Champions League 2012/13 – Group Stage Preview

Ajay Rose looks ahead to the Champions League group stage which kicks off this week.

Group A – Porto, Dynamo Kiev, PSG, Dinamo Zagreb

Super-rich PSG look set to top Group A, boasting one of Europe’s finest squad home to Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Lavezzi & Pastore amongst many others. Those four alone should be enough to see off the challenge of nearest rivals Porto. The 03/04 winners should safely secure knockout football, most likely in 2nd as the South American orientated Portuguese outfit are always a threat, with or without Hulk. As for Kiev, Kranjcar & co may offer some resistance, but look set to compete in the Europa league with Zagreb being the whipping boys of the group.

Group B – Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier

Once again, Arsenal find themselves in a group which they are expected to win, but just look at Man Utd’s demise in last year’s competition. Nonetheless, the Gunners should easily go through as group winners, maybe even with a few cheeky goals from Giroud v Montpellier. The Ligue 1 champions had a winless start in their 1st ever title defence, and I expect the same pattern in what looks a cameo season amongst Europe’s elite. Schalke should be strong enough to hold off the threat of Olympiakos, who could potentially field Tottenham favourite Roy Carroll.

1st – Arsenal
2nd – Olympiakos
3rd – Schalke
4th – Montpellier

Group C – Milan, Zenit, Malaga, Anderlecht

This group is a lot more open then it seems. Super-power Zenit stamped their intentions down over the summer and this could mark a big season for transitional Russian outfit should they sneak 1st spot. Equally, Milan have lost a lot of zest over summer, and may lack depth and experience in this year’s CL, but Milan are Milan, so not qualifying is almost unthinkable. When Malaga qualified back in May, they had the likes of Rondon, Van Nistelrooy and Santi Cazorla amongst their ranks. Come September, it would seem only Isco is the only remaining game-changer and in a group contesting tight games with both Zenit and now Milan, game-changers are everything. Expect an unfortunate 3rd & 4th place finish from Malaga and Anderlecht respectively.

Group D – Real Madrid, Man City, Dortmund, Ajax

The group of champions is a group sent from the Uefa gods for the neutral. Mourinho’s Madrid secure 1st provided they keep Hollywood’s Ronaldo on side and everything else ticking over. Don’t be surprised if Mancini’s Man City pip 1st, given the experience from a similar situation in last year’s competition and their title win, however 2nd seems most likely, should they hold their nerve against Dortmund. Dortmund are no-one hit wonders, seeing off Bayern for the Bundesliga two years in a row now, and as Arsenal found out last year, they are a tough side to beat. Don’t rule out Dortmund condemning Man City to European mediocrity again, whilst Ajax, perhaps Europe’s most under-performing super club, look set for another gloomy season in Europe.

Group E – Chelsea, Shaktar, Juventus, Nordsjaelland

Last year’s champions were humbled in their first taste of European football this year, and Juventus will certainly push them all the way, both home and away. However, RDM managed to turn 6th placed Chelsea into Europe’s best last year, and I expect no less than a 1st place finish in this group. Ukrainian champs Shaktar may cause a few problems, but not even a 10/10 performance from the highly-anticipated Willian will be enough to win more than twice, as their squad lacks the ability to get them through to the knockout stages this year. Norwegian outfit Nordsjaelland are here to make up the numbers and soak up the atmosphere, it will be interesting to see if they even register a goal, let alone a point.

Group F – Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, Bate Borisov

Bayern Munich are following a similar path to that of Ajax, being without a major trophy since 2010, whilst Jupp Heynckes has to pick up a host of Germans who weren’t quite good enough in both the Euros and of course last year’s CL. With that in mind, Bayern should see of Valencia, their nearest challengers. Whilst Valencia may never reach two successive finals again, as they did at the turn of the decade, they should have enough experience and quality to see of a Hazard-less Lille. However, don’t entirely rule out the former Ligue 1 champions, who secured CL football at the expense of Lyon. BATE Borisov, an increasingly familiar name, but nonetheless a name amongst the whipping boys of the knockout round, look set to crash and burn in 4th.

Group G – Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic

Barcelona without a doubt will top the group, maybe even notching up a few demolitions on the way. The fun in Group G lies in who will qualify behind them. Last year’s quarter-finalists Benfica do have Primeria Liga top scorer Oscar Cardozo. Expect him to trouble Spartak Moscow who are likely to led by Welliton, someone I and every FIFA game to date, believe will become a good centre-forward. If Celtic are still playing European football come 2013, considering the two blockbuster’s against Barcelona, the majority of Bhoys fan will sleep happily, however I do expect Benfica and Spartak Moscow to be too strong for Celtic, in that order.

Group H – Man Utd, Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj

Man Utd were knocked out last year by FC Basel, a team who isn’t even in this year’s competition, which only goes to show the under-achievement from the Red Devils. It’s harder for Man Utd not to qualify than qualify, even more so given the small matter of RVP. Braga simply lack Champions League experience and still look like a side that need a few more Europa League runs to prepare them for the big league. Expect to see Dirk Kuyt playing some part in the knockout stages of this year’s competition, with Romanian outfit CFR Cluj serving as one of three clubs who’ll be lucky to even register a point, along with BATE Borisov and Nordsjaelland.

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