Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Champions League Preview: Group H

Group H continues the pattern established by many of the other groups.  One team as prohibitive favorite (Arsenal), and several teams (Shakhtar Donetsk, Partizan Belgrade, and Braga) competing for second place.

Arsenal F.C.
- One of the most storied clubs in English football, Arsenal have seen a bit of a hardware drought over the last 5 seasons.  Their last major trophy was the FA Cup in 2005.  While the North London side remain perennial contenders, they have not been able to break the recent Chelsea-Manchester United duopoly at the top of the English Premier League.  In addition, there has been only moderate success in the Champions League (advancing to at least the quarterfinals every year since 2007, and almost always advancing from their group), with their best finish being runners-up in 2006.

This year's squad resembles the United Nations, with players from 17 different countries.  Manager Arsène Wenger is highly respected and seems to be able to get the best out of players (look no further than former Gunner Thierry Henry).  Wenger dipped into the transfer market this summer to sign Moroccan forward Marouane Chamakh, and a pair of French defenders (Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci).  Chamakh address the lack of depth at the forward position that was exposed when Robin Van Persie missed significant time with injuries last season.  With the departure of Eduardo to Group H rivals Shakhtar, the Gunners couldn't stand pat.  Squillaci and Koscielny fill the hole created by the departure of William Gallas, who never really fit in at the Emirates. The one weakness that Arsenal did not address was goalkeeper.  Manuel Almunia and his two Polish deputies are just not good enough to lead a team to the Champions League trophy.  If Arsenal are going to make a deep run they will need to complete the rumored signing of Mark Schwarzer or sign another keeper.

While no team can match the high-flying start Chelsea has put together, Arsenal has seen a great deal of success in the early EPL season.  With a 3-1-0 record, the Gunners sit 2nd in the table, 2 points adrift of the Blues.  This year's squad has the look of contenders in the EPL, but it might be too tough to catch the buzz saw that is Chelsea.

Arsenal are the clear favorites in this group.  With a history of advancing deep into the tournament, a manager that is one of the world's best, and a beautiful brand of attacking football, Arsenal should win Group H with little trouble.

Former Gunner Eduardo, now with Shakhtar Donetsk,
will seek to oust his former teammates
FC Shakhtar Donetsk - The 2009 UEFA Cup winners, Shakhtar have become a fixture in the Champions League over the last decade.  Consistently in the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League, Shakhtar are looking to advance from the group stage for the first time.  Thanks to the rise in competitiveness of the Ukrainian League, Shakhtar were able to qualify directly for the group stage of this year's competition.  In year's past it had taken at least one round of qualifying for Shakhtar to make the group stage.

Shahktar's current squad is made primarily of Ukrainian and Brazilian players, with players from the former Soviet Union making up the bulk of the rest.  Perhaps the two biggest signings of the summer were the aforementioned capture of Eduardo from Arsenal, and the signing of young, Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barcelona.  The squad, captained by veteran, Croatian midfielder Darijo Srna certainly has the talent to make an impact in the Champions League.

On the domestic front, the Ukrainian league has completed 9 rounds, and Shakhtar sit atop the table.  With a 7-1-1 record, Shakhtar are 2 points ahead of rival Dynamo Kyiv.

Following their victory in the 2009 UEFA Cup, it is clear that Shakhtar need to be taken seriously.  In their last trip to the group stage, in 2008-2009, Shakhtar finished 3-0-3 and narrowly missed advancing.  This season, they might top that performance. Given this composition of this group, Shakhtar are in a good position to advance to the knockout round.

Braga are making their first Champions League appearance.
Will they find beginner's luck?

S.C. Braga
- A truly unfancied side from Portugal, Braga stormed out of the gates last season and found themselves atop the Portuguese Liga early in the 2009-2010 season.  Ultimately,
Benfica finished atop the table, but Braga had secured their first trip to the Champions League.  After dispatching Celtic and Sevilla on the way to the group stage, it is clear Braga have come to play.

