Teams: FC Bayern Munich, Arsenal FC, Olympiacos FC, GNK Dinamo Zagreb
FC Bayern Munich (Germany)
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Captain: Philipp Lahm
Ground: Allianz Arena, Munich
Qualified: Bundesliga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76, 2000-01, 2012-13)
2014-15 Champions League: Semi-Finals
Bayern swept to a seventh league title in ten seasons by a comfortable margin, and they further asserted themselves as the superior side in Germany through their Champions League performance, where they were knocked out by Barcelona in the semis. They have made good progress over the summer transfer window, picking up Chilean superstar Arturo Vidal alongside Douglas Costa, and the side should be as strong as ever.
Bayern have had incredible success in the league, and Manuel Neuer is solid as a rock in goal. Douglas Costa joins Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, and Mario Gotze in attacking midfield, and Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski provide scoring options up front. Vidal will hope to provide compensation for the loss of Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, and Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez will also be able to combine well. Philipp Lahm, David Alaba and Juan Bernat are all very strong fullbacks, and they can contribute to the midfield and attack, and Lahm and Alaba can and have been used in the centre of midfield. Mehdi Benatia and Jerome Boateng are very strong in the centre of a solid defence.
Benatia is a very good player, but he has not yet proven himself at Bayern, and the loss of Dante to Wolfsburg will hurt, possibly more than they imagine. During their win over Leverkusen they used a three-man defence of Lahm, Alaba and Bernat, which does not seem particularly solid. Some of the best players in the team are getting older, and this is not great for the team. There is plenty of immediate depth, but if Bayern are forced to delve much deeper into their squad then they will struggle. After a couple of disappointing semi-final exits the pressure will be on Bayern and Guardiola to progress further, and this could be a burden upon the team.
Star Player: Manuel Neuer
Neuer’s performance in the World Cup affirmed his standing as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and in a team full of stars he is a cut above. He has been the best keeper in Germany for years, and he has been crowned German footballer of the year and best goalkeeper in the World Cup. With him in goal Bayern will be incredibly tough to defeat.
Key Player: Xabi Alonso
Alonso has vast experience playing for both Liverpool and Real Madrid, and now that Schweinsteiger has departed for Manchester he will be in charge of the midfield. Much of Bayern’s success could rest upon how they cover for the loss of the German captain, and Alonso’s performance is critical as a result.
Arsenal FC (England)
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Captain: Mikel Arteta
Ground: Emirates Stadium, London
Qualified: Premier League, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (2005-06)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16
Arsenal were solid last season without being extraordinary. They are showing signs of improvement, however, and a second consecutive FA Cup added to the silverware that Arsene Wenger has won with the club. After years of finishing fourth and needing to qualify for the Champions League they finished third for a second consecutive season, although in the Champions League they went out to Monaco on away goals.
Arsenal have a very strong and versatile attack which allows Wenger to use plenty of different combinations. Up front, Olivier Giroud is a taller option, while players like Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott add plenty of pace to the set-up. The midfield is strong as well, with Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and German World Cup winner Mesut Ozil all very good options. Down back, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny shore up the centre of defence, and there is good competition for a starting place on the flanks between Kieran Gibbs, Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Debuchy and Hector Bellerin. Petr Cech has come in from Chelsea and is still a great keeper, and he is backed up by David Ospina.
Arsenal have plenty of squad depth, but the side lacks a consistent set-up. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have been used almost interchangeably, and given how different the two players are this could create difficulties for the midfield when adjusting their delivery. With so many options all around the park Arsenal have only one area which has remained fairly solid in the defence. Gabriel Paulista is currently replacing an injured Mertesacker, and Bellerin seems to have upstaged Debuchy, but neither of these players has much Champions League experience and this is a worry. Coquelin and Arteta are not the strongest players in the centre of midfield, and although the former has played all five games this season he is not very experienced.
Star Player: Alexis Sanchez
Arsenal shelled out big money to bring in the talented Chilean from Barcelona, and in his first season at the Gunners he did not disappoint. In the league he managed 16 goals without playing as a centre forward, and he scored 25 times in all competitions. He has plenty of European experience from his time in Spain, and he could be brilliant this season.
Key Player: Mesut Ozil
Ozil burst onto the scene at the 2010 World Cup, and in 2013 Arsenal paid 42.5 million pounds to bring him in from Real Madrid. He will almost certainly be Arsenal’s main creator this season, although two assists in the first 5 matches is not brilliant. He has the potential to be a real danger, but he has previously been shut off by tight man-marking, and he will need to get around this.
Olympiacos FC (Greece)
Manager: Marco Silva
Captain: Giannis Maniatis
Ground: Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus
Qualified: Superleague Greece, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (1998-99)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
Olympiacos swept comfortably to their fifth consecutive league title, defeating Panathinaikos by 12 points and further asserting their stranglehold upon Greek football. They were drawn into a tough Champions League group, and despite winning all of their home games their poor form away from home eventually cost them a spot in the last 16. They did go through to the Europa League, but they lost to Ajax in the round of 32 after losses home and away.
