With Champions League football returning to grounds around Europe this week, Ian Walsh previews each group which ties some big teams against each other, none bigger than Barcelona and Internazionale.
Group A Bayern Munich, Juventus, Bordeaux, Maccabi Haifa
Bayern Munich have had a busy summer with Louis Van Gaal taking charge, Frank Ribery decideding to stay, and Arjen Robben arriving from Spain. Having won the competition four times, and finished runners-up three times Bayern must progress from the group stages at least, but that won’t be easy. Juventus certainly look to be a force to be reakoned with this season, they’ve spent big, got a new manager and should be confident of being up there with Europe’s elite this season. They’re biggest tests will be Bayern and Bordeaux, but they should be looking to top the group. Also fighting Bayern for that second place will be Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux. Having taken the French league by storm and ending Lyon’s dominance of Liege 1, it’s now time for them to tackle Europe. They havea habit of grinding out victories, have notched up 11 straight wins last season, if they can repeat that form in Europe they should be confident of progressing. It’s very difficult to see Maccabi Haifa coming anywhere but bottom, however they could nick a point or two off the big clubs.
Verdict: 1. Juventus, 2. Bordeaux, 3. Bayern, 4. Maccabi Haifa
Group B Manchester United, Wolfsburg, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas
Possibly one of the toughest draws Manchester United have got in recent years, and with no Ronaldo to help them they could struggle. United will be clocking up the miles having to travel to Turkey and Russia along with playing Manchester City and Liverpool in the league. Their main rivals will be Wolfsburg, who won their first Bundesliga title last season and have the fantastic strike force of Grafite and Edin Dzeko; they will pose a threat to any defence. Both Besiktas and CSKA Moscow will be battling it out of 3rd place and a place in the Europa League, but neither should be underestimated. The Inonu Stadium in Turkey, home to Besiktas holds the record for the loudest crowds in football at 132 decibles which could intimdate most oppositions, also I don’t think clubs will fancy going to the cold of Russia in the winter.
Verdict: 1. Manchester United, 2. Wolfsburg, 3. CSKA Moscow, 4. Besiktas
Group C Real Madrid, AC Milan, Marseille, FC Zurich
The main battle of this group will be between Real Madrid’s new crop of Galacticos, and the Rossoneri , AC Milan. Both teams have new managers, and new squads. Milan have lost Kaka, Maldini and Ancelotti, while Madrid has gained Kaka, Ronaldo and Pellegrini. These two sides haven’t been very impressive both at home and in Europe as of late, and will be looking to change that this year. Madrid are under the most pressure having received so much media coverage over the summer, while Milan haven’t been in great form lately having lost 4-0 to their rivals Inter last month. Marseille are now managed by Didier Deschamps, who has Champions League pedigree having led Monaco to the Final in 2004; their squad doesn’t have the depth to challenge the big boys of Madrid and Milan. Finally, FC Zurich will be looking to enjoy the experience as they enter unchartered territory.
Verdict: 1. Real Madrid, 2. AC Milan, 3. Marseille, 4. FC Zurich
Group D Chelsea, FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Apoel
If Chelsea continue the way they’ve started the Premier League season then they can look forward to February already. Now that they’re managed by Carlo Ancelotti, a man with Champions League winning experience, nothing is impossible. Porto may have won the Champions League in 2004, but they have lost key players in the summer transfer window, like Lisandro Lopez and Lucho Gonzalez, this will certainly hinder their progress. They can however be a tricky side to beat at home. Atletico Madrid will be their main rivals in the race for second place. Madrid will want revenge on the side that knocked them out last time round. Madrid have quality players like Aguero, and Forlan, they should look forward to February like Chelsea. The Cypriots, APOEL Nicosia, should enjoy their experience, and the money that comes with it.
Verdict: 1. Chelsea, 2. Atletico Madrid, 3. Porto, 4. APOEL
Group E Liverpool, Lyon, Fiorentina, Debrecen
Over the past few years Europe has been Liverpool’s forte, and they will be looking to continue that this season even though they’ve been drawn in a tough group. The loss of Xabi Alonso has hurt Rafa Benitez’s side and it certainly a factor that’s contributed to their poor start this season. Lyon’s failure to win Liegue 1 last season means they’ve spent big this summer in order to regain top spot in France and challenge in Europe. Lisandro Lopez could prove to be a canny buy; he scored six goals for Porto in last season’s campaign. This time round he has scored that number in five games for Lyon. They are real challengers to win the group, Fiorentina have been very impressive in the Serie A but not so good in Europe. A place in the Europa League should suit them, while Debrecen should enjoy the run out.
Verdict: 1. Lyon, 2. Liverpool, 3. Fiorentina, 4. Debrecen.
Group F Barcelona, Inter Milan, Dynamo Kyiv, Rubin Kazan
Group D is another mouth-watering group that contains two sides who’ve been swapping players over the summer. Ibrahimovich moved Barcelona, while Eto’o went to Inter along with €45million. This group should be a straightforward two horse race between Inter and Barca. Who gets one over who will be decided in the first game of the group on Tuesday night. That will give them bragging rights for the rest of the group campaign. Both teams are filled with quality, and their games could be either really exciting, or bore draws. In the race for the Europa League spot of 3rd place, Rubin Kazan could be packing a surprise punch. They won the Russian league last season, and current lead it again with one third of the season remaining. Kyiv have got great ambitions under coach Valeriy Gazzaev, who has promised the Champions League within three years, but are a long way off at the moment. Gazzaev took charge in May of this year, so let’s pencil Kyiv in for the 2012 Final. That’s if he’s still at the club.
Verdict: 1. Barcelona, 2. Inter, 3. Rubin Kazan, 4. Dynamo Kyiv
Group G Stuttgart, Sevilla, Rangers, Unirea Urziceni
One could say Rangers have half a chance of making the knock-out stage, but in reality that haven’t go half a chance. At best they should settle for a place in the Europa League, but battling them for that 3rd place will be former Chelsea player Dan Petrescu’s Unirea Urziceni. The Romania side should not be underestimated after FC Cluj proved last season that heavy investment in Romania football is paying off. The two genuine contenders for the knock-out stage should be Sevilla and Stuttgart. Sevilla have got European experience having won the UEFA Cup back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. Their side is filled with quality, and has been improved over the summer after the signings of Didier Zokora from Tottenham and Alvaro Negredo from Real Madrid. Stuttgart, managed by former Liverpool defender Markus Babbel will be looking to top the group, and after a bad appearence in 2007-08 competition they will be looking to play the slick football that they play in their domestic league.
Verdict: 1. Sevilla, 2. Stuttgart, 3. Unirea, 4. Rangers.
Group H Arsenal, Olympiacos, Standard Liege, AZ Alkmaar
At the time people may have thought this was an easy draw for Arsenal, but after their recent defeats to both Manchester clubs I think we should revise that prediction. Injuries have left Arsene Wenger’s squad weakened, further injuries could cost the Gunners dearly. That said, Arsenal should have have enough cover for those injuries to qualify for the knock-out phase. The other three teams will battle it out for the runners up spot. Favourites will be Olympiacos who have European pedigree from previous seasons, but a dark horse could well be AZ Alkmaar, managed by former Ajax boss Ronald Koeman. Standard Liege will be in there to cause an upset, but should be happy at just playing in a European competition. Tough call, if Arsenal don’t get off to a flying start then they could be out come Christmas. AZ would be my surprise package to qualify, and Olympaicos should reach the Europa League.
Verdict: 1. Arsenal, 2. AZ, 3. Olympiacos, 4. Standard Liege.