Champions League primer time. Let us do away with the mincing of words at the outset: I love the Champions League. In my mind, I hold it in higher esteem than the league and would much rather win it than La Liga, although I’d rather not have to choose. Something about the anthem (it gives me chills somehow), and all the teams coming together, and the shady draws with players from eligible teams determining who will play, and the best players from the best leagues playing against one another makes me weak in the knees. Champions of Spain, eh (not really). Champions of Europe, I love it. Like the One Ring draws Sauron, so am I drawn to European competition starting the fall and ending in the Spring, like the bookends of the best time of the year. In all seriousness, I see it as a more fitting competition for a club of our size to show its skill, because many of the lesser teams are done away with so early and the match-ups are so intriguing. It just all makes for better stories than a February fixture against Levante. On that note, it’s Champions League overall preview time y’all.
I am assuming that you, our faithful reader, are not some bandwagon jerk who only started following the club after the 2009 season and did poor research into your new club, thus having no idea that FC Barcelona has won 3 European championships (before 1993 it was not called the Champions League)–1992, 2006, 2009–tied for 6th all-time. There may be some other Old Ones here beside Kevin, who, like Cthulhu, lies in wait, who remember the 1992 team and may remember these matches. If not, that’s why we have Wikipedia, which tells me that we were hanging around for most of this party on a thing line, barely passing the second leg on away goals and then winning the Final in Extra Time on a Ronald Koeman goal. 2006 was a much different affair relying largely on the backs of Misters Ronaldinho and Eto’o before reaching a hotly contested final that featured a Sol Campbell (I’m still astounded by this) goal for Arsenal, Jens Lehmann being put where he always deserved to be (the damn locker room because he’s a cheating bastard), a final 15 minutes comeback from Barça, and our boys ruining Wenger’s best chance at Euro glory (HA!). Then of course 2009 exists more as a dream than a memory to me. It was less the continuance of a year’s worth of perfection and more the comprehensive medal that solidified untouchable status. It was Guardiola’s European coming out party, Messi’s continual climb up Mount Improbable on the way to being the best player in the world, and coming from the Third Qualifying Stage to win, a series of massive beatings followed by what is now the second greatest goal in Andres Iniesta’s career… somehow… seriously, ponder that shit for a second… his second best goal was THE Iniestazo… Oh yes, and we beat Man U, 2-0, whatevs, I guess, no biggie.
So what does this year hold in store for the Blaugrana? Well a group stage featuring Panathinaikos, 2010 Super League Greece champions; FC Copenhagen, 2010 Danish Superliga champions; and Rubin Kazan, 2009 Russian Premier League champions (they are in the middle of their 2010 season now, or something, what is this, MLS?) cannot hurt, as it appears to be the safest road through for any of the large clubs outside of maybe Arsenal. This is not to doubt either the Greek or Danish clubs, and most certainly not Kazan, they of the crafty Russian super defense and the home-wrecking variety. Rather, it is about simple logistics.
Every fan of course points to last year’s qualification struggle, but I would hope we’ve learned a lot from that, plus, we go from playing the best team in Italy, Ukraine, and Russia to Greece, Denmark, and Russia. Oh, and the second team in our group won the whole thing. And we played Kazan in Russia in November, meaning it was only slightly warmer than the depths of the space or the margarita I just made. I am also sure that Pep has learned his lesson about not playing down to lesser opponents, especially those built with defense and possession in mind (Kazan and Kiev). Last year many of us, myself included, predicted a tough qualification, especially due to picking up the best team of the second pot (Inter) and possibly the third as well (Kiev). Then of course there were ever present injuries facing our side and other personnel questions that plagued the side (although those occurred mostly later against Inter in the semis, but still).
This year, I believe, will be a different story, Saturday’s clusterfuck notwithstanding. A lack of hyper-talented teams in this group combining with favorable draw schedule make me think this. For all of Inter’s issues last season in qualification, Kiev’s slightly diminished status of late, and Kazan’s being an unknown commodity, that group was still head and shoulders above this one.
Panathinaikos is a classic Greek side: defensively minded leading to the attack and fairly tall. Bringing in Sidney Govou was key for them in offense and Gilberto Silva anchors a solid defensive attack. However, they play the worst defensive tendency a team can against our boys: a ridiculously high line that Xavi and Messi will obliterate. If they reduce that issue against us and play typically stingy at home, as they are wont to do, they can provide an impediment during qualification, but changing an entire style that they have played and are suited toward will likely prove difficult, especially for only two matches.
FC Copenhagen is this year’s unknown in the group. They rely on Jesper Gronkjaer and Dame N’Doye for offensive output and play a high-paced game built around quick passing meaning they are likely prone to give our boys fits if they can scrape some possession away and counter quickly. However, they also give the ball away criminally and have a tendency to become bogged down if scored upon early. A typically scrappy side that could give problems, but with their defensive setup this one might get ugly early in either game.
Rubin Kazan. What can I say about them? They gained every ounce of respect I could give after beating us in the Camp Nou last year in qualification and deserved it too. Like every Russian side there is, they just play defense and they play it well (they’ve given up 8 goals in 20 games in this Russian Premier League season). They gave Messi fits last year and hounded Xavi to the point of tears. But methinks that had more to do with a lack of knowledge about the opponent at the time, which may be blamed on the coaches, players, and the nature of today’s football with having to play internationals, league cup, Champions League, and league games in such short spans. This year, we know more about them and I’d expect we will see a win at home and a draw on the road in Siberia in September.
In the end, I think Barça takes 3 wins at home, a win at Copenhagen, and draws against Panathinaikos and Kazan away. Then again, this should be taken with a grain of salt as the showing against Hercules could have been the harbinger of something awful since we lacked pace at times, the passing was bad in the first half, and the defense got lost a few times. Or that could have just been one game and that stuff just happens sometimes, which is my contention. Areas for concern exist, but not to the extant that some are opining. With any team you have to take the good times with the bad, and unfortunately when you follow a team that rarely loses that means the backlash is always worse. Tuesday will tell more.
Group D: FC Barcelona, Rubin Kazan, Panathinaikos (Europa League), Copenhagen
Final: Chelsea over FC Barcelona, 3-2 (a.e.t.) (how’s that for an incredibly detailed prediction for an outcome that rests on roughly 37 other factors before we get there?)
Golden Boot: Messi, 10 goals
FC Barcelona Group Stage Schedule
Sept. 14 – Panathinaikos
Sept. 29 – at Rubin Kazan
Oct. 20 – FC Copenhagen
Nov. 2 – at FC Copenhagen
Nov. 24 – at Panathinaikos
Dec. 7 – Rubin Kazan
Dec. 17, 2010 – Round of 16 Draw, Monaco
March 18, 2011 – Final Round Draw, Monaco
Photo 1: Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe
Photo 2: Google Image
Photo 3: Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Europe