Can the Spanish five conquer this year’s Champions League?

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The English Premier League may dominate matters off the pitch, but in Europe another league’s dictated matters on it: the Spanish Primera.

Perched atop the latest UEFA country coefficient rankings without a serious challenger, Spain’s recent performances in Europe have been streets ahead of their peers. In the 2013-2014 season, La Liga recorded the highest ever single-season coefficient ranking, a gaudy 23.000 points. That season, apart from Real Sociedad’s disastrous showing in the group stages of the Champions league, every single Spanish club would either win the final of their respective tournament or lose along the way to another Spanish team.

Of course, many attribute Spain’s dominance to Barcelona and Real Madrid’s recent exploits, but even ignoring the two giants, La Liga’s other teams have performed admirably. Even Real Betis, in a season where the club finished dead last in the league, managed to make it to the last 16 of the Europa League in 2012-2013 before losing to another Spanish club, city rivals Sevilla.

Speaking of Sevilla, the club’s sustained dominance in the Europa League hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Andalusian club retained that title last season with a 3-2 victory over Dnipro in the final, their fourth Europa League triumph since 2006.

As a result, Sevilla earned them a spot in this season’s Champions League, giving La Liga  five teams in Europe’s most elite club competition – a tremendous feat that had not been achieved before.

Here’s how they should fare:

FC Barcelona – Last season, Barcelona were a class apart, claiming Champions League as a front three of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi laid siege to Europe’s best defenses. Messi and Neymar became the first duo from a single squad to both score at least 10 goals in a Champions League campaign (10, each). Suarez missed three games in the group stages (as a result of his latest biting ban) but still netted seven goals in 10. That devastating ‘MSN’ combination will again be the terror of Europe, and the only real exploitable weakness for Barcelona lies in their injury-prone defense.

Still, it’s hard to see anyone effectively shutting down all three attackers for any extended period of time. In fact, the only real obstacle may be the Champions League curse: No team has ever repeated as winners. No matter how strong defending champions have looked, something always seems to go amiss in the crapshoot of the knockout rounds.

Could it be the extra travel associated with the World Club Cup, or just simply complacently? Repeating as Champions League winners has been an elusive goal for some of Europe’s greatest teams. Will Barcelona be the curse’s latest victim?

Group D opposition: Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Roma (Italy), BATE Borisov (Belarus)

Synopsis: Barca should have no trouble with this group, though the matchup against Roma could be entertaining. Keep an eye out for Bayer Levekusen, as well. Roger Schmidt, the coach of the German squad, employs a decidedly vigorous pressing style. This should result in either a tight match or a Barcelona drubbing.

Prediction: Finals.

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Real Madrid – The Capital club finally achieved their much-coveted ‘Decima’ in 2014 but fell just short of another berth in the finals after struggling to break down Juventus in the semifinals.

Last campaign, Madrid romped to a record breaking 22-match winning streak, but after the turn of the year, as injuries piled up, the team looked exhausted. After barely squeezing pass Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals on a late Chicharito Hernandez winner, Madrid were flat against Juventus, eventually succumbing to a pair of goals from the prodigal son, Alvaro Morata. Los Merengues used up all of their season’s resources in the first half, effectively deflating after the streak came to an end and never truly recovering their form.

However, if what we’ve seen so far season is any indication, Madrid could pose the biggest threat to Barcelona. Rafa Benitez seems to have a long-term plan featuring a strict rotation system that should see Madrid’s most important players hit their stride in the biggest games of the season.

Benitez has also moved Gareth Bale to the middle of the pitch, where the Welshman seems far more involved and, as a result, far more dangerous. Look for a much stronger Madrid on display during the later stages of this tournament.

Group A opposition: Paris Saint-Germain (France), Shaktar (Ukraine), Malmo FF (Sweden)

Synopsis: Madrid will get an early test against another top contender, Paris Saint-Germain. This will also see the return of Angel Di Maria to the Bernabeu (it should be interesting to see what reception he gets). The games between the squads will have an added importance, as well; neither will want to finish second and face a stronger opponent in the first knockout round.