Braga was relatively quiet on the transfer front, and why not, the team had its most successful season last year.  The current squad consists almost entirely of Brazilian and Portuguese players, with one of my favorite names in soccer: George Lucas (wouldn't the Imperial March from Star Wars be great intro music for him and his teammates?)

While Braga had been hanging around the top 4 or 5 for the better part of this decade, they were finally able the break into the top 2.  The Portuguese Liga is one of the most top-heavy leagues in European soccer, being dominated by just three teams: FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting CP.  The fact that the plucky side from the north of Portugal displaced one of the "Big Three" is refreshing. This season sees Braga sitting 4th in the table, at 2-1-1.  With the only  loss coming to table-topping Porto, Braga should be happy with their record heading into their first Champions League group stage match.

Braga certainly have the talent to compete in this group, but their lack of experience at this level could be a handicap.  In a group where the other three entrants have all played multiple seasons in the Champions League, you have to wonder if Braga will be able to put together the consistency necessary to make it to the knockout round.

Partizan have been extremely successful domestically,
can they transfer their success to the Champions League?
FK Partizan - Easily one of the most storied clubs in Serbia, Partizan are making their third straight appearance in the Champions League, but their first group stage appearance since 2003-2004.  Interestingly, Partizan have the same number of runner-up finishes as Arsenal, despite being from a much smaller league, and being far less known.

The current rosters consists almost entirely of Serbian players, many of them new to the squad.  Partizan were busy during the transfer window, bringing in 19 new players and sending 13 players packing.  One has to wonder if that much change to a squad that is the three-time defending champions of the Serbian League is wise.  No names jump out as me as being major additions or subtractions, so perhaps Partizan will not lose chemistry and moment with such a high turnover.

If the results from the domestic league are any indication, the roster turnover has not hurt Partizan.  With 4 wins from 4 matches, Partizan sit atop the table with 12 points and a +8 goal differential.  If Partizan continues to play at such a high level, the Belgrade side just might win its 4th league title in a row.

Partizan are a bit of an unknown. While the team has the tradition, the current squad has not been together long enough.  Also, Partizan has been absent from the group stage for 7 seasons.  Will this lack of experience hurt Partizan?  Partizan's last trip to the group stage was not a good one, as they finished last in their group with a 0-3-3 record.  I suspect the Serbian side will acquit themselves better this time around, though more than a Europa League spot might be a pipe dream.

Predictions: Arsenal outclass the rest of the group and win easily.  Shahktar finish second to become the first Ukrainian side to advance past the group stage.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Champions League Preview: Group G

Following previews of groups where one team stood head and shoulders above the rest followed by teams competing for second, we reach the 'Group of Death'.  Every international soccer competition has one and Group G is this year's version.  With three former Champions League winners (A.C. Milan, Real Madrid, and AFC Ajax), and a relative newcomer from a top 5 league (AJ Auxerre), this group is tough from top to bottom.

Zlatan Ibrahimović will look to find his scoring touch with AC Milan.
In his last stint in Italy, he scored 57 goals in 88 appearances for Inter.
A.C. Milan - The second team in the competition from Milan, A.C. Milan are a fixture in the Champions League.  Milan have won the title 7 times (2nd most all-time), the most recent in 2007.  Since that win, Milan haven't made it past the round of 16.  Milan are looking to make a deep run in the Champions League, and certainly have the roster to make that a reality.

Milan, a team that hasn't won the scudetto since 2004, made a determined effort this summer to add new talent to an already talented squad.  Joining the Rossoneri were Robinho (from Manchester City), Zlatan Ibrahimović (from Barcelona), Kevin-Prince Boateng (from Portsmouth), Mario Yepes (from Chievo Verona) and Marco Amelia (from Genoa).  To add this many players with much talent is almost unheard of.  By adding Robinho and Ibrahimović to an attack that already boasted Alexandre Pato, Filippo Inzaghi and Ronaldinho, Milan have one of the best forward lines in the competition. Ibrahimović even suggested that Milan should play as many as 5 forwards because there is "[n]o need to track back if you score plenty of goals." While I don't see this happening the thought of those five players running around the offensive half of the field is exciting.  The other summer additions, add depth to the defense and midfield and by adding Amelia, Milan got much stronger between the posts (though for some reason incumbent keeper Christian Abbiati has started both Serie A games thus far).  The biggest departure from the club was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who joined Schalke.  His departure, after a lackluster time at the San Siro, will not impact Milan very much and was addressed by the additions of Robinho and Ibrahimović.  Also, there needs to be a quick mention that Milan have Oguchi Onyewu, one the U.S.'s best players currently on their roster.

