Champions League

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UEFA Champions League Preview/Predictions – Groups E-H

Bayern Munich (Germany)
– One of the most exciting teams in club football, Bayern Munich finished runner-up last year in the CL. The Bavarian powerhouses are often leaky on defense, but no team may have more talent in the attacking third than Bayern. Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Arjen Robben form an unbelievable midfield, while Thomas Muller, Ivica Olic, Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez can score goals at any time. Plus, Mark van Bommel and Philipp Lahm are strong in the tackle but can add to the attack as well.
Player to Watch Arjen Robben, RW – Robben went from being a castoff at Real Madrid to a savior at Bayern, then a goat for Holland at the World Cup after failing to beat Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the final match. Robben is now injured for Bayern, but when he is on the pitch he is a top five talent. His pace, dribbling ability and electric left foot can win matches single-handedly.

AS Roma (Italy) – The Giallorossi (Yellow-Reds) have not started the 2010 Serie A season the way they had hoped. They are entering the tournament coming off a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Cagliari. Roma is loaded with talent, but they have been unable to play as a team. Claudio Ranieri better figure out something quick, or there will be a new manager in the Eternal City sooner rather than later.
Player to WatchAdriano, ST – A few seasons ago Adriano was seen as a top five player in the world, and possibly the best striker in the game. Since then, alcohol and partying became more important to him than soccer, and his father’s death really rocked him to the core. However, after leaving Inter for a return to Brazil, he returns to Serie A, and while he has gotten off to a slow start, good performances in the CL would show he can once again become “The Emperor” of old.

FC Basel (Switzerland) – Basel is no stranger to CL play, featuring in the competition in 2008/2009. Basel is a strong Swiss side, rediscovering their dominance in the 2000s with titles in 2004, 2005, 2008 and last season. Basel features plenty of players who have plied their trade in bigger leagues, meaning they shouldn’t be intimidated during CL play.
Player to WatchAlexander Frei, ST – The veteran Swiss striker has perhaps gotten better with age, scoring 23 goals in 27 appearances in his first season with Basel since 1998. Frei won’t be able to do it all on his own, but if he can get some help, the Basel attack could be respectable.

CFR Cluj (Romania) – Although they are largely unknown, Cluj have been on this stage before and performed quite well. After hardly featuring in Romania’s top league, Cluj got some hefty financial backing and is now a force to be reckoned with in the land of Dracula. In the 2008-2009 CL, Cluj beat Roma and tied Chelsea before bowing out in fourth.
Player to WatchTony, RB – This French right back is a fan favorite for Cluj, and his work-rate is top notch. While he may not be an offensive threat, his defensive ability and leadership make him a greatly valued asset.

GROUP E PREDICTION – 1. Bayern Munich, 2. AS Roma, 3. FC Basel, 4. CFR Cluj – This is a pretty predicable group, although Roma better improve quickly if they don’t want to get surprised by either Basel or Cluj, either of which could sneak into second or third place if the Italians don’t get on track.

Chelsea (England) – Right now the most dangerous and balanced team in the world. Their roster has remained relatively the same over the past four seasons, but why mess with success? Carlo Ancelotti is in his second year as Chelsea manager, and he is one of the best CL tacticians in the game. Peter Cech may have lost a step in goal, but every other position player is among the best in the biz.
Player to WatchDidier Drogba, ST – The dictionary definition of what a striker should be, Drogba is right now the best pure forward in the game. Big, strong, fast and able to play with his back to the goal, the Ivorian is a flat-out stud.

Olympique Marseille (France) – The 2010 French Ligue 1 champions, Marseille are very talented, especially on offense. However, it sometimes looks like OM are intimidated in the CL when they face superior competition, especially on the road. Last season they looked lost against Real Madrid and could only manage a tie against AC Milan, albeit at the San Siro.
Player to WatchLucho Gonzalez, MF – For a team that is so incredibly athletic and talented, picking Lucho as the man to watch may be surprising. However, like Xavi at Barcelona (although not nearly as good), Lucho at his best makes the Marseille attack click at a scary rate.

