The Champions League Group Stage is fast approaching. The draw was just concluded on August 30 and all eight groups are packed with most of the strongest teams throughout Europe. Defending Champions Chelsea will have their hands full with Italian Champions Juventus while Real Madrid is pitted against three other domestic league champions in Manchester City, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund. Barcelona and Manchester United seem to have the easier of the routes to the knock-out stages but with United failing to progress past the Group Stage last year, upsets will always be possible. Here are the groups for the Champions League Season 2012-2013:
Two-time champions Porto will be the favorites to top this group along with Paris Saint-Germain.
Bolstered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva during the summer transfer window, PSG will try to alter their inconsistent start in the French League into Champions League glory. They have the most top-quality players out of the four teams in this group, but will still have to improve their teamwork and gel together. This is the advantage that Porto has over them.
The Portuguese champs Porto will be difficult to defeat with the likes of Joao Moutinho and Hulk staying put after being chased by big clubs around Europe.
The Ukrainian runners-up Dinamo Kiev and Croatian Champions Dinamo Zagreb will have a tough time to qualify for the knock-out stages. Dinamo Kiev does have the experience in this competition but their glory days were during the eighties and nineties when they entered the quarterfinals and semifinals on multiple occasions. Zagreb has never reached past the Group Stage and with the opposition they have in this group, that statistic will not be improved upon this year.
I predict Porto and PSG to qualify in this group.
Even without Robin Van Persie, Arsenal will likely still top this group. The inclusions of Oliver Giroud, Lucas Podolski and Santi Cazorla will help fill the void left by Van Persie. Schalke 04 has qualified for this competition consistently in recent years. They have just acquired Ibrahim Affelay from Barcelona on a one-year loan basis to help strengthen their attack which is led by another Dutchman in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Rising star Lewis Holtby is one of the players to watch and he wishes to accomplish what the legendary Raul did with their team in the previous seasons.
Greek Champions Olympiakos has the pedigree to provide an upset against either Arsenal or Schalke 04. They reached the round of sixteen twice in the past five years.
First-time French Champions Montpellier will be here for the first time in their history and will need to be at their best to advance to the next round.
Arsenal and Schalke 04 will be the teams to advance to the next round.
Zenit St. Petersburg
Restructuring AC Milan will have enough experience and firepower left in their depleted lineup to still qualify as top of this group. With the departures of Silva and Ibrahimovic, they have lost the backbone of their lineup. The nucleus of their two-time Champions League winning teams have departed with Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso all moving on to different leagues. The acquisitions of Riccardo Montolivo, Giampaolo Pazzini, Bojan Krkic and Nigel De Jong will be enough for them to overcome their three opponents.
Zenit and Anderlecht will be fighting it out for that other qualification spot. Belgian Champions Anderlecht has been in the Champions League Group Stages consistently the past fifteen years and will have the experience to advance.
Russian titleholders Zenit are on the rise since 2008 when they won the then UEFA Cup and the UEFA Supercup.
Malaga made it to this stage for the first time in their history and will find it difficult to qualify to the next round. With the arrival of new owner Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani in 2010, Malaga had the resources to mount a challenge for a Champions League place. With the influx of new players like Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz, they might cause an upset or two in this group, but their relative inexperience will be the only factor holding them back.
Milan and Anderlecht will advance to the next round but Zenit may cause an upset.
It is plain to see that this is the Group of Death. Spanish champions Real Madrid, English champions Manchester City and German champions Borussia Dortmund have been drawn in this tough group.
Nine-time winners Real Madrid will be the favorites to win this group and Jose Mourinho will want to add this trophy to the three that he has already won with Los Blancos. By beating Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup this past week, with last season’s League Trophy and the King’s Cup from two seasons ago, a Champions League trophy will cement his status as one of the best coaches in history. The arrival of Luka Modric and Michael Essien will strengthen their midfield even further.
Newly-crowned English champs Manchester City will try to improve on their first exit two seasons ago with the acquisition of 5 quality players right before the transfer deadline ended. The arrivals of Maicon, Scott Sinclair, Matija Nastasic, Richard Wright and the thirty eight million pound signing of Javi Garcia from Benfica will provide a boost in their already powerful squad. They will be up against Madrid on the first day of the Group Stage, which is the most anticipated match-up for that day.
Ajax has met Madrid in the Group Stage in the past few seasons and will need luck to beat the two teams mentioned.
Dortmund, first round victims last year, will be the ones to watch out for in this group. On their best day, they can produce beautiful football to watch with exquisite passing and top-notch finishing, but the lack of experience of their players in this competition might prove to be a hindrance to their qualification to the last sixteen. Marco Reus and Mario Goetze, the future of German football, will need to live up to their potential to get that much-needed upset.
