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2011-12 UEFA Champions League Group Phase Preview

August 25, 2011

Well here we are again. The European club season is getting into gear and nothing symbolises it more (so UEFA would lead us all to believe) than the UEFA Champions League Group Phase Draw. Fast forward through Pedro Pinto and Michelle Winiger’s smiley introductions and the legendary faces drawing the names out of the bowls (hat sounds so much better but alas it is not true so bowls it is) and the draw itself is not as mesmeric a spectacle as UEFA try to paint it. The results hold some potential moments of intrigue yet as happens on an almost constant basis, the unpredictable nature of football appears to have not quite materialised in its truest sense in Europe’s premier competition. But here it is in all its glory and some thoughts on the compositions of the groups and things to look out for are below.

GROUP A

Bayern Munich /Villarreal /Manchester City /Napoli

A hugely intriguing group with four teams who could argue their merits for progress without using the term “hope”. Bayern Munich are the top seeds and will be a force in the group but they might just be aiming more at regaining the Bundesliga title rather than making headway on the European stage. Villarreal are a neutral’s delight and while some have already put Villarreal bottom of the group in their predictions, such underdog status is revelled by El Submarino Amarillo. Manchester City’s wealth of talent means that many would see them as likely to progress and while it is the club’s first Champions League outing, Roberto Mancini and his players have been here before. Another team making the step up from the Europa League is Napoli who were disappointing in Europe last season when taking into account the talented squad they have. The Neapolitans will be a real threat and in Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, they have a trio who could propel Napoli higher still.

Certainly this is the most open group and will likely produce most of the competitive entertainment during the group phase. The main albeit mildly possible surprise would be if any of the teams in this group made further than the quater-finals this season.

Sales Point: The general squad quality that the teams possess particular in attack. Just as long a Mancini doesn’t reign in his frontline too much, it’ll be a group that will sell itself.

If just for one game…: Bayern Munich – Manchester City (in the stadium that will host the final, Manchester City will face their biggest challenge and this game will be a good marker to measure just what else is required of the Citizens for them to make their mark on the biggest stage)

GROUP B

Inter /CSKA Moscow /Lille /Trabzonspor

Inter will be pleased with the draw as they will be many people’s favourite to win the group with Lille and CSKA Moscow fighting it out for second spot. The Italian club have seen a plethora of changes this summer but they would appear to have enough quality in this transitional period to progress to the knockout rounds. As for possible contenders to usurp Inter at the summit of the group, Lille are the reigning champions of France and so should not be underestimated. It appears that key man Eden Hazard will be staying put and with him in the side, Lille will be eye-catching if nothing else. As for the lowest seeds, Trabzonspor are here because of Fenerbahce withdrawal by the Turkish FA due to matchfixing enquiries. Fenerbahce are currently appealing the decision so there is a cloud hanging over this group. If they’re successfully re-admitted to the competition then the group may be more competitive but as it stands, Trabzonspor look likely to be the whipping boys of the group.

Sales Point: Lille will be looking to prove their European credentials while Inter will look to make a seamless transition minus any dramas in this stage of the competition.

If just for one game…: Lille – Inter (a testing encounter for Gasperini and his charges. With the way Gasperini sets his sides up, this could be a contender for one of the best games of the group stage)

GROUP C

Manchester United /Benfica /Basel /Otelul Galati

Another group where the top seeded team will be extremely confident of comfortable progression. In fact, it would be some upset for the seedings order to not be the placings come the final whistle on Matchday 6. Otelul Galati are an unknown quantity to many and may pull off the odd surprise result, more likely against Basel but in truth this would appear one of if not the most straightforward group.

Sales Point: This group appears to have so obvious a conclusion surely there’ll be a surprise. This is football after all?

If just for one game…: Otelul Galati – Manchester United (for the sole reason to witness the monstrous gap that exists in football at the highest level)

GROUP D

Real Madrid /Lyon /Ajax /Dinamo Zagreb

At first glance a relatively straight forward group in accordance with seedings but Ajax appear to be building in quality and Lyon are no longer the superpower of French football after the disappointing reign of Claude Puel. Their hoodoo over Real Madrid was broken last season and Real have only grown over quality since disposing of the French club in last season’s edition of the tournament. Ajax will push Lyon all the way for 2nd place and will certainly provide entertainment in this group.

