Teams: FC Barcelona, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, AS Roma, FC BATE Borisov
FC Barcelona (Spain)
Head Coach: Luis Enrique
Captain: Andres Iniesta
Ground: Camp Nou, Barcelona
Qualified: La Liga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1991-92, 2005-06, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Champions
Barcelona won La Liga last season by just 2 points over bitter rivals Real Madrid. The Catalans lost only four times for the season, and they conceded just 21 times. In the Champions League they came out on top, a 3-1 win over Juventus in Berlin enough to grant them a treble of league, cup and Champions League. The side was helped by a star-studded forward line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, who combined for 81 goals between them.
Barcelona have one of the best all-round teams in the world. Messi is the headline act, and he has been crowned world player of the year on multiple occasions. Neymar is also a star, and while Suarez may be a hated player for some of his actions on the pitch he is also very good. The three of them formed a lethal combination last season, and it was made especially hard for defences who had no idea what to do. Ivan Rakitic slotted in well to the midfield of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets last season, and Barca will hope that they can combine well this time around. The defence is very strong, with Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano a great combination in the centre. On the flanks, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have a habit of pushing forward and wreaking havoc.
The goalkeeping situation is not ideal, and while Marc-Andre ter Stegen was successful in the Champions League the defence was so strong he didn’t generally get much to deal with. Claudio Bravo is probably the stronger of the two keepers, although he may not be chosen in the side. The forward line is currently not functioning as it should be, and while they have won both games the victories were not particularly convincing. When Alba and Alves push forward it can create a space for wingers to tuck in behind, and this could be a very dangerous fault against players like Gervinho and Hakan Calhanoglu, who they will come up against in the group stage.
Star Player: Lionel Messi
Messi is arguably the best player in the world, and with 4 Ballon D’Or awards to his name Barcelona will be especially pleased that he cost them nothing in transfer fees. He is able to score frequently, netting 43 league goals last year. He is also the best in the forward line at creating chances, and they will hope that he can contribute in the assists column and on the scoresheet.
Key Player: Javier Mascherano
A veteran player with vast experience, Mascherano originally played in defensive midfield but has been converted into a centre back at Barca. He will need to bring his experience to the defence, and if he and Pique can combine well then Barcelona will be tough to beat. They will need him to cover for the counter-attack, something which made Barca look quite vulnerable last season.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Germany)
Manager: Roger Schmidt
Captain: Lars Bender
Ground: BayArena, Leverkusen
Qualified: Bundesliga, 4th (defeated SS Lazio in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (2001-02)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16
Leverkusen were only able to finish fourth in last season’s Bundesliga, although they were quite comfortably ahead of Augsburg in fifth. This meant a trip to the play-offs, where they faced Lazio. Keita scored in the first leg to give Lazio a one-goal advantage coming in to Leverkusen, but Lazio were blown away by Roger Schmidt’s side, goals to Hakan Calhanoglu, Admir Mehmedi and Karim Bellarabi enough to send them through.
Leverkusen have a very potent and dangerous attack. Son Heung-Min has departed for Tottenham Hotspur, but he has been replaced by Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. Hernandez is joined by Stefan Kiessling, Bellarabi, Mehmedi and Calhanoglu in an attack that will no doubt be a real danger, even against a defence of Barcelona’s calibre. Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer will form an effective partnership in the engine room, with players like Charles Aranguiz giving support. Wendell and Roberto Hilbert are fullbacks who can be very dangerous getting forward, and Jonathan Tah will combine with Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Omer Toprak to provide solidity in defence. Bernd Leno is one of Germany’s brightest young keepers, and not much will get past him.
In the first leg against Lazio the defence was repeatedly caught out on the counter-attack by Lazio, and this contributed to them losing the game. This kind of flaw could prove to have serious ramifications for the side, especially against a side like Barcelona or even Roma. The attack is strong, but was not working cohesively in the loss to Lazio, something that has to be fixed. The midfield of Kramer and Bender is solid, but in the case of injury there is a lack of depth in the squad, and this could be a worry. The only hiccup in the league so far was a 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, but Barcelona are at least at the same level as the German champions.
Star Player: Stefan Kiessling
Kiessling made his debut for Nuremberg in 2003, aged just 19, and moved to Leverkusen in 2006. He has scored the second most goals in the club’s history, and he has played 287 times for Bayer. His height allows him to get aerial balls, and despite a below-par season last time around he is a consistent scorer when in form, something that will be invaluable for Leverkusen.
Key Player: Christoph Kramer
Kramer is a very exciting young prospect for both Leverkusen and Germany, and he earned his fourth international cap in the World Cup final, a game which he started but was concussed early and took no further part in proceedings. He is undoubtedly a good midfielder, but he is relied on by Leverkusen and he needs to fulfil those lofty expectations if Leverkusen are to succeed.
AS Roma (Italy)
Head Coach: Rudi Garcia
Captain: Francesco Totti
Ground: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Qualified: Serie A, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1983-84)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
Roma gained automatic qualification to the Champions League for the second consecutive season, and it came with a little extra sweetness given that they edged out bitter rivals Lazio by a point to take out second place. They would have felt unlucky to miss out on the knockout stages of the Champions League, as Manchester City pulled off a remarkable comeback to edge them out by just 3 points with a last day win in Rome.
