Champions League is now fully European
Spanish and English clubs losing stranglehold on Champions League
Over the past few years, clubs from England and Spain have had a stranglehold over the Champions League.
Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid and of course Barcelona are four of the biggest clubs in football and it is unsurprising that seven out of the last ten Champions League finalists have been from either England or Spain.
The only exceptions are Bayern Munich from Germany and Inter from Italy.
All too often, the last four is dominated by teams from these two nations, but now, we may finally be turning a corner.
This year’s first knockout stage sees a collection of teams, each with their own agenda.
Following last season’s final defeat to Chelsea, it seems Bayern Munich are anxious to go one better. Devastating in the Bundesliga at the moment, Bayern are formidable going forward and extremely solid at the back. Drawn against English side Arsenal, the Germans will be confident of their chances against the faltering Gunners.
Summer signing Mario Mandzukic has been in sensational form this season, notching up an impressive 12 league goals.
At the back, Bayern have been solid, conceding just seven goals in their opening 19 games, thanks largely to Manuel Neuer in goal and new signing Dante from Borussia Monchengladbach.
Coach Jupp Heynckes is leaving this summer and he will be determined to finish on a high - the team from Munich are certainly dangerous opposition.
Compatriots Borussia Dortmund have been arguably the most impressive team in the Champions League so far this season.
Drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, the German champions were predicted a difficult battle for second and probable Europa League qualification.
This was far from the case, as Dortmund battered Manchester City at the Etihad, only to be denied by a truly world-class performance from Joe Hart, and countered Real Madrid superbly in Germany to finish top of their group.
The likes of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski were dangerous last term, but the addition of Marco Reus seems to have given Jurgen Klopp’s side the spark they needed in Europe.
They have been given a potentially tricky tie against Shakhtar Donetsk but will be quietly confident of their chances this year.
Juventus are another team firmly on the rise at the minute. Like Dortmund, they took their division by storm last season and produced two excellent performances against European champions Chelsea in this season’s group stage.
Orchestrated by Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, Juventus are once again a real threat in Europe and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them reach the latter stages of the competition.
This brings us onto the smaller teams left in this year’s knockout stage but for some reason they seem far more formidable than previous years.
There is no easy draw with each opponent presenting a tricky match, exactly as the Champions League should be.
Turkish giants Galatasary face off against German side Schalke with each team boasting some impressive firepower.
Schalke, meanwhile, possess the deadly Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and the frighteningly talented 19-year-old Julian Draxler.
Juventus’ opponents are Celtic, who performed heroically against Barcelona in the group stages, losing late on in Spain before recording a famous victory at Parkhead, and Neil Lennon's side have shocked many with their grit and determination.
Young Kenyan Victor Wanyama was the stand-out player for the Bhoys in the group stages, leading to many of Europe's elite enquiring about him.
Shakhtar Donetsk are never easy to beat at home and their Brazilian flair will always make them a dangerous opponent if taken lightly, as Chelsea found out earlier this season.
AC Milan are in a period of transition, but their new squad will still provide a stern test for Barcelona, especially with new £19 million signing Mario Balotelli.
Valencia are slowly starting to regroup following key sales over the last few years.
The Spanish side face Qatari backed PSG, who have one of the more expensive sides in the competition and in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they have a player capable of winning the tournament on his own if he wants to.
The mercurial Swede is playing in front of a strong starting XI that includes new signing David Beckham and if they can stay solid away from France they could be a real handful.
2004 Champions Porto have managed to keep hold of star players Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez, and in Portugal they’ll fancy themselves against anybody.
They will play surprise package Malaga who, after severe financial problems, lost a number of key players over the summer.
One player not to leave was attacking midfielder Isco. The diminutive playmaker has been majestic this season, propelling them to top of their Champions League group and fourth in La Liga. He has recently put pen-to-paper on a new contract with a new release clause of around €35 million. If he stays put, Malaga could assemble a strong team around him.
Eight fantastic ties to look forward to, and with no weak links, it is one of the toughest years to predict a winner.
The usual suspects are the favourites Barcelona, along with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a team like Borussia Dortmund or Juventus go far this season.
One thing is for certain, the Champions League is becoming far less dominated by Spanish and English teams, and sides from across Europe have a genuine chance of being crowned champions - great news for the future of European football.
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