FC Barcelona’s failure to qualify for the Champions League knockout stage for the first time since 2003 is a culmination of years of bad decisions, outdated tactics and baffling transfers.
It has been almost three and a half years since Lionel Messi addressed fans for the first time as captain of the club, when he promised fans that he and his teammates would “…do will we can to bring that beautiful trophy back to Camp Nou”.
At this point, with the club dominating La Liga, having won seven of the previous ten league title, the feeling was that they would have won more Champions League titles with a few tactical tweaks and better luck however, they have continued to regress since then.
While the group stage exit from Europe’s premier club competition will hurt, they’ll have to dust themselves down for a Europa League campaign which must be seen as an opportunity to qualify for next year’s Champions League.
Barça’s current league position means they are unfancied to finish in the top four, especially with the likes of Real Madrid, Atléti, Sevilla, Real Betis and Real Sociedad all looking like stronger teams. Winning the Europa League looks more likely than finishing in the top four of La Liga, but who will be their main competition?
Already qualified for the knockout stage as group winners, West Ham are seen by many as contenders for the trophy, Tom Love, who provides Europa League tips for odds checker has the Hammers among the favourites, so they must be taken seriously. The Hammers are looking strong in both the Premier League and Europe this year with the likes of Declan Rice, Michail Antonio and Jared Bowen in fine form. Their lack of recent European pedigree means they may be overlooked, but the Irons will fancy their chances.
Despite struggling in Ligue 1, Lyon strolled to first place in their group, finishing 8 points above Scottish champions Rangers. While it can be argued their group wasn’t the strongest, with Sparta Prague and Brondby taking up the other two spots, Lyon’s unbeaten record of 5 wins and 1 draw deserves plaudits. They have a talented squad, with stars like Xherdan Shaqiri and Jerome Boateng supported by up-and-coming players like Lucas Paqueta, Rayan Cherki and Houssem Aouar, so they’re certainly one of the teams to watch.
Leverkusen are going strong in the Bundesliga and have so far managed to replicate this form in the Europa League. Despite losing their final group stage game to a late Ferencváros goal, they finished top of a group that many felt was one of the strongest in the competition, with Celtic and Real Betis providing stern challenges.
Their main men, forwards Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby have the speed and guile to trouble any defence, which will give them confidence that they can beat anyone on their day.
Led by La Masia product Cesc Fabregas, who many see as one of Barcelona’s biggest flops, Monaco are on the road to re-establishing themselves after the inevitable dip that came from selling their best players from their 2017 Ligue 1 triumph.
They finished top of a very strong group which included Real Sociedad and PSV Eindhoven, which will fill the young side with confidence going into the knockout stages. In Aurélien Tchouaméni they have one of Europe’s finest young midfield talents, while Dutch forward Myron Boadu is expected to be a future star, so they’ll believe they can trouble any team left in the competition.
Having ditched the “sign former world-class players, no matter how bad they are now” plan which held the club back over the previous 15 years, Galatasary finally looks like they are ready to make waves in Europe again.
While their squad still features recognisable names like Ryan Babel and Arda Turan, it is now much more balanced compared to when they were signing the likes of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder. They topped their group unbeaten ahead of Lazio and Marseille, two teams that were expected the reach the latter stages of the competition, so they mustn’t be taken lightly.
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