Roma have a strong attack, particularly down the flanks. Mohamed Salah, Iago Falque and Gervinho are all strong players, and Edin Dzeko adds valuable height to the attack. Francesco Totti is a legend of Rome, and his experience in over 20 years of service for Roma will be invaluable. Radja Nainggolan, Alessandro Florenzi and Daniele de Rossi are solid in the middle, and the latter has plenty of experience playing for Italy and Roma. Miralem Pjanic is a very good playmaker, and if he can provide plenty of chances for the forwards and national teammate Dzeko then Roma will do very well. Antonio Rudiger, Maicon, Lucas Digne and Kostas Manolas are strong in defence and Morgan de Sanctis and Wojciech Szczesny will be in tough competition for the keeper’s spot.
The side has talent, but the issues surrounding the transfer of Salah could prove a distraction. The affair is quite messy, and it is unclear what kind of consequences it could hold, even though the investigation centres around Chelsea. There are some issues surrounding the defence, and the loss of left-back Ashley Cole is big. Digne is a good young prospect, but he has not had much game time at PSG and his lack of experience could be a worry. The centre-back position is not particularly strong, with a number of competitors looking for a game but no real options stepping up. Defensive midfielder de Rossi was used there against Juventus, and that is a worry. The side is largely made up of loanees who have not played together, and this could create issues.
Star Player: Gervinho
Gervinho is an immensely talented player who can play on either wing, and has significantly bolstered Roma’s attack since his arrival from Arsenal in 2013. He is dangerous in front of goal, but his dribbling is also very good and he is a reliable creator of chances. He has improved his scoring in the past couple of years, and he should be a handful for all defences.
Key Player: Edin Dzeko
Dzeko has come into the side on loan from Manchester City, and he gives good height to the forward line, where he will provide a target for the wingers. The Bosnian international has not had the best time at City recently, where he has struggled to really contribute to the scoresheet. Roma will need him to retrieve his best form and be the target they are looking for.
FC BATE Borisov (Belarus)
Manager: Alyaksandr Yermakovich
Captain: Dzmitry Likhtarovich
Ground: Borisov Arena, Barysaw
Qualified: Belarusian Premier League, 1st (defeated Dundalk FC, Videoton FC and FK Partizan in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2008-09, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
BATE have had a stranglehold over the Belarusian league for some time now, and this year they are already well on their way to a tenth consecutive Belarusian title. They progressed to the group stage through qualifying, where they beat Dundalk and Videoton to go through to a play-off against Serbian champions Partizan. Mikhail Gordeichuk’s goal gave them the advantage, and a 2-1 loss in Belgrade was enough to send them through on away goals.
In Alexander Hleb the Belarusian champions have a quality player who has played for Arsenal and Barcelona, and has 69 caps for Belarus. The side is attacking, and Hleb is backed up in attacking midfield by the dangerous duo of Mikhail Gordeichuk and Ihar Stasevich. Vitali Rodionov has a habit of finding the back of the net, and he is a good player to have at centre forward. Down back, Filip Mladenovic, Dzyanis Palyakow, Nemanja Milunovic and Maksim Zhavnerchik are solid, and the midfield of Alyaksandr Valadzko, Ilya Aleksiyevich and Dzmitry Likhtarovich should be strong enough. By now the team has enough experience in Europe to be a contender and make the knockout rounds.
BATE have had issues in Europe in the past, and last season they were awful. Aside from a win at home against Athletic Bilbao, they lost their other 5 games without scoring, and they conceded at least 5 on three occasions. They lost 6-0 to Porto before 7-0 and 5-0 losses to Shakhtar. They finished off the group stage with a 3-0 loss to Porto and a 2-0 loss to Athletic. Looking to this year, Barcelona, Leverkusen and Roma are better teams than that, and it could be a long campaign if this starts happening again. Hleb may be a star, but he was relegated to the left wing instead of his preferred position, and this may cause even more issues. BATE will be determined to improve, but determination may not be enough.
Star Player: Alexander Hleb
He is not necessarily a big scorer, but Hleb was good enough to get in to the first team at Arsenal, and he has large amounts of experience. He is skilled as well, and during his time in Germany he was known for his skills with the ball. His experience will be important, but even at 34 he has the potential to be a great player for BATE.
Key Player: Syarhey Chernik
Chernik struggled in goal in last season’s Champions League, letting in 22 goals with some bloopers along the way, most notable being when he threw the ball directly to Yacine Brahimi, who ran on to score. Despite this, he only conceded 12 times in the Premier League, showing he is capable, but BATE need him to step up to deal with harder opponents.
Barcelona blitzed the Champions League last season, and I see no reason why it should be any different this time around. By the same token it is hard to see BATE do any better, even though they would struggle to do much worse. This leaves it down to Roma and Leverkusen, who are both strong and very evenly matched sides. I think, however, that Leverkusen have a slightly more solid side and should be favourites, but the difference is negligible.
Prediction: 1. Barcelona, 2. Bayer Leverkusen, 3. Roma, 4. BATE Borisov.