Category Archives: Bundesliga

Gold Cup 2011: Jamaica-US Preview

Thanks to this absolute laser by Jozy Altidore, the US beat Guadeloupe to advance to the knockout round of the 2011 Gold Cup.  Despite this victory, the US finished second in their group and drew Jamaica in the quarterfinals.  On current form, this could be an extremely tough game for the Yanks.  The Reggae Boyz have been one of the most impressive sides in the tournament, while the Yanks have underperformed.

Despite the uninspired performance of the USMNT, ESPN’s Five Aside Blog had this to say about the upcoming match:

The United States failed to win its group for the first time in Gold Cup history. As Group C runner-up, the United States faces Group B winner Jamaica, the only team other than Mexico to win all of its group games. USA has reached the semis in nine of the 10 previous tournaments, while Jamaica hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1998. Despite tournament form, SPI rates USA an 83.9 percent favorite to advance and extend its unbeaten (9-0-8) record against the Reggae Boyz. Jamaica has lost all four of its Gold Cup elimination games.1

Clearly, the SPI algorithm thinks the US will be able to overcome its malaise and put in the kind of performance American fans expect.

Player/Position Comparison:

Goalkeeper -  Tim Howard has been stellar for years and cannot be blamed for the loss to Panama.  He is one of the best keepers in England and arguably the world.  The US is lucky to have him guarding their goal.  Donovan Ricketts has been a rock in goal during the tournament, leading a defense that has yet to concede.  He’s also posted 6 clean sheets for the L.A. Galaxy this season.  Despite this good form, this comparison is simple.  One of the best in the MLS vs. one of the best in the EPL.   Advantage: USMNT

Defense – The Jamaican defense has yet to concede a goal, though part of that is probably thanks to the impotent competition they faced in the group stage.  Jamaica’s defense should not be discounted as three of the four starters play in MLS and they have paired well together all tournament.  Shavar ThomasJermaine TaylorDicoy Williams and Eric Vernan have all played well.  The US has struggled to find the right combination to start along the back.  Tim Ream looked out of his depth playing against Panama and Oguchi Onyewu is still lacking in form and hasn’t made an appearance.  Not without their struggles against Guadeloupe, expect the back four of  Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj to be in the Starting XI on Sunday.  On paper it would seem the US, with defenders from the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Danish League, has a better defense, but Jamaica is hot and is playing well as a unit.  Advantage: Push

While Bob Bradley stubbornly continues to deploy Clint Dempsey in the midfield, he's the USMNT's best hope at forward.

Midfield – Jamaica’s midfield has been on fire during the tournament.  Demar Phillips, who plays his club soccer with Ålesund in Norway, has scored three goals in three games. Dane Richards has been a terror on the wing.  Jason Morrison and Rodolph Austin, both of the Norwegian Tippeligaen have also put in solid efforts. The US midfield should be its strength.  With Landon Donovan on the left and Michael Bradley in the center the Yanks have two midfielders who have proven they can play at the top club level.  Who lines up on the right and in the center next to Bradley is a different story.  Jermaine Jones has not played his best during the Gold Cup, though Bob Bradley seems to be enamored with the former German under-20 international.  Clint Dempsey has lined up on the right, but as stated in a previous post, his best position for the USMNT may be up top.  Alejandro Bedoya has provided a spark off the bench and Sascha Kljestan has reignited his international career with a good showing.  Again, the US has a better midfield on paper, but the Reggae Boyz have been on fire this tournament.  Advantage: USMNT

Forwards – Another area where the USMNT has better players on paper – if you include Clint Dempsey.  As with players across the rest of the pitch, the Jamaican forwards have had a great tournament.  Led by San Jose Earthquakes striker, Ryan Johnson, the Jamaican front line has both scored goals and set up Jamaica’s lethal wingers.  Providing support for Johnson are Keammar Daley who plies his trade in the Jamaican Premier League and Luton Shelton of Norwegian side Vålerenga IF. Both have scored and assisted in Jamaica’s group games.  On the opposite side of the pitch, Jozy Altidore has looked great this tournament.  While still prone to lapses in concentration, he has provided 2 of the US’s 4 goals and assisted on another.  His wonder strike against Guadeloupe should have him feeling confident.  The rest of the US forward contingent has been less than stellar.  Chris Wondolowski has been wasteful in front of goal (see  this video) and Juan Agudelo is still learning.  With Bob Bradley seemingly unable to imagine Clint Dempsey as a forward, the US could be in trouble. Advantage: Jamaica

