Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Champions League Preview Part I

Group A: GNK Dinamo Zagreb (CRO), Dynamo Kyiv (UKR), Paris Saint-Germain (FRA), Porto (POR)

PSG is expected to lord over this group, backed by the financial clout of its Qatari owners, although it has not really expressed itself in league form. They have, however, bounced back with consecutive wins to move them to a tie at fourth place. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been the man for the Parisians, scoring five of their six goals in Ligue 1.

FC Porto are currently sharing the league with rivals Benfica in the Primeira Liga, having to cope with the recent departure of last year's leading scorer, Hulk, to fellow Champions League participants Zenit. They have gotten by with Luis Oscar Gonzalez and Jackson Martinez holding thing down up front, though.

Dynamo Kyiv are tied for second behind Shaktar Donetsk in top-flight Ukrainian football, behind the goal-scoring prowess of Brown Ideye and new signing Niko Kranjčar. They are expected to give a good fight for the other remaining eligible spot for the knockout stage.

Dinamo Zagreb is pretty much expected to finish last in this group, but they would like to improve from last year's performance, where they allowed a record-high 22 goals during the 6 matches in the group stage. They are leading the 1. HNL, scoring a league-high 20 goals and allowing the second-fewest. 

Group B: Arsenal, Montpellier HSC, Olympiakos Piraeus, Schalke 04

The Gunners have bucked from their slow start with a couple of rousing victories, moving them up to fourth in the Premiership. The pressure is on for Oliver Giroud to make an impact, with the Matchday 1 featuring a trip back to the team he helped lift the Ligue 1 title. The other key signings have been of great help so far, with Podolski and Cazorla finally breaking the scoring drought of Wenger's crew. Thanks to Thomas Vermaelen, the drop-off on leadership from Robin van Persie's departure has been minimal, at best.

Meanwhile, if the Gunners have managed to overcome their key loss, Montpellier has struggled out of the gate. They are only one point adrift of the relegation zone, and only secured just one win in their five Ligue 1 matches. They'll need their African combo of John Utaka, Younes Belhanda and Souleymane Camara to assert themselves and get things going.

Olympiakos kicked off their Super League campaign with three straight victories, and the Reds will look to keep things going with Rafik Djebbour maintaining his hot streak. The Algerian has scored four goals in three league matches. They also have former Manchester United keeper Roy Carroll tending their nets.

Schalke is a couple of points behind the leaders in the Bundesliga, bunched up with a couple of teams. The loss of Raul has been adequately filled by the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Their strength lies in midfield with the likes of Jermaine Jones, Ibrahim Afellay and Julian Draxler holding things down, as well as having Kyriakos Papadopoulos holding the fort on the back line. 

Group C: Anderlecht, AC Milan, Málaga CF, FK Zenit St. Petersburg

Belgian champions Anderlecht would like to end their Italian woes by attempting to secure their first victory after 14 unsuccessful tries against Serie A opposition against AC Milan in Matchday 1. The Jupiler League winners are currently tied for second behind Club Brugge, but they are doing this with one of their key offensive threats missing.

AC Milan are the favorites to take this group, but based on their current form, that may not be the case for the Rossoneri. They only have one win in Serie A, and that was thanks to Giampaolo Pazzini hat trick against Bologna. Anything other than a win at the San Siro against Anderlecht would ratchet up panic buttons on Massimiliano Allegri.

Champions League debutants Málaga CF might just get themselves shellshocked with the competition they might just get themselves into, especially since they conducted a massive sell-off of their star players before the start of the season. Last year saw Borussia Dortmund struggle and finish last in their group, and this might be applicable to them. They will rely on their defensive toughness, something reflected in only allowing a league-low two goals in La Liga and solo second behind the Catalan giants FC Barcelona. Manuel Pellegrini will rely on his savvy veterans for stability.

Zenit may only be fourth in the Russian Premier League, but the leaders are only three points ahead of them. They also have cooled down from a sizzling start, with only one win in their last four league fixtures. They did however, infused themselves with additional talent with some acquisitions before the transfer window closed, namely Hulk and Axel Witsel. Having the two youngsters will probably raise the expectations for Luciano Spalletti. They already have a some talent on hand with Alexander Kerzhakov and Viktor Faizulin. 

Group D: Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City FC, Real Madrid CF

Welcome to the acclaimed "Group of Death," featuring the Dutch, German, English and Spanish champions, respectively.

The Dutch champions would like to get themselves into the knockout stage, something that has not happened for while given the profile of their league. They are already in solo third, trailing Twente and Vitesse in the Ere Divisie, but Frank de Boer has a group of young guys to go to with, from Siem de Jong to Christian Eriksen. To emphasize on their youth (they have a well-known pipeline of academy talent), they only have one guy over 30 years of age.

The German back-to-back champions would like to improve on last year, where they finished at the bottom of their group. They are currently chasing fellow Champions League participants Bayern München and surprise co-leaders Eintracht Frankfurt on top of the Bundesliga, and that's with the departure of Shinji Kagawa to the Premiership. New acquisition Marco Reus has already scored for BVB, with German and Polish internationals providing great chemistry for Jurgen Klopp.

The blue side of Manchester won the Premiership in dramatic fashion last season, but the man who made that happen (Sergio Agüero) is still recovering from an injury and might be doubtful for Matchday 1, leaving either Edin Džeko or a freshly recovering Mario Balotelli to partner up with Carlos Tevez. They still have oodles of talent, from Nasri and Silva in midfield to the Toure brothers and of course, Kompany and Kolarov at the back. 

Los Blancos have stumbled in their defense of the La Liga title, most recently a 1-0 defeat at Sevilla that had José Mourinho publicly criticizing the team's performance and, if you ask Sami Khedira, deservedly so. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín have scored all five league goals for Madrid, a number that should go up in the next few fixtures. Tension is high at the Santiago Bernabeu for this clash of titans.

Interesting tidbit with the Mancini - Mourinho coaching duel is that both men have led Inter Milan to greatness in Italy and Europe. In fact, Mourinho succeeded Mancini at Inter when he left for City in 2008.

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