With Brown Ideye coming in from West Brom the attack is as strong as ever, and the Nigerian should combine well with Jimmy Durmaz and Alejandro Dominguez. Dominguez was dominant in the Greek league last season, netting 15 times and leading the league with 11 assists. Alfred Finnbogason, Felipe Pardo, Pajtim Kasami, Alan Pulido and David Fuster are also capable of finding the net, and there should be no shortage of goals. Giannis Maniatis, Luka Milivojevic and Esteban Cambiasso shore up the midfield, and the defence is strong, only letting in 23 goals last season. Roberto is solid in goal, and his back four of Omar Elabdellaoui, Manuel da Costa, Dimitris Siovas and Arthur Masuaku should ensure he doesn’t have too much to deal with.
Olympiacos are not facing much tough competition, and last season 3 of the 18 sides suffered serious financial troubles and were simply no match for Olympiacos. This lack of real competition could mean that all but a select few players are ready for the rigours of playing against Bayern and Arsenal, two of the biggest clubs in the world. Maniatis is injured and may miss a large part of the group stage, and some questions remain about personnel. Siovas is more a converted midfielder than centre back, and while they win most of the time while at home their performances away could well cost them. Last season they lost all their games away, and a repeat of this would almost certainly rule out any prospect of progressing.
Star Player: Esteban Cambiasso
Cambiasso has moved around a bit over the past couple of years after leaving Internazionale, where he won 5 Serie A titles and the Champions League. He has great experience, and he has played 94 European matches for Inter and Real Madrid. He brings this experience to the table for Olympiacos, and will no doubt play a key role with the injury to Maniatis.
Key Player: Alejandro Dominguez
Dominguez scored 15 goals and assisted 11 last season, and he will slot into Marco Silva’s side as a traditional number 10, most likely playing in behind Ideye. It will be interesting to see how he can provide for Ideye and the other forwards, and he has a heavy burden on his shoulders as the main creator. If he can deliver then Olympiacos will do much better in a tough group.
GNK Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Manager: Zoran Mamic
Captain: Domagoj Antolic
Ground: Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb
Qualified: Prva HNL, 1st (defeated CS Fola Esch, Molde FK and KF Skenderbeu Korce in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (1998-99, 1999-2000, 2011-12, 2012-13)
2014-15 Champions League: Third Qualifying Round
Dinamo breezed through to their tenth consecutive Prva HNL title without losing once, and so they progressed to the qualifying, where they beat Fola Esch. They went on to play Molde in the third qualifying round, where they edged out their opposition on away goals, and they progressed to play Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce. Josip Pivaric’s 93rd minute winner gave them an edge for the return leg at home in Zagreb, and a 4-1 win ensured qualification.
In El Arbi Hillel Soudani the Croatian champions have a player who can consistently find the back of the net, and he scored three goals in the play-offs against Skenderbeu, with one the equaliser in the first-leg win in Albania. Marko Rog, Marko Pjaca and Angelo Henriquez regularly found the net, and Dinamo will hope that Chilean striker Junior Fernandes and Armin Hodzic can chip in as well. Ivo Pinto, Leonardo Sigali, Jeremy Taravel and Josip Pivaric make up a solid back four, and former Portuguese number 1 Eduardo starts in goal. Paulo Machado, Domagoj Antolic, Arijan Ademi and Goncalo are all options in the centre of the park.
As evidenced by their ten straight league titles, Dinamo do not come up against very strict competition in Croatia. In the past they have failed consistently to make the step-up to the Champions League, and there is no real difference in the side this time around, apart from the loss of striker Duje Cop to Malaga. Henriquez and Fernandes may be players who have played at Europe’s biggest clubs, but neither was able to break into the first team, and they can’t compete with teams like Bayern and Arsenal. They are trying to improve every time they play in the Champions League, but improvement is not happening and they failed to qualify for the group stage in 2013 and in 2014.
Star Player: El Arbi Hillel Soudani
Soudani is a winger who scores once every two games for Dinamo and Algeria. He has had experience playing against the best, and he won the Taca de Portugal with Vitoria de Guimaraes, scoring an equaliser in the final against Benfica. He has become a regular at Dinamo, and if he can keep popping up on the scoresheet at timely moments then he could make a real impact.
Key Player: Paulo Machado
Machado came to the club in 2014 after two successful seasons with Champions League rivals Olympiacos, and his experience could prove helpful. He will be responsible for shoring up the midfield, but Dinamo will also look for him to provide chances for the forwards. It will be crucial to Dinamo’s success for him to manage both, but it will be tough.
Dinamo will almost certainly struggle, and it is difficult to see Bayern and Arsenal failing to progress to the knockout stages. Arsenal are good, but Bayern just have too much star power and should finish first. Olympiacos are unlikely to score a spot in the last 16, but they are good at home and could sneak a couple of wins against the top sides.
Prediction: 1. Bayern Munich, 2. Arsenal, 3. Olympiacos, 4. Dinamo Zagreb.