Coaching Staff - Let’s not even go there…

On paper, the US has better players than Jamaica.  More US players play in the top leagues around the world than the current Jamaican squad.  On form, the Jamaican squad is playing better than the USMNT, though they were in the easiest of the three groups. Is Jamaica’s form entirely due to its easy group, or are they a team to be reckoned with?  The USMNT, its fans and the rest of CONCACAF will know the answer on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction – Jamaica will make it tough, but I expect the real US team to show up for this game.  USMNT 2 – Jamaica 1.

 

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Manchester United – Schalke

For soccer fans, the end of April can be a melancholy time.  Domestic leagues around Europe are winding down, and the transfer window doesn’t open until July 1.  But, one thing that makes the end of April exciting is the culmination of the season long UEFA Champions League.

This year’s Champions League semifinals should offer some exciting soccer.  Three of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world are in the final 4, and there is a Cinderella team for all those fans who like cheering for the underdog.  What more could you ask for?  As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I could have asked for the Gunners to make it to the semis, but I’m just excited at the prospect of some good soccer.

Schalke, the surprise team of the season, look to continue their magical run against Manchester United.

The first match (April 26th at 2:45pm Eastern), will see this season’s surprise team, FC Schalke 04, take on one of the preeminent sides in Europe, Manchester United. While this match may not have the flash of the other semifinal, expect some good soccer.  It pits a side that has hit its scoring stride (Schalke outscored Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in their quarterfinal meeting) against a side that has conceded just three goals in 10 Champions league games!

Schalke have been a classic example of a Jekyll and Hyde side this season.  Prior to sacking Felix Magath in March, die Königsblauen (the Royal Blues) were struggling in the Bundesliga and still sit just 10th.  While their domestic form left something to be desired, Schalke was simultaneously turning in strong performances in both the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the Champions League.  Since Ralf Rangnick‘s appointment it seems the German side has found some joy on the pitch.  Under Rangnick, who spent a spell as manager with Schalke in 2004-2005, Schalke have parlayed their form in cup competitions into better form in the Bundesliga (2 wins and a draw away to Werder Bremen).

While the team, as a whole, has underperformed, Raúl seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in Gelsenkirchen.  The Spaniard, a legend for Real Madrid, has scored 18 goals and assisted on 6 more in all competitions for Schalke this season.  Playing sidekick to Raúl, the Royal Blues boast Peruvian playmaker, Jefferson Farfán and Dutch forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Farfán has been a creative force throughout the Champions League and has tallied 4 goals in the competition (10 goals, 8 assists overall).  Huntelaar, hampered by injuries of late, he hasn’t played since the end of February, but could be back for the clash with the Red Devils.  His presence on the field (10 goals in all competitions) would certainly boost the Germans’ hopes.

On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United again find themselves the last English team standing.  The Red Devils will be looking to make it to their 3rd final in the last four seasons (winning in 2008 against Chelsea, and losing in 2009 to Barcelona).  The beginning of the season saw many pundits writing of Manchester United’s demise – the team was too old, Wayne Rooney had lost his form, the big money teams of Chelsea and Manchester City had bought too much talent.  It turns out rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.  Man U has lost just 3 games in the Premier League this season, and hasn’t lost in the Champions League.

