage is nearing completion, we can start to accurately judge who stands the best chance of winning the coveted UCL title.
For me, it starts with Real Madrid and Barcelona. As usual, the two Spanish super giants are in the process of breaking away from the rest of La Liga, and have begun their race to see who can slip up the least from now until May, when the league concludes.
At present, Real Madrid are in outstanding form, winning 10 of 12 of their league games so far. Barcelona, of course, aren't far behind, having won 8 of 12 and drawn the other four.
In the UCL, both teams have performed excellently as well. Real Madrid have been the best team in the competition, sweeping aside the competition with ease. They've won all five of their games, scoring 16 goals and conceding only twice, both consolation goals in their 6-2 rout of Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.
Barcelona have not fared as well, but they too have locked up the top spot of their group with ease. They've won four of their five games and drawn the other, scoring 16 goals like Real Madrid but conceding four times, all against AC Milan in the home and away matches.
But beyond these two Spanish and European super giants, who are the real contenders for European glory? Who can actually be regarded as a legitimate challenger to the Spanish domination of the UCL that we've seen this year?
Let's find out.
English Premier League Contenders
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Our first instinct might logically be to look to the EPL, which usually sends teams to the UCL that perform very well. But this year, the UCL has not been kind to the English.
Beyond Arsenal, England has struggled: Chelsea will go into the final round of the UCL needing either a win or a 0-0 draw to qualify for the knockout stages, while Manchester United will also need to avoid defeat against FC Basel to qualify for the Round of 16.
Manchester City are the one team whose fate is not in their hands; if Napoli win in their final group stage match, Manchester City's result against Bayern Munich will be rendered inconsequential. Even if Napoli fail to win, Man City must beat Bayern Munich to qualify, which will be no easy task.
It is still possible that, following Matchday 6 of the UCL, all four English Premier League sides will have qualified for the Round of 16. But none of them will have done it with remotely as much dominance and power as Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Furthermore, the domestic campaigns of most of these teams has not been very convincing. Chelsea have looked lost for at least a couple games now, while Arsenal have been riding on the back of Robin Van Persie's insanely hot form for wins for at least a month now.
Guys like Gervinho, Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta have yet to show that Arsenal have scoring threats other than RVP which can be relied upon to consistently provide goals when RVP is marked out of the game.
Manchester United's situation is the opposite of that of Arsenal; they started red-hot and were title favorites at one point, but have recently fallen into a bit of a lull since receiving a 6-1 shellacking from city rivals Manchester City.
Three consecutive 1-0 wins is proof that Manchester United have a solid defense, but it raises serious doubts about the potency of the team's offense.
Finally, Manchester City were arguably the EPL's best hope for UCL glory, having convincingly beaten practically every team they've come up against in the EPL. But considering how slim the chances are of them qualifying for the Round of 16, it seems ridiculous to consider them challengers for the title.
Serie A Contenders
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Despite the ever-weakening state of Italy's Serie A, it has historically been the third most successful league in terms of producing UCL/European Cup winners.
This year, despite Udinese's early elimination in the qualifying round to Arsenal, Italy's representatives in the UCL have done fairly well.
Napoli look set to qualify for the Round of 16 at the expense of Manchester City, while Inter Milan have qualified from the group stage as group winners and AC Milan will qualify as Group H runner-ups, behind Barcelona.
But once again, a look domestically allows us to weed out the pretenders from the contenders.
Inter Milan are currently languishing in 16th place in Serie A, with five losses from their first 10 games. They can't be taken seriously as contenders for the league's three Champions League spots this season, let alone as contenders for the Champions League title.
Napoli and AC Milan haven't exactly dominated their domestic league either, but impressive outings in the Champions League indicates that they are up for the challenge of fighting their way to the UCL title.
Napoli's performances against the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester City indicates that the side from Naples is more than ready to contend against the best teams of Europe, while AC Milan's outings against Barcelona show that Milan are not too far behind the Catalans and have improved greatly from previous years in the UCL.
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Europe's third-best league, the Bundesliga, actually boasts the fourth most successful team in the history of the UCL and European Cup, Bayern Munich.
The Bavarians have won the tournament four times and finished as runners up on four other occasions, most recently the 2009-10 UCL final against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan.
However, aside from Bayern Munich, most of Germany's teams have not been real challengers for the UCL title since 2002, when Bayer Leverkusen made it all the way to the final only to lose Real Madrid's Galacticos.
Not coincidentally, it is those two teams who find themselves holding the mantle for German football in the 2011-12 UCL.