I see Real Madrid and Manchester City to qualify to the next round but all the matches in this group will be competitive.
Defending champions Chelsea has been busy in the transfer market, acquiring more players to help defend their trophy. No team has retained the trophy since A.C. Milan repeated during the 1988-89 and 1989-1990 seasons. The arrivals of Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Victor Moses and Oscar show that they are trying to improve their attacking prowess due to the departure of their goalscoring talisman Didier Drogba.
Italian Champions Juventus are also favored to advance to the next round. Even with the ten-month ban of their Coach Antonio Conte, they still have the European experience to beat their opponents. They won this competition twice before and are hungry for their next one as they are just getting out of a five year slump in terms of scandals and relegation.
Ukranian champions Shakhtar have been in this competition regularly for almost 15 years and qualified once for the quarterfinals in the 2010-2011 season. If the scandal that is currently affecting Juventus disrupts their preparation for this tournament, Shakhtar may provide the upset in this group. It is the first time that Danish Champions Nordsjaelland will participate in this tournament and with the quality of their opponents in this group; the experience of playing against Juventus and Chelsea will only help improve them for the future.
I predict Chelsea and Juventus to qualify from this group.
Runners-up Bayern Munich surprisingly only acquired Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao in the transfer market this summer. Confident in their current squad, Coach Jupp Heynckes still has a wealth of talent in superstars Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben manning the wings and Mario Gomez banging in the goals. With a little bit of luck, they may end up in the finals again. For now, they are the favorites to top this group.
Two-time runners up Valencia have managed to advance past the group stages the previous three seasons. With Lille and BATE Borisov as relative newcomers to this competition, a fourth consecutive pass to the round of sixteen is possible.
Having lost star player Eden Hazard to Chelsea in the transfer window, Lille will struggle to maintain the output that they have achieved the past few seasons. Hazard was the France’s Best Player of the Season two years in a row. Even with the acquisition of Salomon Kalou, it will take more than one player to replace the heart and soul of their team.
It is the third time that Belarusian Champions BATE Borisov qualified for the phase in the competition. Considered the minnows of this group, it will take a miracle for them to advance to the next round.
I predict Bayern Munich and Valencia to progress to the round of sixteen.
Four-time Champions Barcelona is looking to regain the trophy that they consider to be theirs. With only the acquisition of star left-back Jordi Alba in the transfer market, newly appointed Coach Tito Vilanova is supremely confident in his squad. With the return of David Villa from injury and the continued dominance of Lionel Messi, Xavi and newly-crowned European Player of the Year Andres Iniesta, they have what it takes to go all the way to the finals once more.
With the sale of Javi Garcia to Manchester City right before the transfer deadline ended, Benfica will have a difficult path the next round. Spartak Moscow and Benfica have similar experiences in this competition.
Winners of the European Cup in 1967, Celtic are in a better position to qualify to the next round than either Spartak or Benfica. Going through the qualifying stages and the playoff, Celtic has proven their spot in this group and will not let all that effort go to waste.
Barcelona will race to the top of this group with Celtic to finish second.
Manchester United wants to erase the memories of their first round exit last year. With the acquisition of league top-scorer Robin van Persie from Arsenal and creative maestro Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund, Sir Alex Ferguson wants to add a third Champions League trophy to his credit. They have a wealth of options in attack with Wayne Rooney, Danny Wellbeck, Javier Hernandez and Van Persie to choose from. The current injury crisis in central defense may hamper the start of their campaign, but once these players get fit again, they will certainly be one of the teams to be in the next stages.
Second time qualifiers Braga will be battling for that second qualifying slot with Galatasaray. Runners-up in the Europa League back in 2011, they have tasted some success in European competition. The team will be banking on that experience to aid them in the higher competition ahead in this group.
Turkish Champions Galatasaray has gone deeper in this competition through the years than Braga, reaching the semifinals once and the quarterfinals on multiple occasions. Milan Baros and former Real Madrid midfielder Hamit Altintop will try to resurrect their proud history in European competition having failed to qualify for this competition in three years.
Romanian Champions Cluj has never qualified past the Group Stage both times they qualified in the past four years.
I predict Manchester United and S.C. Braga to qualify in this group.
Well there we have it! Champions League football is back in full swing with exciting match-ups and improved squads from last season. With Chelsea losing to Atletico Madrid in the European Supercup recently with the score of four to one, they need to improve their teamwork quickly to integrate all the new players into Coach Roberto Di Matteo’s system if they want to retain their title.
The powerhouses of Europe are back on our television sets! Catch the UEFA Champions League Group Stage games live starting on September 19 and 20, 2012 only on BALLS SkyCable Channel 34.
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