Like Raúl, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar seem to have found the Fountain of Youth in Northwest England.  Both evergreens are having excellent seasons.  Giggs has 3 goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances this season, while van der Sar has 13 clean sheets in league play and 7 in the Champions League.  The Red Devils aren’t just getting contributions from their veterans.  Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a revelation this season, scoring 11 times in the EPL and another 4 in the Champions League.  Nani has developed into one of the best wingers in the world (9 goals and 14 assists in the EPL this season), and Wayne Rooney has seem to have refound his form since his amazing bicycle kick goal.

This matchup would seem to favor Manchester United, but Man U does not have the best of luck with German teams in the Champions League.  Check out this post on the Red Devils’ history against Bundesliga teams. While past results are not indicative of future performance, you have to wonder if Schalke will find some magic.  With the first game taking place at Veltins-Arena, the Royal Blues will have every chance to take a lead heading into the 2nd leg.

Prediction: Manchester United advance, but don’t win as convincingly as most EPL fans might expect.  I see a draw or even a loss for the Red Devils in Germany, followed by a victory at Old Trafford.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m crazy?  Leave  a comment, and come back tomorrow for a preview of the second Champions League match – Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.


Champions League – Quarterfinals Review

The quarterfinals looked like they would serve up some good matches, but all drama is gone as 3 of the 4 are already decided.

Typically, I like to write a post about the upcoming Champions League round before it actually happens.  Clearly, that’s not the case this time.  For those that are interested, I went 5-3 with my predictions from the round of sixteen.  Certainly better than I did in my NCAA bracket.  I picked Shakhtar DonetskAC MilanValenciaBayern MunichReal Madrid, BarcelonaManchester United and Chelsea. My incorrect picks – Tottenham beat AC Milan, Schalke beat Valencia, and Inter Milan beat Bayern.

Since my slacker tendencies prevented me from getting this post up before the first leg of the quarterfinals, I’ve had to tweak what I was going to write.  At this point, there is no reason to predict who is going to make it through to the semifinals, as three of the quarterfinals are well and truly over.

Here's a screen shot from the video of Dejan Stankovic's golazo against Schalke. Check out the video, it's worth watching.

In what has to be considered a shock, Schalke destroyed Inter in Milan 5-2.  Inter certainly were not helped by defender Cristian Chivu drawing a red card in the 62nd minute, but by that point the Nerazzurri were already down 4-2 to the Germans.  The one highlight for the Italians was Dejan Stankovic’s wonder goal that started the scoring.  Check it out.

Barcelona similarly dismantled Shakhtar, 5-1, at Camp Nou.  Five different players scored goals for Barça – Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Seydou Keita and Xavi.  Barça are truly an incredible team to watch.  They play some amazing soccer.  With a 5-1 lead heading to the Ukraine, Barça have booked their spot in the semis.

The other Spanish team, Real Madrid, similarly dismantled their competition, winning 4-0 over Spurs. Things looked bad from the outset when Emmanuel Adebayor scored off a corner just 4 minutes into the game.  Things went from bad to worse when Peter Crouch was sent off for his 2nd yellow card inside of 15 minutes.  Spurs could never gain or hold possession and Real just kept putting more balls in the back of the net. Based on the way they played, Spurs would have lost even if Crouch has stayed on the field.

Rooney's suspension will not affect his eligibility for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal. Good thing for Manchester United, as he scored the only goal in the first leg.

The only match that still has some drama going into the second leg is Manchester United vs. Chelsea.  Man U secured a vital away goal at Stamford Bridge, beating the Blues 1-0. Chelsea enjoyed more of the possession and outshot Man U 21(7 on goal) – 8(2), but the were unable to find the leveler.  Chelsea will be hard pressed to advance when they play the Red Devils at Old Trafford, especially since Man U have that away goal in their pocket.

With the second leg of the quarterfinals being played on Tuesday and Wednesday, look for a semifinal preview in the next week or two.  Hopefully, the matches will be more competitive this time around.  Happy soccer watching!

Champions League – Round of 16 Preview

 

The Round of 16 presents some intriguing matches. Bayern-Inter, Arsenal-Barça, and Lyon-Real Madrid should all provide drama. Interestingly, all are rematches (from some point in the competition) from last year. (source: UEFA.com)

On Friday, the Champions League Round of 16 draw was announced at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, and there are some juicy match ups.  Who isn’t excited about a rematch of last year’s championship match (BayernInter)?  Or rematches between Barcelona and Arsenal, and Lyon and Real Madrid.