Bayern Munich have already tied up their position as winners in this year's Group of Death, Group A, which contained Napoli, Manchester City and Villarreal. Bayer Leverkusen, surprisingly, have guaranteed qualification for themselves, following their upset victory over Chelsea this past Wednesday.
Ironically, last year's Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund, have struggled in the UCL and look set to finish at the bottom of Group F. I guess having a youthful squad lacking in leadership does have its flaws, but that's a story for another day.
Looking at the teams with a chance of qualifying, only Bayern Munich looks equipped to go all the way.
Leverkusen have a decent squad, but they lack real star power, relying upon the solid play of players like Eren Derdiyok and Stefan Kiessling, as well as veteran leadership from guys like Michael Ballack and Manuel Friedrich. They have a good squad, but not one ready to challenge the biggest giants of Europe.
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have a squad equipped to hang with the best. There are hardly any wingers who can hang with Franck Ribery and Arjan Robben when they are at their best, while Mario Gomez is easily one of the best strikers to be found in the world today.
Bayern Munich's weakness has always been its defense, but that has been shored up excellently with the recruitment of Rafinha, Jerome Boateng and of course Manuel Neuer.
The personnel is definitely there, but it remains to be seen if chose Jupp Heynckes can get the team to continue functioning as a collective unit.
Ligue 1 Contenders
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Ligue 1 is often mentioned as one of the "big five leagues" of Europe, but its done little in the UCL to justify its inclusion, compared to the four leagues above it.
The last time France had a team in the UCL final was in 2003-04 with Monaco, and you have to go all the way back to 1993 with Marseille to find the one and only time a French team has won either the UCL or the European Cup.
This year, Ligue 1 has struggled in the Champions League.
Lille technically go into the final round of the Champions League with their destiny in their hands, but anything less than a win against Trabzonspor will result in failure to qualify for the Round of 16, and could even see them finish at the bottom of the group.
Lyon are virtually guaranteed to not qualify for the knockout rounds, but could hypothetically finish second in their group if they beat Dinamo Zagreb, Ajax lose to Real Madrid and the combined goal totals allow Lyon to overcome the seven-goal differential between them and Ajax. Not likely at all, though.
Finally, Marseille are the best-placed French team, currently sitting second in Group F, but they too need to win against Borussia Dortmund on the final to ensure Olympiakos don't leapfrog them in the standings with a win over Arsenal.
Chances are their position is secure, but anything can happen.
So, realistically speaking, France can probably expect Marseille and possibly Lille to advance to the knockout rounds of the UCL. Do either of these teams have what it takes to challenge Real Madrid or Barcelona though?
For me, it's a definite no. Marseille have struggled all season long with form, and things only seem to be getting worse for the team. In fact, I'd be surprised to see them beat Borussia Dortmund in the final round of the UCL; the only reason I have them advancing is that I don't expect Arsenal to lose to Olympiakos.
As for Lille, they are actually doing fairly well for themselves in Ligue 1, sitting third behind PSG and Montpellier. However, when half of your league results are draws and you're losing home and away to an out-of-form Inter Milan, you're probably not good enough to challenge the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
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Before people start crying out that I haven't considered contenders from outside the "Big Five" leagues of Europe, I just want to make it clear that I am aware that likes of Trabzonspor, CSKA Moscow, FC Basel, Ajax, Olympiakos, Zenit St. Petersburg and Porto all still stand a chance of qualifying.
In fact, it is likely that at least two of the above teams will qualify for the Round of 16, in addition to APOEL and Benfica, who've already qualified.
Do I think they're good enough to contend with Real Madrid and Barcelona, though? No.
Having gone through all the teams still in contention to continue in the UCL, I think there are, at best, five teams who can be considered contenders for the title at the moment, in addition to Real Madrid and Barcelona: Manchester United, Manchester City, Napoli, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.
Ironically, only the last two of these teams have secured qualification, while only the second or the third team of these five will make it to the Round of 16. But, at present, I believe these are the teams best equipped to take on Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But to answer the question asked in the title: No, I don't think anybody will catch up with Real Madrid and Barcelona. I think the contenders will come close and put up a good fight, if they make it far enough to even challenge Barcelona or Real Madrid, but ultimately, I think both teams will make it to at least the semifinals.
From there, anything can happen.
Knowing Sir Alex Ferguson, he'll probably have turned Manchester United into a threat once more by the time things get serious in the EPL, while Bayern Munich will probably push one of the Spanish giants to the limit if they can avoid being upset by a weaker team before then.
But even then, I expect the Spanish giants to come out on top. They look too good right now and I'm backing them to shine brightest when it counts.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree, and why? Who do you think can catch either of these Spanish giants in Europe? Make your opinion known below.