The 2010-2011 UEFA Champions League starts Tuesday afternoon, which means Groups A, B, C and D are in action. To get you all set while you watch, below is a quick preview of each team, as well as my predictions for who will advance to the knockout rounds.
Inter Milan (Italy) – The defending champions come into the 2010-2011 CL campaign with practically the same team, but a no Jose Mourinho has tempered expectations. While new manager Rafa Benitez has had great success in the CL during his time at Valencia and Liverpool, but thus far his Inter squad has not looked like the treble winners of last year.
Player to Watch – Wesley Sneijder, CAM – Goal.com’s player of the year, and perhaps my favorite player, Sneijder was a last second addition to Inter last summer, and was the key playmaker for the Nerazzurri attack. Sneijder played great in South Africa for Holland, but will that exhausting run to the final take a toll on him?
Werder Bremen (Germany) – One of the top teams in Germany, Werder Bremen was dealt a huge blow just before the summer transfer window ended when World Cup star Mesut Ozil was sold to Real Madrid. There is still plenty of talent on Werder’s roster, but they lack a proven play-maker to unlock opposing defenses meaning Bremen’s talented strikers will have to work harder for their goals.
Player to Watch – Per Mertesacker, CB –The 6’6” towering centre back is one of the world’s best defenders. His height helps neutralize his opponents’ crosses and corners, while he is also a handful in the air when Bremen earns a corner.
Tottenham Hotspur (England) – Usually a forgotten team in the EPL, Tottenham overcame a shocking 3-0 deficit to Switzerland’s BSC Young Boys to qualify for the CL. Spurs have good depth in attack and in midfield, but their defense can be a concern, and injuries currently plague the London club. White Hart Lane is an intimidating arena, and Tottenham’s fans are some of the best in Europe, but big expectations and a tough group are unsettling factors.
Player to Watch – Rafael van der Vaart, CAM – Another one of my favorite players, VDV is a late addition to Harry Redknapp’s squad after a last-second deal with Real Madrid. Rafael is an excellent passer, can score goals if called upon, and is lethal from set pieces. However, he is still new and has not developed much chemistry with his teammates, but injuries mean VDV must step right into the fire.
FC Twente (Holland) – The mere fact that Twente won the Dutch Eredivisie despite Ajax’s record-breaking performance last year proves they deserve to be on the big stage. Manager Steve McClaren has completely turned Twente around, from relegation fighters to champions, and his hope is that he can somehow lead his club into the CL knockout rounds.
Player to Watch – Bryan Ruiz, ST – Not a household name, but Ruiz is a big reason Twente are Erevidisie champions. The 25-year old Costa Rican scored 24 goals last season, good for second in Holland, and he will need to lead the line for the Twente attack.
GROUP A PREDICTION: 1. Inter Milan, 2. Tottenham, 3. Werder Bremen, 4. FC Twente – This is one of, if not the most balanced group in this year’s CL. Inter is the class of the group, but any of the next three clubs could finish second or last. I think Tottenham has the most talent of the next three, and therefore they will find a way to squeak into the knockout rounds.
Olympique Lyon (France) – France’s Ligue 1 runners-up Lyon progressed to the semi-finals of the CL last season, but were outclassed by Germany’s Bayern Munich. Lyon kept all their key pieces from last year, and added one of France’s best young talents in attacking midfielder Yoann Gourcuff. Lyon snuck up on team’s last season, but this year they expect to one of the favorites.
Player to Watch – Michel Bastos, LWB – Bastos had an up-and-down World Cup with Brazil, but the ultra-talented left back is basically a winger who is good at defense. His ability to attack adds needed width to Lyon’s attack, which generally goes through the middle, perhaps even more so this season with Gourcuff added to the mix.
Benfica (Portugal) – One of the best clubs at finding and developing talent, Benfica lost two highly regarded midfielders (Angel di Maria and Ramires) but retained two of the world’s best young defenders and added some nice pieces to their attack. Fabio Coentrao and David Luiz are outstanding young defenders who are wanted by every big club in Europe, while the attacking trident of Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo is amongst the best on the continent.
Player to Watch – Fabio Coentrao, LB – The young Portugese defender impressed anyone who watched him play in South Africa. Like Bastos for Lyon, his ability to push forward and send crosses into the box creates numerous problems for opposing defenses.
FC Schalke 04 (Germany) – A team with great talent, Schalke is off to a terrible start in the German Bundesliga. It appears the team is still trying to gel after numerous summer additions, but with so many outstanding players they have no right being in the relegation zone. Manuel Neuer is perhaps Germany’s best keeper, Jose Jurado is an excellent young winger from Spain, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a lethal striker, Jermaine Jones was the 2008-09 Bundesliga defensive midfielder of the year, and Christoph Metzelder and Raul come over from Real Madrid.
Player to Watch – Raul, ST – Picking just one player to watch from Schalke is nearly impossible, but in the CL you need to keep an eye on Raul, the competition’s all-time leading scorer at 66. If Schalke want to advance, a few goals from the iconic number 7 will be critical.
Hapoel Tel-Aviv (Israel) – To be honest, I know close to zilch about this team from Israel. This is their first CL group stage appearance, and they won their first Israeli league title in ten years last season. While they did look impressive in the qualifying rounds, how they perform against a solid group will be a different story.
Player to Watch – Itay Shechter, ST – Hapoel’s defense allowed just 12 goals in 30 matches last season, which means the defend great as a group. But if the Israeli champions have any hope of advancing past the group stage, they need their star goal scorer, Shechter, to find the back of the net.