With the threat of a player strike in Serie A looming, Milan are currently 1-0-1 in domestic league play.  Following a 4-0 demolition of U.S. Lecce in Milan, the Rossoneri suffered an embarrassing 2-0 loss to newly promoted A.C. Cesena.  The most interesting fact about the loss to Cesena, is that the plucky side from Emilia-Romagna had been in the Italian third division just two season ago.  For Milan, 7 time European champions and 4 time world champions, to lose to a club of that stature is shocking.  Perhaps Massimiliano Allegri should listen to Ibra's suggestion and play 5 forwards.

Milan certainly have the talent to make noise in this group, but if the team has too many uninspired outings like their recent match against Cesena, they will be playing in the Europa League (or worse not playing in Europe at all).

The 'Special One' will look to guide Real Madrid to the Champions League
title after guiding Inter Milan the last season's hardware.
Real Madrid C.F. - The all-time leaders in Champions League victories (9) haven't won the competition since 2002.  Despite their best efforts to collect as many soccer superstars as possible, the Blancos continue to come up short in Europe.   Real Madrid have not been past the round of 16 since 2004 when they were ousted by A.S. Monaco in the quarterfinals. Typically known for their splashy additions, they made one of the biggest moves of the summer by adding José Mourinho as manager.  Mourinho is a master tactician and led Inter to the title last season.  Will he have the same success in at the Bernabéu? Club president Florentino Pérez certainly hopes he does.

Like fellow group-mate, Milan, Real Made made several high-profile signings over the summer.  Apparently whomever makes the personnel decisions for the Blancos was watching the World Cup, as Real Madrid went out and signed several players who burst onto the seen in South Africa.  Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira both proved their worth for Germany this summer and joined Real Madrid from SV Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart respectively.  Also joining the Spanish side were Ricardo Carvalho (from Chelsea) and influential, Argentine winger Ángel di María.  Adding these players to the other Galácticos already at Real Madrid gives the team the appearance of a fantasy soccer league team.  The amount of attacking talent rivals that of Milan, with the added bonus of having arguably the world's best goalkeeper (Iker Casillas) between the posts.

On the domestic front, Real are continually locked in a battle with Barcelona for the top spot on La Liga.  Fans in the Spanish capital will certainly be hoping that the Special One can deliver another La Liga title, but Real Madrid are off to a lackluster start.  Thus far Real Madrid has played to a 0-0 draw with RCD Mallorca away, and a narrow victory over Osasuna 1-0 in Madrid.

Despite the slow start, Real Madrid remain a co-favorite to win this group.  With the amount of talent they possess (I didn't even mention the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kaká) Real Madrid should easily secure a spot in the knockout round.

AFC Ajax - The Dutch side have by far the most Champions League titles of any team not from the big 4 (sorry France) leagues.  With 4 titles to their name, Ajax are tied for the 4th most titles.  Three of those titles came during a dominant stretch in the early 1970s when they were led by the inimitable Johan Cruyff.  Over the past several seasons, Ajax seem to have lost their grasp on Dutch football, having not won an Eredivisie title since 2004.  While they have been titleless, Ajax have been near the top of the league.  Due to the odd method (a 4 team playoff between teams 2-5) the Dutch use to determine their Champions League representatives Ajax, despite finishing 2nd for several season, has not been in the Champions League since 2008.  This season marks their first appearance in the knockout round since 2006.

