By Bez Saciri | September 4th, 2012 | Category: Sports, Features |
The European soccer season has effectively started back up again, which means the greatest club competition in soccer is right around the corner. This season’s Champions League is eagerly anticipated by many, as its predecessor will never be forgotten.
It all started in the group stages, with Chelsea, needing a win on the last day of group play to advance into the knockout rounds. Chelsea thrashed Valencia at home 3-0 to earn a round of 16 matchup with Italian side Napoli. After losing the first leg 3-1, manager Andre Villas-Boas was relieved of his duties, and things immediately changed for the better. Roberto Di Matteo led Chelsea to a stunning 4-1 home win and a date with Portuguese powerhouse Benfica. Benfica gave the Blues trouble, but they survived that challenge, 3-1 on aggregate, and awaiting them was European superpower Barcelona.
After winning the first leg at Stamford Bridge 1-0, everything unraveled for the West Londoners. Trailing 2-0 and reeling from the sending off of captain John Terry, midfielder Ramires provided some stability, when he scored on a delicate chip shot over the goalkeeper that even Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi could appreciate. Chelsea defended heroically in the second half and Fernando Torres, the 50 million pound transfer from Liverpool, scored on a 1-on-1 situation to send the Blues to Munich, where they would face Bayern Munich.
Trailing 1-0 with two minutes left to play, once again, Chelsea was in a hole and once again, Chelsea stepped up. Didier Drogba’s powerful header was too much for Manuel Neuer to handle, as Chelsea tied the game 1-1. Extra time was not enough, and penalty kicks were needed. With the shootout tied 3-3, the game was on Drogba’s shoulders. The man for the big occasion stepped up, and coolly slotted the ball in the bottom left corner, Neuer dove the wrong way, and Chelsea won the Champions League for the first time, giving owner Roman Abramovich the trophy he craved since he bought the club in 2003.
A team of destiny they were. Every time they were counted out, they proved that they could dig deep and create the moment of brilliance they needed.
The draw for the Champions League group stages is set. In Part one, the focus is on groups A-D.
Group A (in order of Pot number)
FC Porto (Portugal)
Verdict: The Portuguese giants have a point to prove, after failing to get out of their group last year as their number one seed. Joao Moutinho pulls the strings in the midfield and is joined by rising star James Rodriguez and experienced goalkeeper Helton all give FC Porto a chance to win.
Star Man: Joao Moutinho
Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine)
Verdict: One of the two powerhouses in Ukrainian soccer, they have some talented players that can help them advance out of this group. Summer signing Niko Kranjcar adds experience and creativity to the side, whereas Andriy Yarmolenko will be asked to score the goals. Getting out of this group may be a tough ask for them, but they should easily get the Europa League spot.
Star Man: Niko Kranjcar
Prediction: 3rd (Europa League place)
Paris Saint Germain (France)
Verdict: The mega-rich French outfit are ready to out themselves on the map as a European superpower. They have invested heavily in the squad this summer, as they have brought in Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and recently signed right-back Gregory van der Wiel. Carlo Ancelotti has a deep team, and by winning their first league game on Sunday, they will be able to play free-flowing soccer.
Star Man: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Verdict: The biggest club Croatia has to offer, Zagreb will be looking to improve on their poor showing in the group stages last season this time around. They have a few talented young players that can potentially cause fits for the bigger clubs problems in the likes of Milan Badelj and Mateo Kovacic. It will be very hard for them to cause trouble in this group, as they are by far the weakest team in this group.
Star Man: Milan Badelj
Verdict: A team that is lacking a proven goal scorer with the sale of Robin Van Persie to Manchester United is looking to pull a Chelsea, and win the Champions League for the first time in their history. Arsene Wenger has spent money on quality players, like Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, and he is hoping Arsenal will become a more balanced squad. Their defense has looked sharp so far this season, and they have the most experience and talent in this group.
