European previews: Arsenal, Chelsea, Man United
With the UEFA Champions League group stages kicking off on Tuesday night, read TSR’s previews of groups B, D, G and H.
Besiktas, CSKA Moscow, Man United, Wolfsburg
Manchester United will be clear favourites to progress from what some might call a straightforward group. The 2008 Champions and 2009 runners-up will be joined by German champions Wolfsburg, Turkish champions Besiktas and Russian runners-up CSKA Moscow.
United should qualify with ease. The home matches will be seen as straightforward affairs for Sir Alex Ferguson and his squad. The away trips will be more testing. Not least the lengthy journeys to Russia and Turkey.
Wolfsburg surprised many commentators on the Bundesliga last season, piping Bayern Munich to the title. Former Bayern coach Felix Magath led Wolfsburg to an inaugural title. Unfortunately the German manager left the club in the summer for a fresh challenge at Schalke 04.
Besiktas won the Super Lig by a comfortable five points finishing ahead of Sivasspor. At the helm of the club is experienced manager Mustafa Denizli. The former Turkey international has led Galatasary to semi final appearance in 1989 and Turkey to the quarter finals of Euro 2000. His experience may prove invaluable should Beskitas habour any hopes of progressing from the group.
CSKA Moscow dismissed Brazilian manager Zico in the summer after a poor start to their league campaign. Juande Ramos was earmarked as his replacement. The Russian side won the UEFA Cup in 2005 but have failed to make an impact in Europe since. Currently the Russian Premier League is in full flow so a sharp and fully-fit CSKA could prove tricky opposition.
Apoel Nicosia, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, FC Porto
Chelsea prepare to embark on another European season, hoping this time that their adventure won’t come to an end through the cruel means of penalties or last-minute winners. Portuguese champions Porto are the second seeds in the group. The pair are joined by Atletico Madrid and Cypriots Apoel Nicosia.
Sitting plum at the summit of Premier League, Chelsea have effortlessly drifted into life under Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian possesses an impressive CV in Europe. The owner craves a first European Cup triumph. This could be Chelsea’s year. They are certainly the team to beat in the group.
FC Porto gave Manchester United plenty of trouble earlier this year at Old Trafford. Only costly errors and a Cristiano Ronaldo wonder strike separated the two teams. None of the other teams in this tricky group will relish an uncomfortable 90 minutes in the intimidating Estadio di Dragao.
The other side in Madrid have successfully managed to hold onto two of their most prized assets: Diego Forlan and Sergio Ageuro. Atletico should be feared for their attacking football. Liverpool struggled to overcome the Spanish side last year, with two draws. The Vicente Calderon is another intimidating ground.
APOEL Nicosia are expected to be the whipping boys of the group. The Cypriot side are the most successful in the country’s history with 20 championship successes. Ironically the side possess a former Chelsea player in the shape of central defender Nuno Morais. APOEL can take heart from the encouraging performance of Anorthosis Famagusta in last year’s group stages.
Rangers, Sevilla, Unirea Urziceni, VfB Stuttgart
One would be hard pushed to select a winner from this group. Arguably the most balanced of all the groups, Sevilla, Rangers and Stuttgart will all believe they can at least qualify if not win the group. Even Unirea Urziceni could provide an upset on their baptism in European football.
Manolo Jimanez remains under pressure at Sevilla. Brazilian Luis Fabiano will terrorize opposition defences while Freddie Kanoute will pose an intriguing physical battle with defenders. Didier Zokora has joined from Tottenham and should toughen up the central midfield.
Much like their Glasgow rivals, Rangers enjoy raucous home support and the atmosphere will be electric on the much-loved Champions League nights. The disappointment of missing out on the group stages last year cost the Scottish giants severely. Walter Smith can have no complaints with the draw and they stand a fighting chance of progressing to the second round.
VfB Stuttgart are currently managed by former Liverpool right back Markus Babbel who steadied the ship last campaign after a rocky start. The loss of Mario Gomez is a blow. Aliaksandr Hleb joined from Barcelona to add creativity in midfield. Pavel Pogrebnyak will face the unenviable task of replacing Gomez up front.
Former Chelsea star Dan Petrescu led Unirea Urziceni to a first Liga 1 title. It’s a remarkable achievement for a team that has only resided in top flight football for three years. Unfortunately their home stadium did not fulfil UEFA requirements and will subsequently play their home ties in Steau Bucharest’s stadium.
AZ Alkmaar, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Standard Liege
Arsenal are firm favourites in Group H and it is difficult to see any other outcome. The London club is joined by Champions League debutants AZ Alkmaar from Holland, Belgium’s Standard Liege and Greek side Olympiacos.
Arsene Wenger will expect to qualify for the second round at a canter in a very winnable group. Despite the loss of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, Arsenal have maintained their impressive sleek football. Wenger has adopted a tactic not to dissimilar to the successful style of Barcelona and the younger players at the squad are gaining more experience.
Shockingly, neither Ajax nor PSV Eindhoven will be competing in this year’s Champions League competition. AZ Alkmaar will take over the mantle as they approach their debut in the competition. Disappointingly Louis van Gaal departed to join Bayern with Ronald Koeman his replacement. Gaal’s European experience could have been vital. Koeman will be looking to forget troubled times at Valencia.
Liverpool were pushed all the way in the third qualifying round by Standard Liege last season. Only a Dirk Kuyt goal separated the two sides. The Belgian sides’ star man Steven Defour will miss the entire group stage which will come as a massive blow for the side.
Champions League regulars, Olympiacos rarely overcome the obstacles in the group stage but they will be hoping for an improvement this time round. Olef Melberg should add defensive steel to the back four. Up front Matt Derbyshire has earned himself rave reviews in Athens and will hope to impress Fabio Capello on Europe’s biggest stage.