Despite a strong showing last season, and the promise of Champions League soccer, Ajax have seen several players exit the Amsterdam Arena.  The most notable are Marko Pantelić and Dennis Rommedahl (to Olympiacos), and Kerlon (to Inter).  On the positive side, Ajax brought in some of the top talent in the Dutch league, signing Andre Ooijer (from AZ Alkmaar) and Mounir El Hamdaoui (from PSV Eindhoven).

Clearly the departures has not affected Ajax, as they currently top the Eredivisie standings.  Through 8 games, Ajax have a 6-2-0 record and a +18 goal differential.  Already three points clear of their nearest competitors, it looks like Ajax could recapture the league title this season.

With Ajax in fine form entering their first Champions League match (against Real Madrid in Madrid), the Dutch side merit watching.  They have a history of winning this tournament, and while their recent history hasn't been as bright, they are not a team to underestimate.

AJ Auxerre - Not among the "name" teams in the Ligue 1, Auxerre enter this campaign a relatively unfancied side.  When I was researching for this post, I came across an interesting tidbit which said that Auxerre is the only team to have never been relegated from the French first division.  I found this shocking, but I found the fact in multiple sources. Relative upstarts in this group, Auxerre finally return to the Champions League after an 8 year absence.  Their last trip to the Champions League in 2002-2003 saw them finish third in a group behind Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, but ahead of PSV.

The Burgundy side saw stability reign over the summer with few players coming or going, none worth noting.  The current squad is a mix of French players and players from Francophone Africa, with a few other European players included. Valter Birsa made a name for himself at the World Cup, by scoring against the U.S. in the controversial draw with Slovenia.  An interesting roster note is that Auxerre are the only team I have ever seen to have a player from Madagascar (forward Anicet Andrianantenaina).

Auxerre have gotten off to a slow start in Ligue 1, drawing 4 times in five games.  While they have only lost once, it is clear that the Champions League is on their minds.  Auxerre will need to step up their game if they intend to qualify for next season's Champions League.

As far as their prospects go this season, I think Auxerre are the weakest team in this group.  That said, they could knock off a complacent Milan, or take some points from Ajax.  If Auxerre replicates their performance in the 2003 Champions League, where they went 2-1-3, the Burgundians should be happy.

Predictions: Real Madrid win this group, with Ajax pulling an upset to finish 2nd.  I feel that A.C. Milan are a tad too dysfunctional to make a run, despite their talent.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Champions League Preview: Group F

Group F, with Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Žilina, has the chance to provide some interesting soccer matches.  While Chelsea are the clear favorites, especially when considering their form in the early part of the EPL season (4 wins, 17 goals), the rest of the group should prove competitive.

Chelsea F.C. - Chelsea, last season's Premier League champions, have during this decade become perennial contenders for both the EPL and Champions League titles.  The runners-up (to Manchester United) in 2008, the Blues are looking to finally win the big one this season.  Always the stated goal of owner, Roman Abramovich, this could be the year that Chelsea break through and take home the move coveted trophy in club soccer.

Last season, Chelsea exited the Champions League at an early stage (by their high standards), losing to eventual champions Inter in the round of 16.  Each of the previous three seasons saw Chelsea make it to at least the semifinals.  In an effort to get themselves back to the semifinals, Chelsea undertook an extreme team makeover.  While their only major signings of the summer were Brazilian midfielder Ramires (from Benfica) and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun (from Liverpool), Chelsea allowed several older players to leave the team.  Gone are Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Juliano Belletti. Chelsea allowed these players to leave in an effort to get cheaper and younger.

In the EPL, Chelsea have been in top form from the beginning of the season.  With consecutive 6-0 victories to start the season (against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan), Chelsea's offense is firing on all cylinders.  Prior to conceding against West Ham United in the 85 minute, Chelsea hadn't given up a single goal.  While these stats are impressive, Chelsea has had a bit of a cupcake buffet to start the season.  The best team Chelsea has played thus far (Stoke City) finished 11th last season in the EPL.

Chelsea are clearly the favorites in this group.  The team has been in fine form to start the season.  While Marseille could trouble the Blues, especially in France, Chelsea should dominate this group.