Sales Point: Real Madrid just might be a little too arrogant and may slip up and allow themselves to be sucked in to the inevitable tussle between Lyon and Ajax for progression.

If just for one game…: Lyon – Real Madrid (Lyon will want to show they haven’t forgotten how to beat Real while the Spanish giants will be determined to ease past the French side)

GROUP E

Chelsea /Valencia /Bayer Leverkusen /Genk

Another group that falls into the category that Group D falls into although the lowest seeds in this case may provide more of a challenge than Dinamo Zagreb will in the previous group. Genk are Belgian champions and possess a talented group of players who could cause a few upsets although it’s likely that the Belgian side will be more of a threat for the third place route into the Europa League than to progress in this competition. Chelsea will certainly be tested in this group as despite key departures over the previous seasons, Valencia remain a high-quality team and with a Coach of Unai Emery’s ability, they will be entertaining and will push to qualify as quickly as possible. The team in this group that will be the key is Bayer Leverkusen. The departure of Arturo Vidal is a huge loss to the German side but with the consistent rise of the Bundesliga comes the surge in depth of quality in German football and Leverkusen will provide stern test to their competitors.

Sales Point: Players’ returns could prove interesting viewing as Juan Mata goes back to the Mestalla and Michael Ballack returns to Stamford Bridge.

If just for one game…: Valencia – Chelsea (the battle between the tactical minds of Unai Emery and Andre Vilas-Boas will make for cerebral entertainment if nothing else)

GROUP F

Arsenal /Marseille /Olympiakos /Borussia Dortmund

Arsenal fans may have been content prior to the draw of the final seeding pot but with Dortmund come a team that is a neutral’s favourite. A delight to watch as they won a competitive Bundesliga with some ease, Dortmund possess the talent to turn the seeding pots upside down come the conclusion of the group phase. Olympiakos and Marseille are no slouches either although they have seen better days. It makes for an entertaining group.

Sales Point: Dortmund were the team everyone wanted to avoid from the final seeding pot. In a group with three teams who have been a little unconvincing in recent times, they’ll provide the fireworks in this group.

If just for one game…: Borussia Dortmund – Arsenal (a must-see game between two of the best teams who provide easy-on-the-eye football)

GROUP G

Porto /Shakhtar Donetsk /Zenit /APOEL Nicosia

A group that has seemed somewhat unfairly ignored yet it could well provide some beautiful football. Porto have lost key components of the team that was so good last season and so resemble somewhat of an enigma. They will be unlikely to change the style that served them so well last season and with keeping such a philosophy, this group will benefit in terms of entertainment value. Shakhtar Donetsk have been a pleasure to observe over the past few seasons and they will be looking to maintain their growth in the European game. Zenit meanwhile will be there topush Porto and Shakhtar close and so will make this group quite open. APOEL Nicosia have qualified not that long ago and while they will look to improve, the group draw has not been kind to them and it would appear too strong for them to cause any great surprises.

Sales Point: Thanks to Anzki Makhachkala’s signing of Samuel Eto’o, the profile of Russian football continues to be on the rise with Zenit at the front of the queue hoping to impose themselves at the top of the European game. This group resembles a glorious chance for Zenit to put Russian football higher in the European football public’s consciousness.

If just for one game…: Shakhtar Donetsk – Porto (it has the makings of a great contest with plenty of attacking talent on offer)

GROUP H

Barcelona /Milan /BATE Borisov /Viktoria Plzen

After the first two pots of seeds were drawn, the footballing fraternity was thinking what if Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund would complete the group that neutrals dreamed of. Unfortunately what followed was a damp squib in comparison and while being respectful to BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen, it would appear unlikely that the final group table would differ much from the group seeding places.

Sales Point: Barcelona and Milan just might take their foot off the gas against the minnows from Belarus and Czech Republic. Alternatively, Milan will able to assess how far along they are in their quest to return to the top of the European game. Barcelona meanwhile will be determined to win the group with games to spare.

If just for one game…: Viktoria Plzen – BATE Borisov (….were you expecting something else?)

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