UEFA Champions League: Group C Analysis & Predictions
Zenit St. Petersburg enters Group C of the UEFA Champions League fresh off two new signings, Axel Witsel and Hulk, important additions to the Russian side.
AC Milan, on the other hand, has taken a different approach, selling Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to PSG.
Here's a look at the hopes and disappointments Group C may have to offer this season.
AC Milan: Are Their Glory Days Past Them?
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The Rossoneri have enjoyed great successes and disappointments in the UEFA Champions League, winning seven European titles. Winning an eighth title looks somewhat far fetched considering the sale of Ibrahimovic and Silva.
Milan head coach Massimiliano Allegri is facing a possible dismissal from his position at the club, which currently sits in 13th place in Italy's Serie A. Home defeats to Sampdoria and Atlanta have Milan fans furious, not to mention the fact that no top-notch players were brought in to replace those that left the club.
Allegri led Milan to a Serie A title in his first year with the club, but the sport of football is not always the kindest, and they will be looking at the current results opposed to the results of the past.
Allegri is going to have to work with what he has if he wants to keep his job.
Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng are two of the big names left on the Italian side. Having brought in Riccardo Montolivo and Nigel de Jong, Allegri’s midfield should be more consistent and better defensively.
Milan’s boring approach to the game will be back in action this week, but how far will they be able to go? Robinho as well as Alexandre Pato will be looked upon to carry the offensive load for Milan, but they won’t be able to do it alone. Going through a reconstruction phase, Milan’s head office will need to figure out exactly what its goals are and what is realistic for the current squad.
In their group, Zenit will probably be the team that will give them the most difficult of times. Both Anderlecht and Málaga know that their Italian opposition is significantly weaker than in years past.
Milan will struggle this season if they try to compete on all fronts with the squad they have. They could see themselves nearly out of the Champions League as and far back in the Serie A title race by the time the January transfer window comes around.
Zenit St. Petersburg: Could Their Summer Spending Make Them Contenders?
Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg have a lot to look forward to this season, especially after the signings of Axel Witsel and Hulk. Reuters, citing a source within the club, said that the transfer fee for the two new faces was rumored to be a combined £62 million ($100.66 million).
Last season, the first time the club ever qualified for the European tournament, Zenit posted a second-place finish in its UEFA Champions League Group Stage. Ironically, Axel Witsel was part of the Benfica side that eliminated Zenit in the knockout round.The Belgian international will now have to get adapted quickly to his new club if wants to lead them to the knockout stage for a second consecutive year.
Fifty-three-year-old Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti had to play with extreme caution when his side took on Hulk and Porto in the Group Stage last season. Hulk will be on the Russian side this time around, and the Italian manager can now figure out the best way to unleash the Brazilian forward against his opponents.
Spalletti has enjoyed domestic success since joining Zenit, winning the Russian Cup and Russian Premier League in 2010. The final 16 was as far as he could go in the Champions League last year, but with Witsel and Hulk the Russians could really make a significant run this year.
Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov, and Konstantin Zyryanov will be just three of the hard-working players in the Zenit midfield. Shirokov and Zyryanov can provide some very artistic football and they will have another opportunity to show off their talent to all of Europe this week. Witsel will have to earn his spot, but going forward Zenit looks to be very well taken care of.
Up front for Zenit, Aleksandr Kerzhakov will provide offensive firepower, with Hulk capable of performing in a striker role as well as out wide. When it comes to Hulk, it doesn’t really matter where Spalletti decides to play him because he will find a way to create offense regardless.
Zenit could be an exciting side to watch in the Champions League this season.
With their new signings accenting to the talent they already had, Zenit could well top their group. Getting used to the Russian weather will be a test for Witsel and Hulk, but the two new signings will offer Zenit a lot of versatility going forward, as well as defending in regards to Witsel. His lung capacity and ability to be a box-to-box midfielder for most, if not all of the game, is impressive, but the cold Russian temperatures could take a toll on his stamina.
With AC Milan rebuilding, Zenit could potentially take first place in Group C.