Olympique de Marseille - Marseille, winners of Ligue 1 last season, have in each of the past three seasons made it to the group stage of the Champions League.  In each of those seasons, the French side has been unable to make it to the knockout rounds, finishing third all three times.  Marseille will look to improve upon that showing, in a group where they have a chance to finish second.

Marseille have enjoyed their recent resurgence and with the nearly unlimited funds from the estate of French billionaire Robert Louis-Dreyfus, they should be able to bring in talent to keep them at the top of Ligue 1.  In an effort to boost  what was one of the most prolific attacks in French soccer, Marseille imported French international André-Pierre Gignac (from Toulouse FC) and Loïc Rémy (from OGC Nice).  As if those additions weren't enough, it has recently come to light that Marseille attempted to buy Didier Drogba from Chelsea.  The only major exit from the squad was tempestuous winger, Hatem Ben Arfa.  I feel that the subtraction of Ben Arfa, who has been a distraction virtually everywhere he has played, could actually help Marseille.

While Marseille enjoyed a lot of success domestically last season, this year's campaign has gotten off to a rocky start.  Manager Didier Deschamps and sporting director José Anigo had a falling out over the transfer strategy, and the team has gotten off to a 1-1-2 start.  Marseille started the season with a 2-1 loss to SM Caen at Stade Vélodrome, followed by a 3-2 loss away to Valenciennes FC.  It seems that they have found a way to bounce back, defeating Lorient in Marseille and drawing with Bordeaux.  Marseille will have to find their form quickly, as they host Spartak on 9/15.

Marseille certainly have the firepower to compete with many teams in Europe, though to ask them to top Chelsea might be asking too much.  While pipping Chelsea to the top spot might be out of the question, a second place finish and a trip to the knockout rounds is certainly within Marseille's grasp.

Spartak Moscow - Spartak enter this season looking to win their first league title since 2001.  During the early years of the Russian Premier League, Spartak dominated, winning 9 championships in the first ten seasons.  Since then, their best finish was last season when they were runners-up to Rubin Kazan. Spartak are making their second recent appearance in the Champions League group stage.  Their prior appearance, during the 2006-2007 season, saw Spartak finish third in their group behind Inter and Bayern Munich. The Russians will be looking to improve upon that result this season.

As with fellow Russian entrants, Rubin, Spartak was extremely active in the transfer market.  With over a dozen players joining and at least that many leaving, Spartak has dramatically reshaped its team.  The biggest signing was the capture of Aiden McGeady from Celtic.  The Irish midfielder will add a steady, attacking presence to the Spartak midfield and should significantly upgrade the club.  With McGeady providing service for Brazilian forward Welliton, Spartak should see their offense improve.

The Russian Premier League has a different calendar than most of the rest of Europe, starting in early spring and ending in November.  Due to this schedule, Spartak have already played 19 games in the domestic league.  With an 8-5-6 record, Spartak sit 5th in the Russian Premier League and look likely to miss out on Champions League football for next season.  With this in mind, expect Spartak to make the most of this opportunity and provide some tough competition to Marseille for the second position.

While I do love the addition of McGeady, I ust don't see Spartak having the fire power to finish in the top two.  Playing in the Luzhniki Stadium can be intimidating for visiting clubs, but Chelsea played Manchester United there in the 2008 title game.  Spartak will likely finish third in this group and ear their way into the Europa League.

MŠK Žilina are just the 2nd Slovak team to make
it to the Champions League group stage.
MŠK Žilina - I have to admit no prior knowledge of Žilina before writing this post.  The most I knew about the Slovak Superliga was that Artmedia Bratislava made it to the Champions League group stages a few seasons ago. There always seems to be one team that comes out of nowhere to qualify for the group stage, and I think Žilina are that team this year.

Champions of the Slovak Superliga, Žilina are making their first appearance in the group stage of the Champions League.  Having previously qualified for the Champions League on 4 occasions, Žilina defeated Birkirkara F.C. (Maltese champions), Litex Lovech (Bulgarian champions), and AC Sparta Prague (Czech champions)  along the way.

