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Why Europe’s best clubs look set for Champions League group stage success
The groups for this year’s Champions League were announced on last week. The draw produced some fascinating match-ups and a host of exciting, competitive groups. Here I dissect Groups A-D in Part 1 of this 2013-14 Champions League groups rundown…
Group A – Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad, Shakhtar Donetsk
Favourites: Manchester United have to be nailed on favourites to finish top of the group. David Moyes has a tough job on his hands convincing the supporters domestically, but that is made even harder as getting to the latter stages of the Champions League is imperative to both the club’s status and his reputation as a coach. He will have to ensure squad rotation and juggle league commitments with the rigours of European football, something Sir Alex did expertly. Their main rival is Donetsk who have been strong contenders in the competition over the last few seasons with a team blessed with Brazilian spark as well as Eastern European know-how.
Dark horses: Bayer Leverkusen could perhaps raise a few eyebrows. They have kicked off their new Bundesliga campaign with a bang, winning their first three outings. Despite the inevitable departure of André Schürrle, Leverkusen have been able to retain key striker Stefan Kießling who finished the German top-flight’s top scorer with 25 goals last season. But not only are they highly adept in attack, they possess a defensive backbone which saw them concede the second lowest amount of goals in the 2012-13 Bundesliga (39) behind champions Bayern Munich (18). Elsewhere, Sociedad have done terrifically well to reach this stage (following a marvellous two-legged performance against Lyon in the Play-off round) but you feel their lack of depth may hinder their chances of usurping Leverkusen’s claim to spring a surprise.
Prediction: 1. Manchester United 2. Shakhtar Donetsk 3. Bayer Leverkusen 4. Real Sociedad
Group B – Real Madrid, Copenhagen, Juventus, Galatasaray
Favourites: Real Madrid *should* run out relatively comfortable winners. By the time the group stages commence, Madrid could well have Gareth Bale in their ranks should they finally tie up this never-ending transfer negotiation. If so, a potentially irresistible frontline of Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema (should his reported link with Arsenal fade) would run this group’s defences absolutely ragged. Carlo Ancelotti, brought in over the summer, is under great strain to deliver in the Champions League but his case is made easier by the selection of players he has at his disposal. Juventus, who ruthlessly played their way to the Serie A title last season, are the most likely candidates to mount a challenge for the number one spot but on paper, Madrid edge it.
Dark horses: The reason Juventus are the team that are most inclined to be a threat to Madrid is because of their new-look strike force of Fernando Llorente – who fell out of favour with Athletic Bilbao – and of course Carlos Tevez – the little magician signed from Manchester City. Not only this but their confidence is still sky high after romping to the 2012-13 Italian title; Juventus have excellent champions league betting odds for the coming season. Galatasaray are a club caught in transition but financially very strong. Well regimented at the back as well as having a fine frontline with the likes of Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder and the prolific Burak Yilmaz – the Turkish side will fancy their chances. Copenhagen, meanwhile, are firmly tipped to finish last.
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid 2. Juventus 3. Galatasaray 4. Copenhagen
Group C – Paris Saint-Germain, Anderlecht, Benfica, Olympiacos
Favourites: Undoubtedly, you’d bet your bottom dollar that Paris Saint-Germain will pass the test of winning Group C with flying colours. Their squad is untouchable in comparison to that of the other sides in the mix. They have already stamped their authority on Ligue 1 (although there is now stiff competition from equally wealthy Monaco) and now their hearts are firmly set on making a renaissance in Europe. Under Carlo Ancelotti, PSG ended a 19-year wait for the title last term after securing their first league since 1994. And they reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League only to be narrowly beaten by Barcelona over two legs. This could be their year under the guidance of newly appointed boss Laurent Blanc. Money can’t buy happiness, so they say, but it can buy world-class players, managers and trophies. Out of the other three teams, Benfica are the likeliest to pull up any trees.
Dark horses: Anderlecht perennially run riot in Belgium but when chucked in with the elite in the Champions League, they often struggle. The club’s heyday in Europe was back in the ’70s and they have failed to make a comeback since. Domestically, they are miles ahead of the rest, clinching the Belgian title the last two campaigns in a row. In terms of players to watch out for, Matías Suarez is lethal infront of goal and already has four goals and three assists in five appearances this season. 29-year-old defender Guillaume Gillet is the skipper and leads by example. But in reality, are they going to seriously worry either PSG or perhaps Benfica? No. Highly doubtful. Olympiacos, meanwhile, will just take every game in their stride and look to counter-attack with purpose when they can. I can’t see the Greeks finishing anywhere above third.
Prediction: 1. Paris Saint-Germain 2. Benfica 3. Anderlecht 4. Olympiacos
Group D – Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzeň, Bayern Munich
Favourites: The battle of England and Germany once more. Manchester City, under the stewardship of new coach Manuel Pellegrini, are in desperate need of resurrecting their flagging performances in Europe of late. They’ve signed expertly in the summer: Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Stevan Jovetic are all top draw acquisitions. With the squad bolstered, breaking into the knockout phase of the Champions League should appear an easier task. However, the team who will be attempting to oust City from qualification out of the group stages is Bayern Munich. Newly crowned Super Cup winners and the reigning Champions League winners after beating Borussia Dortmund in last season’s grand finale, they also have a new manager in the mould of Pep Guardiola. The philosophical, intellectual-thinking Spaniard is expected to achieve great things at Bayern, not least securing the competition’s prestigious trophy for a consecutive year. It will almost certainly be the aforementioned duo challenging for the top.
Dark horses: CSKA Moscow were absent in last year’s proceedings but in the 2011-12 edition they reached the quarter-finals, only to be drawn against giants Real Madrid. They bravely battled to a point at home but were hammered 4-1 at the Bernabéu in the return leg. The squad is stuffed with talent: blisteringly quick Ahmed Musa is the main weapon on the wing, Seydou Doumbia is prolific in Russia and highly rated Alan Dzagoev’s appreciation of the pass and commendable vision make him one to keep an eye on. Viktoria Plzeň, representing the Czech Republic, will have to defend resolutely and try and nick points here and there. It would be churlish to say they’ll offer nothing to the group. But, comparing the quality of the squad to even CSKA, they are nowhere near.
Prediction: 1. Bayern Munich 2. Manchester City. 3. CSKA Moscow 4. Viktoria Plzeň
Stay tuned for Part 2. Out soon.
By Nathan Carr