Mapping Out Chelsea's Road to the Champions Cup: Group Stage
Another season of the Champions League has arrived with the usual fanfare of the group stage draw, including the annual player awards. John Terry won the UEFA Club Defender of the Year award for the third straight year, but what are the chances of the Chelsea captain getting his hands on Old Big Ears after coming so close in the last three seasons?
To be in the running again Chelsea have to negotiate their way through Group D, containing a familiar face in Porto, a very offensive-minded Atletico Madrid and Champions League group stage debutants APOEL Nicosia.
On paper Chelsea should be favourites and the draw could have been worse, but is the group really going to be that easy? Football history suggests there will be surprises aplenty before the group is finished. Here is a closer look at the teams Chelsea must battle past to get to the last 16.
FC Porto and Chelsea are no strangers to each other, and with this draw the Portugese champions are now closing in on Liverpool and Barcelona as Chelsea’s familiar opposition in Europe. Porto narrowly lost the last encounter in 2006/7 season’s last 16, drawing 1-1 at home and losing 2-1 away at Stamford Bridge to a Michael Ballack 79th minute goal. In the 2004-5 group stage Chelsea lost—admittedly a dead rubber game from the Blues’ viewpoint—by a score of 2-1 in Porto.
Porto are always a strong team and will prove tough opposition, particularly at home with vociferous support on Matchday 5. Porto will be hoping Hulk, one of UEFA’s Top 10 rising stars who muscled his way into the Porto starting line-up last season, lives up to his namesake and gives the Chelsea back line a torrid time. The 23-year-old Brazilian links up well with fellow 23-year-old Cristian Rodriguez. The Uruguayan winger, helping to form an attacking trio with Hulk and Lisandro Lopez, has a knack of scoring unsuspecting headers. Chelsea will have to keep a wary eye on him.
Pulling the strings will be Raul Meireles, the Portugese international who has excellent passing and long-range shooting skills in his armoury.
Chelsea, though, has a more experienced squad and more quality, particularly from the bench. With Carlo Ancelotti’s European winning management, the Blues should be too strong for Porto with key players fit and on song, such as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Alex, who is yet to feature in Ancelotti’s plans, could prove useful against Hulk.
VERDICT: Chelsea should pick up at least three points against Porto at home on Matchday 1 to kick off their campaign in a possibly close affair. The return fixture could be dicier, but depending on the back-to-back head to head with Atletico could be academic. Not losing, of course, would be the minimum target.
On first glance, with all due respect, the team from Cyprus looks to be the "points accumulator" for the other teams in the Group. The other three are all seasoned Champions League sides and arguably fairly evenly matched, while Nicosia are taking a bow this season.
Similar to Cluj in Chelsea’s group last season in some respects, Chelsea will welcome back their former Portugese midfielder Nuno Morais. But they will expect him to depart from the encounters with no points.
However, a few notes of caution should be sounded. Although the team does not have any stand out players at this stage, APOEL can be expected to work hard as a solid unit. Everyone remembers what Greece did in Euro 2004 with a similar tale of the tape.
The performance at home against FC Copenhagen in the playoff round is a case in point. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, APOEL scored three first-half goals and resisted a strong offensive from FC Copenhagen, who had secured one away goal to force the tie to a 3-2 aggregate. The lesson for Chelsea is to not take any assumptions, work just as hard as their opponents and allow the difference in quality to come through.
VERDICT: If Chelsea keep themselves professional the six points should be theirs. Any showboating and APOEL—particularly at home on Matchday 2—could provide a small dose of cold water to Chelsea’s European ambitions.
The Spanish capital’s other football team should at least allow Chelsea to sample the city of Madrid before hopefully returning in May. However, while not allowing a glimpse of the Bernabeu, the Vicente Calderon is likely to live up to its root name with the fanatical support of the Atletico fans on Matchday 4.
The back-to-back between the Blues and Los Colchoneros could very well be the pivot for both clubs' European seasons, and indeed the complexion of the group. Whoever comes off the worst in the two encounters will see Porto waiting in the wings ready to pick up the pieces. Chelsea should under no circumstances take Atletico lightly, as they have—along with Porto—the ability to bring an unfocused Blues side to its knees.
For starters, there could be the return of former nemesis Jose Antonio Reyes. As an Arsenal player the attacking midfielder delighted in scoring against the Blues and may leave his mark again. Also included in an awesome attacking lineup is Diego Forlan, who has come alive at Atletico, and Chelsea target Sergio Aguero. Neither needs much of an introduction. Nor does Maxi Rodriguez, but the pundit lead derision of Atletico’s back line needs addressing as well.
Los Colchoneros’ defence includes former Czech captain Tomas Ujfalusi and Dutch international John Heitinga. In the playoffs against Panathinaikos, Los Colchoneros conceded two goals across both legs—with the goals coming in an away leg Atletico won 3-2. This does not suggest a back line eager to concede goals.
Make no mistake—Chelsea need to ignore the pundits and be aware they have their work cut out against a side that, while delighting in outscoring opponents, can put in a defensive shift. Chances will need to be taken and Drogba and Kalou in particular will have to decrease some of their wasted opportunity ratios in these games. At the other end, John Terry and his defensive partner—either Ricardo Carvalho or Branislav Ivanovic—will have to be on their toes against the mobile Forlan and Aguero among others.
VERDICT: Along with Porto, Chelsea’s toughest opponents, an on-form Chelsea should have enough experience and quality in depth to prevail at home and not lose away. The target would be a minimum four points from the two encounters. However, any lapses in concentration will be punished and possibly even moreso than against Porto, whose offensive offering is still relatively young, Atletico could serve Chelsea a slice of humble pie and, depending on other results, a shove in the direction of the exit door marked Europa League.
Chelsea should qualify from this group and indeed as group winners, with ideally a minimum of fourteen points (three home wins for nine points, one away win in Cyprus and two away draws for five poits). Playing at the top of their game with total concentration this should not be an unrealistic target. and one Ancelotti is sure to be considering.
However, Porto and Atletico have certainly got the quality, particularly at home, to win and maybe cause an upset away. A few moments of overconfidence from Chelsea could see the Blues stumble to two away defeats and one or two home draws, reducing their points to possibly as low as eight and putting last 16 qualification in danger. A tricky draw that could have been worse—or easier—means vigilance will be the key word for Chelsea.
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