Spanish clubs look to reign supreme in Europe


Barcelona's Lionel Messi, centre. (Daniel Tejedor/AP)

Sevilla is in the UEFA Champions League. This isn’t noteworthy in and of itself. This was a pretty good team last season.

What is noteworthy is that the team missed out on a Champions League position in La Liga by a single point in 2014-15. What is also noteworthy is how Sevilla got into the Champions League this season: it won the UEFA Europa League and became the first team to be rewarded with a spot in Europe’s top tier continental competition as a result.

Sevilla’s promotion means there are five—five!—teams from La Liga in the mix for the Champions League title this season. In all, seven Spanish teams will feature in European competition.

Here’s a projection of how each of them will do in the two competitions.


Group: BATE Borisov, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Roma
Barcelona’s slow but unbeaten start to the campaign is a head-scratcher. The defence is full of question marks, with Dani Alves out and Gerard Pique struggling. Andres Iniesta seems to be the only midfielder playing at a high level. And while opposing defences are throwing the kitchen sink at Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have been slow to get off the mark. Yet, the Catalans are 3-0-0 in La Liga—with an utterly confounding 4-1 goals for/against. The bottom line is that Luis Enrique’s squad just knows how to beat you. Atletico Madrid seemed to have an edge after going up 1-0 on Saturday, but Barca simply took over and never let the home team back in the game. The score-line read 2-1 for Messi and Co., but in the end it never really felt like it was in doubt. All of which is to say the defending European champions are still the team to beat, and only catastrophic injuries could slow them down.

Prediction: Champions

Real Madrid
Group: Malmo, Paris Saint-Germain and Shakhtar Donetsk
Guess the last time Real Madrid failed to make it to the semifinals of the Champions League. Give up? It was the 2009-10 season: Cristiano Ronaldo’s first year at the Santiago Bernebeu and Manuel Pellegrini’s last. Incredibly, the following five years yielded just one appearance in the final (2013-14, when they beat Atletico 4-1 in Lisbon for La Decima). Does this squad have the talent to get back to the final? Absolutely. Does this team have the coach to get back to the final? Probably not. Match Rafa Benitez up against Enrique, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho—even Pellegrini or Louis Van Gaal. When the competition gets to the late stages, count on Madrid being tactically outmatched.

Prediction: Semifinals

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Atletico Madrid
Group: FC Astana, Benfica and Galatasaray
Atletico’s early results suggest La Liga’s chief roster flippers have not gelled quite yet. Still, it would be hard to see “the other Madrid” as anything but the team to beat in Group C. Is Diego Simeone’s squad front-loaded? Absolutely. But oh, what a front it is. Antoine Griezmann, Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto and, yes, even Fernando Torres are a handful for opposing defences when Atletico have an edge in possession. And against the likes of their Turkish and Portuguese opponents in this group, they will have an edge in possession. It’s the knockout stage where Atletico will see the ball less, and Simeone’s decision to park the bus in games where his team is clearly overmatched has cost him in a big way.

Prediction: Quarterfinals

Group: Gent, Lyon and Zenit St. Petersburg
La Liga’s fifth Beatle (there is no fourth), Valencia have stumbled out of the gate this season; strange considering how talented the squad is. Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Negredo can score against anyone on any day, and bringing in Aymen Abdennour at half the sale price of Nicolas Otamendi was solid business. As far as the Champions League goes, Group H is the butt of many “should be relegated to the Europa League” jokes. Valencia is probably the best team in it, but don’t expect it to go very far if it gets out of the group.

Prediction: Round of 16

Group: Juventus, Manchester City and Wolfsburg
It would be a straight-up miracle if Sevilla made it out of Group D. City is pummelling everyone right now. Juventus may be surprisingly winless through three weeks of the Serie A season, but it’s the clear No. 2 in this group. In Carlos Bacca’s absence, Sevilla’s offence revolves around Fernando Llorente, Kevin Gameiro and Ciro Immobile, all castoffs from better teams. Look on the bright side, Sevilla fans, your team should have a shot at a third straight European title.

Prediction: Europa League


Group: Dinamo Minsk, Rapid Wien and Viktoria Plzen
The Yellow Submarine are off to an unbeaten start (2-1-0) thanks in large part to two new faces: Cedric Bakambu and—I can’t believe I’m writing this—Roberto Soldado, who appears resurrected from the dead after two disastrous seasons with Tottenham. Czech champions Plzen are occasionally tough customers, but Villarreal should be otherwise untroubled in Group E.

Athletic Bilbao
Group: AZ, Partizan Belgrade and FC Augsburg
Expectations were high for Bilbao after they beat Barcelona in the pre-season Spanish Super Cup, but that triumph was followed by a disappointing 1-0-2 start in La Liga. Regardless, there isn’t another team in Group L that approaches their class. Bilbao will go through to Europa’s next round without so much as flexing a muscle.

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