All in all, I didn’t do a bad job of picking the teams that would make it to the round of 16.  I correctly predicted 14 of the 16 teams (though not always finishing in the right position).  The only real surprise was FC Copenhagen making it out of the group stage.  My other mistake was thinking that AC Milan was too dysfunctional to beat out Ajax in Group G.  The Dutch narrowly missed pipping the Italians, placing 1 point behind the Rossoneri.

Check out my predictions; how do they compare to yours?

Group A – 1) FC Internazionale Milan; 2) Tottenham Hotspur FC Actual: 1) Spurs; 2) Inter

Group B – 1) Olympique Lyonnais; 2) FC Schalke 04.   Actual: 1) Schalke; 2) Lyon

Group C – 1) Manchester United; 2) Valencia CF. Actual: 1) Manchester United; 2) Valencia

Group D – 1) Barcelona; 2) PanathinaikosActual: 1) Barça; 2) Copenhagen

Group E – 1) FC Bayern Munich; 2) AS Roma. Actual: 1) Bayern; 2) Roma

Group F – 1) Chelsea FC; 2) Olympique de Marseille. Actual: 1) Chelsea; 2) Marseille

Group G – 1) Real Madrid CF; 2) AFC Ajax. Actual: 1) Real Madrid; 2) AC Milan

Group F – 1) Arsenal FC; 2) FC Shakhtar Donetsk.  Actual: 1) Shakhtar; 2) Arsenal

With the group stage predictions making me feel pretty cocky about my knack for prognostication here are my previews of the eight Round of 16 matches.  For more information on the teams, I suggest taking a look at my group stage previews, where I cover each team in depth.  For a list of the match dates and times go here.

Roma vs. Shakhtar – This match up ties with Valencia-Schalke for the match with the least cache.  While lacking in name recognition, this should be an interesting match up to watch.  In the group stage, Roma stumbled against FC Basel, dropping a 3-1 decision at the Stadio Olimpico, but was able to rebound with a stunning comeback against Bayern in Rome.  Roma is playing well now, having just defeated Milan at the San Siro and will surely look to upgrade their team in the January transfer window.

Shakhtar, the first Ukrainian team to make it out of the group stage, is running away with the Ukrainian Premier League, having dropped just 5 points all season.  In 19 games, the Shakhtar are 17-1-1.  They were also able to go 5-0-1 on their way to winning Group H over Arsenal. The most impressive stat is Shakhtar’s dominance at home.  This season, they have won every home game (in all competitions) and have given up just 3 goals in 13 games.

Prediction: Shakhtar - Roma certainly have the players and the ability to win, but I expect Shakhtar to advance due to their dominance in Donetsk.

AC Milan vs. Spurs – This pairing presents an interesting match up between the Serie A leaders and the Champions League debutantes. Milan made it to this point by narrowly escaping Group G, finishing 1 point ahead of Ajax.  While their form in the Champions League has been inconsistent, they sit atop the Serie A table after several down years (by their lofty standards). They boast an attack led by Zlatan Ibrahimović, the always mercurial Robinho and fellow Brazilian Alexandre Pato, and enjoy the largest goal differential in Serie A.

Spurs, making their first appearance in the Champions League, acquitted themselves nicely by winning Group A over Inter.  They narrowly lost to Inter (4-3) in Milan, so they will certainly be familiar with their surroundings when they travel to northern Italy on February 15.  Domestically, Spurs are contending for a Champions League sport again this season, but sit 4 points behind Chelsea for the last spot.  If Spurs want to advance past the round of 16, they will have to do better at home than their current record (4-4-1) .

Prediction: AC Milan – Spurs have already tangled with one Milanese team this season and come out on top; however, I expect AC Milan to advance.

