Europe’s elite competition resumes with a bunch of new faces. Some of the seasoned campaigners have missed out this year too.
Group A can easily be termed as a “Group of Death”. It contains defending Champions Internazionale, Dutch Champion FC Twente, Werder Bremen, a regular in European competitions and English hot-shot Tottenham Hotspurs.
On matchday-1 Twente face Inter. Both clubs will look to enjoy a smooth phase of transition as they lost highly successful managers in the summer. Inter bade farewell to treble winning Jose Mourinho, Liverpool’s Rafa Benitez taking his post. Steve McClaren led Twente to their first ever Dutch title, but left for Germany in the summer. He was replaced by Belgian legend Michel Preud’homme. The Enschede club has so far failed to capture last season’s form in domestic league, having drawn 3 out of 7 games. Inter’s form has been pretty patchy too. They lost the European Super Cup to Atletico Madrid. Their Serie A campaign hasn’t began well as they drew against Bologna and won scrappily against Udinese. Twente has been exceptionally good at home over last 2 seasons, losing just one game. They can very well upset an Inter team which still hasn’t settled.
The other Group-A game sees a fascinating tactical battle between two veteran coaches. Both Thomas Schaaf and Harry Redknapp are acclaimed for the exciting brand of football their teams play. Schaaf, a one club man for his whole career, has turned Bremen into a regular fixture in European football. Both his diamond system and handling of youngsters are widely praised in Germany. Werder provide an ideal test for Spurs, back in Europe’s premier competition after a gap of 48 years. Both Spurs and Werder almost got knocked out in qualifiers. Spurs were down 3-0 against plucky Swiss team Young Boys Barn, but staged a remarkable comeback to salvage 2 away goals. Werder almost went out against Sampdoria as they trailed 3-0 in the away leg, having won the home leg 3-1. But a late injury time goal and another in extra time earned them the passage to group stages. Marco Marin has been unstoppable for Bremen till now, Spurs on the other hand are plagued by injuries. We would ideally expect a lot of goals in this game.
Group B looks very balanced with 3 equally strong teams in Lyon, Benfica and Schalke. Israeli clubs have never done well in UCL, so Hapoel Tel Aviv is expected to make up the numbers. Schalke travel to France to take on Lyon. Despite decent transfer campaigns both clubs have started their domestic campaigns on disastrous notes. Lyon have won just one game out of five, while Schalke are languishing in bottom 3 after 3 losses. This is Lyon’s eleventh consecutive season in Champions’ League and they will look to improve on their semi-final appearance in 2009-10. Schalke have an extremely poor record in UCL and would look to improve on it.
Benfica were one of the most exciting teams last season. They finally broke Porto’s stranglehold on the Portuguese Title, winning it in style. Coach Jorge Jesus rolled out an attacking 4-2-3-1 with the South American duo of Ramires and Angel di Maria wreaking havoc on the wings. This season, both of these stars have left for greener pastures, weakening Benfica considerably. Despite that, anything other than a win will be a poor start for the two time champions. This will be Hapoel’s first ever appearance in Champions’ League group stages.
Group-C will see a British Derby between Manchester United and Rangers. The gap between Scottish and English football has increased considerably in recent times, these derbies have lost their shine. Sir Alex Ferguson will face a club where he played as a player and a manager who worked under him, Walter Smith. The last time these two clubs played in UCL in 2002-03, it was the Red Devils who triumphed, winning 3-0 and 0-1. Rangers have been going through financial strain and had to sell star striker Kris Boyd last summer. Manchester United should prevail in this tie.
The other tie in group C has Valencia travelling to Turkey to take on Bursaspor. The Turkish club became the first team outside Istanbul to win a league title in 24 years. This will be their first game in Champions’ League football and they might be out of depth against Los Che. Valencia had an impressive away record last season, losing just one of seven Europa League games. Despite selling David Villa and David Silva, Valencia so far has had a perfect start to their domestic campaign.
Group D contains one of the pre-tournament favourites, Spanish Champion FC Barcelona. Barca slumped to a shock 0-2 loss to newly promoted Hercules last weekend. They would look to bounce back from that loss and in style. Panathanaikos, who are travelling to Camp Nou can very well experience a backlash from that loss. Barca has a perfect record in the four games that has taken place between these two clubs.
Rubin Kazan travel to Denmark to face FC Copenhagen, in the other game. Rubin performed admirably well last season, defeating Barcelona in Camp Nou. They would look to muster a same type of performance this time around. They are trailing Zenit in Russian League by a fair distance and will look to improve that performance in UCL. Two time defending Danish champions, FC Copenhagen qualified after a very tight tussle with Rosenborg in qualifiers. This will be a close affair.