Prediction: Finals

MORE REAL MADRID: Shakhtar on deck | Mendes severing ties | CR hits five

Atletico Madrid – Surprise finalists two years ago, the other Madrid club followed that dream campaign to the final eight last season after barely squeezing by Bayer Leverkusen on penalties. While Atletico got the best of Real Madrid in the league last year, they couldn’t repeat that feat in the Champions League, losing on a late Chicharito goal after Arda Turn forced them to play with only 10 men.

Turan, of course, is now a Barcelona player, but Atletico have retooled well in his absence. For the first time since he took the helm, Diego Simeone has a legitimate bench at his disposal. This should serve them well as they deal with the rigors of Europe.

Group G opposition: Benfica (Portugal), Galatasaray (Turkey), Astana (Kazakhstan)

Synopsis: A straightforward group where Atletico are clearly the strongest of the bunch. Benfica and Galatasaray certainly aren’t pushovers, but both would do well to finish ahead of Los Indios. A long  trip to Kazakhstan to face tournament new boys Astana will be a good test of Atletico’s newfound depth.

Prediction: Quarterfinals, possibly semis.

MORE ATLETICO: New depth to help ascent | Garcia departs | Kranevitter arrives

Valencia – If there’s one blemish on La Liga’s recent Champions League record, it’s been the performances of its fourth-placed teams. Two years ago, an enticing Real Sociedad side, lead by Antoine Grizemann and Carlos Vela, went winless in the group stage, losing five and drawing one match. Last year, Athletic Bilbao did marginally better, finishing third in the group, but more was expected from a side of their quality.

Enter this season’s fourth place hopeful, Valencia. Back in the tournament after a three-year absence, Los Che will be hoping to emulate their performances of the early 2000s, when the likes of Ruben Baraja and Pablo Aimar, guided Valencia to two consecutive finals.

It’s been a long time since Valencia have been capable of achieving such heights, but Nuno Espirito has a solid team that troubled Madrid, Barca and Atletico last season. The loss of Nicolas Otamendi to Manchester City will be a huge blow, however, as the Argentine defender had the ability to lift the quality of the entire defense through example alone.

Otamendi was replaced by Aymen Abdennour, who is no slouch himself ,but it remains to be seen if he can emulate Otamendi’s performances of last year. Valencia may struggle to score goals, as neither Paco Alcacer nor Alvaro Negredo seem to have found their consistency, but the team’s packed midfield should frustrate opponents.

One to look out for in particular is Jose Luis Gaya, the young left back had a break out campaign last season . His marauding runs down the flank should give European right backs nightmares.

Group H opposiiton: Zenit (Russia), Lyon (France), Gent (Belgium)

Synopsis: Barring a truly poor showing, Valencia should certainly challenge for qualification in this group. Zenit and Lyon both pose the biggest threats, but Valencia are a better side than both. What remains to be seen is if they can score enough to take them through.

Prediction: Second place in group stage

SEE MORE: Champions League preview, schedule, TV times.

Sevilla – Perhaps the most intriguing team in the Champions League this season, Sevilla have made a habit of European success, but can they repeat their triumphs on the biggest stage?

As always, Sevilla have had to retool this summer after the departure of their leading scorer, Carlos Bacca. But the additions of Fernando Llorente and Ciro Immobile give Unai Emery’s squad some real options in attack. Yehven Konoplyanka, the former Dnipro attacker who was on the pitch as Sevilla beat his side of the Europa League title last season, is now in Seville. He’s the type of talent that shines on European nights, and he’ll relish the opportunity to impress.

For visiting fans the hostile environment should be one of the highlights of the Champions League. The Roman Sanchez Pizjuan is not an easy place to play ,and Sevilla’s faithful will savor the opportunity to cheer their team on against the best Europe has to offer.

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