Valencia vs. Schalke – The second match up that doesn’t exactly spark excitement from non-soccer fans, but this should be an interesting match on the field.  Valencia currently sit 4th in La Liga, 5 points adrift of Villareal.  Valencia finished 2nd in Group C, behind Manchester United; though they did score 15 goals in 6 games.  Los Che scored 10 of those goals in their two games against Bursaspor.  While they have played well in spurts during the season; they must find consistency.

Schalke, winners of Group B over Lyon, have been a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  They have played well in Europe, but have been mediocre in the Bundesliga.  Schalke posted a 4-1-1 record in Group A, only losing to Lyon in France; however, they sit 10th in the Bundesliga with a 6-4-7 record.  Which team will show up for the match in Valencia on February 15?

Prediction: Valencia, who despite their own inconsistencies, are playing better than Schalke.  I expect them to advance.

Inter vs. Bayern Munich – One of the most exiting match ups of the round of 16.  I know that I will be watching this match on my computer at work come February 23.  Inter, winners over Bayern last year, have struggled in Seria A this season.   The Nerazzurri are just 6-5-4 and have dropped games to the likes of Chievo Verona and lost the Milan derby.  With Rafa Benitez supposedly under fire, Inter need to find a measure of stability.  Clearly the team that won last season is missing José Mourinho.  Their form in the Champions League has also been less than stellar, finishing behind Spurs in Group A.  Recently, however, they did win the Club World Cup, so perhaps they are righting ship.

Bayern, a bit like Schalke, has been a team with two personalities.  Currently 14 points behind Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, Bayern diced their way through Group E in the Champions League.  Bayern nearly lost a 4 goal lead against VfB Stuttgart before winning their last match, and have been inconsistent all season. Just as with their German brethren, which team will show up for their Round of 16 match?

Prediction: Bayern - If Rafa Benitez’s status is still up in the air when these two teams meet in Milan, I just don’t see how Inter will beat Bayern.  Even if Rafa is fired before that match and Inter figures things out, the Germans have played better all season and should win the day.

Lyon vs. Real Madrid – Another juicy match up, and another rematch from last year.  Last year, Lyon got the best of Real Madrid en route to the semifinals.  This season, Les Gones are fighting for their spot atop the Ligue 1 table.  Currently, 10 teams are within 5 points of the top spot, with Lyon one point behind league leading Lille.  In the Champions League, Lyon finished 2nd behind Schalke in Group B, a group they should have won.

Real Madrid continue to be one of the top teams in Europe.  With the Special One at the helm, Los Blancos are challenging Barcelona atop the La Liga table and easily won Group G, which looked, at the beginning of the campaign, like one of the most competitive groups in this years Champions League.  Real Madrid have lost just 1 game this year in all competitions (though it was a drubbing at the hands of arch rival Barcelona), and look to make it past the round of 16 for the first time since 2004.

Prediction: Real Madrid.  No repeat of last year here.  Real Madrid have played well, against everyone not named Barcelona, and should advance.

Arsenal vs. Barcelona – The third of the absolutely awesome match ups in the Round of 16.  Also a rematch from last year, where Barcelona defeated Arsenal in the quarterfinals.  Arsenal have enjoyed a good deal of success this season, battling for the top spot in the Premier League.  Currently in 2nd place, 2 points behind Manchester United, the Gunners are have been nearly as inconsistent as Inter and Bayern.  Domestically, The Gunners have loses to Newcastle and West Brom on their résumé, while they finished behind Shakhtar Donetsk in Group H.  Arsene Wenger and his charges are talented enough to win this much, but will be facing a much tougher opponent when they host Barcelona at the Emirates on February 16.

Barcelona has been its usual dominant self this season.  A loss to Hércules CF in the second round of La Liga competition is the only blemish on an otherwise sterling record.  Barça are 14-1-1 in La Liga and won Group D with a 4-2-0 record.  Lionel Messi has been in fine form all season and new addition David Villa has added even more scoring punch.

