Chelsea entertain FC Basel in what should be an easy opening Champions League fixture for the Blues. The real eye catching action happens in Group H where former champions Barcelona entertain Ajax and Celtic travel to AC Milan.
AC Milan v Celtic
San Siro, Milan
In a group which contains four clubs who have won the European Cup in past, an injury stricken AC Milan host Celtic in the opening round. Milan and Celtic, with a total of eight European Cups between them have met several times in past. Their most high profile meeting came in quarter-finals of the 1968/69 edition when two of the game’s greatest minds squared off as Nereo Rocco took on Jock Stein. After a goal-less draw in San Siro, Milan held their nerves in Glasgow to eke out a 1-0 away win to knock out Jock Stein’s Celtic, champions two years before, to progress to semi-final before eventually winning their second European Cup. Their most recent meeting came in 2007/08 season when both were clubbed in Group D. A late, late goal from Callum McDonald helped Celtic record a famous 2-1 win over the defending champions AC Milan at Celtic Park, though they narrowly lost the away leg.
Since losing to newly promoted Hellas Verona on opening day, AC Milan’s start to the Serie A season has been stuttering at best. Last weekend, they were fortunate to escape a loss against Torino and to make things worse, both Kaka and Ricardo Montolivo, two of their most creative midfielders, went off with injuries. The AC Milan midfield will be further depleted with the absences of Andrea Poli. Under these circumstances Max Allegri is likely to fit in a midfield of Nigel De Jong, Antonio Nocerino and Sulley Muntari in his 4-3-1-2 formation. AC Milan will be heaping their hopes up on the mercurial Mario Balotelli to see through an often stubborn Celtic defence. Alessandro Matri has scored against Celtic while playing for Juventus last season and is likely to start with Balotelli upfront.
Celtic needed a strong performance in Glasgow to prevent minnows Shakhter Karagandy from pulling off a major upset in qualifiers. Neil Lennon’s side often looked tactically naïve when they last faced an Italian club in Champions League and the Celtic boss will need to avoid mistakes he made against Juventus last season. Placed second in Scottish PL table with a game in hand, Celtic is likely to field a 4-5-1 formation and will be aiming to squeeze out space in midfield with their superior numbers – a tactic that worked well against Barcelona last season. Greek hitman Georgios Samaras has scored six goals in Celtic’s last eight European away games and is likely to start as the lone striker upfront.
Prediction: AC Milan 2-0 Celtic
Players to watch out for: Mario Balotelli (AC Milan), Kris Commons (Celtic)
Barcelona v Ajax
Camp Nou, Barcelona
Barcelona and Ajax share a lot of things. Both have been European Champions four times each. A host of players including the likes of Johann Cruyff and Patrick Kluivert have played for both clubs. Rinuus Michel and Cruyff are both highly regarded coaches and both clubs even share their football philosophy and a penchant for youth players. Yet, strangely, two of Europe’s most storied clubs will meet for the first time in European Cup.
Under Tata Martino Barcelona have maintained a 100% record in first three rounds of La Liga but they have hardly been convincing. It took a late goal from Alexis Sanchez to get all three points against Sevilla in the weekend and Barca has conceded four goals in last two matches. Their defensive worries are unlikely to be eased in this match as they are all set to miss Carles Puyol as well as Jordi Alba. Xavi is also unlikely to start due to fatigue which means Cesc Fabregas will take up his position in the three man midfield along with Iniesta and Busquets. The real media glare however, will be on Neymar, who recently became the most expensive player in Barcelona’s history. The Brazilian hotshot has picked up couple of assists but is yet to find the net for his new club and will be itching to break his duck in his first ever Champions League match.
Since their memorable triumph in 1995 Ajax has routinely underperformed in Champions League, largely hamstrung by their inability to retain top talents. The same trend continued in the summer as Frank de Boer’s exciting young side, winner of past three Eredivisie titles, lost Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld, leaving them weakened in both ends of the field. Talented young defender Mike van der Hoorn has arrived from Utrecht but he lacks experience on the big European stage. Ajax is also likely to play a 4-3-3 formation similar to Barcelona with veteran Christian Poulsen teaming up with Thulani Serero and Lasse Schöne. Bojan Krkic, a former La Masia prodigy will start on the right side of center-forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson but it is Viktor Fischer on the left flank who is likely to cause most trouble to Barcelona.
Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Ajax
Players to watch out for: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Viktor Fischer (Ajax)
Schalke v Steaua Bucharest
The days when Gheorghe Hagi and Marius Lacatus used to don the Steaua jersey and swat away opponents in European Cup are long gone. The second half of 1980s was a golden age for the former Romanian Army club when they became the first Eastern European club to become European champions and reached another final and a semi-final. Steaua’s decline has been a mirror to the fall of Romanian football and the club will be making their first appearance in Champions’ League group stage after a long gap of five seasons. The most newsprint spent on Steaua by mainstream European press in recent years have been to cover about their colourful and controversial president Gigi Becali, now in prison. 2012/13 season brought some cheer as Roș-Albaștrii won their first league title in six years, following it up by sneaking past Legia Warsaw in away goals. The Romanians have started their season well, winning four out of five matches while thrashing Sageata Navodari 5-0 in last round. Pantelis Kapetanos and Piovaccari have been the in-form strikers for Steaua till now.
Schalke’s prospects of participating in Champions League took a hit when they conceded a 73rd minute goal at the Veltins-Arena to draw 1-1. PAOK had picked up an important away goal but it took the Germans 43 minutes to erase it in Greece. A brace from Adam Szalai coupled with an outstanding performance from Julian Draxler ensured that Schalke picked up an exciting 3-2 away win to qualify. Schalke are coming into this match in good form, after defeating Bayer Leverkusen and Mainz in previous two rounds without conceding a goal.
Steaua hasn’t won a match against German opposition in 56 years and given the gulf of class and experience, that record is unlikely to change in this match.
Prediction: Schalke 3-0 Steaua Bucharest
Players to watch out for: Julian Draxler (Schalke), Pantelis Kapetanos (Steaua Bucharest)
Chelsea v FC Basel
Stamford Bridge, London
The Special One, or the Happy One as he goes around these days, is back in the club which is probably the closest to his heart. And this time, Jose Mourinho is looking for that third Champions League title which will give him the unique distinction of winning the competition with three different clubs. The Chelsea side inherited by the Portuguese is largely different from the one which won two league titles in his first tenure. While his earlier Chelsea side was defensively compact, tactically astute and almost impossible to break-down, his current side boasts of some of the brightest and most creative young players in the world right now. They may not have the ability to grind out results on a bad day like his old Chelsea side but they certainly guarantee a more exhilarating brand of football.
Mourinho may use this match to use some of his players who have not got enough game time till now and the list includes names like Mark Schwarzer. New signing Willian may also get his first Chelsea cap against Basel. The Brazilian was especially dangerous in Europe during his last 2 seasons with Shakhtar Donetsk, scoring 7 goals in 13 matches. The 2011/12 European champions have been blessed with a reasonably easy group and this gives Jose Mourinho ample chance of experimenting in some games. Basel played Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea in last season’s Europa League semi-final, losing both legs by a 5-2 aggregate scoreline.
FC Basel is currently enjoying a golden period domestically and have won the league title in each of the last four seasons, along with doubles in 2010 and 2012. However, the RotBlau usually end up losing their best players and the side travelling to London on first match-day isn’t expected to pull off a major upset against Mourinho’s team. Basel’s recent form in the Swiss League is patchy at best and they have won just once in last four matches. Basel qualified to Champions Group stage after two handsome performances against Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets Razgrad, winning the away leg 2-4 and home-leg 2-0.
Prediction: Chelsea 3-0 FC Basel
Players to watch out for: Oscar (Chelsea), Valentin Stocker (FC Basel)