Soccer

UEFA Champions League Draw Analysis

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The UEFA Champions League Group Stage draw was held today in Monaco.

With few glamor ties, the groups stemming from today’s draw for the UEFA Champions League seem rather boring, upon first glance.

But a closer look shows that while most of the big clubs will have a relatively easy task of advancing to the knockout stages, there will be plenty of intrigue in who finishes second in these groups.

Last year, the prevailing feeling was that you could easily predict most of the 16 teams that would advance. That’s not the case with this draw, as only three teams – Hapoel Tel-Aviv, CFR Cluj and MSK Zilina – appear to be truly out of their depth before a single game has been played.

That leaves 29 teams for 16 spots. The names aren’t always big, but there will be plenty of interesting matches to keep an eye on as the group stage unfolds.

A rundown of the groups, with predictions (in order of finish):

Group A (Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur, Twente):

Spurs striker Peter Crouch said last night he wanted “massive games” and welcomed the idea of being in the same group as Inter Milan and Real Madrid.

Well, he came pretty close.

Werder Bremen isn’t Real, but it’s a squad full of quality that will get even better when central defender Naldo returns from a knee injury, presumably in September. Claudio Pizarro, Marko Arnautovic and Markus Rosenberg give Werder plenty of options up front, with Marko Marin pulling the strings and Torsten Frings still patrolling the center of the midfield.

Spurs will have its work cut out in its long-awaited return to top-of-the-line European football. Harry Redknapp has the squad at his disposal to compete with anyone in this tournament, but will he and his players have the right mental and tactical makeup to get out of the group? Tottenham responded well from that dismal first half hour against BSC Young Boys in Switzerland, but those three rather simple goals raise questions about the team’s ability to grind out results on the road in Europe.

And while no one should count out defending Eredivisie champion Twente – led by Costa Rica international striker Bryan Ruiz – the other three teams here are probably a little too good.

Predicted finish: Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur, Twente

Group B: Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv

With the top three teams, this is as even a group as it gets. Lyon, Benfica and Schalke can finish in just about any order.

Lyon, a semifinalist last year, gave itself a boost recently with the signing of Yoann Gourcuff from Bordeaux. Gourcuff’s ability to develop an understanding with one of the world’s most underrated strikers, Lisandro Lopez, will be critical early in the season. Michel Bastos and Miralem Pjanic, players so important to Lyon’s run last season, will aim to continue that form this season.

This group will likely come down to the matches between Benfica and Schalke. The Portuguese champions have had a rough start to the season, losing to Porto in the Super Cup and dropping their first two matches of the league season to Academica and Nacional. Oscar Cardozo, Nuno Gomes and David Luiz are still around, but midfield linchpin Ramires was sold to Chelsea.

Schalke has talent throughout its squad and a game-changing goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer. The German club made the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2008, and will have a similar finish in its sights this term.

Predicted finish: Lyon, Schalke, Benfica, Hapoel Tel-Aviv

Group C: Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor

Does Manchester United ever get a tough group? It certainly didn’t happen this year, with a fire sale depleted Valencia, limited Rangers and newcomer Bursaspor providing the competition.

All things considered, the Spanish side did pretty well in this draw. The debt-ridden club sold David Villa and David Silva, among plenty others, in the summer, but replaced them with decent talents Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduriz. The club also kept Juan Mata, and just may be good enough to get out of the group.

The potential sleeper here is Bursaspor, as solid a team defensively as you will find in Europe. Led by captain Omer Erdogan, Bursaspor conceded just 25 goals in 34 Super Lig matches last season, and has started this year with two clean sheets. The second of those came Sunday at Galatasaray, a testament to this club’s abilities.

Predicted finish: Manchester United, Valencia, Bursaspor, Rangers

Group D: Barcelona, Panathinaikos, Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Barcelona lost twice at home in all competitions last season. One of those losses came to Rubin Kazan. It was one of those games – Barca had 75 percent of the possession and out-shot Rubin 24-3. But two of Rubin’s shots went in, and a well-organized defense – not to mention a few fine saves by keeper Sergei Ryzhikov – led Rubin to a shock win. Two weeks later, Barca traveled to Russia and was frustrated again in a 0-0 draw in sub-freezing temperatures.

