UEFA Champions League: 10 Predictions for the Group Stages
Champions League football returns in full force with the beginning of group stage play on Tuesday night. As the top clubs in Europe battle it out for supremacy, eyes will be on young talents, high expectations will be placed upon some of the beautiful game's biggest names and clubs will welcome new transfers and lineup shake-ups as they enter the European stage.
Here are some of the expectations we have for the beginning of the competition—but, as we've seen in previous years, anything can happen.
All Eyes Will Be on the Wünderkinds
Some of the most sought-after young talents in Europe will be competing in this year's Champions League competition. Mario Götze, Christian Eriksen and Eden Hazard, who helped lead Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and OSC Lille to league championships and Champions League entry, respectively, will all be making appearances, and are expected to deliver. Hazard is coming off of a stunning performance in Lille's 3-1 weekend victory over St. Etienne, where he scored two goals, and Eriksen's Ajax comes into the competition at the top of the Eredivisie.
Tuesday's match will be Götze's first appearance for Borussia Dortmund following his two-match suspension, and as BVB face Arsenal, one of the two Premiership clubs going after the young attacker, the Gunners will certainly be watching his every move.
Manchester City, United Will Finish at the Top of Their Groups
The two Mancunian clubs, both on fire in the first few weeks of the Premiership, are expected to make quick work of their group stage opponents.
Returning runners-up Manchester United are fresh off of a 5-0 blowout against Bolton Wanderers complete with a Wayne Rooney hat trick and a spectacular return for Chicharito, while Manchester City has had a string of solid performances prior to their Champions League debut, bolstered by newcomers Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri.
And, looking at the competition, both sides should end atop their group stages. Manchester United faces Romanian competition debutantes FC Oţelul Galaţi, top Swiss side FC Basel and Portuguese runner-ups Benfica, and with the Red Devils having only conceded three goals this season so far while scoring 18, their offensive power and young players make them an intimidating force in Group C. City will face Napoli, a struggling Villarreal and Bayern Munich.
That's not to say every match will be a done deal, however. Manchester City will have to face tough regulars Bayern Munich and a rising SSC Napoli, whose overhaul under Walter Mazzari has seen some big changes for the better.
As for United, an ambitious Oţelul Galaţi may prove surprising and Basel has a few fantastic young players, including 19-year-old winger (and Premiership transfer target) Xherdan Shaqiri. But their biggest challenge will be Benfica, an old Champions League rival since the Matt Busby era. The Eagles are looking strong after a lineup overhaul and have gone unbeaten in 18 months' worth of European play, making them strong competitors.
Without Sánchez, Barcelona May Need Time to Find Their Footing
After a fiery opening week with a 5-0 blowout at Camp Nou against Villarreal, the defending Champions League titleholders have a had a couple of setbacks, most notably the injury of Alexis Sánchez.
The €37 million attacker, who has already brought creativity and vitality to Barcelona's midfield, will be out for two months with a hamstring injury sustained during the Blaugrana's 2-2 draw against Real Sociedad. The club struggled last weekend in San Sebastian, losing a 2-0 lead, but with the club mostly back and training after a number of Euro qualifier-related departures, they should show more cohesion.
Rising Talent, Good Management Will Pay off for Borussia Dortmund, Leverkusen
Bayern Munich is a regular fixture in the Champions League and will perform well, but 2011 will be the year of the BVB.
Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund are being hailed as the team to beat in this year's competition, thanks to Jürgen Klopp's efforts in building a cohesive, fluent side and a host of young players making their mark. Marcel Schmelzer, Neven Subotić and Mats Hummels contribute to a hard-working, consistent defense, and the team's 19-year-old talismanic 'magician' Mario Götze has already impressed fans from all over the football world.
Fellow Bundesliga side Bayer 04 Leverkusen are hoping to end the taunts of 'Neverkusen' at home and abroad under the helm of new manager Robin Dutt, whose experience and professional manner will strengthen the club. They've had a solid start to their Bundesliga season following an opening loss and are starting to build up some confidence on the pitch. Strikers Sidney Sam and Eren Derdiyok, both 23, have brought precision and power to their league fixtures so far, and will make strides in the group stage.
Group G Will Be Very Close, but Porto Will Triumph
Group G clubs may face the tightest race for a trip to the knockout stage with Europa League titleholders F.C. Porto, 2010-2011 Champions League quarterfinalists Shakhtar Donetsk, Russian Premier League champions Zenit St. Petersburg and Cypriot First Division winners APOEL F.C.
