UEFA Champions League is back. With the top clubs in Europe all set to battle it out over the next nine months for a shot at everlasting glory at Wembley come next May, we ask eight members of TheHardTackle team of writers to partake in some crystal gazing and predict how the tournament will pan out this season.
Question 1: Who will lift the trophy on 25th May, 2013?
Aditya Balaram (AB): Bayern Munich. This is a team that has grown exponentially over the summer, and shouldn’t be haunted by the problems of suspension and injury given their incredibly strong bench. Also their summer acquisitions have gotten rid of that dreaded one dimensionality.
Arjun Some (AS): Barcelona. They always seem to win it in the odd years, don’t they?
Debarshee Mitra (DM): Real Madrid. Near misses and bad refereeing decisions have halted the 9 time champions in the past couple of seasons. Not anymore.
Parth Pandya (PP): Among all the top contenders of the title, it seems the title will return to Spain after the rather surprising triumph of Chelsea last season. The competition does not lack strong teams but the title it seems, will remain confined to the Barcelona or Madrid who are unequivocally the top two in the continent at the moment.
Rizwan Ahmed (RA): With Barcelona losing Guardiola and other biggies like AC Milan and Arsenal undergoing significant changes in their squad, Real Madrid look the favorite to clinch the title.
Somnath Sengupta (SS): Real Madrid, because they have best squad in Europe and a manager who knows all about winning UCL.
Vignesh Iyer (VI): Real Madrid. They’ve got good depth in a squad filled with world class players in all positions and a manager who is capable of delivering results. It is difficult to envisage Tito Villanova leading Barcelona to victory in his first season in charge, but they’ll continue to be very strong.
Amlan Majumdar (AM): Real Madrid. After conquering the La Liga title, it is time for Mourinho to concentrate on the Champions League. If they win it, they probably wouldn’t even mind losing the league to Barcelona this time around.
Question 2: And who will they beat in the final?
AB: Real Madrid will get to the final in style, but be demolished by the Bavarians. This isn’t going down to penalties – a thrashing is on the cards.
AS: Has to be Real Madrid or one of the English clubs.
DM: Hopefully Barcelona or Manchester United. Having said that Bayern, Chelsea, Arsenal would be in with a strong shout too.
PP: A lot depends on the draws and as long as Real Madrid and Barcelona do not get to face each other at some stage in the competition, both should secure a berth in the finals.
RA: FC Barcelona are always favorites to reach the final considering the players at their disposal. Bayern Munich are another opponent who have retained all their stars are look pretty strong.
SS: Bayern Munich they have retained the core of their squad from last season and made strong additions.
VI: Barcelona maybe or one of the English teams.
AM: Bayern Munich. They have retained most of their squad and made some impressive new additions this season. The German giants will once again cruise through the group stage and with such in depth in the squad they should be able to make it to the final once again.
Question 3: Who will be the top goal scorer in the competition?
AB: Lionel Messi. You got to feel for Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Benfica.
AS: Robin van Persie. Maybe going with heart over head in this one, but as long as those dodgy knees, ankles, hamstrings, ligaments (and whatnot) hold, he can run riot in more than one of those group matches.
DM: Lionel Messi. Who else? The best player on the planet right now, has already scored six goals this season and with an easy group, expect him to add to that tally.
PP: Once again, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo should easily outscore the others considering their usual scoring rate and the fact their respective teams are the likeliest ones to last till the final stages of the competition.
RA: Well, to think of names other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will probably be a sin.
SS: Cristiano Ronaldo
VI: If Manchester United do well then you could say van Persie might just be the one, same goes for Manchester City and Tevez. If not looking beyond Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi seems pointless.
AM: Cristiano Ronaldo. Having tipped Real Madrid to win the title, it would be hard to look beyond Ronaldo, for once he will outscore Messi in a tournament.
Question 4: What will be Manchester City’s position in Group D?