Spartak Moscow (Russia) – The runners-up in Russia last season, “The Meat” are currently in sixth during this campaign. The defense has let down the Russian power, since the club possesses the league’s leading scorer in Brazilian striker Wellington.
Player to WatchWellington, ST – As I just mentioned, Wellington currently leads the Russian Premier League in goals with 15 in 16 appearances, and led the league with 21 goals last campaign. He will need to be at his best if Spartak hopes to make some noise in the CL.

MSK Zilina (Slovakia) – I’m trying to figure out if I know less about MSK Zilina or heart surgery. It’s a close call, but I do watch House and used to watch Grey’s Anatomy and some E.R., so I guess I’ll say I know less about Zilina. This will be their first appearance in the CL group stage.
Player to WatchTomas Majtan, ST – 23-year old Czech has a reputation for scoring goals, and already has two in eight games so far this season.

GROUP F PREDICTION – 1. Chelsea, 2. Olympique Marseille, 3. Spartak Moscow, 4. MSK Zilina – This is one of the easiest groups to predict. Chelsea will finish first. Marseille will finish second barring a complete meltdown, and Spartak should finish ahead of the Slovak minnows.

AC Milan (Italy) – The Italian giants are the second most successful club in CL history, but they have fallen on tough times recently. After winning the CL title in 2006-2007, the club has failed to win a major trophy since, and their roster is almost completely different than the 2007 group. Their attack should be good once they blend together, but Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will need time to get comfortable with Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato, Andrea Pirlo and co.
Player to Watch Ronaldinho, CAM – For about a three-year span Ronaldinho was the best player in the world. However, lack of fitness and an adjustment to a new league has seen his reputation take a big hit. His talent is still a thing to behold, but it is no longer on display for 90 minutes. ‘Dinho must be more consistent to give Milan hope.

Real Madrid (Spain) – My favorite club, but sometimes I don’t know why. As a Dutch fan it angers me that they sold all the Dutch players, plus Gonzalo Higuain is the most worthless striker ever when it comes to big games. His dribbling skills and first touch often let him down, and he is often overly selfish in front of goal. Cristiano Ronaldo is not the same player as the one at Man U, and the injuries to the Blanco defense leave plenty of holes in front of Casillas. The one silver lining is Jose Mourinho, who would have three CL titles with three different clubs if not for John Terry’s crappy cleats.
Player to WatchCristiano Ronaldo, LW/RW – To me when Ronaldo is playing in the right mindset, he is the best overall player on the planet. Unfortunately, he is often surly and he seems to lack cohesion with his fellow Madrid attackers. CR7 seems to really enjoy having “The Special One” as a manager, so perhaps things will improve, but right now he will need to find a way to carry the offense until things get sorted out a couple months into the season.

Ajax Amsterdam (Holland) – One of the most respected clubs in European club soccer history, Ajax have lifted the CL trophy four times and this year they are unlucky to have drawn such a tough group because they have the talent to go far in this competition. Their top striker is handball hero (or villain) Luis Suarez from Uruguay’s run to fourth place at the World Cup. At right back is uber talented Gregory van der Wiel, who is as dangerous on offense as he is on defense, and Maarten Stekelenburg is Holland’s number one goalie.
Player to WatchLuis Suarez, ST – Ajax’s captain is a scoring machine in the Dutch Erevidisie, netting 80 times in 100 appearances. At just 23-years of age, Suarez is looking to make a big splash in the 2010-2011 CL after failing to complete a big-move one of Europe’s big money clubs.

AJ Auxerre (France) – A surprise qualifier for a CL spot, Auxerre finished an unlikely third last season in France. Auxerre prefers to play solid team defense, as evidenced by their French leading 29 goals allowed. Unfortunately, in the CL and in a group as talented as Group G, Auxerre will need to find a way to score goals and limit them at the same time.
Player to WatchIreneusz Jelen, ST – While I expected to pick a defender here, the Auxerre defense is more of a group effort than just one player. Therefore, I’ll go with Auxerre’s top scorer last season. Jelen scored 14 of his club’s 42 goals, and the Polish international hopes to have help from second striker Benoit Pedretti to ease the pressure on their defense.

