With Europe’s elite kicking off in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday evening, it’s time for Sports Pundit to take a close look at each group.
Group A provides three even clubs ambitious about their Champions League hopes and the plucky Maccabi Haifa from Israel. There’s no doubt the long journey to Israel will give Maccabi hope, but they’ll probably only offer merely nuisance value.
Juventus have started the new Serie A season well under young boss Ciro Ferrara and will be optimistic about qualifying through this group, boosted by their big Brazilian summer additions Diego and Felipe Melo.
Louis van Gaal has been charged with the responsibility for taking Bayern long into the Champions League and he can call on Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez which suggests they’ve got plenty to offer. But van Gaal can be complicated and there’s a worry this may de-rail Bayern.
Bordeaux on the other hand, won the French title last season with some lovely, flamboyant football led by star man Yoann Gourcuff. Unfortunately, the Ligue 1 club lost unsung centre-half Souleymane Diawara to Marseille in the summer and perhaps that leaves some frailties in defence which might get exposed at this level.
Prediction for progression; Juventus & Bayern
A group with three domestic champions is never going to be easy, especially when one of those sides is global giants Manchester United. The Red Devils should confident in this group despite some long away trips and the summer departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. United have started the new Premier League season well enough and look a major danger in Europe again.
German champions Wolfsburg have had a stuttering start to the new Bundesliga campaign and their surprising success of last term may be hard to reproduce. But they still possess star attackers Edin Dzeko, Grafite and Zvjezdan Misimovic and those names represent goals.
CSKA Moscow could be the roughies in this group with new boss Juande Ramos (a man who has tasted success in Europe before) at the helm. The Russians though have lost influential winger Yuri Zhirkov and seem a little slow in defence. Brilliant stopper Igor Akinfeev will need to be at his best.
Istanbul giants Besiktas grabbed a domestic double last term and now their attention turns to qualifying out of the group phase of the UEFA Champions League for the first time. And while Nihat Kahveci’s arrival in the summer in encouraging, it seems manager Mustafa Denizli may not have the craft to get them through.
Prediction for progression; Manchester United & CSKA Moscow
When Group C was drawn out of the pot, there was plenty of excitement about seeing Kaka return to Milan after his big-money summer transfer to Madrid. Indeed that will be a super occasion and those two sides should dominate this group, although Marseille shouldn’t be underestimated.
Nevertheless Real’s new boss Manuel Pellegrini (who’s inherited quite the squad) will be under plenty of pressure to deliver. Indeed, he’s expected to win both the Spanish and European titles. The question is can he find a balance for his *Galacticos *stars, but early indications from the club’s La Liga will enthuse with Cristiano Ronaldo looking dangerous already.
AC Milan on the other hand, appear to have slipped off their perch in the last few years and are actually returning to Europe’s elite competition after a crack last campaign in the UEFA Cup. While Kaka has left and Milan’s ageing stars are not getting younger, there’s reason for optimism with youngster Alexandre Pato, while Ronaldinho and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar have plenty to prove.
Didier Deschamps’ Marseille have drawn themselves a tough group on paper, but the French 1998 World Cup winning captain is a football strategist, albeit a conservative one, who could just mastermind a few big results, with Hatem Ben Arfa his joker in the pack.
Swiss Super League winners FC Zurich may find the going a bit tough in their maiden voyage in the Champions League. There’s a bit of talent at Stadion Letzigrund such as Almen Abdi, but there’s not enough quality to realistically do more than compete at this level.
Prediction for progression; Real Madrid & AC Milan
Fittingly, Group D proves itself this year to be a bit of a group of death with three ambitious clubs well and truly in the running. Wealthy Londoners Chelsea will know trips to Porto and Madrid won’t be easy, while the awkward journey to Cyprus could prove just that, awkward.
Porto and Chelsea, of course, have some history with the Jose Mourinho links, which heats up the group. And the Portuguese champions are always thereabouts in Europe as they seem to be able to replace stars and they’ll need to this season after the summer departures of Lucho Gonzalez, Aly Cissokho and Lisandro Lopez. But new hitman Falcao has impressed in Liga Sagres so far, but whether or not he’s got elite quality remains to be seen.
Chelsea themselves are now under the guidance of 2007 UCL winner Carlo Ancelotti and that relationship has started well with an unblemished start to the Premier League following their Charity Shield triumph. But he’ll need to deliver more following plenty of failed semi-final appearances in Europe. Didier Drogba’s started this campaign well but the difficult away journeys in this group present quite a danger for the Blues, who won’t accept early European failure.
Atletico Madrid’s problem could be their constant issue of leaking goals, especially following Johnny Heitinga’s deadline day move to Everton. New goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo is a player the club hope to be the answer to their defensive woes, but he’s still very young. But Atletico do still possess prolific pair Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero and their presence alone promises plenty.
Finally, the unheralded Cypriots APOEL might have a few enjoyable encounters at home, but it seems they’re out of their depth in this group. Star man Dionisis Chiotis will have plenty of work to do, but APOEL could do some damage at home.
Prediction for progression; Chelsea & FC Porto