European Competitions Preview
Another season of European competition is upon us and here we profile both the Champions League and the Europa League and look at some of the important match ups as well as surprises that may be in store.
Come 13th September, the 2011-12 season of the UEFA Champions League kicks off with primarily one question hovering among the football fraternity, ‘Is there any team in Europe that can stop a superstar filled Barcelona bandwagon from steamrolling everyone else? If so, who? Manchester United with youth brimming in their ranks, managed by one of the greatest coaches of the modern era, Sir Alex Fergusson, or will it be their traditional arch rivals Real Madrid or the traditional superpowers from the city of Milan, Italy?’ Only time will say whether that can happen, but here we look forward as we try to unravel the world’s most famous club competition.
This season’s draw has been a highly anticipated one with several high profile names, past and present, making an appearance. It was not since the glory days of perhaps the game’s greatest artist Diego Maradona that Napoli have managed to make a mark on the European circuit. This year they re-enter Europe’s premier club competition on the back of a strong performance in Serie A. And at last – cash is paying dividends as Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City owned by the ruling family of Dubai makes their debut amidst the sky-high expectations among their fans. There is a story from the Bundesliga as well. Borussia Dortmund was the first club from their country to win a European trophy when they won the European Super cup in 1966. Since then most of the time they have lived in the shadows of their more illustrious opponents – Bayern Munich. But this year Borussia Dortmund are back as the Champions of the Bundesliga and are expected to penetrate deep into the later stages of the tournament.
Group A: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Napoli, Villareal
This group will provide an acid test and looks tricky enough to be labelled as a potential ‘Group of Death’. Four time champions Bayern Munich, with all their experience and history of playing in big matches should top this group if all goes according to plan. The fight for the 2nd spot is what will excite this group. Napoli will bring in a solid back line while Spanish “journeyman” – The Yellow Submarines will be steady for much of the campaign.
However, with all their flair and expensive signings, Manchester City should emerge as the group runners up provided they are not bowled over by the occasion and the “hype” that will get created by the British media. If Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero continues to sizzle like they have been doing at the start of the season, Manchester City will be bringing in a lively mix of pace, power and precision which will now be boosted by the signing of Arsenal’s Samir Nasri.
Picks: Bayern Munich, Manchester City
Dark Horse: Napoli.
Group B: Inter Milan, Trabzonspor, CSKA Moscow, Lille
This group apparently looks straightforward for Inter and CSKA to progress, but the exit of talismanic striker Samuel Eto’o to Russian team Anzhi Makhachkala will leave Inter Milan with a lot to do on the attacking front. To add salt to their wounds, Diego Forlan cannot play the Champions League until February, because he has already played a match in the Europa League with Atletico Madrid. However, such is the legacy of the Milanese club led by the irrepressible Argentine, Javier Zanetti that they should in all probabilities top this group. In fact, Forlan’s absence could open up different possibilities for Inter’s attack with Milito, Pazzini, Zarate and Coutinho, all braced up to fill in the role of the prolific Uruguan.
CSKA are always a tough side to beat in cold Russian conditions and having previously won the UEFA cup in 2005, they have the experience to play in big stages. Lille may be the defending French Champions, but having lost both Gervinho and Yohan Cabaye to EPL, they would not be able to find life so easy in Europe. Trabzonspor should not trouble any of the other clubs as they try to make the most of their appearance in the league. They made it to the Champions League by virtue of being the runners-up in Turkish league as the Turkish League winners, Fenerbache were banned from the Champions League due to an ongoing match-fixing scam. It remains to be seen how much they can cash in on the opportunity.
Picks: Inter, CSKA
Group C: Benfica, FC Basel, Otelul Galati, Manchester United
The Iron Workers of Romania, Otelul Galati might be making their Champions League debut and might spring a surprise here and there, however, for all the three teams in this group, the question that remains to be answered is: Who will finish runners-up? Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is too strong to be troubled in the group phase.
In all probability, Benfica should progress as the second best team from this group. FC Basel doesn’t have the fizz to survive the onslaught of Europe’s biggest club competition and can be the ‘Morning Glory’ of this group.