The difference for Rubin this year compared to last is that there is no Inter Milan also lurking in the group. And defensive solidity remains their trademark: after allowing just 21 goals in 30 matches last year, the two-time defending Russian Premier League champion has conceded just 7 in 18 this season. Cesar Navas and Aleksandr Orekhov are rocksteady in the middle of Rubin’s defense, and with holding midfielder Cristian Noboa sitting right in front, Rubin’s defense is a tough nut to crack.

The recent loss of striker Aleksandr Bukharov to Zenit St. Petersburg was a big blow, but Rubin still has enough to get out of the group. Panathinaikos signed Sidney Govou this summer, but it’s hard to see he and Djibril Cisse giving the squad enough punch to move on to the knockout stages.

Predicted finish: Barcelona, Rubin Kazan, Panathinaikos, Copenhagen

Group E: Bayern Munich, Roma, FC Basel, CFR Cluj

Bayern should walk this group. Louis van Gaal returns one of the best sides in Europe largely intact, with rising star Thomas Mueller set to only get better and better. Bayern is a legit contender to return to the final.

Roma was a great story last year, with Claudio Ranieri taking the club on a marvelous second half run that saw it finish just two points behind Inter for the scudetto. It’s hard to imagine Roma not taking a step back, though, with the club’s only significant summer addition being Adriano. Who knows what you’re going to get with him?

Basel is led by the potent strike partnership of Alexander Frei and Marco Streller, who combined to score all three goals in the team’s 0-3 win at FC Sheriff Tuesday to assure the Swiss Super League title-holders of group stage play.

Roma is prone to giving up goals at unfortunate times. Is all of this enough for a surprise? There’s always at least one in the group stage; it might as well come here.

Predicted finish: Bayern Munich, FC Basel, Roma, CFR Cluj

Group F: Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, MSK Zilina

With all due respect to Chelsea’s opponents, winning this group will be a relatively easy task for Carlo Ancelotti. Chelsea is simply too good at every position for anyone here to give them much trouble.

Albeit at very different points in the season, neither Marseille or Spartak are having great domestic campaigns. Spartak, despite the contributions of Brazilian striker Welliton (13 goals in 14 matches), sit sixth in the Russian Premier League more than halfway through the season. Marseille, last year’s Ligue 1 champion, lost its first two matches before defeating Lorient, 2-0, Saturday.

Spartak made one of the more surprising signings of the summer transfer window in buying winger Aiden McGeady from Celtic. Marseille has bolstered its attack by purchasing strikers Andre-Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy, and made a shrewd decision in buying Spanish right back Cesar Azpilicueta from Osasuna.

Ultimately, the French side has a little too much quality to not advance.

Predicted finish: Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, MSK Zilina

Group G: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, Auxerre

At the very least, this is the Historical Group of Death. Madrid, Milan and Ajax have combined to win 20 of the 55 European Cups. The only one of the three capable of adding to that total this season is Real Madrid, who have been built to win this competition.

Milan has done little to boost a squad that was soundly defeated by Manchester United in the round of 16 last year. The squad is hoping to acquire Barcelona’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who would be an upgrade over Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Ajax can certainly score in the Eredivisie, but will that translate against better, more cagey European opponents? And is the back line good enough for this level? Maarten Stekelenburg may have to steal a couple games for Ajax to progress from this group. And don’t discount Auxerre, who knocked off a good Zenit St. Petersburg side in the last qualifying round to get here.

Milan has enough, barely, to get through, but don’t expect them to go much further.

Predicted finish: Real Madrid, AC Milan, Auxerre, Ajax

Group H: Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga, FK Partizan

This is one of the more interesting groups. Arsenal is the favorite, to be sure, but the other sides are capable of giving them trouble.

Braga impressed in its elimination of the favored Sevilla in the final qualifying round. Manager Domingos Paciencia has developed a classic well-organized, counter-attacking side that can give Arsenal fits. Shakhtar can give anybody a game at home – the Ukrainians were five minutes away from defeating Barcelona two years ago before allowing a pair of late goals. Partizan has one of Europe’s most in-form players in Brazilian striker Cleo, who scored eight goals in six games of Champions League qualifying to lead the Serbian side to the group stage.

Any one of those three teams can qualify from the group, but Braga is probably best built to do the job.

Predicted finish: Arsenal, Braga, Shakhtar Donetsk, FK Partizan

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