AB: Second, behind eventual finalists Madrid. Dortmund and Ajax surely can’t stop this oil machine.
AS: Third. I have a sneaky feeling that City would end up drawing a few too many of their matches and leave the door ajar for one of Ajax or Dortmund to overtake them.
DM: First. Tempting fate? Maybe. The first gameweek sees the blues travel to Madrid and anything more than 0 points there and I see them winning the group.
PP: Manchester City have it in them to qualify from the group and from the looks of it should finish second to Real Madrid.
RA: With the team they have got, expect City to give a tough fight to their opponents. I am guessing they will finish second and qualify further.
SS: Third. Borussia Dortmund to progress along with Real.
VI: Given the quality they have in that squad, they must certainly aim to finish on top of the group. I think they could finish 2nd.
AM: Second. They didn’t fare well last season, but having retained the same squad and now with more experience, City will qualify for the knock-out stages this time around. They are more of team now rather than a collection of individuals,
Question 5: How far do you see the two Italian giants – Juventus and AC Milan – progressing in the competition?
AB: Juventus will do very well, probably even beat a club like Barcelona. But, this is a side that lacks European experience – so a semi final exit. Milan will reach the knockout stages once again, but surely not past the quarter finals.
AS: Both till quarterfinals. It depends on both winning their respective groups (just about will, in my opinion) and getting favourable draws in the second round. But really don’t see either knocking out any of the real heavyweights.
DM: Juventus will come runners up in Group E, if they negotiate tricky trips to Donetsk and London. Milan will top their group despite a depleted squad. Any further progress remains doubtful though.
PP: Milan have fortunately found a place in the premier pot which will be a huge factor this season as far as their progress is concerned. European experience should see Milan through the group stages but anything beyond quarterfinals will be too much to expect. Juventus, with some luck by their side in the knockout rounds, are serious contenders for the semi-final spots.
RA: While Juventus are looking good, AC Milan, sadly, don’t look very threatening. Juventus have good chances to making it to the quarters while AC Milan’s chances for the same are a little bleak.
SS: Quarter-final, at best. None of them are strong enough to go all the way.
VI: No disrespect meant, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Milan crash out of the group stages. They are certainly looking like a weakened unit. Zenit and Malaga can be very tricky opponents to get past, while Anderlecht might just fancy their chances as well. Juventus will certainly be looking to go as far as possible this season and I reckon they are likely to make the Semi Finals.
AM: I can see Juventus making some inroads into the tournament, but for AC Milan I see no hope at all. Both the Italian teams are in tough groups. Juventus can make it to the Quarter finals, but for Milan it would be hard to see them get past the first knock-out round.
Question 6: Who, among the eight seeded teams, looks most vulnerable to get knocked out at the group stages?
AB: Milan. They will qualify, but it will be a massive struggle.
AS: Chelsea. While nothing needs to be said about the dangers posed by champions of Serie A (in this case, Juventus), underestimate Shakhtar Donetsk at your own peril. If Chelsea get overturned in Ukraine on Matchday 2, I see them struggling.
DM: Porto. Drawn with PSG, Kiev and Zagreb, Porto will have to be on their toes to qualify from a well balanced group. The loss of Hulk may hurt them too.
PP: All the seeded teams should at least secure their positions in the knockout round if not win their respective groups.
RA: Tough call. I don’t see anyone getting knocked out but if I had to make a choice, it would be Porto.
SS: None of them.
VI: Guess they all should make it through.
AM: AC Milan. They will find it really hard to qualify from a group that contains Malaga, Zenit and Anderlecht.
Question 7: Who, among the lesser fancied teams, can cause an upset by reaching the knockout stages and further?
AB: Zenit. With their latest buys showing their intent and given the harsh conditions in Russia, they will be the surprise package of this season.
AS: Celtic in Group G. Even in normal seasons, European nights at Parkhead can be an overwhelming atmosphere for many a vaunted sides. But this year the absence of Old Firm derbies may help raise the bar (and the decibel level) even further.
