With the Champions League round of 16 kicking off on Tuesday, pundits around the globe have begun prognosticating how it will all unfold.
Not one to miss out on premature selections, I’ve chosen my four contenders. Two of which are Real Madrid and Chelsea.
Below are some reasons as to why one of those two could either win the Champions League or leave empty handed.
After finally achieving the goal of winning La Decima, there’s little doubt that Real Madrid’s hierarchy is myopic about achieving an unprecedented repeat in the Champions League. With another win, Carlo Ancelotti would become the only manager to claim four Champions League trophies.
Two reasons Real Madrid will win
Real Madrid’s greatest strength this season is the same as it has been since Gareth Bale slotted in next to Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. The triad often referred to as ‘BBC’ has propelled the team to a three goal a game average in all competitions. The fluidity of their positional interchanges, as well as their speed, has made it virtually impossible for opponents to mark the three. Their versatility also allows Carlo Ancelotti to tinker with his formations without significantly affecting their production.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Flexibility
There are managers who mould their players to fit a specific system, and there are those that adapt a system to best suit their players. Ancelotti fits into the latter category. Since taking over at the Bernabeu, the three-time Champions League winner has varied his formations, usually alternating between a 433, a 4231, and a 442. Last season, the Italian’s flexibility brought the best out of Angel Di Maria, and the same is happening with Isco and James Rodriguez, this season. There had been some question marks about James, in particular, since he tended to disregard his defensive duties at his previous clubs. However, Ancelotti has managed to establish systems that get the most of the Colombian’s creativity without seriously jeopardizing the defensive side of things.
Two reasons Real Madrid will not win
A hole in the center of defense
While Real Madrid boasts a formidable attack, its defense has proven rather fragile. Real’s defensive vulnerabilities have been distinctly noticeable when Pepe and Sergio Ramos have both been injured. That should come as a surprise given the praise that’s been aimed at Rafael Verane. Only two seasons ago, pundits suggested that the Frenchman’s rise rendered Pepe’s services unnecessary. However, without either Pepe or Ramos at his side, Verane has looked uncomfortable, and far from the player he’s shown capable of being. Nacho Fernandez hasn’t inspired much confidence either, even though, like Verane, he looks capable when lining up with either Pepe or Ramos. Without the two combative center-backs in the back four, it’s difficult to imagine Real Madrid getting past the other big boys in the competition.
The lack of a midfield destroyer
Apart from confirming that Pepe and Sergio Ramos are the team’s lynchpins, Real Madrid’s 4-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid exposed a lack of bite in the Royal White midfield. Throughout the ninety minutes, Atletico’s midfielders bullied and out-possessed a Real Madrid midfield that included Toni Kroos, Isco, and Sami Khedira. Kroos and Isco have been integral to Real Madrid’s transition from a counter-attacking team to a one that controls possession, but neither of them is a rough-and-tumble midfielder who is capable of buttressing a back line. Khedira used to be that player, but the German has had trouble finding his best form since seriously injuring his knee. When fit, James Rodriguez will add a much-needed creative spark to Real, but he certainly won’t address the midfield’s defensive frailties.
With the Premier League all but done-and-dusted, José Mourinho has his mind set on winning the trophy that got away during his first spell as Chelsea boss. The Portuguese has seen two managers win the Champions League with teams he help build, and is aware that his place among the world’s best is at stake.
Two reasons Chelsea will win
Mourinho is a pragmatist
During his first go-around with Chelsea, Mourinho was often criticized for his defensive tactics. More than anything, Mourinho’s Chelsea did just enough to win games, slowly suffocating opponents once a lead was attained. For the Portuguese, his approach was merely pragmatic – he did what was necessary. Now in his second stint, his team may be more prolific and explosive, but the ‘Special One’s” philosophy remains the same. As his players have stated, Mourinho prepares meticulously for whichever game comes next, and will make whatever adjustments are necessary to neutralize opposing teams. Whether playing pretty or ugly soccer, Mourinho concerns himself only with the win.
The most balanced team
Insofar as a starting eleven is concerned, there is arguably no more balanced team than Chelsea. To begin with, the Londoners possess the backbone that is usually associated with successful teams. Starting with Thibaut Courtois, who along with Manuel Neuer, may be the best goalkeeper of his generation, Chelsea’s backbone includes John Terry, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, and Diego Costa. One would be hard-pressed to find a better blend of grit and skill on any other team. Chelsea is also very well balanced in the wide areas. Eden Hazard and Willian are gifted wingers, but under Mourinho’s tutelage, they’ve also become stronger and more disciplined defenders.
Two reasons Chelsea will not win
A lack of depth
For all its balance, Chelsea has a worrying lack of depth. This issue was highlighted by an injury to Fabregas and Diego Costa’s three-game suspension. Without Fabregas, Chelsea lost much of the creative flair that unlocked defenses, while his countryman’s suspension deprived Mourinho of a dependable scorer. If Chelsea is to push through the knockout stages, both players must remain healthy and disciplined; nevertheless, it is Matic that is irreplaceable. Since arriving last season, the Serbian has been the team’s fulcrum. Neither John Obi Mikel, nor Ramires can replicate everything Matic does on the field, both on defense and attack. He is an almost immovable force when protecting the back four, and his ability to protect and move the ball quickly when Chelsea break out in attack, cannot be overstated.
Lack of speed on defense
John Terry has been described by some of the world’s best forwards as deceptively quick. His quickness, however, is not measured in pace, but in his ability to read the game and anticipate plays. Unfortunately for Terry, excellent anticipation will not always prevent teams from getting stretched by pace. Usually, a slow center-back like Terry would be partnered-up with someone faster, but Gary Cahill isn’t exactly a thunderbolt, himself. Harry Kane exposed this shortcoming during Chelsea’s heavy defeat at White Hart Lane in January. The duo’s lack of pace has mostly been mitigated by Matic, who routinely slots in-between them and helps control the movements of faster forwards, but his absence could spell disaster for the Blues if they come up against speedy opposition.