UEFA Champions League Group Stage matches kick off today. Besides being inundated with Heineken advertisements, terrible (American) television coverage, and the Champions League anthem inevitably being stuck in my head for days, the Champions league usually produces some of the most entertaining soccer in the world to make the inconveniences worth it. This season the best teams from around Europe will do their best to stop Barcelona from defending their crown. Today, we’ll take a look at all the groups, the teams and players to watch, and matchups to look for.
Group A looks to be what most football fans would consider a “Group of Death,” it boasts four talented sides. Manchester City is currently favored by bookmakers to advance from the group stage and challenge for Champions League victory, and they certainly seem to have the squad ready to do so. Summer acquisitions of Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri to add to the laundry list of superstars at City, clearly show the club’s intentions to claim a place in the final 16, but to do so they’ll have to go through German giants Bayern Munich, the Yellow Submarine Villarreal, and Napoli who may be the 4th seed in the group but are certainly no pushovers.
Bayern Munich will look to Franck Ribery to continue his early season good form and Arjen Robben to produce some of the magic he is capable of. They will join German strikers Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller in their quest for European glory. Villarreal qualified as the 4th place finishers in La Liga last season, but they are not a team to be taken lightly. With captain Marcos Senna returning for his 10th season with the club he will lead the midfield and be joined by new arrival Jonathan de Guzman. Dangerous Italian-American striker Giuseppe Rossi will be the focal point of the attack for the Yellow Submarine.
Napoli, will be one of the teams to watch from this group. With a talented strike force of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Goran Pandev, lethal midfielders Marek Hamsik and Gokhan Inler, as well as the steady leadership of Paolo Cannavaro. Napoli could send Manchester City or Bayern Munich home from the European competition early. With the level of talent of all the sides involved in this group, any of them could move on, I’d expect Manchester City and Bayern Munich to move on from this group, but would not be shocked if Napoli manages to secure a spot in the Round of 16.
2010 Champions League winners Inter Milan look poised to win Group B, who will join them in the Roud of 16 is a question that remains to be answered. Inter returns with most of the squad intact from their Champions League glory; however they will look to replace Samuel Eto’o with the arrival of strikers Diego Forlan and Mauro Zarate. The aging defense is still led by Javier Zanetti, Lucio, and Ivan Cordobo, but they still should be formidable enough and with the help of Wesley Sneijder and Dejan Stankovic the midfield is not lacking for talent either.
CSKA Moscow’s strength lies in their defense, captained by goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and led in defense by twin brothers Aleksei and Vasili Berezutski. The Russian club who began the trend of Russian clubs splashing cash on foreign players with Brazilian striker Vagner Love, Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda, and Ivoirian midfielder Seydou Doumbia are joined by Russian midfielder Alan Dzagoev who contribute to the Russian Cup winners and Russian Premier League runners up.
Lille may find a hard time of it in this group, but should look to captain Rio Mavuba, superstar Eden Hazard, and defender David Rozehnal to steer their team to success. Former Chelsea star Joe Cole has set off to Lille in search of regaining his form and Champions League football, he could be quite the impact player for Lille should he rekindle the magic that made him such a spectacular player a few seasons ago.
Turkish Super Lig runners-up Trabzonspor are truly the minnows in this group, but do so in style with new arrivals Marek Cech, Halil Altintop, and Didier Zokora. Despite these new arrivals, they will still struggle to find points in this group. My predictions would be that Inter Milan run away with this group, while CSKA Moscow finds themselves in second place and into the round of 16.
English Premier League champions and Champions League runners up Manchester United need no introduction for football fans. With Wayne Rooney on a recent tear of goal scoring to go along with Ashley Young, Nani, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Nemanja Vidic, and Rio Ferdinand; Sir Alex Ferdinand should have no problems navigating the Red Devils to another group stage top spot.
Portuguese Primeira Liga runners up Benfica will face the Red Devils and realistically compete for the group’s second place. Led by Brazilian defender Luisao and Argentinian midfielder Pablo Aimar and with new arrivals Joan Capdevila and Ezequiel Garay, the strong Portuguese squad should find no trouble against Swiss champions FC Basel and Romanian champions FC Otelul Galati. Basel is led by Switzerland’s top striker Alexander Frei, while Otelul boasts no players really worth knowing.
This group should be fairly straightforward with Manchester United winning the group easily, followed by Benfica into the knockout stages.
Real Madrid set out on another campaign for European glory. Jose Mourinho’s Spanish Super Cup antics have set his team on fire and they are unbeaten in La Liga so far in this early season. Led by world class players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, and Iker Casillas just to name a few, they should find no problems qualifying in what may be a challenging draw to other sides.
Olympique Lyonnais will likely be competing for the group’s second place with Dutch champions Ajax. The third place Ligue 1 finishers will be led by the seemingly ageless Brazilian defender Cris is joined by talented midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, Lisandro Lopez, and dangerous striker Bafetimbi Gomis. They will be joined by the man known as “The Rock of Gibraltar” John Mensah in their campaign to reach the knockout stages.
Ajax will have to find their way through the group without goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenberg, whose transfer to Roma leaves the Dutch champions with Kenneth Vermeer to don the gloves. He will be joined by captain Jan Vertonghen, Gregory van der Weil, and Theo Janssen. Frank de Boer’s side will look to the emerging talents of van der Weil and newly capped Dutchman Siem de Jong to lead their club through the group stage.
Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb boast one of the most intimidating home grounds in European soccer, but the quality of their squad will likely let them down in the Champions League. A player to watch from this team is Milan Badelj who recently made his debut with the Croatian national side after 54 youth appearances. Another player to watch will be former Hertha BSC and Hoffenheim defender Josip Simunic who transferred to the club this summer.
Look for Manchester United and Lyon to pass through to the knockout stages.
Chelsea has their eyes on Champions League victory once again. As their golden generation of Terry, Lampard, and Drogba grows older, this may be their last chance together after falling to Manchester United in the 2008 final. This latest edition of the squad has been bolstered in the summer transfer window with the addition of Juan Mata, Raul Meireles, and Romelu Lukaku and will look to El Nino Fernando Torres to regain the goalscoring form that made him worthy of the £50 million outlay.
Valencia look to have a good chance to move on in the competition. Long time captain David Albelda will lead a talented squad that also boasts Roberto Soldado, Argentine playmaker Ever Banega, and Mehmet Topal. Long time Brazilian league footballer Jonas made his debut for the club in January could make an impact for the club.
Michael Ballack would probably like to spoil his former squad Chelsea’s season, but will more likely be competing for the second spot in the group with Valencia. The Bundesliga runners up have a solid midfield with Ballack, Tranquillo Barnetta, Renato Augusto, and Simon Rolfes to go along with their formidable striker Stefan Kieβling. Don’t be surprised if they end up qualifying over Valencia.
The Belgian champions Genk are the minnows of the group, but look for some action from talented young Belgians like Anthony Vanden Borre and Kevin de Bruyne to make their presence felt in European football. De Bruyne was actually targeted by Chelsea in the recent transfer window.
Despite their recent hardships, Arsenal should still be able to find their way to the top of Group F. With new signings of Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, and Yossi Benayoun added to the squad of Arshavin, Van Persie, and Thomas Vermaelen they should be able to overcome the early season run of poor form, red cards, suspensions, and injuries.
Looking to spoil Arsenal’s chances is Olympique de Marseille who finished second in Ligue 1 last season. This Marseille squad has a good mix of young talent from Loic Remy, Andre Ayew, and Andre-Pierre Gignac to go along with veteran leadership from Lucho Gonzalez, Alou Diarra, and the sure handed Steve Mandanda. Marseille look poised to take the second spot in the group and challenge for the Ligue 1 title this season.
After winning their 38th Greek league title, Olympiacos has another appearance in the final sixteen as their goal. The addition of Jean Il Makoun to the squad already consisting of Olof Mellberg, Kevin Mirallas, and Vasilis Torosidis, may their goal may still be slightly out of reach, but they are working in the right direction.
Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund has plenty of young talent as the squad displayed last season, but may lack the overall quality to see themselves through to the later stages. Mats Hummels and Mario Gotze, both in the Germany squad make up the bulk of that youth talent along with Polish striker Robert Lewandowski. They are led by experienced veteran captain Sebastian Kehl and goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, who provide the youth with the experienced direction that led the team to victory last season.
This is an interesting group and if Arsenal continues their poor form look at German champions Borussia Dortmund to claim their place in the knockout stages along with Marseille.
Unbeaten Portuguese champions Porto will have to do without their manager Andre Villas-Boas after his move to Chelsea and striker Radamel Falcao’s transfer to Athletico Madrid, but they still look to be good value to win Group G. With striker Hulk leading the attack along with Joao Moutinho and Steven Defour in support, the Dragons probably have little to fear from the other teams in the group. Stalwart keeper Helton in goal and Alvaro Periera’s marauding runs up the left side will make the Portuguese squad formidable to any side that they face.
Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk seem to have quite a bit of Brazilian flair in their squad. New signing Alan Patrick joins seven other Brazilians including their vice-captain Fernandinho, Luiz Adriano, and Alex Teixiera. Captain Darijo Srna is fresh off his UEFA Champions League Team of the Year performance and has his team steering towards the knockout stages again. Hopefully for Srna and Donetsk they can manage to find their way and a friendlier draw than Barcelona.
Group G teams will have to travel huge distances to cover their away games, Zenit St. Petersburg are one of the away days that many sides fear. With hard tackler Bruno Alves and Nicolas Lombaerts in defense along with Dominico Criscito and captain Aleksandr Anyukov playing left and right backs respectively, their defense looks dangerous. Their attack is led by Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Igor Denisov in midfield. They would do well to challenge Shakhtar for the second place in Group G.
Rounding out Group G is the Cypriot champions APOEL F.C.. They do own a player named Kaka, but he’s not the one you’ve heard of before.
Lionel Messi and Barcelona have been given a challenge in their group with AC Milan, but the defending La Liga and Champions League winners should still find their way to the top of the group. Messi, David Villa, and Xavi are just a few of the many world class players on display at Barcelona. Throughout the tournament, Pep Guardiola’s side will display their precision passing displays and video game score totals. They have been made tournament favorites for a reason.
AC Milan has a relatively easy path to the knockout stages, aside from Barcelona. With forward talent like Alexandre Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining former Champions League winners Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, and Filippo Inzaghi, they have a nice mixture of youthful talent and verteran presence. Gennaro Gatuso still gives the team everything he has and is one of the fiercest competitors in European football.
Belorusian champions BATE Borisov and Czech champions FC Viktoria Plzen round out Group H, but neither of them should make any serious challenges for the top to places.