by Chris Behrens for World Football Commentaries
After an exhausting transfer season full of nasty rumors, horrible backstabbing, and a few big name moves, we can finally get back to the game. UEFA Champions League play kicks off September 14th and some teams will be getting their first taste of CL group play. Will any of these teams survive their group to advance to the knockout? Here are my predictions for each group’s standings:
Internazionale Milano are the defending champions.
1). Inter Milan: Although the club lost the chosen one in Jose Mourinho, they retain the core of last year’s Champions League Winning side, including Wesley Sneijder, Julio Cesar, Diego Milito, and Javier Zanetti. Though Inter didn’t get the most favorable draw and will surely play in some tight encounters, they should ease into the Round of 16 atop the group.
2). Werder Bremen: An experienced Champions League, Werder Bremen have enough quality (Torsten Frings controlling the midfield, Per Mertesacker to anchor the backline, and Hugo Almedia providing the occasional goal) to push past Tottenham at home and get a draw away. Getting any sort of result at home versus Inter should see the German club through to the knockout phase.
3). Tottenham Hotspur: The Champions League newbie has a lot of quality from the midfield backward, but the inconsistency of the strike force will be the Achilles heel of Hotspur. Jermaine Defoe will inevitably contribute a couple goals to the club’s tally in European play, but Peter Crouch, Robbie Keane, and Roman Pavlyuchenko need to throw in a couple too for this club to have a chance at progressing.
4). Twente: The latest winners of the Dutch Eredivisie will find it hard to compete simply out of the lack of star power or game-changers. Striker Bryan Ruiz will have to carry the team to glory in the goal department and the lack of European experience on the team will surely have this team crashing out early.
Manuel Neuer of Schalke 04.
1). Schalke 04: The Bundesliga runner-up added a ton of quality and experience to their side in Real Madrid legend Raul and AC Milan outcast Klaas-Jan Huntelaar during the summer that will prove invaluable for the German squad. Manuel Neuer will be a rock in goal and Schalke 04 should advance through with a few bumps along the way.
2). Lyon: The French runner-up were not too active in the transfer market; however, they did not need to be. They have a ton of quality around the field and have great Champions League experience, reaching the semi-finals last year and the quarterfinals on a number of occasions. They have virtually the same squad from last season so expect them to get through.
3). Benfica: Though they have had success in European competition, Champions League success is hard to come by. Benfica’s speed on the wings in the 4-1-2-1-2 will be vital to their success in breaking through the defense. Maxi Pereira and Óscar Cardozo will be the keys in accomplishing their performances will determine whether a move onto the knockout phase is possible.
4). Hapoel Tel Aviv: Getting to the Champions League group stage is a heck of an accomplishment for the Israeli Premier League winners and they should be very proud. Don’t expect an Israeli team mostly comprised of their countrymen to make much of a dent in any other team’s plans in the group stage.
Javier Hernandez of Manchester United.
1). Manchester United: If they don’t come first in this group, the world may end. Expect new signings (Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling) to get some significant minutes in the later group games, to help sell the Manchester United jerseys, as the team will have sealed qualification within 4 games.
2). Rangers: After a disastrous Champions League campaign last season, the Blues will look to be more motivated than ever. American midfielder Maurice Edu will be looking for a breakout campaign and he should begin to show flashes of quality during the group stages, netting a couple times. New signing Vladimir Weiss should also be great for the Glasgow giants.
3). Valencia: The huge question on everyone’s mind is, “Who will score now that David Villa and David Silva are gone?” A more fair question to ask is “Who can score on this team?” Maybe young Spanish winger Juan Mata can provide an offensive spark for this team. If he doesn’t, the team’s firepower will be down the tubes. Valencia can’t win without a goal or two every game.
4). Buraspor: The Turkish champs have a chance to surprise a lot of people and slip into the knockout stage with a bit of luck in away games in the group. Buraspor play a tough, physical style that is built for grinding out results and they have enough attacking presence with Leonel Núñez and Sercan Yildirim to squeak in a good result here and there.
Javier Mascherano of FC Barcelona.
1). Barcelona: A given the Catalan giants will come out on top in their group. With the addition of David Villa and Javier Mascherano, this team looks set to be truly unfair to play. They have all the pieces to put together one of the most incredible seasons ever and to possibly put together a second treble in 3 years.
2). Rubin Kazan: Given terrific experience last season by being placed in the group of death with Barcelona and Inter Milan, the Russian Champions are primed to advance to their first Champions League knockout stage. Securing a shock 2-1 win last year at the Camp Nou will not be so shocking this year when they do secure at least a point against Barcelona again.
3). Panathinaikos: The Greek champions will be looking to attack opponents with their new 4-2-3-1 formation as well as some clever attacking players in the experienced Sidney Govou and Djibril Cisse. Gilberto Silva should be an immovable monster in the midfield as always but the defense is lacking.
