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Football Insights – Champions League, Europa League

Football Insights – Champions League, Europa League

Europe’s elite get back down to business this week with both the Champions League and Europa League taking centre stage. Genting Casino ambassador and European football expert Guillem Balague gives his exclusive insights ahead of the action and you can also watch Guillem preview both Friday and Saturday’s Champions League last 16 second leg games.




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Champions League

Do you think Manchester City will finish the job at the Etihad and progress past Real Madrid? 

I think Manchester City can move past Real Madrid to the next stages of the Champions League. It's funny how every team will look back at how they were [before the restart] and if things had gone the normal way then the consequences would’ve been down to the work that they had put in to that point. 

But the break has meant that everyone is starting everything from scratch.  In the case of Real Madrid, they can count on Marco Asensio and Eden Hazard, who wouldn't have been available otherwise. Asensio was missed, as he's more than a leader, more than just a centre back. 

Real Madrid boast the meanest defence in Europe, they have only conceded 25 or 26 goals in all competitions. With 10 victories out of the last 11 games, it suggests they decided to aim to win games and it really worked for them. 

However, on Friday they will find a fresh Manchester City that are revitalised after the break. They have well be missing Sergio Aguero, but I've got the impression that Pep Guardiola has got more than one plan. 

Obviously, with the absence of Sergio Ramos, it balances out the absence of Aguero, but I believe that City can control games and counter attack. Ultimately, I think Manchester City are a better team than Real Madrid and that is why they will progress. 


If City progress and go on to meet Juventus, does that represent a tougher test than Real Madrid? How motivated would Cristiano Ronaldo be to thwart City's quest for a first Champions League? 

Assuming Juventus get there, I think they are a side who would be better next season. They have still got to learn to play the Sarri way and to find a more dynamic midfield. Juventus have still got to find a way to recover the ball in the way that Sarri likes. 

Juventus are trying to find a solid team and what they've done is to try and adopt a more industrial style. They create, create, create and then something happens, but they defend poorly. The end of the Serie A season suggests that they are more vulnerable than then I've seen them in a long time. 

The thing with Manchester City is that they need everything to work. The whole team needs to work, this is not just a team that Kevin de Bruyne can come into and win a game on his own, they need everybody else on form.

From that point of view, Pep is taking a longer route to success and a route that guarantees you success in the longer term doesn't depend just on one player, but it depends on your way of playing. The counter of that is that it just requires everything to click and if it does, I don't think there's better team in Europe but I think they’re better over two legs. If everything goes their way Manchester City can beat Juventus.


Juventus take on Lyon on 7th August, looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg. Juventus last won the Champions League in 1996 – surely with the talent that has passed through the club that is a massive underachievement? 

There’s no doubt Juventus have had a massive underachievement. The way they looked into the market when they signed Cristiano Ronaldo and when they decided to get a manager like Sarri, suggests that they haven’t been happy.

Not winning titles is one thing but in Europe, it is a reminder that you cannot ask managers, or teams to win the Champions League as a measure of success as it is such a difficult competition to win. 

You have to measure them by how well they do in the long run and in the long domestic competitions. We're talking about a very long time for a team that that have gone from a standard that is recognizable and players that fits that style. 

They added Cristiano to that but still haven't managed to take the extra step to get to the final. I think the fans should demand that Juventus at least get to the final on a regular occurrence. There have been three times in the last six or seven years that they haven't taken the last step to winning the trophy and that will be a major  disappointment. 


A potential quarter final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona is a mouth-watering prospect. Who would you give the edge in this tie and why? Are they two clubs whose European pedigrees are heading in opposite directions given the depth of Bayern's squad? 

Barcelona is a team that needs recycling, Bayern are my favourites to win. Barcelona rely too much on Messi. Messi can win the games on his own, like he showed last season against Liverpool but they can’t continue to rely on him in this way.  

