Evaluation of Champions League Group Winners – Part 2

Borussia Dortmund

The German champions confirmed in the group stages that they should be respected as serious favourites to win the competition. They have looked simply deadly, both at home and while visiting. Jurgen Klopp will know that anything short of a semi final appearance will be a underachievement for his side, and that makes them all the more dangerous.

Among all the other champions league groups that were drawn, there is little doubt that Group D was the group of death. With four champions and three from arguably the three strongest European leagues, as well as champions league savvy Ajax, there was little certainty about who would progress to the knockout stages. Real Madrid always looked the favourites to get out of the group, but with the other three teams all so strong, it was difficult to predict the final standings. For Dortmund to progress unbeaten is an achievement worthy of serious respect in the competition.

Celtic have one of the best fan bases in Europe….but then again, so do Dortmund. The Westfalenstadion is no easy place to visit, as Madrid, Ajax and City all found out. (Getty Images)

Dortmund are not a team that place  great importance on possession, or on sustaining possession. Somewhat surprisingly, the statistics show that neither are they a great passing team. In particular, their mid-range pass completion rate tended to be significantly lower than their opponents in the group stages. After the game in which they beat City 1-0 in Manchester, the average percentage of mid range passes completed by Dortmund throughout the six games was 68%. Accordingly, the average of all teams in this same category was 75%. Similarly, Dortmund’s overall pass completion rate was 65% compared to the tournament average of 71%. While these stats may initially suggest that Dortmund are a team which prefer to carry the ball into the attacking third, using the pace of players like Gotze and Reus, but neither is this true. In fact, their number of solo runs per game into the final third is also lower than the tournament average.

Instead, it is clear that Dortmund are a team that always look to create a goal scoring opportunity while in possession. Several of their goals have come from swift counter attacks, or incisive midfield and attacking moves. It is therefore, reasonable to assume that Klopp’s men simply look to create a chance each time they have the ball, and that they are not afraid to try to create immediate chances, even if it means giving up possession. Indeed, their passing statistic certainly supports this notion, and only twice in six group stage matches have they had more than 40% of the possession. This also points to Dortmund’s strength and resilience as a defensive unit.

Verdict

A clash between Celtic and Dortmund would immediately be deemed a nasty draw for Neil Lennon’s side. No doubt, some would write Celtic off right away. However, it will be interesting to see how Dortmund respond to a team like Celtic, given that so much of their attacking threat is based on catching teams out. In this tie, they will presumably have the majority of the possession, and that is something they are not used to, and perhaps for a good reason. On the other hand, Celtic will need to be on top of their defensive discipline if they are to keep Lewandowski, Reus, Blaszczykowski and Gotze (the list goes on) quiet.

Of all the teams which Celtic could face in the round of sixteen, this draw would represent one of the toughest. While Lennon has reveled in the shadows as an underdog, this may well be too much for the young Hoops to handle. In summary, a painfully tough draw which presents a small chance (but a chance nonetheless) of progression.

See: http://cricketsoccer.com/the-best-away-fans-in-europe/ for an opinion on both Dortmund and Celtic fans.

Juventus

After nine successive draws in European competition dating back to last campaign, Juventus looked unlikely to progress ahead of Chelsea of Shakhtar. However, solid performances in the ensuing three games saw the Italian champions move through to the last sixteen as top seed in their group.

It is well-known that Juventus are comfortable in their 3-5-2 formation; a system that has been perfected since Andrea Pirlo joined the team in 2011. Pirlo’s signing for Juventus following his Milan exit has spurred a rebirth in his current side, as well as the midfield maestro himself. Since this rebirth of sorts, they have looked the strongest Italian side since Mourinho’s Inter won the competition in 2010. As for Pirlo, he has not been in better form since winning the 2006 World Cup

Juventus returned to winning ways with a 2011-12 Serie A title

Juventus returned to winning ways with a 2011-12 Serie A title

But while Pirlo is undoubtedly the centerpiece of this Juve team, he is certainly not the only reason for their success, nor is he the sole reason that they are able to play so confidently in their 3-5-2 system. So let’s take a closer look at this formation:

  • Three center backs (Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini) who play flat, and compact, never sitting too wide or spread apart from on another. These three defenders are the biggest reason that the system is able to work so well.
  • Pirlo, the deepest lying midfield player, starts the attack and provides a place of security, should Juve need to play the ball back and start again
  • Two attack minded midfielders sit ahead of Pirlo and two wingbacks stay wide, and always look to join the attack
  • Juventus play with two strikers. In this system, those strikers are required to have a proper and effective partnership with one another

Verdict:

Antonio Conte’s men appear to be gaining momentum as the tournament goes on. They currently sit top of Serie A and look clear favourites to defend last year’s title. Celtic however, have historically done very well against Italian teams, and for that reason alone, this will be a good tie for them. In fact, Mikael Lustig openly stated that he wants to play Juventus in the next round, following Celtic’s win at home to Spartak Moscow.

Although Juve are very comfortable in their system, there are flaws in it. With three center backs, they surrender width in the defensive part of the field, particularly when they are attacking. With three at the back, it’s also difficult to decide who goes to pick up a false nine, or a striker that continues to drop off, as Hooper likes to do. Finally, as good as Andrea Pirlo is on the ball, he is not a great tackler and neither is he really a great last line of defense before the back three are exposed. These are all things which Neil Lennon will look at if these two sides are to go head to head in February.

Bayern Munich

After last year’s heartbreaking loss in the final to Chelsea, Bayern look just as strong as ever. Barcelona aside, they are currently at the very top of European football with no signs of dropping off anytime soon. For years now, they have effectively deployed a 4-2-3-1 system better than any side in Europe. They have added depth to the squad that took them to the final last year, which is a sign that they will settle for nothing less than victory in the competition.

Some of the notable summer signings that Bayern made this past year included striker Mario Mandzukic from Wolfsburg, the center back Dante from Monchengladbach, as well as picking up Claudio Pizarro and Javi Martinez. Strengthening their attacking options was important, as too much was left to Mario Gomez in the 2011-12 campaign, and although he was brilliant at times, he failed to deliver on the biggest stage in the final. Claudio Pizarro’s return to Bayern surely left many wondering if he still had much left in him. However, he has impressed so far, with a hat-trick against Lille and three other goals in ten appearances. Expensive Spaniard Javi Martinez has started every group stage game alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle. Clearly, Bayern meant to make a statement with these signings, and so far they have all proved to be worth while buys.

Pizarro (left) and Javi Martinez have been nice additions to Bayern's already formidable squad list.

Pizarro (left) and Javi Martinez have been nice additions to Bayern’s already formidable squad list.

While these new players enhance the danger that the German side pose, their main threat still comes from their attacking midfield positions. With a squad that includes Robben, Ribery, Muller and Kroos, they are spoiled for choice in this category. Kroos has been impressive as of late and has earned himself a starting spot as the central man in this midfield three. The other three are rotated in and out.

Looking at Bayern’s goals in the group stages, it is evident that the vast majority of them come from wide areas. They are excellent at delivering the ball, as well as cutting it back into the box. They possess the players with enough trickery and lethal finishing to give any defense trouble, and have defenders like Alaba and Lahm who are capable of getting forward and providing service. We cannot forget that they also possess one of, if not the best keeper in Europe at the moment. All of this spells trouble for any side who meet them in the round of sixteen.

Verdict

German legend Berti Vogts has recently said that Bayern have the strongest and deepest squad in all of Europe. He has a point. They are strong in all areas of the pitch, with countless attacking options and solid defensive ones. I believe that this is the most ominous of all the possible draws for Celtic. However, BATE Borisov’s 3-1 win against the Bavarian giants will provide inspiration to whoever plays them next, and the assurance that Bayern are susceptible to defeat.

Celtic will struggle to contain Bayern’s attacking midfielders, although Matthews and Izaguirre have the pace to prevent a certain number of crosses coming in. A deep lying midfielder (maybe even two) will need to be employed in this tie for Celtic to limit the influence of these midfielders, and while Beram Kayal is the obvious choice, Lennon may want to sacrifice Wanyama’s attacking panache so that he may play this position instead. Celtic will need to be clinical in possession and in front of goal, as they won’t see much of either.

Manchester United

Manchester United breezed through their first four games of the group, ensuring passage as group winners and effectively playing a second string team for their remaining two games. They look much sharper than they did this time last year, and with Wayne Rooney coming into form and Robin Van Persie able to steal games on his own, they are looking like formidable opponents in Europe.

It has become clear over the course of the season that United possess superb threats in wide areas. Valencia is one of the best out-and-out wingers in the Premier League, and Young, while more inconsistent, can be lethal on his day. Rafael’s development has made huge strides in the last 12 months and he no longer looks the defensive liability he once was. My analysis of Manchester United is not, however, based on statistics and tactics, but more on the scenario that would appear if Celtic were to draw them.

Sir Alex in argument with some recently crowned European champions during his time at Rangers

Sir Alex in argument with some recently crowned European champions during his time at Rangers

As far as Scottish v British club derbies go, this is about as good as they get. Sir Alex spent much of his playing career at Rangers, and took Aberdeen out of the shadows to win the SPL and the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup during his time as manager at the club. In that regard, there is a definite personal rivalry with Celtic that exists in the Scot. Of all the possible draws that could be made, this one is certainly one of the most high-profile. The chance of a ‘Battle of Britain’ is one that many people would love to see, and would bring great attention to both clubs, the managers, and the players.

Finally, while Ferguson has stated that he will not be buying in the January transfer window, he will be given a front row seat to watch Victor Wanyama play if these two teams get pulled out of the hat together. That will certainly be something that Lennon will be aware of.

Verdict

This truly would be a great tie for both clubs, the fans, and British football. There would surely be the element of a derby attached to the two games, and that would provide a favourable environment for the men in Hoops.

Shunsuke Nakamura provided some memorable heroics against Manchester United in the 2006/07 campaign

Shunsuke Nakamura provided some memorable heroics against Manchester United in the 2006/07 campaign

Looking at how the two teams stack up, it is obvious that Celtic will struggle to deal with the Rooney-Van Persie tandem, as does any team that plays them. In this regard, United are bound to score goals, which means Celtic will need to as well if they are to have a chance of progression. However, if Vidic struggles to maintain fitness, Samaras and Hooper could prove to be a menace for the United defense, and Ferdinand in particular. It could be setup from the beginning as two open, high tempo, exciting matches.

It is apparent that Celtic are really gunning for this matchup, with Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew, and Fraser Forster all stating that they want to play Manchester United in the round of sixteen. While Ferguson may relish a trip to his homeland and ex-rivals, he will be extremely wary of the Scottish side, and the dangers that the atmosphere and nature of the tie pose. Combining entertainment, chances of progression, and publicity, this is the best round of sixteen scenario from a Celtic perspective.

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