DM: Dynamo Kiev. A young and dynamic team with zip and swagger, Dynamo would be a handful for any team. Home form would be crucial.
PP: Montpellier, the French champions should challenge the more experienced teams from their group and might well qualify for the latter stages.
RA: I would love to see Montpellier go further because I like them as a team and even though they sold Giroud, I expect them to go further.
SS: Braga, they are very strong in their home and have a group where they can win three matches or more.
VI: Valencia, Benfica and Montpellier do look like they have it in them to cause upsets on their night.
AM: Malaga. Although people consider Milan and Zenit will be the best bet to qualify from Group C. Malaga (despite their off-field problems) can ruffle a few feathers, they still possess a very good team.
Question 8: How many English clubs will be there in the quarter finals lineup?
AB: One, and my money is on Manchester United.
AS: Manchester United and Arsenal. Will be brilliant if they get pitted against each other as well.
DM: 3. Arsenal, Chelsea and United. City will do enough to negotiate Group D, but the task of doing it again in the a two legged tie would be too demanding. An easy draw might change that.
PP: All the English sides should easily qualify from their respective groups but there is a good chance for Chelsea and Manchester City to finish second in their respective groups. A lot then depends on who they face in the knockout round. However, at least two English sides should make it to the final eight.
RA: I am guessing two – Chelsea and Manchester United.
VI: There could be two or three. I’d certainly bet on both the Manchester clubs being in there and Chelsea have in the last decade consistently managed to reach the Quarter Finals and beyond.
AM: Three. All the English teams should qualify for the knockout stages, but then it depends upon who they are drawn against. City is sure to get a tough draw during the knockout stage if (and they will) finish 2nd behind Madrid in the group stages.
Question 9: Will we witness the El Classico tie(s) at some stage in the tournament?
AB: This is a tie that is getting a little too old. We aren’t going to see an El Classico this year.
AS: Has to be. Not too many clubs around who can knock either of these two out.
DM: Don’t think so. Too big an occasion for the knockout stages and the probability of a Final showdown is low, considering the number of permutations involved.
PP: Certainly. It’s only a matter of when.
RA: Sigh! Another set of controversies. But, when the two best teams go head to head there is always excellent football on display and also tactics. So, I am hoping we can witness El Classico in the semifinal.
SS: No. Barcelona may not progress far this season.
VI: Maybe we will, but I’d hope that it isn’t before the final should both of them make it. It’s much better than a two legged tie and we’ll have both the sides absolutely going for it at Wembley. It will make for a dream spectacle.
AM: No. Barcelona will find it tough this time around.
Question 10: What about the PSG’s chances in the competition?
AB: They will turn a few heads. They will entertain. But it shouldn’t last too long. At max, they will reach the quarter finals and Ibrahimovic will continue to choke.
AS: Depends on how well the new signings settle down as the season progresses. If things go well, semifinals is not beyond the realms of possibility.
DM: PSG will win Group A but only the luck of the draw would see them progress to the quarters. Round of 16 for me.
RA: On paper, they look extremely strong but they may require time to gel together. This year looks tough for them. I am expecting a quarterfinal berth if they can play to their full potential and everything goes in their favor.
PP: PSG have a very potent squad this season and Carlo Ancelotti is one manager who fails not to succeed in European competitions. Unless they blow things themselves, PSG should at least make it to the quarter finals.
SS: Quarter-final. Their squad lacks chemistry but has enough quality to get past first 2 rounds.
VI: Given the quality at their disposal, they must at least make the quarter finals or more. However, the Champions League is extremely unpredictable and the ‘luck factor’ counts for a lot, so we never know really.
AM: Round of 16. It would be hard for them to go past the first knockout round. Despite having a strong squad – they need time to gel into a team. Remember what happened to Manchester City last time around?