Anderlecht: The Belgians Finally Return to the Champions League
It has been six seasons since Anderlecht has featured in the UEFA Champions League. A return to the competition in a group that features AC Milan and a wealthy Zenit St. Petersburg won’t be all that favorable for the Belgian champions.
Anderlecht is the Belgian side with the most matches in Europe, having added two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups (1976, 1978), one UEFA Cup (1983), and two UEFA Super Cups (1976, 1978). Their chances of adding a Champions League title to the trophy case look bleak, at best, but that won’t stop them from trying.
New manager John van den Brom hopes that his attacking style of play and belief in his young, talented squad of players will pay off. Having been compared to Dutch head coach Louis van Gaal, the new Anderlecht tactician is looking to make a name for himself and his club with his high defensive line and flexible offense.
Argentine midfielder and club captain Lucas Biglia was a cause for concern for Anderlecht this offseason, as he was a major target for some of Europe's top clubs. Fortunately, the Belgians were able to keep him and can now focus on putting together a solid group.
The loss of Matias Suarez to a knee injury will be frustrating for Anderlecht. With their defense still lacking another proven defender like Cheikhou Kouyate, Anderlecht will most likely struggle against their opponents in Group C. All three clubs have significantly more money to lure above-average players to their clubs or off the bench.
After winning the Belgian title last season, the domestic league could take precedent for the club. While the Champions League offers a significantly higher amount of money, it can also take a toll on a club that is well past their European glory days. The Belgian side will likely stay competitive in their home matches but will be undone by their opponents on the road.
Malaga: Can the Spanish Side Fight Their Way into the Next Round?
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Just like a lot of clubs in Europe, a big bankroll was the name of the game for Spanish side Malaga. Upon the arrival of new Qatari owners, Malaga was expected to be the next big thing in Spain, but how quickly things changed. Falling into financial problems over the summer, Malaga ran the risk of not even being able to take part in Europe.
Along with financial problems came the need to sell some star players like Rondon and Santi Cazorla. Despite the problems going on in the front office, Malaga managed to see off Greek side Panathinaikos to book their place in the UEFA Champions League Group Stage.
Manager Manuel Pelligrini was excited over the thought of a new wealthy project with Malaga, but a hesitancy from the owners has brought the big spending dream to a screeching halt.
“There was a period where we needed to sell players, but that should have stopped now that we are in the Champions League,” he said. “We want to focus on football, nothing else.”
With Rondon’s departure came the arrival of former Benfica striker Javier Saviola and Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz. Saviola has played on the big stage and he can help the Spanish side reach their goals if he can get back to the form that helped Benfica claim the Portuguese title just a few years ago.
Lacking consistency over the last season has hurt the Argentine striker who looked like he had turned back the clock in his inaugural season in Lisbon.
“It was not a difficult decision to come to Malaga, just the opposite,” he says. “You can see that this is a team that has lived through some difficult moments together and they have responded well to the challenges. I couldn’t be happier to be here.”
16 year-old Fabrice Olinga could also get his shot at Champions League play with Malaga. A goal in his debut against Celta Vigo made him the youngest scorer in La Liga, but will Pelligrini give him the chance to find the back of the net against Europe’s finest?
Malaga could have a shot at making it into the knock round of the competition but they will have to be nearly perfect. The poor atmosphere in the dressing room due to the roller-coaster summer the club had has many critics doubting their ability to find consistency. With Isco still available to Pelligrini and his coaching ability, Malaga should be able to compete with the likes of AC Milan, Zenit and Anderlecht.
The Final Predictions for Group C
Just hearing the name AC Milan, one would think they would be the favorite in this group, but I have a feeling that Zenit St. Petersburg will take the top spot this year. They were already a dangerous side to go against, not only because of their talent, but also because Russia is not an easy place to play. The Russian side has also added significant talent and experience to their squad with the signings of Witsel and Hulk.
As for the second spot in the group, AC Milan will realistically struggle to come out ahead in the group, their fate determined both by how they play and on how determined Malaga and Anderlecht are.
Group Winner: Zenit St. Petersburg
2nd Place: AC Milan
3rd Place: Malaga
4th Place: Anderlecht