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Champions League preview: Groups E-H
This is the second of our two-part series on the group stages of the Champions League, with an eye towards the American fan.
Bayern Munich: The German giants are the class of this group, and a contender to win it all in 2011. Here’s three reasons to fear Bayern: this is coach Louis Van Gaal's second season and his system is well integrated; the emergence of World Cup stars Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Mueller as game-controlling midfield forces; and the fact that Arjen Robben starts the season on the disabled list. Weird as it may sound, not having Robben until sometime down the road might actually work in Bayern's favor when they reach the knockout stage because the Dutchman won't be worn to a nub when the big games start. Bayern is so deep and balanced that the only questions hang over their defense, but Van Gaal has the necessary savvy to sort that out and an attack that is good enough to keep the ball well away from 'keeper Hans Joerg Butt most of the time.
AS Roma: The Giallorossi are Italy's second best side at the moment, but what does that really mean? Unfortunately, Serie A football is no better than third (maybe even fourth) on the continent these days, and even though Inter Milan won the Champions League final a year ago, there was no real sign of an Italian renaissance at club level. Claudio Ranieri is an experienced boss, Francesco Totti still one of the stars of the game and there is firepower from the likes of Julio Baptista and Adriano, as well. Defensively, Juan proved himself at the World Cup with Brazil and Philippe Mexes has been a consistent force in Rome, but this is a side starting to age (Daniele De Rossi, John Arne Riise, even Totti are past their best days). In a tougher group that might be more of a factor; in this section finishing second should be quite possible.
FC Basel: The Swiss have risen under German boss Torsten Fink, but they arrived in the group stage at the expense of a poor Sheriff Tiraspol side so qualifying hardly stamps them as a serious threat. Goalkeeper Franco Constanzo is solid behind an average defense but the real questions are about their ability to break down defenses at this level. Just as you cannot see the Alps from Basel, you hardly believe that Bayern or Roma will worry much about containing Marco Streller or Alexander Frei at the front of the Swiss club's attack. Australian veteran Scott Chipperfield is still part of the picture and the overall squad depth is built around youth and players with no real Euro pedigree.
CFR Cluj: Romanian club football has rebounded a bit, thanks to last season's unexpectedly strong Champions League performance from Unirea, but it will be asking a lot of Cluj to do any better than the spoiler role in this section. They can come in third, of course, because they should be a match for FC Basel, but a glance at a roster where Yssouf Kone (Cameroon) and Lacina Traore (Cote D'Ivoire) are the big attacking names should not strike fear into hearts in Munich or Rome. Cluj does have an international roster: goalkeeper Nuno Claro is Portuguese, Brazilians Hugo Alcantara and Rafael Bastos play important defensive roles, and there are Argentines in Sixto Peralta and Juan Culio, as well. However, you’re not likely recognize any of them at first glance. The fact is that it will take something special for Cluj to get points away from home in this section.
Chelsea: Chelsea are proof that money can’t buy you glory. Ever since being taken over by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have gone from jokes to global powers. They have never failed to finish worse than third in England over the past seven seasons, and have won the Premiership crown three times in that period. What they haven’t done is win a European Cup, a source of grating dismay to their fabulously wealthy owner. They have all the talent in the world — Didier Drogba heroically played for Cote D’Ivoire with a broken arm this past World Cup; Michael Essien was sadly missing for Ghana due to injury and Petr Cech is considered by many as the top 'keeper on the planet. They have a couple of guys who played for England as well, though that team’s flop arguably hurt the reputations of John Terry and Frank Lampard. Bottom line: This is a fast, physical side that should remind Americans of the glory-years Dallas Cowboys ... with all of the disappointments of the Tony Romo era.
Olympique Marseille: The second most-successful club in French football by some measures — they have won the title nine times — OM are a solid team with a good European pedigree. They’ve also won the Champions League, taking the crown in the first year of the new format back in 1992-93. Americans will also know some of their players: Andre Ayew was the Ghanaian giving the USA fits this summer. They’ve rebounded from a dark period that involved bribery, financial problems and relegation, and look set to build on their strong legacy. Weird factoid: This pairing sets up a meeting between two of the clubs that have played host to Didier Drogba; Chelsea bought him from OM.
Spartak Moscow: One of the great teams of the former Soviet Union, Spartak were once perennial challengers in the European Cup, going as far as the semis in the 1990-91 edition. Since then, they’ve been also-rans, yearly runners-up in Russia after a period of dominance that stretched from 1992-2001. Like many current Russian squads, they’ve bulked up with Brazilian imports. And, like many Russian Brazilian players, you’ve never heard of any of them for good reason. Spartak has a huge advantage however: They play on artifical turf and are thus very difficult to beat at home. Don’t count them out, but don’t expect attractive football either.
MSK Zilina: The Slovak debutants looked very solid in their playoff against Sparta Prague, but still didn’t reveal much about their potential. They have a couple of players who could be good: Momodou Ceesay scored a great bicycle kick goal to ice the Czechs and they did move the ball fairly well. However: Czech football is so poor that most figure that the Slovaks are just making up the numbers. One thing they do have: Great fans. Their tiny, 11,000 seater rocks for big games.
AC Milan: This team is a soap opera. Owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (a tale in of itself), the most intriguing thing about this famous side in 2010-11 is the name of its manager. Having yielded pride of place to neighbor Inter, AC Milan tapped little-known Massimiliano Allegri to shepherd the revival this season. You can only imagine how thrilled Allegri must have been when he saw this Champions League “group of death” assignment. There is no shortage of talent: start with Brazilian Alexandre Pato, on the verge of greatness as an attack leader; then add veteran standouts like Filippo Inzaghi, Clarence Seedorf, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Gennaro Gattuso. There is potential emerging talent in defender Oguchi Oneywu -- still coming back from knee surgery -- and the newly-acquired Kevin-Prince Boateng. And don't forget that a fellow named Ronaldinho still wears red-and-black, while the rumors fly that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is also San Siro bound. All of which should add up to quite a lineup: now if only the coach can get the best from it.
Real Madrid: Of all the possible Champions League pairings this is the absolute sweetest. Jose Mourinho takes his new club back to his most recent home city, where he gets to play AC Milan, the club he helped sweep comprehensively off the pedestal in that city. In fact, The Special One would be the story even if he wasn't bringing what looks like Europe's best roster along with him. Don't think Real Madrid is that good? Remember that Cristiano Ronaldo was the cointinent's best player just two seasons back, that the addition of Ricardo Carvalho should solidify the defense. Ronaldo is surrounded by Karim Benzema, Lassana Diarra, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso while Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and (eventually) Kaka all are in front of him. The only thing missing in Madrid in recent years will be provided by Mourinho: there is no manager in the game better at handling the egos and getting the best from a team of superstars.
Ajax Amsterdam: Europe's best team of the 1970s, this Dutch club is still regarded as the nursery which produces some of the world's top talent. Unfortunately, Ajax has not been a true Euro force for nearly a decade, but when they picked up Luis Suarez that all changed. The Dutch Eredivisie no longer gets a mention beside the Premiership, Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga, but when Suarez showed up in South Africa in that Uruguayan attack, everyone who had overlooked his talent suddenly learned what makes Ajax tick. And Suarez has the ability to turn this group on its head even if his supporting cast does not match -- at least in terms of Euro experience -- this section's elite. Suarez can be a one-man attack, but he is only part of the equation. Goalkeeper Martin Stekelenburg, though sometimes a bit erratic, is also capable of playing a one-man role at the other end of the pitch, so this is a side which must be taken very seriously. Ajax proved its mettle in getting past Dynamo Kiev in the playoff round and will only grow in confidence if they can grab an early result in this loaded section.
Auxerre: The last time this French team made headlines was when it signed Andrzej Szarmach, the great Polish international. That was thirty years ago. Yeah. Auxerre doesn't usually challenge for honors in a league where Lyon, Bordeaux, Paris St.-Germain, Monaco and Marseille are the hot names. So what are they doing in this group? Don't under-value a side which has achieved success without a big name and has instead relied on building a competent side. Their victory over Zenit St. Petersburg was the upset of the playoff round. Their reward for that bit is to land in the group stage's other “group of death.” It might well fall to goalkeeper Olivier Sorin to play the biggest role in this team because he will have to be at his very best to keep Auxerre on course. There is no similar man under pressure anywhere else on the field, a situation which might help the French. Valter Birsa and captain Benoit Pedretti obviously have to be on their A game, but opponents won't find it a simple matter of targeting one or two players to keep Auxerre quiet. Strength in depth and the fact that they have already surprised to get this far will work in their favor.
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Arsenal: Arsenal has been on the decline since they were beat by Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League finals, and their frailties and frustrations are well known to Premier League fans. While they play a beautiful, passing style and are considered among the great clubs in Europe, they are hampered by a lack of physical toughness, and come into the European season with glaring holes in defense, central midfield and in the nets. Their best player, Cesc Fabregas, was part of Spain’s World Cup winning side, and was involved this summer in a transfer tug-of-war with Barcelona. Arsenal, perennial pre-season Premiership title contenders, are expected to progress out of this group, but it won’t be a cakewalk.
Shakhtar Donetsk: The Ukranian champions have never progressed past the group stages, and are not expected to this season, either. They dominate the Ukrainian league, and as a result don’t seem to get much push back to improve. Oddly enough, Shakhtar is stocked with Brazilian players, several of whom came through that nation’s U-20 ranks, but are not widely known. One player who is well-known to fans — and while Brazilian by birth is actually Croatian — is former Arsenal star Eduardo. He transferred to the club after failing to fully recover from the horrific leg break he suffered in 2007 at the boots of Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor. This team is probably fighting with Braga for the second slot.
Sporting Braga: Braga stunned Sevilla over the two legs of their playoff tie and look stocked with talent. Largely populated by Brazilian nationals, Braga rode to a comfortable 3-0 aggregate win over the Spaniards thanks to the contributions of Matheus and Lima, two players you want to keep an eye on. The former is a budding star in the prime of his career; the latter is a frustrated, well-travelled forward who was slagged off in his home for failing to score goals. Both men look to be very dangerous. Weird factoid: this pairing sets up a great historic matchup as Braga was founded by Arsenal fans in the 1920s. The team wears Arsenal’s uniform and bears the nickname Os Arsenelistas.
Partizan: Partizan Belgrade is one of the great Eastern teams of all time. Perennial powers in the former Yugoslavia, they have maintained excellence since their founding in 1945, winning a remarkable 21 titles. Unfortunately, their glory days in Europe are long gone. They last reached the finals in 1966 (they lost to Real Madrid) and have gone out early in virtually every competition since then. They have one player to keep an eye on: Brazilian Cleo, who led them through the playoff stages and past Anderlecht. Anderlecht, sadly, missed three penalties in the tie-breaker, with the turf at the Belgian ground playing a factor. Partizan have never gone past the group stages in the modern Champions League, and are thought to be making up numbers.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.