New eras, tricky agendas

La Liga’s ‘big two’ go into the new Champions League campaign this week with new coaches in Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti, fresh expensive superstars in Neymar and Gareth Bale, but the same huge expectations as always.

New Barcelona boss Martino’s task looks the tougher, given this is his first season in Europe, and the success that Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and company had under predecessors Josep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova.

Everyone in Catalonia still remembers last April’s 7-0 aggregate pummelling by Bayern Munich too however.

Hence the cautious welcome among blaugrana players and pundits for Martino’s plans to evolve the team’s ‘tiki-taka’ style by moving the ball forward more quickly so opponents cannot set their defences to frustrate.

The pace and direct running of €57m signing Neymar should also help with this, but most eyes will remain on Messi — who still does not look 100% fit after a busy summer with club, country and sponsors’ commitments.

Two Group H opponents, Milan and Celtic, beat Barca in last season’s competition, so we should see quickly how the changes are going. First up though is Wednesday’s ‘Johan Cruyff derby’ against Ajax at the Camp Nou.

The first ever competitive meeting of two clubs largely based on Cruyff’s philosophy is eagerly awaited by fans all around Europe, but the occasion will be more than slightly embarrassing for Barca president Sandro Rosell, who has a famously awful relationship with the Dutchman.

Madrid’s opener is more low-key, at Galatasaray on Tuesday night, but the challenge facing Ancelotti is no smaller.

Jose Mourinho’s three years at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu have gone down as a failure because, although the Special One managed to best Barca domestically, he fell at the semi-finals each year in Europe.

Delivering ‘la decima’ (a 10th European Cup) remains the ultimate for Madrid fans and club president Florentino Perez. Even €101m man Bale – who makes his La Liga debut against Villarreal tonight – has already set that as his ultimate target.

More immediately pundits are watching to see how the Welshman fits into Ancelotti’s patient possession-based tactical approach. There also remains uncertainty around Cristiano Ronaldo, both whether he will sign a new contract, and how he gels with his new fellow galactico on the pitch.

Nobody expects Galatasaray (or FC Copenhagen) to really trouble Ancelotti’s side, but back to back games against Serie A champions Juventus in Match Days three and four should give an idea of how Madrid are set this season.

The Spanish capital’s other representatives are also quietly confident after the draw, with Atletico Madrid in alongside Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Austria Vienna in Group G. Top scorer Radamel Falcao’s departure for Monaco in the summer had seemed a disaster for Atletico, until the clever signing of Spain’s record top scorer David Villa. Villa looks fit and sharp, and brings a better all-round game than the Colombian.

Diego Simeone’s side are still based on a mean defence and scrappy midfield, so are unlikely to win many new fans for their sparkling football. But they should have no trouble progressing, and look more than capable of causing problems for higher profile teams when the knockout rounds start after Christmas.

More popular with neutrals are likely to be Real Sociedad — already the ‘hipster’s choice’ for this season’s European competitions, following on from Borussia Dortmund, Shakhtar Donetsk and Athletic Bilbao in recent years.

La Real impressed hugely when hammering the more experienced Lyon 4-0 on aggregate in August’s play-off. Youngsters Antoine Griezmann, Iñigo Martinez, Haris Seferovic and former Arsenal striker Carlos Vela showed no nerves at all in those games, and rookie coach Jagoba Arrasate, just 35, also already looks at ease on the biggest stage.

They face Manchester United but given Group A’s other sides are a weakened Shakhtar and Bayer Leverkusen, they might soon set their sights higher.

More in this section

Sport Push Notifications

By clicking on 'Sign Up' you will be the first to know about our latest and best sporting content on this browser.

Sign Up

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd