UEFA Champions’ League Matchday 1 throws up some even more intriguing ties for the matches scheduled on 15th September.
Kicking off things in Group E, last year’s runner-up Bayern Munich take on AS Roma. The coefficient battle between Serie A and Bundesliga have reached fever pitch giving this tie an added edge. Both clubs have started slowly in their domestic leagues. Last week Roma were humbled 5-1 by Cagliari while Bayern struggled to break down a resolute Bremen defence. The absence of talismanic Arjen Robben and a weak central defence have added to Bayern’s woes. Roma would need to improve a lot from their first two game,s if they have to salvage anything in the fortress called Allianz Arena.
Two un-fancied teams face-off in the other Group- E game. CFR Cluj shocked Europe the last time they played in Champions’ League; they defeated Roma 2-1 and drew 0-0 with Chelsea, before losing their way. Facing them will be FC Basel. The Swiss club who famously inspired Barcelona’s logo will look to recapture their form of early 2000s, when they had once knocked Liverpool out of the group stages.
Group F contains English Champions Chelsea along with French numero uno Olympic Marseille. Former Juventus legend Didier Deschamps inspired Marseille to a title win after a decade of disappointment. Deschamps has experience in Champions’ League too, having led AS Monaco to a memorable final in 2003-04. His team beat Chelsea on the way to the final. Marseille have so far been disappointing in Ligue-1 and will look to bounce back in Europe. They have a rich history in European football being the first and only French team to win UCL. They will have to be careful against Valeri Karpin’s Spartak Moscow – the third team in the group. Karpin’s coaching got rave reviews last season and Spartak played some brilliant football, finishing second. But the Midas touch seems to have vanished this season as they are languishing in mid-table of Russian League. Striker Welliton has been scoring a lot of goals, but they have also let in too many goals.
English powerhouse Chelsea has started the season with a bang. They swept all in their way domestically in 2009-10 and so far have shown no signs of stopping. With a squad and coach blessed with experience in the highest level, The Blues are one of the contenders for the European title. Anything less than a victory against tiny Slovakian outfit MSK Zilna will be a shock.
If anyone ever planned to create a Champions’ League group which would have both rich history and big names, then he/she would have wished to make Group G. Real Madrid, with nine European titles (a record) and 31 Spanish titles (again a record); AC Milan with 7 European titles (2nd after Real) and 18 officially recognized international titles (a record); Ajax Amsterdam, four time winners of European Cup and one of the select few clubs to have won every club trophy. The fourth member of this group, AJ Auxerre, a modest French club seems like a misfit in this galaxy of big players, but hold that thought, they knocked out big spenders Zenit St. Petersburg and are more than capable of causing an upset in UCL group stages as well.
Real Madrid face Ajax in first round. The Dutch powerhouse, renowned for their youth Academy, has been playing some spectacular football under Martin Jol, notching an astonishing 106 goals last season. Luis Suarez’s middle name will soon become “Goal” if he continues scoring in this rate. This season Ajax has so far recorded 25 goals in 8 matches. However, despite their prowess upfront, their defence remains a weak point. They were almost knocked out in the qualifiers because of their inability to defend their leads. What could be a better litmus test than the star studded attack of Real Madrid? Real, in a bid to recapture their old glory, roped in Jose Mourinho in the summer. Success and Mourinho are synonymous; Real would be hoping that the trend doesn’t buckle. So far their form has been ordinary in the league but this game might be the start of the new Real Madrid dynasty. Mourinho has broken a lot of records as a coach. He would love to break Real’s jinx against Ajax. In the 6 encounters so far between the two, Ajax has won four and lost just one. Mourinho does have a good record against Jol. Jose’s Chelsea won five of the seven encounters against Jol’s Tottenham Hotspurs.
AC Milan take on Auxerre in the other match of the day. Auxerre have been horrible in Ligue-1 till now but they played pretty well to knock out Zenit in qualifiers. Milan are still reeling from a shock 2-0 loss to Serie A newbie Cessena. The much hyped strike force of Ibrahimovic, Pato, Ronaldinho and Robinho still needs some time to properly gel. Allegri has very little experience in the Champion’s League, which might hurt Milan. Either way, they would not like to miss out on 3 points in this match.
Group H features a clash between Arsenal and SC Braga. The Portuguese outfit created the biggest shock of qualifying round as they soundly defeated Sevilla in both the legs. However, they will be weary of Arsenal’s recent dominance over Portuguese teams. Porto has lost 4-0, 5-0 and 2-0 in North London against Arsenal in recent times. Other than Manchester United, no other team has managed to win a game in Emirates Stadium in UCL. Arsenal curved out an impressive 4-1 win last weekend, Arsene Wenger thinks the current Arsenal team is capable of ending the club’s long cycle of underachievement in Europe.
Group H’s other encounter sees a mouth watering Eastern European tie. Partizan Belgrade take on Shakhtar Donetsk, UEFA Cup winners two seasons ago. Both teams faced off in last season’s Europa League. Shakhtar won the home leg 4-1, while Prtizan revenged in the away leg, edging the tie 1-0. Arsenal is the strong favorite in this group but the 2nd place is up for grabs.