Champs League groups crucial to survival
Chelsea’s Champions League title defence kicks off. I will analyse each of the eight groups; who I think is hot and who is not.
This is the most lucrative club competition in the world, with each team that participates in the group phase guaranteed as much as €17 million in earnings. A qualification to the next round represents more. Qualification to the next round could mean as much as survival to some clubs. This year’s Champions League group stage could be as crucial as ever to some clubs.
Group A teams: FC Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), FC Porto (Portugal), Paris Saint-Germain (France)
On paper this group looks well balanced but in reality Paris St Germain of France, with their acquisition of big names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, are clear favourites. This club now owned by Qatar sheiks are quite ambitious and should provide a stiff opposition to usual Champions League participants, Porto.
Porto have lost one of their best players, in the person of Hulk, to Zenit St Petersburg of Russia. In turn it gained almost €50 million and this could be crucial.
Kiev went through the qualifiers to get this far and they look like a pretty good side; players are still beaming with new found impetus as a result of their country’s hosting of the Euros in the summer.
If any team will create a surprise in this group it will be Dynamo Kiev.
Group B teams : FC Schalke 04(Germany), Montpellier Hérault SC (France), Arsenal FC (England), Olympiacos FC (Greece)
Schalke lost the Spaniard Raul Gonzalez, Montpellier lost its last season’s highest scorer Olivier Giroud to Arsenal, Arsenal lost its highest scorer Van Persie and, with the economic crisis hitting Greece, Olympiakos have lost financial backing. So this group is made of teams that have lost major pawns.
How each team in this group fares will depend on their ability to bounce back after major losses, the mental strength and experience dealing with the Champions League.
Arsenal have been impressive and among the leaders in the English Premier League and I must say are surprisingly promising.
Schalke have made their intentions clear of the need to once again impress in Europe.
Montpellier was impressive last year but they somehow have lost the element of surprise and should be satisfied to be a part of this year’s edition.
Olympiacos are not what they used to be and the financial crisis hitting Greece in general means they have been unable to attract quality to their team.
I feel Arsenal and Schalke are clear favourites to progress to the next round stages.
Group C teams: RSC Anderlecht (Belgium), Málaga CF (Spain), FC Zenit St Petersburg (Russia) AC Milan (Italy)
AC Milan is facing turbulent times, parted ways with major leading players due to lack of funds to sustain them by owner Silvio Berlusconi. There has been a clearing out of known faces and an injection of youth with the coach still on board. That is a major reason why they definitely will be unpredictable in this group.
Malaga are a growing side, though uncertain lately due to recent rumours or news of the owners’ probable intent to quit ship. Should he stay put then they are going to be force to reckon with in this group. In Pellegrino they have a very astute coach so they are a threat.
Watch out for Zenit St Petersburg. With a very good coach and a star-studded team, boosted with the arrival of Belgian sensation, Axel Witsel, and FC Porto’s Hulk they should be potent in this group.
Anderlecht should struggle in this group .Their best player is Congolese Dieu Merci Mbokani. On a good day he is world class and quite impressive but the league’s tempo is relatively slow and the Champions League is so fast that as a team they might struggle to cope.
I feel FC Zenit and Malaga of Spain should make the next round.
Group D teams: Manchester City FC (England), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), AFC Ajax Amsterdam(Netherlands), Real Madrid CF (Spain)
Group D for death, this is the group of death. All four clubs are champions in their country with mostly experienced players in their roster. On current form they are all but impressive since the season kicked off. Real Madrid is desperately struggling and their star player Ronaldo has hinted at unhappiness and a rumoured exit followed. When we know how much importance Mourinho places in this championship, one will be naïve to write them off. That is why they are clear favourites for me.
I see Manchester City joining them as qualifiers into the next round with inexperience and loss of some major players likely to impede the progression of Ajax Amsterdam and Borussia Dortmund.
Group E teams: Juventus (Italy), FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), FC Nordsjælland (Denmark), Chelsea FC (England)
Defending champions Chelsea start their defence in a relatively negotiable group. Their major rivals will be Juventus and themselves. Should they decide to play beautiful football and win in style it could add some flair to their name.
Juventus have the misfortune of returning after years to the top stage of European and world football without their suspended coach Antonio Conté. They, however, have been impressive in the league and I expect them to be a force to reckon with here too.
If there will be a surprise it might come off Donetsk but they are looking less capable as they did the last few years.
I feel Juventus and Chelsea should go through.
Group F teams: Valencia CF (Spain), LOSC Lille (France), FC BATE Borisov (Belarus) , FC Bayern Munich (Germany)
Bayern Munich is still mourning the most disastrous season in their history as far as I am concerned.
Three titles were lost at the final stages last season. Among them, the Champions League final to Chelsea on penalties. Ruthless and unforgiving will be their motto this time around.
They have gone on a spending spree to fortify their team. Result? A much improved competitive team than last season. They are therefore, in my opinion, clear favourites to reach the next stage from this group.
Valencia is now a regular with the Champion’s League and the current form they have shown since this season started suggests they have ambition. I expect them to accompany Bayern Munich into the next stage of the Champions League.
Group G teams: SL Benfica (Portugal), FC Barcelona, (Spain), Spartak Moscow (Russia), Glasgow Celtic FC (Scotland)
Although Guardiola is gone, with Lionel Messi in any team you are guaranteed results. Barcelona has shown little weakness and is still potent. First of the group is where I expect them to be and qualification in a relatively easy manner.
The fight for the second place should be fierce in this group. Spartak Moscow is potent and Benfica are a very organised and well-managed team. How many points and goals they are able to take off Glasgow Celtic will be decisive.
I am, however, slightly inclined towards a Benfica qualification ahead of Spartak Moscow.
Group H: CFR 1907 Cluj (Romania), Manchester United FC (England) Galatasaray AS (Turkey), SC Braga (Portugal)
Clear favourites in this group are Manchester United. The last campaign was probably one of the most deceptive European campaigns under Sir Alex Fergusson’s reign as manager. They will be in a hurry to put this behind them as soon as possible and hence I do not expect them to take any team for granted this time around. Clear first in the group is my expectation.
Sc Braga are a well organised team and their home record is quite impressive in all competitions. In recent years they have been regulars in the European stage and they should accompany United into the next stages, barring any unforeseen major blows.