There’s always a frisson of excitement when the Premier League’s pubby preliminaries give way to the champagne fizz of the Champions League, which kicks off this week with four English teams in the mix. But when Arsenal begin their campaign with a tricky away tie against 2013 runners-up Borussia Dortmund, ex-Gunners striker Alan “Smudger” Smith won’t be celebrating prematurely.
“It’s a really tough opening game at one of the great European grounds. It will be a test defensively for Arsenal, but they have the ability to grab a goal or two,” says Smith, cautiously. He concedes it has been some time since the FA Cup-holders harboured any realistic expectations in Europe. “They reached the 2006 final and were very unlucky that year, but that was the last time you’d class Arsenal as one of the elite teams,” he says. “They’re not at the level of Bayern, Barcelona or Real Madrid, and there’s impatience with that. The fans want the club to move forward.”
Smith regards the summer signings of Chilean international Alexis Sánchez and England striker Danny Welbeck, a £16m trans- fer deadline-day purchase from Manchester United, as significant steps in the right direction. “Sánchez already looks like a quality buy, and I was delighted they got Welbeck. At 23, he has his best years ahead of him, and if he gets an extended run I think we’ll see his confidence grow and his finishing improve. He’s quick, he’s positive, he’ll see a lot of action and he’ll score goals in Europe.”
Whether Welbeck’s impact will be enough to deliver Champions League glory is another matter. “Arsenal are still short when it comes to going toe-to-toe with the big clubs, but they’ll be looking at the knockout stages,” says Smith, who thinks they will have enough class to emerge from Group D – which also contains Galatasaray and Anderlecht – along with Dortmund. “And if Arsenal get Olivier Giroud back from injury after Christmas, who knows?”
PREDICTION “One step further than last year: quarter-finalists, maybe even the semis”
Chelsea on the Charge
Smith ranks Chelsea as genuine contenders, anticipating little resistance from Group G opponents Schalke, Sporting Lisbon and Slovenian underdogs Maribor. “The quality of their signings – especially Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas – has transformed Chelsea. Not only has Jose Mourinho got the players he wanted, he’s also got the right people out. They got £50m for David Luiz. A heck of a steal! They need to close the door at the back a little bit tighter, but with their experience and the improvements they’ve made, they’ve got every chance this year.”
PREDICTION “One of four teams likely to win the Champions League — potential finalists”
Blue Moon Rising
Manchester City will be looking to build on their second domestic title in three years by shaking off their Euro stagefright in Group E against the 2013 winners Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Roma. “City have had a few years of under- achievement, which goes to show that, no matter how much money you spend, a club that’s not used to Champions League football can struggle.
“They’re in a strong group, but I think they’ll have enough to get out of it, alongside Bayern. They should’ve acclimatised by now, and will be looking to make an imprint on the competition.”
PREDICTION “This should be the year they click — quarter-finals at least”
Finally there’s Liverpool, five-time European champions, drawn in Group B against Basel, Bulgarian outsiders Ludogorets Razgrad – and the legendary Real Madrid. “Real will bring back European glory nights to Anfield, the atmo- sphere will be second to none,” says Smith. “Real are reigning champions and favourites to win the group, but Liverpool have started the season well. Brendan Rodgers has bought wisely to replace Luis Suárez and their squad is big enough to cope.”
PREDICTION “I fancy Liverpool for the knockout stages”
Coverage of Liverpool v Ludogorets Razgrad is live on ITV from 7:30pm
Coverage of Borussia Dortmund v Arsenal is live on Sky Sports 5 from 7pm