Picks: Manchester United, Benfica
Group D: Ajax Amsterdam, Dynamo Zagreb, Lyon, Real Madrid
With thirteen Champions League/European Cups shared between two great teams, this group has echelons of history pregnant in it. Dynamo and Lyon are two extremely good teams at a national level; however they should not be expected to trouble the big boys of Spain and the Netherlands. Although Ajax has not been able to win a single European Championship since 1995 and Real have for all their star power been a second fiddle to Barcelona, both of them should comfortably be expected to progress from their group. Jose Mourinho’s men will be the team to watch out as they prepare their assault on an unprecedented tenth title.
Picks: Real Madrid, Ajax Amsterdam
Dark Horse: Lyon
Group E: Bayer Leverkusen, Chelsea, KRC Genk and Valencia
Traditional Spanish powerhouse Valencia are all set to face their own man Juan Mata feature against them in a Chelsea jersey as they launch another season of Europe’s biggest league. Ever since their runner-up finish to a Zidane inspired Real Madrid, the Spanish side has for most of the time lived in the shadows of their superior rivals from Madrid and Barcelona. Andre Villas-Boas might have won the Europa league with Porto, but can he take Chelsea to the level which his illustrious predecessor, Jose Mourinho took Chelsea after he came from Porto, is a valid question.
So far ,the signs look promising but it remains to be seen how he handles Roman Abramavich’s billion dollar men as London’s ‘Russian Brigade’ search for their first ever success on the European front.
KRC Genk should be the wooden-spooners of this group and should mostly decide who comes second as Leverkusen and Valencia fight for the second spot.
Picks: Chelsea, Valencia
Dark Horse: Bayer Leverkusen
Group F: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille, Olympiakos
They might have lost 8-2 to a rampaging Manchester United and might have lost their chunk of their starting brigade, but Arsene Wenger’s young Arsenal team remain a formidable unit, at least in the group stages. However, with Bundesliga Champions Borussia Dortmund back in the fray, it remains to be seen how the gunners live up to the expectations of their fans. This group is not at all straightforward as both Marseille and Olympiakos are tough nuts to crack. In fact, this looks to be the most open group with all four teams in with a chance to qualify. French giants Marseille haven’t yet lost a match this season but Greek superpower Olympiakos with a strong home record look front runners to occupy the runners up spot with Dortmund expected to top the group.
Can Wenger’s depleted side make a strong European challenge and progress from this group? It looks difficult but you never can discount the old fox –Arsene Wenger, he might just have another trick up his sleeve.
Picks: Borussia Dortmund, Oympiakos
Outside Chance: Arsenal/Marseille
Group G: Apoel Nicosia, FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St. Petersburg
Porto and Shakhtar look favourites to qualify with both teams having proven track records in Europe. But Zenit cannot be discounted with a strong home record. Apoel Nicosia scraped through having qualified on the final match day with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Wisla Krakow and should not trouble the big boys of this group. Zenit St. Petersburg are always tough to beat at home while Shakhtar’s progress beyond the quarter finals cannot be attributed as a bad one, as they were pummeled by the greatest team on earth – Barcelona.
Picks: FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk
Outside Chance: Zenit St. Petersburg
Group H: AC Milan, FC Barcelona, BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen
If ever there was a group where two teams would play for sheer experience, it is Group H where Borisov and Plzen would consider it an honour to play alongside two of football’s greatest ever sides. It is a foregone conclusion who would top the group – the only question that remains to be answered is that, ‘What is Barcelona’s goal difference at the end of the league stage?’ For all their pedigree, Italian champions Milan cannot top this group because at the moment Barcelona is simply walking on water.
However, the match at San Siro should be an interesting one and if Barcelona wins that leg, then they should comfortably sit at the totem pole of this group.
Picks: Barcelona, Milan.
The Europa League, Europe’s second inter-club competition starts its third year in its new avatar, comprising 38 play-off round winners who join the 10 losers from the UEFA Champions League play-offs. These 48 teams are split into 12 groups of four teams each, with two teams from each group qualifying for the next phase as the battle to crown Europe’s best in this format begins this September.
