The UEFA Champions League returns this week with plenty of mouthwatering match-ups in store. After the thrills and spills of match day one, how will this second installment compare? TheHardTackle previews all of Tuesday night’s action from Group G and Group H.
Benfica vs. Barcelona
Estádio da Luz, Lisbo
These two sides have met once previously in the Champions League, in the 2006 quarterfinals, where Barcelona walked away with a 2-0 aggregate win after running out a scoreless draw in the first leg at the Estádio da Luz. Barcelona are currently leading Group G with three points, while Benfica sit with a lone point after a 0-0 draw against Celtic in match day one.
Barcelona have been on scintillating form, making a perfect start in their La Liga campaign with six wins out of six matches so far. Tito Vilanova’s men ran into a tight spot over the weekend against Sevilla, but with the creative forces of Cesc Fabregas and David Villa, Barcelona were able to scrape a last-gasp 3-2 comeback and remain at the top of the table.
While Benfica are doing well domestically, the added strain of European competition is a tough challenge for a side that lost two of their best during the summer transfer window. Jorge Jesus will furthermore be without the services of Oscar Cardozo, due to injury, and Luisao, who is serving a two-month competitive ban.
With a Clásico coming up this weekend, Vilanova will have to be judicious in his squad selection. Thiago Alcantara has been sidelined with a knee injury, but the return of Adriano, Andres Iniesta, and Carles Puyol will be welcome news for a team who have been struggling defensively. Barcelona are the heavily-favored winners of Group G for a reason, and all signs point to a win for the Catalans in Lisbon.
Prediction: Benfica 0-1 Barcelona
Spartak Moscow vs. Celtic
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Spartak are currently dead last in the group, after a 3-2 loss to Barcelona in their opener, while Celtic were able to hold on to a point against Benfica. Now with the Eagles fighting to hold off the Catalans in the other Group G match, Spartak and Celtic both have a chance to sneak into second place. Both will be fighting against history in pursuit of this win. Of their last 14 Champions League home games, Spartak have won only one. Celtic, meanwhile, have not won their last 26 away matches in European competition.
Unai Emery will have to make do without his first-choice goalkeeper Andriy Dikan, who is out with an injured shoulder. Captain Sergi Parshivlyuk, as well as the Brazilian pair of Romulo and Welliton, are also unavailable.
Celtic right-back Adam Matthews has traveled with the team to Moscow, but looks set to miss the match due to an ankle injury. Neil Lennon will also be without striker Lassad Nouioui. But Gary Hooper has hit fine form recently, scoring four goals against Raith Rovers to make a convincing case for why the manager should start him against Spartak.
The Scottish side will need all the goalscoring power they can get, as they remain the only Champions League team to have yet to manage a single shot on goal, while Spartak scored from both their shots on target against Barcelona.
Prediction: Spartak Moscow 2-1 Celtic
CFR Cluj vs. Manchester United
Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu, Cluj
CFR Cluj and Manchester United will meet for the first time in European competition on Tuesday night, as the Red Devils head to Romania in search of their 100th Champions League win. Both sides earned maximum points from their openers, United defeating Galatasaray 1-0 while Cluj took out Sporting Braga with a 2-0 win on the road.
Win over Braga aside, Cluj have been less than convincing this season: they sit sixth in the table after ten league games and have already dropped 9 points behind leaders Steaua Bucharest. United meanwhile have enjoyed a decent start to the season, taking 12 points from six games. But fans were in for a shock last weekend as their team suffered a 2-3 loss to Tottenham Hotspur – their first home loss to the club from White Hart Lane in 23 years.
Team fitness is compounding Ferguson’s woes, with a minor defensive crisis coming in the form of injuries to Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones. Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes, Ryan Gigges, and Michael Carrick were also all left out of the squad that traveled to Romania. Cluj, meanwhile, will be without Ciprian Deac, Adam Vass, Bakary Saré, and Ronny.
Against Cluj’s narrow, counterattacking formation, United will be pressed to find width while staying deep enough to cover their backs.
Prediction: CFR Cluj 1-2 Manchester United
Galatasaray vs. Sporting Braga
Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul
Galatasaray were disappointed in their opening day 0-1 loss at Old Trafford, as the Turkish champions arguably played the better football and created numerous chances throughout the match, but were unable to convert. Braga meanwhile were shocked in their opener by CFR Cluj, who walked off with a brace, a clean sheet, and all three points. Both sides need a win on Tuesday night to keep their Champions League hopes alive.
Jose Peseiro has no injury issues to worry about as he makes his squad selection. And his team have momentum behind them after a 2-0 win over local rivals Vitoria Guimaraes, leaving Braga third in the league after joint-leaders Benfica and Porto.
Fatih Terim meanwhile will be without Tomas Ujfalusi and Albert Riera for the clash against Sporting Braga, and Hamit Altintop is also doubtful after limping off during a 0-2 loss to Orduspor on Friday.
Braga will be looking to extend their undefeated away streak in Europe, as they try to breach a fortress-like home record: Galatasaray have lost only one of their last nine European fixtures at the Turk Telekom Arena.
Prediction: Galatasaray 1-1 Sporting Braga