Žilina's team consists mostly of Slovak and Czech players, and doesn't contain any international stars of note.  Žilina are the second Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage, following Artmedia Bratislava (who finished third in their group in the 2005-2006 season).  If Žilina are able to replicate Artmedia's success, the Slovaks would have to be happy.

Prediction: Chelsea easily top this group.  The Blues are in fine form this season and open their campaign against Žilina in Slovakia.  Marseille finish second.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Champions League Preview: Group E

Group E, at first glance doesn't look very difficult.  The group has one traditional power (FC Bayern Munich), a club on the rise from one of big 5 league (AS Roma), and two relative upstarts (FC Basel 1893 and CFR Cluj).  As with several of the other groups already previewed, there is one clear favorite in this group (Bayern Munich).  What makes this group different is the presence of a presumptive second place team (Roma).  Will there be surprises in the group?

FC Bayern Munich - Bayern Munich, last year's losing finalists, have to be smiling when they look at this group.  The Bavarian side are clearly the class of the group.  With a history that includes 4 Champions League titles, the most recent in 2001, Bayern are contenders virtually every year.  Bayern have won 6 league titles this decade, and despite an early stumble in the Bundesliga, look poised to contend again this season.

Last season, Bayern won the Bundesliga title, finishing 5 points clear of Schalke.  Over the summer, Bayern made no major purchases to augment a successful 2010 squad.  With Breno and Toni Kroos returning from loan spells, the side has gotten better without spending a lot of money.  Just as Bayern did not bringing in players, no major players left the squad.

In what has become something of a trend among Champions League teams, Bayern has stumbled out of the gate in the Bundesliga.  Prior to the international break, Bayern split its first two games, winning 2-1 at home against VfL Wolfsburg and losing 2-0 away to Kaiserslautern. Louis Van Gaal will look to right ship when Bayern host Werder Bremen on Saturday.

As with last season, Bayern will go as far as, Dutch international, Arjen Robben can take them.  If the oft-injured Dutchman can stay healthy and pair with World Cup revelation, Thomas Müller, Bayern have the team to make a deep run.

Which Adriano will Roma get? The prolific scorer or
party-going, locker room distraction.

A.S. Roma - Seemingly always the bridesmaid, and rarely the bride, Roma are looking to break that tradition this season.  Roma's best showing in the Champions League came when they finished runners-up in 1984.  This year's squad will look to repeat their stunning 2007-2008 group win (they pipped Chelsea to the top spot).  There are some similarities between this season and 2007-2008.  Roma were clearly the 2nd (or even 3rd) best team on paper in their group (this year I say they're 2nd).  Though they won the group, Roma couldn't advance past the round of 16, losing on penalties to Arsenal.

Looking to build on their recent success, Roma was relatively active in the transfer market, adding firepower to their strike force, and reinforcing their defense.  Roma are the most recent team to take a chance on mercurial forward, Adriano, while also adding Marco Borriello. Roma should score plenty of goals, as they are adding this offensive talent to Francesco Totti, Mirko Vučinić, and Jeremy Menez.  On the backline, Roma added the brothers Burdisso, Nicolás (from Inter) and Guillermo (from Rosario Central in Argentina).  With no major subtractions, Roma should be a better team this season.

Following a second place finish (just 2 points behind Inter) Roma will look to make a breakthrough on the domestic scene.  Currently, the Giallorossi have played just one game in Serie A (a 0-0 draw with Cesena) and could be facing a long layoff from domestic play as the Serie A players' union have announced a potential strike to begin on September 25.

Roma are clearly the favorites to finish second in this group.  With a very talented squad, and the lack of additions by Bayern, Roma might be able to push the German champions for first in the group.

FC Basel 1893 - The Swiss champions, FC Basel, have been fixtures at the top of the league since 2002.    With 5 Swiss championships since 2002, Basel will look to advance from the group stage for the first time. Their best showing in the Champions League came in 2002-2003 when they made it to the second group stage (equivalent to the group stage in the current format).  Basel entered the competition in the 3rd qualifying round and defeated Hungarian champions, Debreceni VSC (group stage participants last season) and Moldovan champions, Sheriff Tiraspol on their way to the group stage. Domestically, Basel have played 7 games, posting a 4-2-1 record, good enough for second place behind FC Luzern.