Expect Shakhtar and Porto to be the two strongest contenders, both competition regulars shouldered with high expectations after winning their respective divisions and having impressive showings in European play last season. The two will clash for the first time this competition at the Estádio do Dragão tomorrow.
Shakhtar will come in fierce with high-volume goal scoring, a full-strength squad for the time being and an experienced, championship-hungry manager in Mircea Lucescu. But with Vítor Pereira's vision and eye for talent, and the potent striking force of Hulk and Kleber, a motivated Porto will come out with the narrow victory.
Valencia Will Be Group E Sleeper Hits
The Blanquinegros face plenty of tough competition in Group E. Racing Genk, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea certainly won't make things easy for them, and the lack of Juan Mata, who is performing well with group rivals Chelsea, has slowed Valencia a bit.
But Valencia has competition experience and a strong first team, making them a serious contender within the group and a roadblock for the Blues and Leverkusen. Striker Roberto Soldado is shaping up to be a force this year with a hat trick against Racing Santander, where he redeemed himself by leading a come-from-behind victory at La Mestalla even after scoring an own goal. Couple the striking power with one of the strongest midfields in La Liga featuring newcomers Sergio Canales and Daniel Parejo, and Los Che may pull some big surprises in the group.
BATE Borisov Will Put Up a Good Fight
Although perhaps less familiar than some of their glossier Champions League counterparts, BATE Borisov certainly has one of the most fascinating histories of any side in this competition, going from humble beginnings in a tractor electrics factory to becoming the only team from Belarus to compete in the Champions League and Europa League.
BATE has a strong youth academy and is committed to developing promising local talent. Although they have no illusions about the challenges they will face in their group stage (Manager Anatoli Kapski: "Are we afraid of Barcelona? Every team in the world should be."), the squad is hoping their turn in the Champions League will up their international and national profiles, so they're motivated to put up a good effort. Expect homegrown young talents like 21-year-old striker Maksim Skavysh and defender Yegor Filipenko to deliver on the pitch.
Summer Transfer Overhaul Spells Hope for Benfica
The Portuguese Liga runners-up and Champions League regulars were busy in the summer transfer window, signing on 12 new players and releasing 13 (seven on loan).
Although Benfica begins the competition with a tough matchup against Manchester United, the Águias may get quite the boost from their new signings. After a pair of draws, Benfica is looking sharp with three Liga wins in a row, supported by newcomers Nolito and Bruno César, who have each scored multiple times, the former with a goal in each of his first five appearances for the club.
Barcelona-AC Milan Will Be the Best Matchup in Week One
In an interview for the UEFA website, Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta referred to AC Milan as "old friends." Both sides are looking forward to this match, the two teams' 12th meeting in UEFA competition and ninth in the European Champions Cup / Champions League. With four wins for Barcelona, three for the Rossoneri and two draws, the results have been fairly even. Several former Blaugrana stars, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gianluca Zambrotta and Mark Van Bommel, will be playing on very familiar ground.
Both sides are plagued by injuries: Barcelona is without their inventive winger Alexis Sánchez while AC Milan is missing striking force Robinho (probably), Gennaro Gattuso and Taye Taiwo. But they'll be hungry for a win after disappointing league draws, and with some of the game's top players still at their disposal, some key newcomers (Thiago and Cesc Fabregas for Barcelona; Alberto Aquilani for Milan) and a decades-old competition rivalry, this match will still be a spirited affair.
A close second is the Arsenal / Borussia Dortmund face-off at the Ground Formerly Known as Westfalenstadion. Arsenal's last European match was a success, and the addition of Mikel Arteta will up their attack, but to win, they'll have to face one of the most intense home atmospheres in all of football, not to mention Mario Götze. Manchester United's clash with Benfica should prove to be an intense one as well.
Some Truly Spectacular Goals Will Happen
Messi. Ronaldo. Agüero. Rooney. Drogba. Ibrahimovic. Hulk. Benzema. A predictable lot to be sure and a predictable comment at that, but the best offensive players in the world will mean plenty of fancy footwork and gawk-worthy goal-scoring.
And all over the world, fans will be trying to figure out what song goes best with their Messi goals YouTube montage.