Every season of the Champions League has a Group of Death. This year, Group F takes that mantle. Of the four teams involved, it is safe to assume which one’s journey finishes in December. Barcelona, Dortmund and Inter all have talent amongst their squads and could understandably take up any combination of the group’s final standing. Barcelona have Messi but no real structure. Dortmund have structure but are lacking in defence. Inter have the defence but maybe not the right kind. One thing is for sure, Slavia Prague are going to have an eventful few months.
Having the greatest player in the world on your team is an advantage to say the least. The problem, though, is that once they are gone, your team begins to lack an identity and structure. What Barcelona have experienced in their first few games in La Liga this season is a glimpse of what life will be like without Lionel Messi. 4 points in 3 games is not a Barcelona haul. It will, of course, be fine but is fine really good enough? For most, the answer is no. Without him on the pitch, Ernesto Valverde struggles to get the players at his disposal to gel. But this is something that Barca fans will have to get used to. Mega-transfers such as Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Greizmann and the potential return of Neymar can really only paper over the cracks for so long before it becomes apparent that Messi is reaching the end of his career. His decline has already begun but due to the phenomenal heights he reached, he has quite a way to go before not being the first name on the team-sheet… if such a thing would ever happen. He has adapted his game as he has gotten older. Less explosive, he takes his time around the pitch, usually reserving the first few minutes to fully absorb the game, waiting for the moment to strike. He is one of the few instances where it could be argued that the player is bigger than the club. The problem, though, is that he is one man and, talented though he may be, can only do so much.
After going into their second-leg of the semi-final fixture with a 3 goal advantage, Barcelona demonstrated that relying solely on one individual to produce the moments of magic can work some of the time but doing it all of the time is asking for trouble. Two goals from him in the first leg (including one spectacular free-kick) and one from former Liverpool forward Luis Suárez seemed to be enough. Without Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, Barcelona’s road to the final was wide open. But against a team that didn’t back down regardless of the aggregate score, Barcelona were overrun. Barcelona are managed by someone who has lost a chunk of the fans and does not seem to have much up his sleeve to win them back. Possession for possession’s sake, a lack of creativity, no real speed in movement or hunger… is it really any wonder why they lost to Liverpool? Even without Firmino and Salah, Liverpool still have every one of those facets in abundance.
Barcelona have been a massive threat in the Champions League for years — and will continue to be so as, even without Messi, they still have World Class outfield players in Greizmann, Dembélé, Arthur and Frenkie de Jong while having Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in goal. But with core players such as Suárez, Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and even Messi himself, on the downturn, one has to wonder how much longer this threat will remain.
Every year seems to be the same story for Dortmund. Eager, energetic, invested and, finally, second. Last year was shaping up to be the year it finally happened. Until the latter stages of last season, they looked set to finally stop Bayern Munich from winning a seventh successive Bundesliga title. AFter giving up a 9 point deficit and being beaten 5:0 by the challengers, Bayern regained top spot and did not give it up. The dream ended emphatically at the Allianz Arena, as it had done for three seasons prior. Finishing above Bayern has become Dortmund’s white whale and, although only 3 games in, it is unlikely to be caught this year, either.
With an attack masterminded by Marco Reus, he is accompanied by Paco Alcácer up top and English prodigy Jadon Sancho. Not shy of attacking options already, Dortmund’s transfer activity was swift and deliberate. Attacking midfielders Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard have joined and introduced versatility and dynamism while Mats Hummels has added experience and leadership in defence, something which was evidently an issue in their 5:0 loss against Bayern.
Yet to keep a clean sheet, Dortmund’s attack overshadows the still very prominent issues in defence. Within a minute of their Bundesliga campaign starting this year, they were trailing to Augsburg. After scoring 5 goals in retaliation, the game was light work for them. The following week, Dortmund conceded first again, this time to Köln but, again, worked back the victory with three goals in the second half. In match day 3, though, they conceded first but could not bring back a victory. This time, the newly promoted Union Berlin continued to attack while other teams would crumble from Dortmund’s pressure. Union Berlin won 3–1. These opponents have, so far, not been as intimidating as Barcelona or Inter Milan. With regular goal scorers leading the line for both teams, Dortmund’s defence are in for a rude awakening. In all reality, it remains to be seen whether or not Dortmund will be able to avoid conceding against Slavia Prague.
Considered by many to have had a monumental impact on the Premier League, Antonio Conte joined Chelsea and, in the span of a few weeks, forced an Italian twist on nearly every team in England. An insistence on playing 3 at the back, what Conte has on his hands at Inter Milan is a group of players that will quickly be giving more than they have ever given for any manager before them. Having previously discussed Atlético Madrid and Diego Simeone’s ability to inspire performances on sheer passion alone, Conte offers the same but with a greater balance of attack and defence. Simeone is to 4–4–2 what Conte is to 3–5–2. He used it at Juventus, in his second year with Chelsea and continues to use it at Inter.
Conte was rumoured to be deeply upset with Massimo Allegri reaching a Champions League final with Juventus while the best he could manage was a quarter-final exit to Bayern Munich. This is an exciting time for Italian football; it is easy to imagine neutral fans cheering for the concept of another league to compete with the big bucks of Premier League and La Liga.What made Conte such a revelation in England was his defiance. Having started with a typical 4 man defence with a holding midfielder ahead — presumably because ‘that’s how English teams play’ — he adopted a 3–4–3 which became vogue for the entire league. He proved the doubters wrong who had inferred that you could not win the league with a 3-man defence. Conte’s challenge for this season is similar but not for Serie A — 3-at-the-back has been fashionable for Italian teams for years. Instead, Antonio Conte will be looking to demonstrate that you can win the Champions League while playing 3-at-the-back. Failing that, he could return to his Bari days and bring 4–2–4 to prominence again.
What sympathetic messages can be said for Slavia Prague that haven’t already been said? “Ouch”, is the only one that comes to mind. This is the Group of Death and it is not even close. You have to feel for Prague. Their first group stage appearance in the Champions League since 2007 after years of falling at the last hurdle and they are drawn into a group with three teams that would all expected to rip them apart. Some solace can be found in a prosperous domestic campaign where they remain undefeated in 8 games but it is safe to assume that their Champions League season will not follow suit. A shame, no doubt, but an opportunity that these players can simply go out and enjoy. Ultimately, all you can do is laugh.