The Barcelona squad is currently a bit confused about what they have to do and you currently have a situation where the players don't really trust the manager. The manager should be able to convince the players of the route to go and a style to play. Currently, Barcelona has a very predictable brand of football. 

With Bayern Munich, even though it's been a while since they last played, they’ve still got everything they require. They have a very good defence and one of the best goal scorers in Europe in Robert Lewandoski. Their midfield recovers the ball well and moves it around quickly. For me they are one of the top sides in Europe and one of my favourites to win the competition, well ahead of anything Barcelona can offer right now.


Having knocked out European Champions Liverpool and having drawn Leipzig in the quarter-finals, will Simeone and Atletico Madrid start to believe this could be their year?

Atletico Madrid will be thinking that they are three games away from winning the Champions League and in football, often a positive state of mind is critical. This is not just a team that will be happy getting to the final, they are now desperate to win something it having missed out twice in the final in recent years. 

They think that they deserve it now after so much unfairness, they deserve absolute success and it’s been, without a doubt, the best era of football for Atletico. This is why they have punched above their weight. It is also a crucial time, because they are the team that has been hit the hardest in the crisis in Spain, which means that they're going to have to sell players, which means they will be a weaker team next season. 

With that in mind, this seems like a historical opportunity. They have found new ways of attacking and defending and they’ve done it alongside the team progressing. As the season progressed they got better and better at defending and in attack they always have Marcos Llorente and Diego Costa challenging for the same place. That competition for places within a small squad has always been critical for Simeone.  

They have alternatives in midfield too and currently Atletico Madrid are probably in their best shape of the season. Many people considered this a season of transition as they moved on a lot of the old guard and brought in fresh blood like Joao Felix, Kieran Trippier and Mario Hermoso and overall they are a better team now. I see Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atalanta and Manchester City as the four favourites to win the Champions League. 


How impressive is Atalanta's progress through the competition? Do you give them any chance of progressing past PSG and making the semi-finals? 

Atalanta is the fourth team that surprises us as competitors to lift the trophy. Three or four years later we’ll probably look back and realise they got so far because of all the quality players they had in 2020 and the style of play that they adopted. We will also see which players go onto bigger things and we'll understand how good they are.

With Josip Ilcic, I love it's the what he does, on the right-hand side using his left foot. The quality they've got is not just about the players, it’s that they have a unique style that is designed to outscore the opposition. 

If you look closely at Serie A, the style of the league is changing. This has been the best goal scoring season in Serie A for a long, long time. As a league, Serie A has outscored La Liga, Bundesliga and the Premier League, every team is  playing in a different way to what you would traditionally expect. 

It’s a change that has been happening for a while now and Atalanta are the best representative of that and they’re wonderful to watch. They are on the side of the draw where anything can happen and I can see them in the final.


Outside of the usual suspects, who would you say is capable of further surprises and gate-crashing the latter stages? 

PSG must be mentioned as a candidate because of the of the quality of players and the variation of the football. There’s also the fact that the French league stopped and that Mbappe is going to be missing in their next game. That said, it is a cup competition where anything can happen and that is especially true as the quarter finals and beyond will be one-off games.  

If everything clicks for PSG then they are wonderful to watch and they are capable of beating anybody. But I feel they are a little bit short when it comes to mentality and I feel this could be as a result of real competition in the French League, plus they won’t have played as much as other sides given how early the French season was curtailed. 


Ahead of the Champions League returning, who are you tipping to go all the way and lift the trophy in Lisbon on 23rd August? 

I am predicting Manchester City vs. Atalanta in the final and I think it would be wonderful to watch for any football fan. 

It would mark the last game of David Silva’s career and after a season of discontent domestically, it would show City have resolve and have found a way to be successful once again. 

It would be a great title for the club to win. I just hope that that Pep Guardiola wins the Champions League so his critics can find another stick to hit him with.




Europa League

The Europa League field looks really open – who would you tip as the favourites for the tournament as it resumes?

Manchester United and Wolves have an advantage over the other teams, as they’ve had a competitive end to their seasons and this works in their favour. 