The best part about the Europa League is that it brings forth relatively unknown teams and fresh new faces into the limelight of European football. With defending champions Porto playing in the Champions league, a new champion is all but guaranteed.
There are some teams for whom playing in the Europa League is a fall from grace, however, the greatest romance offered by this league is that virtually unknown teams who otherwise would have never been noticed, get an opportunity to compete on level terms with the best in Europe. Consider FC Milsami who have clawed their way up from the third division to the top division in Moldovia; FK Zeta, a club established way back in the 50’s and whose greatest achievement is their recent promotion to the twelve team Montenegro First League; for these teams, playing in Europe is a dream worthy to be framed in history for years to come. For this very reason, the Europa League looks to be a cultural melting pot for the whole of Europe as football takes precedence in uniting the mighty powers of Europe with the minnows. As the group stages begin, let us analyse some of the interesting groups that would make the group phase a joy to revel with for the fans.
Group A consisting of Tottenham Hotspur, Rubin Kazan, PAOK and Shamrock Rovers throw up two big names in the form of Spurs and Rubin Kazan. Harry Redknapp’s boys have been thrashed by Manchester City in the English Premier League last month at home and will look to bounce back in Europe where they stand a good chance of qualifying through to the next phase. It can be a possibility that PAOK and Shamrock Rovers prove to be table toppers and upset the apple-carts especially because the Irish side has a good blend of youth and experience in its ranks. It remains to be seen whether the big boys of England and Russia can comfortably sail through this group or the team from Emerald Isle has something to script of their own.
Group C consists of one time Dutch powerhouse and 1987 European Cup winners, PSV Eindhoven pitted against three relatively ‘no- harm’ kind of teams in Hapoel Tel-Aviv of Israel, Rapid Bucharest of Romania and Legia Warsaw of Poland which is why this group should open up a three way race for the position of runner up.
Another group which can open up like a pack of cards is Group E which has Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas, Stoke City and Maccabi Tel-Aviv vying for two spots. All teams are capable of qualifying from this group. Andy Gray’s Stoke City are making their debut among Europe’s big boys and should provide a stiff test especially at home for the other clubs. Besiktas and Dynamo Kyiv have proven European track records and are favoured to progress from this group. Although Kiev has lost its Ukranian supremacy to Shakhtar Donetsk, they are still a formidable side at this level. Maccabi Tel-Aviv cannot be totally left out but they should mostly decide the fate of the other three teams rather than deciding their own fate.
A vastly different kind of clubs in Paris SG, Athletic Bilbao, Red Bull Salzburg and Slovan Bratislava comprise Group F which looks to be one of the most interesting one in the group phase. Buoyed by huge cash from their Qatari investors, the Parisian club looks a strong outfit both at home and away. Javier Pastore is a promising and inspirational player that can change the fortunes of the perennial underachievers of France’s capital city. Marcelo Bielsa, the former coach of Argentina is at the helm of affairs at Bilbao. A man known for his unconventional formations can create attractive football with the most ordinary of players and Bilbao should be a force to reckon with under him. Red Bull Salzburg and Slovan Bratislava should not be much of strong contenders but such is the beauty of football that you never know – the Bratislavan team upset Roma to qualify and thus cannot be taken lightly.
The last of the groups that we look into is that of Group I that comprises Atletico Madrid, Udinese, Rennes and Sion. Madrid and Udinese, with strong proven records are frontrunners to top the group. Udinese were dominant against Arsenal but narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification which is why they will look to make amends here. The twist could be provided by Rennes who could push the two big names and this is where the group becomes an interesting one.
As 48 teams vie for 24 spots in the next phase, it’s nothing but to sit back and enjoy, for football fans across the globe as football fever in Europe just begins to reach its zenith. With Euro 2012 on the line, the players will be giving their best for a national selection and so this year’s European leagues will provide a sterner test of mind and body for the players as they launch yet another fascinating display of grit, class and determination. Let the games begin and may the best team win.