4). Copenhagen: The Danish Superliga champs will rely heavily on their Brazilian duo, César Santin (to partner up top with former Panathinaikos forward Dame N'Doye) and new singing Claudemir (to pull the strings in midfield). Advancing to the group stage of Champions League from the away goals rule doesn’t exactly spell success very often and not many are predicting wins for the Danes.
Bastian Schweinsteiger of FC Bayern Munich.
1). Bayern Munich: The German champions will be devastated without Arjen Robben for a couple months but the general feeling is that Munich will survive just fine with the likes of Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and Mark Van Bommel. Plus, the Champions League experience they obtained from last year will be invaluable.
2). Roma: The Serie A runner-ups will have no problem advancing in the group stage with the teams listed below not providing much competition. All of their placement depends on the results against Munich, since I’ll give them victories over the 3rd and 4th place teams.
3). FC Basel: The Swiss champs will be led by leading goal scorer Alexander Frei, who has scored a magnificent 18 times in 21 appearances since his arrival at the club. If he’s not on form, this team has absolutely no shot.
4). CFR Cluj: The Romanian champs made some noise two years ago in Champions League group play by beating Roma 2-1 at the Italian capital and drawing with Chelsea 0-0. This, however, is not that team. CFR Cluj may be able to squeeze out a result here or there, but don’t expect them to shock too many people this year.
Michael Essien of Chelsea FC.
1). Chelsea: Should have no problem topping this group despite not adding much to their own squad besides the Brazilian workhorse Ramieres, who should help out the aging Michael Essien and the loss of Ballack. Benayoun could see some quality minutes off the bench in the latter part of the group stage since the Blues will have secured qualification for the knockout round early.
2). Marseille: The newly crowned French Ligue 1 champs will have some lofty goals this season with good reason. Stéphane Mbia is starting to come into his own element and become the rock in the middle his club expected him to be while Gabriel Heinze and Taye Taiwo will anchor the back. Solid organization across the pitch will see this team through to the knockout.
3). FC Spartak Moscow: The addition of Celtic youngster Aiden McGeady will help the Russian runner-up with some creativity into breaking down the defense. They’ll be rock solid in the back and should frustrate Chelsea and Marseille. It would not be too surprising if Spartak Moscow squeeze into the knockout round with some Champions League experience behind them.
4). MŠK Žilina: For those of you asking, “Who is this club and what are they doing in the Champions League?” I may be right there with you. The Slovak champs clawed their way all the way from the 2nd round of qualifying to get into the group stages, facing pretty weak competition along the way and struggling to get into group play. Now, they get to play the big boys. Good luck.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan.
1). AC Milan: Being part of this group will certainly be tough, but with the additions of Ibrahimovic and Robinho to the team, Milan will have one of the deadliest attacking units around. There certainly will be tough games at Real and at Ajax with a ton of goals inevitable, but the creativity and unbelievable form of Ronaldihno should see the Rossoneri top the group.
2). Real Madrid: One of the best coaches in the game has a tall task ahead of him in this group, but Mourinho is definitely up for the challenge. Ronaldo should terrorize opposing teams and Higuaín/Benzema should provide enough firepower to bag some goals. The addition of veteran defender Carvalho should help out the back line to hold stronger than last year’s round of 16 exit from the UCL.
3). Ajax: Young Uruguayan hitman Luis Suárez can’t do it all but that’s not what he’d like you to believe. The Ajax captain has bagged an astonishing 78 goals in just 99 appearances for the club and he’ll need to keep up at least this form for the Dutch runner ups to have a shot at going through. They are the dark horse of Group G and will scare a lot of people if they advance.
4). Auxerre: Certainly not a bad team but certainly not a great team. Play cohesively as a unit but don’t really have anyone special to light up any of the other group members or provide too much of a threat. Expect an early exit from the French side.
Theo Walcott of Arsenal FC.
1). Arsenal: Received another great draw for group play this year and should advance quite simply, even if they field a team of schoolchildren like Wenger decides on occasion for cup games. Half the men in Arsenal jerseys will inevitably be injured, but they still should have plenty of young talent to advance on with ease.
2). Shakhtar Donetsk: The additions of their former defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy and Arsenal striker Eduardo were terrific and financially sound decisions from the Ukrainian champs. These additions, along with the core of Fernandihno and captain Darijo Srna should see the Ukrainian side to enough points to advance on in the competition.
3). Braga: Having qualified for group play by beating heavily favored Sevilla, the Portuguese club will go for 2nd place and nothing better realistically. Their lack of international experience and big name talent will be their downfall, despite their uncanny ability to produce results off of solid team play.
4). FK Partizan Belgrade: Clawing their way all the way from the 2nd stage of UEFA Champions League qualifying back in July, the Serbian outfit consists mostly of local players who don’t have much experience outside of the country. The club will be in for a rude awakening with this group, despite it being one of the easier collection of teams in the cup.
About the Author
Chris Behrens works for the world's best soccer shop, soccerpro.com.
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