Basel, because they are in one of the middling leagues in Europe, tend not to make a big splash in the transfer market.  All of Basel's signings over the summer were from within the Swiss League (with the exception of Fwayo Tembo, who joined from ES Sahel of Tunisia) .  The only major loss was Portuguese winger, Carlitos, who signed with Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga.

Basel will look to have a better showing than last season's Swiss entrant, FC Zürich, who finished 1-1-4 with a -9 goal difference.  While I believe Basel will play better, I don't see them advancing.  They might be able to pull off one upset (perhaps against Roma) when playing at home.  Zürich was able to pull an upset of AC Milan at the San Siro last year, so anything is possible.  A best case scenario for the Swiss side is to finish 3rd in the group and qualify for the Europa League.

CFR Cluj are relative newcomers to the European stage.
Will they be able to pull off an upset, as they did in 2007-2008 against Roma?

CFR Cluj - A team with relatively little history in the Romanian top flight, just 16 seasons since 1946, Cluj are an example of what a team can do if they suddenly acquire significant financial backing.  In the Romanian third division as recently as 2002, Cluj have risen through the Romanian soccer ranks to capture two of the last three Liga I titles. During their previous appearance in the Champions League group stage, Cluj defeated Roma 2-1 in Rome, and drew with Chelsea in Cluj-Napoca.

Cluj's squad has surprisingly few Romanians, as the team has imported international players in an attempt to win the league and compete in Europe.  One of their best players, Ciprian Deac, left the club over the summer and signed with fellow Champions League side, Schalke.  Cluj did add some new, international talent over the summer, but nobody of note.

Along with Unirea Urziceni, Cluj have (over the last several seasons) displaced the Bucharest teams at the top of the domestic table.  This season, though, seems to be returning the Bucharest teams to power, as Cluj currently sit in 10th with a 2-2-3 record.  Will playing the Champions League hurt Cluj's chances to win a 2nd straight Liga I title?  Time will tell.

Cluj need to manage expectations in this competition.  If Cluj can even duplicate the success of their last appearance, they would be lucky.  Given their poor domestic form, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cluj finish at the bottom of this group.

Predictions: Bayern Munich will top this group, though I do see a bit of a struggle for them against Roma.  Roma will finish second, taking advantage of matches against clearly weaker sides.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Champions League Preview: Group D

Group D consists of champions from four leagues, though only FC Barcelona has the name recognition outside of hardcore soccer fans.  Joining Barça are: F.C Copenhagen, Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan.

FC Barcelona -  Barça, three-time Champions League winners and two-time defending La Liga champions, are one of the most well-known teams in the world.  With fans on every continent, Barça is also one of the wealthiest clubs in the world.  This has allowed Barça to put together an impressive collection of talent, including 8 members of the World Cup winning Spanish side.  Barça last won the Champions League in 2008-2009 and are looking to make it back to the finals, after losing last year to eventual champs Inter.

While Barça hasn't been overly active in the transfer market, buying just 3 players, those players will have a huge impact on both the La Liga and Champions League seasons.  Barça was able to land prolific striker David Villa from fellow Champions League competitors Valencia, defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano from Liverpool, and defender Adriano from Sevilla.  The addition of Villa and the emergence of Pedro made Thierry Henry surplus to requirements.  Villa's signing also allowed Barça to send misfit,  Zlatan Ibrahimović, to AC Milan on loan.  Others leaving the Catalan side include: Yaya Touré (Manchester City); Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy, and Rafa Márquez (New York Red Bulls).  Barça opened La Liga play with a 3-0 victory over Racing Santander in Santander with Lionel MessiAndrés Iniesta, and Villa scoring goals.

Interesting tidbit: this season marks the 2nd straight year they have been drawn into the same group with Russian champions, Rubin Kazan. Rubin upset Barça 2-1 at the Camp Nou and drew 0-0 in Kazan.  No doubt, Barça will not take Rubin lightly this year and will be looking for revenge.

