Thursday, September 20, 2012

Champions League Preview - Part II

Group E: Chelsea FC, Juventus, Nordsjælland, Shaktar Donetsk

The reigning Champions League winners remade themselves after winning the title under Roberto di Matteo's stewardship, adding a youth infusion in Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and Oscar (all just 21) and 23 year-old Marko Marin, while casting away familiar faces like Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou. The move has reaped rewards for the Blues, who are leading the Premiership by themselves. Even with the new additions, they still have their trusty cast of leaders in Frank Lampard and John Terry, while Fernando Torres hopes to finally become what Roman Abramovich paid him to be.

The Bianconeri had a virtually flawless season in Italy, winning the Scudetto and suffering its only loss in the Coppa Italia Final against Napoli. That form continued in the early stages of this season, sharing the Serie A lead with Napoli and Lazio as each team has won their three respective matches. The core of the Azzurri forms the nucleus of Juve, led by its captain Gigi Buffon and panenka expert Andrea Pirlo.

Danish champions Nordsjælland make their Champions League debut, and is expected to finish at the bottom considering the talent on the other teams that are with them in the group. They will rely on Michael Parkhurst and Jores Okore on their backline to hold the fort and withstand the different attacking fronts out there. Currently third in the Superliga, behind København and AaB, they will rely on the likes of Soren Christensen, Nikolai Stokholm and Andreas Laudrup (yes, he is the son of Michael Laudrup), as well as the scoring prowess of Joshua John to pester the opposition.

Ukranian champions Shakhtar have opened up a six-point lead in the Ukranian Premier League, thanks in part to the goal scoring prowess of their Armenian international Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He has a dozen goals in nine matches. He had thirteen all season last year. Mircea Lucescu's team also has a heavy Brazillian flavor, employing no less than eight of them, plus Edu who plays for Croatia but came from Rio. His captain in the national team, Darijo Srna shepherds the way in the back line. 

Group F: FC BATE Borisov, FC Bayern München, LOSC Lille, Valencia CF

Perceived to be the weakest team in the group, the Belarussians have their old reliables from last year's Champions League campaign returning to attempt another run. They only made one major addition during the recent transfer window, that being former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Aleksandr Hleb. They maintain a slim lead in league action.

The Bavarians under Josef Heynckes managed to secure a runner-up treble last season, losing out to BVB on the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal, while in the Champions League final at the home Allianz Stadium, they capitulated at the penalty spot in dramatic fashion. Bayern won't have Mario Gomez up front for the early part of the season, but they snapped up Mario Mandžukić and old reliable Claudio Pizarro to make up for his absence. They also splurged on Spanish international Javi Martinez, spending $52.1 million to secure him from Basque side Atheltic Bilbao. Otherwise, the core remains intact for the current Bundesliga co-leaders, led by German captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and French captain Franck Ribery.

The deposed French champions Lille relied on Joe Cole and Eden Hazard last year in the Champions League. Both have since departed, leaving Rudi Garcia with a challenging task ahead. To make up for Eden's loss, they snapped up Salomon Kalou to provide some offense and are relying on Dmitri Payet, Marvin Martin and Rio Mavuba and Túlio de Melo to supply the goals. They have struggled somewhat, as they are mid-table in Ligue 1 with six points to their name.

Like Real Madrid, whom they faced to kick off La Liga, Los Che started off sluggish, with only five points in four matches. Their first match in the group stage will evoke old memories for manager Mauricio Pellegrino. He was on the pitch as a player when they faced Bayern in 2001 for the Champions League final. Valencia would like to improve on last year's European campaign, now bolstered with Aly Cissokho and João Pereira at the back, a primed set of midfielders, led by Andres Guardado, Fernando Gago and Alberto Costa, and up front by Spanish international Roberto Soldado. 

Group G: Celtic FC, FC Barcelona, FC Spartak Moskva, SL Benfica

The Scottish giants haven't run away with the SPL title just yet, considering they have been the huge favorites, now that their perennial rivals Rangers have plummeted all the way down to Scotland's Division Three.  A good omen perhaps the currently 5th place team is that they have made the last 16 each time they are drawn with Benfica in a group. Neil Lennon still has the likes of Gary Hooper, Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras around, but the team has a youthful vibe to it, led by 18 year-old Anthony Watt.

The Catalan giants have seized the oppotunity with the current struggles of Real Madrid, opening an eight-point gap between the two rivals in La Liga. Even with a new regime under Tito Vilanova, the scheme remains the same, with the talismanic powers of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and the comebacking David Villa. Jordi Alba has seamlessly made the adjustment since the move from Valencia to join most of his teammates with the Spanish national team.

For Unai Emery, facing off against the Blaugrana is a familiar task, having to deal with that problem as Valencia's manager previously. Now currently tending to Spartak, Unai will probably rely on similar tactics another Russian team pulled on Barca at the Nou Camp, as Rubin Kazan managed to pull out a win there way back in 2009. The RPL's runners-up from last season are currently tied for sixth as of the moment, with Aiden McGeady, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Kim Källström patrolling the midfield. They will however need their strikeforce to score goals if they have any chance of progressing. That puts the onus on the likes of Welliton, Emmanuel Emenike and Artem Dzyuba to put it into the net.

Benfica will be without its captain Luisao for two months due to a physical altercation with an official, to add to the personnel losses with the transfers of Javi Garcia, Axel Witsel and Javier Saviola. In spite of the departures, they are currently sharing the lead in the Primeira Liga with veterans like Oscar Cardozo and Pablo Aimar teaming up with youngsters Rodrigo Moreno, Ola John and Eduardo Salvio. 

Group H: CFR 1907 Cluj, Galatasaray AŞ, Manchester United FC, SC Braga

The Romanians are currently sixth in Liga I and are looking for means to improve on their history of finishing at the bottom of the group for the past few years. Ioan Andone is heavy on the Portuguese flavor, with around 7 of them with the team, most of them getting heavy playing time. A few of those players have roots with SC Braga, interestingly.

Galatasaray have a bunch of players who have played big time top-flight football, so they won't be undaunted with the task of having to deal with the Red Devils at Old Trafford to kick off their campaign. From goalkeeping (Fernando Muslera) to defense (Emmanuel Eboue) to midfield (Hamit Alintop, Felipe Melo) and up front (Johan Elmander, Milan Baroš) Fatih Terim has some guys who can handle the bright lights and the big stage. The Süper Lig leaders also have a couple of offensive threats in Umut Bulut and Burak Yilmaz up front.

The Premiership runners-up were embarrased to have missed out on the knockout stage last year, having to go through the Europa campaign last season. Sir Alex Ferguson has reloaded in the offseason with Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa amongst other additions, and with Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic now healthier and available, there is no excuse for them to replicate their disappointment last season.

Unlike the other two Portuguese teams, SC Braga is currently just outside the periphery of European qualification in this early part of the season in the Primeira Liga. José Peseiro's men are looking at the other open slot for qualification in the knockout phase as their goal. They will need to find someone who can score for them, since they lost their main goal-scoring option to a transfer to Benfica (Lima). The pressure is on the likes of Eder, Ruben Amorim and Rúben Micael to provide the offensive oomph that will be necessary to advance to the next round.

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