Star Man: Santi Cazorla
FC Schalke 04 (Germany)
Verdict: Two seasons ago, the German outfit made the semi-finals of this prestigious competition. This team does not have Manuel Neuer between the sticks to count on anymore, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is more than capable of scoring goals at the highest level, and Julian Draxler and Lewis Holtby are two rising stars in German soccer.
Star Man: Benedikt Howedes
Verdict: Arguably the best team from Greece, they are paired in the same group with Arsenal for the second consecutive time. They did sell Kevin Mirallas to Everton, but they still have plenty of goal scoring options, as they won the Greek title by seven points last season. They should have enough to outlast Montpellier for the Europa League spot.
Star Man: Roy Carroll
Verdict: The surprise French champions are ready to prove that last season was not a fluke. They did lose Olivier Giroud to group rivals Arsenal, but they still have Younes Belhanda pulling the strings in midfield, and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa to keep the backline steady. They are favorites for last place in the group.
Star Man: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa
AC Milan (Italy)
Verdict: A surprise summer exodus saw top players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva depart the club, as the Italian outfit are trying to get younger. Robinho is still at the club, supplying the creativity, Riccardo Montolivo adds muscle to the midfield and Giampaolo Pazzini is the man to replace Ibrahimovic’s goals. This is the weakest Milan team in years, and it could be a struggle for them.
Star Man: Robinho
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
Verdict: The Russian outfit made it out of the group stages last season and was unlucky not to make it to the quarterfinals. They have spent a lot of money, and they feel like they are closing in on being an elite team in Europe. Milan is weaker than they have ever been, Anderlecht is short on talent and Malaga is in deep financial trouble. This is the best opportunity for Zenit to top a Champions League group and they know it, hence why they just shelled out 50 million euros to acquire Hulk from FC Porto.
Star Man: Hulk
Verdict: One of the ten teams to qualify for the Champions League via the playoff route, the Belgians are ready to prove they belong. Americans will take a close view of this side, as they boast midfielder Sacha Kljestan. Lucas Biglia provides the strength in the midfield and Matias Suarez will be counted upon to score goals. It will be hard for them to get into the Europa League.
Star Man: Matias Suarez
Verdict: The Spanish side is in the Champions League for the first time. They were another side to qualify via the playoffs, as they saw off Greek side Panathinaikos. They have sold Santi Cazorla to give themselves a financial boost, but they still have talent in the team, especially at the back. Keep an eye on Isco. The young Spanish playmaker is another rising star in world soccer. A good tournament will surely see the big clubs go in for him.
Star Man: Isco
Real Madrid (Spain)
Verdict: Even though they have not won the Champions League since 2002, Real Madrid is considered the hot favorites to be
crowned kings of Europe for a record 10th time. Cristiano Ronaldo is ready to win the Champions League for the second time, and they brought in Luka Modric to add more creativity to the midfield. Iker Casillas is arguably the best in the business, and Jose Mourinho is looking to win the Champions League for the third time with a third different club, no less.
Star Man: Cristiano Ronaldo
Manchester City (England)
Verdict: After making minimal impact in their maiden Champions League appearance, the Premier League champions are ready to make a statement in Europe. Sergio Aguero is looking to have another successful season, while Yaya Toure and David Silva make the midfield tick. Is Roberto Mancini the right man to take the club to Champions League glory? Only time will tell.
Star Man: Vincent Kompany
Verdict: The Dutch champions are eager to put last season’s disappointment behind them, as they were eliminated from the competiton on the last day of group play. They have lost key players, including Jan Vertonghen and Vurnon Anita, but they still have Danish star Christian Eriksen. Frank De Boer is an up and coming manager, but they are in the toughest group of the competition.
Star Man: Christian Eriksen
Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
Verdict: The back-to-back German champions also have a bad taste in their mouth from last season’s competition, as well. They lost Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United, but they replaced him with local hero and German player of the year, Marco Reus. Mario Gotze and Reus provide a good balance in the midfield, and Polish star striker Robert Lewandowski is still as lethal as ever.
Star Man: Marco Reus
Stay tuned for the 2nd part of Bez’s Champion League Preview.