Barcelona are the clear favorites in this group, just as Manchester United and Inter Milan were in their groups.  It would be a shock of epic proportions if Barça finished in any other position than 1st.

F.C. Copenhagen - Copenhagen are currently the class of the Danish league, having won 4 of the last 5 Superliga titles, including the last two. Of the teams in Group D, they were the only team to play in the qualifying rounds (entering in 3rd qualifying round).  Along the way, the Lions beat Belorussian champions FC BATE Borisov and Norwegian champions Rosenborg.

This season marks their first appearance in the group stage since the 2006-2007 season. That year they finished last in their group but did manage 2-1-3 record, which included a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in Copenhagen.  Last season, the Lions lost to surprise group stage entrant APOEL in the play-off round.

The Copenhagen squad is made up of mostly Scandinavian players, with several players representing the Swedish and Danish national teams.  During the transfer window, Copenhagen brought in Costa Rican international Christian Bolaños, and Brazilian midfielder Claudemir.  Copenhagen doesn't have any player that would qualify as an international start, but like the Danish national team, they win with good team tactics and chemistry.

Copenhagen, while certainly not a pushover (especially at home), will likely be happy if they qualify for the Europa League.  Competing with Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan for the 2nd spot might be asking too much of the plucky Danish side.

Panathinaikos F.C. - The Superleague Greece champions, Panathinaikos benefit from the Greek league gaining an automatic group stage qualifying spot at the expense of the Belgian league.  Last season, Panathinaikos entered in the 3rd qualifying round, ultimately bowing out in the play off round, losing to Atlético Madrid. Panathinaikos' league win broke a string of 6 consecutive titles by rivals Olympiacos. Thus far, Panathinaikos have played a single game this season, drawing with Skoda Xanthi 1-1.  The next game they play will be against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

Panathinaikos has been active in the transfer market over the past few seasons, showing a particular interest in French internationals (obviously, they hope to avoid the drama of the French national team). Prior to the 2009-2010 season, Djibril Cissé joined the club, and Jean-Alain Boumsong and Sidney Govou followed this summer. Both Govou and Boumsong moved from, fellow Champions League entrants, Lyon.  The addition of Boumsong and Govou, as well as Luis García, make Panathinaikos a better team than the one that qualified for the Champions League.  The only major subtraction was Greek international forward Dimitris Salpigidis, who returned to former club PAOK.

Panathinaikos certainly have the talent to make a run in the Champions League.  In addition to their French contingent, Gilberto Silva and several Greek internationals occupy the roster.  Second place in this group isn't out of the question, and will likely be a battle between the Greeks and Rubin Kazan.

FC Rubin Kazan - The two-time defending Russian Premier League champions are making their 2nd appearance in the group stage.  As mentioned above, this will be the 2nd straight year Rubin Kazan will be in the same group  as Barcelona.  Last season, they finished 3rd in their group, qualifying for the Europa League where they lost to Wolfsburg in the Round of 16.  This season, Rubin currently sit 2nd, 6 points behind Zenit St Petersburg after 19 games.

Rubin has been very active in the summer transfer window, with a dozen players both coming and going.  The biggest signing of the summer was Obafemi Martins, wh moved from Wolfsburg.  The Nigerian international should give Rubin more fire power up top and help replace the departed Aleksandr Bukharov (now with Zenit). Rubin have benefited from the new wealth that has poured into the Russian Premier League over the past few seasons.  Teams that had previously consisted of primarily Russian and for Soviet players are now true multinational teams. Rubin have players from countries all across the globe, and have pieced together a team that can compete internationally.

With Rubin's 4 points from 2 games against Barcelona last year, this team cannot be taken lightly.  The competitiveness of the Russian league has skyrocketed over the last several seasons.  Rubin have the tools to finish 2nd in the group.

Prediction: Barcelona take this group with little effort.  They have too much talent and will overwhelm the rest of the group.  With the talent brought in over the summer, Panathinaikos finish second.  Though, it wouldn't surprise me if Rubin nabbed that spot instead.

If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment.