Champions League Matchday One will offer clues to what's ahead
The Champions League gets underway this week and it's notable that the top six sides tipped to win it all have new coaches in charge. That might make it a little bit harder to predict what might happen, especially as some of the groups, such as Group A and Group F, may be harder to negotiate than the top seeds might have hoped. Going into Matchday One, here are some questions that may be answered:
Will David Moyes pass his first test?
José Mourinho may be pretending to be the "Happy One" at Chelsea but it's clear that he has decided to target Manchester United in the early part of the season. Why else would he so publicly try to sign Wayne Rooney if not to destabilize the Premier League champion, or refer to new coach David Moyes as "a fish out of water" when it comes to the Champions League? It's true that Moyes has coached only two games in the competition before -- in the 2005-06 qualifying playoff against eventual finalist Villarreal -- and United's draw is much tougher than it could have been.
Don't be fooled by Shakhtar Donetsk's having sold Fernandinho, Henrikh Mkhtiryan and Willian: they have been ably replaced by Bernard, Fred and Fernando. Real Sociedad could be the new hipster team, with a group of young players committed to attacking football led by the youngest coach in the competition, Jagoba Arrasate. And then there is United's opponent on Wednesday: the dangerous Leverkusen. Coached by former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia, Leverkusen was the only Bundesliga team to beat Bayern Munich last season, and will provide a tough test on Moyes' European debut at Old Trafford. An easy group? I wouldn't be so sure.
Will Barcelona change its philosophy?
It seems strange that Barcelona and Ajax, two of the most famous clubs of the modern era, have never played in a competitive match before. That will change on Wednesday night when the focus, for once, will be less on the players than on Johan Cruyff, former player and coach of both sides and the common thread between the two mutual philosophies of Total Football and the 4-3-3 system that both clubs play throughout all age groups.
Cruyff has said he will support Ajax in the game, as he is currently publicly bickering with Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, who dared withdraw his title as the club's honorary president. Then again, his relationship with Ajax, whom he left after a boardroom battle in 2011, is hardly hunky-dory. At least a relationship between the clubs still exists: Ajax coach Frank de Boer and sports director Marc Overmars both played for Barcelona while the Catalan side has loaned out Bojan Krkic to Ajax. Between them, the clubs have shared 19 players and four coaches.
The sub-plot at Barcelona this season is that we might see a different team emerge, as its players have spoken of the changes that new coach Tata Martino is trying to bring. "An ability to adapt is key to success," said Dani Alves. "He wants us to be more direct, to attack rapidly and to surprise the opponent," added Javer Mascherano.
The most interesting comment came from Gerard Pique, who said that Martino's introduction as a figure from outside Barcelona has been an additional benefit. "We played the last few years with homegrown coaches, first Pep and then Tito, and maybe we ended up exasperating our style of play to the extent that we found ourselves slaves to that system, that style," Pique told Gazzetta dello Sport. We may not see the changes as soon as this week, but look out for them as the season progresses.
Is Flamini the leader Arsenal craves?
It's not quite the prodigal son returning, but it will be interesting to note the reaction from Marseille's fanatical supporters to Mathieu Flamini, the Arsenal midfielder who grew up at the French club before leaving in acrimonious circumstances ten years ago. Flamini owes a debt to Jean-Marc Bosman (who incidentally last week had his appeal of a six-month sentence for domestic assault heard; the final judgment will be made on October 7), as he has left Arsenal, and AC Milan, after letting his contract run down. "Most of the time, players prefer security to risk and when you sign a contract and you leave in the middle, the risk is minimal," he explained last week. "But having the ability to control your own destiny is something very important. And for big things, it is often necessary to take risks." His importance to the side should not be underestimated: He played in every match when Arsenal made its way to the 2006 Champions League final and his on-pitch leadership was noted on his (second) debut in this month's win over Tottenham.
How good is Pavel Vrba?
The coach of Viktoria Plzen is making quite a name for himself, despite losing his first ever match in charge 7-0, when he was caretaker-coach of Banik Ostrava. In his first full season at Plzen, in 2010, it won the Czech Cup; the league followed the next season and that summer, it won all eight Champions League qualifiers to become the first Czech team from outside Prague to make the group stages. Last season the progression continued: Plzen beat Atletico Madrid (1-0) and Napoli (3-0) in the Europa League. "We showed last season that we could play good football against teams that are much more famous in Europe than we are," he told SI.com this week.
"We can't play open football against these huge teams but we would like to match them tactically and I hope we can surprise them too. Obviously, we all know that Manchester City and Bayern are clubs with different possibilities to ours. I know we are seen as the club which should finish bottom but I believe we can earn some points and I would be happy if we can continue in European competition after the winter break." Plzen is unlikely to finish in the top two, but it might just give City a headache on Tuesday night.