Michael Cox: Champions League betting preview
The Champions League gets underway this week, with sixteen matches spread across two days, and plenty of clashes between big sides. Here’s a preview of three interesting fixtures…
Dortmund v Arsenal
In truth, the Champions League group stage draw was somewhat underwhelming this season, particularly from an English perspective.
This week, for example, we’re being served up three England v Germany clashes, which are all rather familiar. Chelsea are playing Schalke for the second season running, while Dortmund versus Arsenal and Bayern versus Manchester City also happened last season – and two seasons before that too.
Of the three, it’s probably Dortmund against Arsenal which is most interesting, simply because both sides have a range of exciting new attackers, and Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger are deciding how to incorporate them.
Dortmund have lost Robert Lewandowski but signed pacey centre-forward Ciro Immobile, last season’s Serie A Capocannoniere, plus the even quicker wide forward Adrian Ramos. With Shinji Kagawa back at the club, Klopp has more tactical options than ever, and has been experimenting with formations. He could spring a tactical surprise this week, and attack an Arsenal defence which has looked nervous so far this season.
Wenger’s new attacking arrivals are Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez – different types of forward, but both quick, versatile and hard-working. In the weekend draw with Manchester City, Sanchez played wide with Welbeck upfront in a 4-3-3, but Wenger has indicated he could use them the other way around, too – Welbeck is more disciplined in wide areas, Sanchez more clinical in the box.
Both teams like to play open, attack-minded football, and the matches last year were both extremely tight, both won by the away side. This could be another cracker.
Ajax v PSG
This is a contrast from the aforementioned ‘repeats’ – amazingly, these two great clubs have never previously met.
One of the interesting things about this contest is the managerial match-up. Frank De Boer and Laurent Blanc were both highly intelligent international defenders, peaking in the late 1990s. They both enjoyed spells at Barcelona as a player, and both led their current side to the domestic title last season.
PSG are 3/4 favourites, but have started the season slowly. They’re unbeaten in Ligue 1, but three victories and two draws is an average run of form considering their dominance over the past couple of seasons.
Indeed, their record is quite straightforward so far – two victories at home, and three draws on their travels. PSG tend to be rather cautious away from home, which means they seem extremely short to triumph away in Amsterdam.
Blanc hasn’t deviated significantly from last season’s approach, although the more regular inclusions of Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura have made the side more exciting. Nevertheless, both are determined dribblers best on the counter-attack, which might hint at PSG’s approach this week.
If PSG’s start has been quiet, Ajax’s has been much more concerning. Two losses in the opening five matches, including a 3-1 home defeat by title rivals PSV, have prompted questions about the quality of the squad, which seems trapped between two cycles. Ajax are accustomed to losing top stars, but do they have the youngsters ready to step up?
Two talented attacking midfielders, Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone, drive the side forward, but it’s doubtful whether either are good enough on this stage, and the loss of holding midfielder Daley Blind is a huge blow.
This is a very important contest – with Barcelona surefire group winners, and APOEL unlikely to progress, the winner will take a big step towards qualification.
Monaco v Leverkusen
Two previous finalists meet in the south of France, and this could produce the best team performance of the week. Monaco have attracted plenty of attention over the past couple of years because of a plethora of expensive arrivals, but it’s Leverkusen who might provide more excitement.
Their 2-0 victory at Dortmund on the opening day of the campaign was a wonderful demonstration of energetic pressing and high-tempo attacking football, with the impact of new coach Roger Schmidt immediately obvious. Leverkusen could have scored many more, and their other results this season (3-2, 4-0, 4-2, 3-3) underline Schmidt’s commitment to attack.
Much of the Leverkusen side remains familiar, but the signing of number ten Hakan Calhanoglu from Hamburg seems a masterstroke – he’s a superb technical playmaker, and has collected four assists and scored two free-kicks in six matches. With Lars Bender returning to the side after injury, Leverkusen should be even stronger in midfield, and might be Bayern’s closest challengers this season in the Bundesliga. European success is probably beyond them, but they could win this group despite being seeded in pot four.
Monaco have made an atrocious start to their Ligue 1 campaign, having collected just four points from their first five matches, albeit against difficult opposition. Still, new coach Leonardo Jardim is struggling, while Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez haven’t really been replaced.
There is still quality in midfield. Jeremy Toulalan is one of the most underrated holding midfielders around, and his battle with Calhanoglu will be interesting, while Joao Mourinho provides the creativity and Geoffrey Kondogbia the mobility. However, the performances this season have been lacking in pace – against Leverkusen, they could be torn apart.
September 15th, 2014 by Michael Cox