They’ve played games every three days and they had to put out a very competitive 11 which means they raised the level of their play. I think this puts them as favourites in their upcoming games. As it’s a strong competition, I’d put them as favourites alongside Inter Milan.

Inter Milan have dropped off dramatically at a time when they were fighting for the league and the main reason for that is they haven't got a deep squad. But they certainly have a core of 13 or 14 players that that will be individually some of the best players around. 

Lukaku does play exceptionally, not only scoring goals but holding the ball up and more than that he’s developing his game at a time where the lack of funds and the lack of quality throughout Inter has affected them.

Sevilla will be another team for me – Wolves, Sevilla and Manchester United will be ahead of everybody else. Sevilla will have a difficult game against Roma but they so managed to defend so well. 

Sevilla have an ability to control games and they've got different layers to them, so if it doesn't work one way they can go another. Perhaps the lack of goals of has affected them but they ended up with the same points as Atletico Madrid who on paper have a much better squad. Seville are a very competitive team and I'm very happy for Lopetegui that he has been able to show his quality as a manager after his issues at Real Madrid. 


With Manchester United, Sevilla and Inter Milan all set for Champions League football, how big an opportunity does this represent for a club like Wolves to win a European trophy and qualify for Europe's premier competition in the process?

From speaking to the coaching staff at Wolves, they know their limitations and that they can’t compete at Champions League level.  But now they are in the Europa League as a knockout cup competition, anything is possible. Knowing the culture at Wolves, they would love to face the biggest names and test themselves - they have absolutely nothing to lose going into the final stages of the Europa League.  

I don't think their plan is to win the competition and make sure they’re in Europe next season, because that’s not how they started the season and the budget is not about that, but it's a test for everyone.

I think that Nuno is creeping up to that elite level of managers that he, no doubt, belongs in. He’s doing this with a side that two years ago were in the Championship, so well done him, but I think he knows that nobody could realistically demand a title from him just yet. 

But this is an opportunity this year and anything can happen.


How impressed have you been with how Wolves have adapted to European competition?

I saw Wolves play against Espanyol and Espanyol are a weak team but Wolves were very efficient, solid in both boxes and most importantly – they scored goals and they do so in different ways. Wolves are a team that maintains a level of physicality, dynamism and intensity for 90 minutes, and they're capable of doing it, plus, they score goals. 

Wolves are punching above their weight I think, the plan was always to maintain themselves in the Premier League and now they find themselves fighting for the Europa League. 

They should be fighting with Leicester, Everton and teams like that, they shouldn’t really be in the Europa League, but they have been. That’s a credit to everyone at the club, from Nuno, to the way they chose the players, identified the talent and how they play the game.  

Take Adama Traore, he was a fast player but he’s transformed himself as a player under the stewardship of Nuno and now he’s a world class talent. Wolves are capable of helping players do this and I think that is their recent model – get players, develop them and sell them on.


Who would you tip as the dark horses to surprise people and progress to the latter stages of the tournament? 

I wish Getafe could be a dark horse, but they have struggled since the break, it has really affected them. Roma have qualified and with Edin Dzecko, they’re like a new team. He looks younger than he is but he’s a leader and he leads the side. With a manager that has curated them to play good football, even if inconsistent, they really never had a chance of making it into the top four but they’ve got the capability and the talent to surprise many in the Europa League. Nicolo Zaniolo will have a chance, having just recovered from injury, and perhaps the promising Italian can have the opportunity to establish himself.


Is the clash between previous winners Sevilla and Roma the tie of the round?

Sevilla and Roma aren’t too different – they’re very solid, they attack on the wings and they’ve got quality in both boxes. Seville have Lucas Ocampos, Jesus Navas and Diego Carlos which could set them ahead of Roma but Roma have become a very solid team and very, very competitive team together and they don't concede many chances. There won’t be many goals in the game but when there is a goal, it will depend on the little details as to who can get ahead. It will be an interesting game to watch.

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