GROUP G PREDICTION – 1. Real Madrid, 2. AC Milan, 3. Ajax Amsterdam, 4. AJ Auxerre – I really wanted to pick Ajax to advance ahead of Milan, but the attacking quartet in Italy’s fashion capital is too talented to not get out of the group stage at least. This is a very tough group and I don’t see any team going without a loss.

Arsenal (England) – Always a slick passing team, the Gunners almost saw the face of their franchise, Cesc Fabregas, leave for his hometown club Barcelona in the summer. Luckily for manager Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans, Cesc has remained in London and is the reason Arsenal can win the CL title. However, the Gunners have plenty of injury worries, while their shaky goaltending situation was not addressed during the summer transfer window and could be their downfall.
Player to WatchCesc Fabregas, CAM – As I mentioned above, Cesc is a special talent and can do anything needed to help a team’s offense. How Cesc goes is how the Gunners go, and as long as he is on top of his game Arsenal will be a tough team to eliminate.

Shaktar Donetsk (Ukraine) – The 2008-2009 UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League, which is the second tier Champions League) champions, Shaktar Donetsk are perennial powers in the Ukraine and an underrated side. Donetsk feature seven Brazilians in their first team, as well as two of Croatia’s best players, captain Darijo Srna and Brazilian born Eduardo. Eduardo never lived up to his goal-scoring hype at Arsenal after a suffering a traumatic broken leg in 2008, he has now joined Donetsk and has scored two goals in four appearances this season. Meanwhile, Donetsk star Ukrainian is Dmytro Chygrynskiy, a towering centre back who spent the last six months of last season at Barcelona, but he struggled mightily and returned to Donetsk.
Player to Watch Eduardo, ST – Eduardo is the star striking threat Donetsk has always needed to challenge in the CL, and his experience in the EPL should prove invaluable.

SC Braga's Unique StadiumSC Braga (Portugal) – To say Braga is a surprise inclusion in this year’s CL would be a great understatement. The tiny Portuguese side has never won Portugal’s top flight, and finished runners-up for the first time in their history last season. Despite this fact, they found a way to advance past Spanish side Sevilla and make the CL group stage for the first time. Braga is a young, inexperienced team that could play above their heads or collapse under the pressure. Be sure to watch one of their games however, because they have one of the coolest stadiums in the world.
Player to WatchLima, ST – This unknown Brazilian has bounced around during his five-year career, playing for ten clubs. This is his first season for Braga, and he has impressed so far, scoring a hat-trick against Sevilla in their second qualifying match, as well as a strike against Portugal powerhouse FC Porto over the weekend. Lima will need to continue his current form if Braga hopes to make any noise in the CL.

FK Partizan (Serbia) – The only Serbian club to ever reach the CL group stage, FK Partizan didn’t win a single match back in 2003-2004, but they did tie Olympique Marseille, FC Porto and Real Madrid at home. FK Partizan scored the most and allowed the fewest goals last season, going the entire campaign without a loss. They figure to be better tested in the CL.
Player to WatchCleo, ST – The lone Brazilian on Partizan, Cleo was the catalyst for his club’s qualification to the CL group stage. Cleo scored seven goals in six qualifying matches, plus the first shootout goal in Partizan’s win against Belgian side Anderlecht to secure their CL place. The Serbian side will hope Cleo can maintain his early season form.

GROUP H PREDICTION – 1. Arsenal, 2. Shaktar Donetsk, 3. FK Partizan, 4. SC Braga – Arsenal has been placed in the easiest group, and should have little trouble finishing first amongst the four clubs. Shaktar Donetsk is easily the next best, but Partizan will be looking to lock down a Europa League spot by edging out Braga for third place.

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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.

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