GROUP B PREDICTION: 1. Lyon, 2. Benfica, 3. Schalke, 4. Hapoel Tel-Aviv – A balanced group, but lacking any club from one of the “big three.” Lyon should advance without much problem, but the battle for second place should be intriguing, especially if Schalke gets its act together.
Manchester United (England) – There’s not much to be said about Man U that hasn’t already been said. They are one of the top clubs all-time, and while they are not as good as past seasons, Sir Alex Ferguson knows how to get the best out of his players.
Player to Watch – Wayne Rooney, ST – Who else? Rooney can’t seem to stay out of the news, whether it’s for calling out England fans for booing the three lions’ performance in South Africa or his off the field transgressions. Rooney is one of the top ten players on the globe, but he needs to get his head right if the Red Devils hope to win their fourth CL title.
Valencia (Spain) – One of the most storied clubs in Spain, Valencia were runners-up in this competition in 2000 and 2001. While their star David’s, Villa and Silva, were sold over the summer to help erase some of the club’s financial problems, plenty of talent remains. The defense and goalkeeping are weak links, but the midfield and attack stack up against anyone. Unfortunately, rising midfield star Ever Banega is out for a month with a sprained ankle.
Player to Watch – Roberto Soldado, ST – At one time Soldado was seen as the eventual replacement to Raul at Real Madrid. Unfortunately for Soldado, he failed to impress the Real Madrid brass and was let go. After two highly productive years at Getafe, Soldado has made the move to Valencia, and hopes to prove his doubters wrong.
Rangers FC (Scotland) – Some soccer fans would say Rangers play “anti-football,” but regardless of what you call their style, it get results. Rangers is the most successful club in Scotland’s history, but they have never had great results in the CL. American Maurice Edu and co. hope to change that this campaign.
Player to Watch – Maurice Edu, CDM – Edu doesn’t even start most games for Rangers, but it always seems like when he plays, he is in the middle of the action. Edu is a tough-tackler, has a nose for goal, and is one of the few Americans in the competition.
Bursaspor (Turkey) – I actually know the Istanbul giants Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray pretty well, but I couldn’t tell you anything about Bursaspor other than that they won their first Turkish Super League title in 2010 and are in the CL this year. By the way, this has nothing to do with anything, but Ankaraspor finished last in Turkey last season, scoring ZERO goals and allowing 102! Bursaspor is better than them.
Player to Watch – Omer Erdogan, CB – Bursaspor had no player score more than eight goals during their title run, so obviously their defense was pretty solid. Therefore the captain, Omer Erdogan is the man to watch. The 33-year old centre back will need to be a rock for Busaspor.
GROUP C PREDICTION: 1. Manchester United, 2. Valencia, 3. Rangers, 4. Bursaspor – This is one of the weaker groups, and Manchester United shouldn’t lose any of their matches. Valencia isn’t as good this season as in year’s past, but they are better equipped to advance than either Rangers or Bursaspor.
Barcelona (Spain) – Perhaps the best team in the world, Barcelona is the favorite to lift the CL trophy in 2011. Everywhere you look, Barcelona has a super-star across the pitch, and beating them will be extremely difficult.
Player to Watch – Lionel Messi, FW – Most people believe Messi is the best player on the planet. While I think his stature keeps him from being a truly unstoppable force, his talent is undeniable. As long as Messi is on the pitch, Barcelona is a threat to score three, four or five goals.
Panathinaikos (Greece) – The Greek champions are a highly defensive, counter-attacking bunch, but they do possess a prolific striker in Djibril Cisse. Meanwhile, Gilberto Silva is a very experienced defensive midfielder who can control the tempo of a match.
Player to Watch – Djibril Cisse, ST – The man of a 1,000 hairdos, Cisse ran away with the Greek scoring title last year, notching 23 goals in 29 matches. His next closest “competitors” netted just 11.
FC Copenhagen (Denmark) – The defending Danish champions, FCK (Copenhagen-Kobenhavn in Danish) are a talented and deep squad, but they lack truly elite strikers. However, they have tons of experience and shouldn’t be flustered by anything they face in the competition.
Player to Watch – Jesper Gronkjaer, MF – A well-traveled attacking player, Gronkjaer has plied his trade at Ajax, Chelsea, Birmingham City, Atletico Madrid, and Stuttgart prior to his time at Copenhagen. Gronkjaer is not a true striker, but his offensive ability helps create goals for The Lions.
Rubin Kazan (Russia) – Rubin Kazan became household names after beating Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou in last season’s CL group stage. In face, Kazan managed four points against Barca last year, and are once again grouped with the favorites. Rubin Kazan won the Russian Premier League in 2009, and are currently in second through two-thirds of the campaign.
Player to Watch – Obafemi Martins, ST – After rather successful spells at Inter and Newcastle, Martins was strictly a bench player for Wolfsburg last season, and now finds playing time hard to come by in Russia for Kazan. Martins is still only 25 and possesses great speed, and he is one of the few players who isn’t afraid to mix it up with the European powerhouses.
GROUP D PREDICTION: 1. Barcelona, 2. Panathinaikos, 3. Rubin Kazan, 4. FC Copenhagen – Barcelona will go through without a doubt, and barring an unforeseen collapse they will finish first. Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan will be in a tight battle for second, but Cisse tips the scale in favor of the Greek champs.
About the Author
Written by Robert Bode
A sports die-hard through and through. I grew up playing almost every sport possible, and to this day I try to stay as active as possible. However, since I'm not a professional athlete, talking and writing about sports is the next best thing. A University of Florida graduate but living in my hometown of Washington D.C. (well Northern Virginia), my favorite teams are the Florida Gators, Miami Dolphins, Chicago White Sox, Washington Nationals, Real Madrid, good up-tempo NBA teams (so not the Knicks), and Washington Capitals.