Prediction: Barça - As much as it pains me to pick against the Gunners, Barcelona have been a buzzsaw this season.  The Gunners have been too inconsistent to truly threaten Barça, though this should be fun to watch.

Marseille vs. Manchester United - This is a match up that pits the defending French champions against one of the preeminent clubs in the game.  Sir Alex Ferguson had to be happy with the draw, as Man U avoided both AC and Inter Milan.  Man U, though, have been in fine form all season, having yet to lose a game in the EPL or the Champions League.  That said, they have 9 draws in 22 games.  The Red Devils already have a win over Arsenal to their credit this term and will face Spurs before their February 23 date with Marseille.

Marseille are one of the teams fighting for the top spot in Ligue 1 this season, sitting 2 points behind Lyon and 3 behind Lille.  Marseille haven’t lost a game in Ligue 1 since a 2-1 defeat by PSG in early November.  Marseille have already improved on last year’s showing in the Champions League showing by making it to the round of 16, though the French side will certainly want more.  They ended the group stage on a high note, winning 4 in a row and beating Chelsea in the final group game.

Prediction: Man U – Though Marseille have been in fine form lately, Man U has been clicking on all cylinders.  I expect a tight match when the two play in France, but Man U will ultimately advance.

FC Copenhagen vs. Chelsea – This has to be the most unlikely match up in the Round of 16.  Who, other than a few Danes, would have predicted Copenhagen making it out of the Group Stage.  Sure Group D was Barcelona and three “outsiders” but both Rubin Kazan and Panathanikos play in stronger leagues than the Danes.  Copenhagen are the first Danish side to make it this far in the Champions League and haven’t lost a Champions League game at home.  The Lions drew with Barcelona in the Danish capital and were able to secure an away win in Athens to advance.  In addition to their impressive run in Europe, the Lions have run away with the Danish SAS-Ligaen.  Copenhagen currently sit 19 points clear of second place Odense BK, and have yet to drop a match.

Chelsea are another team with consistency issues.  After jumping out to an early lead in the EPL, Chelsea haven’t won a league game since November 10.  Didier Drogba’s absence due to malaria is a huge part of Chelsea’s poor form, however the team has too many stars to use that as an excuse.  Chelsea will feel confident that they can improve on last year’s Round of 16 exit, as Copenhagen lack big game experience.  Carlo Ancelotti will need to inspire the troops, or Chelsea could find themselves in a hole, as Copenhagen hosts the first game in this match up.

Prediction: Chelsea – While I would love to see the plucky Danish side advance, it just isn’t going to happen.  Chelsea, especially with Drogba back, are just too good.

What do you think of my predictions?  Agree?  Disagree?  Would you be excited to see a final 8 consisting of: Chelsea, Man U, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Shakhtar, Bayern, Valencia and AC Milan?  Let me know what you think.


Champions League Preview: Group E

After a bit of a break from blogging and soccer, and after having covered the first half of the draw (check out the previews for Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D), we move on to Group E.

Group E, at first glance doesn’t look very difficult.  The group has one traditional power (FC Bayern Munich), a club on the rise from one of big 5 league (AS Roma), and two relative upstarts (FC Basel 1893 and CFR Cluj).  As with several of the other groups already previewed, there is one clear favorite in this group (Bayern Munich).  What makes this group different is the presence of a presumptive second place team (Roma).  Will there be surprises in the group?

If Arjen Robben can stay healthy, Bayern has a shot to make a run to Wembley Stadium.

FC Bayern Munich – Bayern Munich, last year’s losing finalists, have to be smiling when they look at this group.  The Bavarian side are clearly the class of the group.  With a history that includes 4 Champions League titles, the most recent in 2001, Bayern are contenders virtually every year.  Bayern have won 6 league titles this decade, and despite an early stumble in the Bundesliga, look poised to contend again this season.

Last season, Bayern won the Bundesliga title, finishing 5 points clear of Schalke.  Over the summer, Bayern made no major purchases to augment a successful 2010 squad.  With Breno and Toni Kroos returning from loan spells, the side has gotten better without spending a lot of money.  Just as Bayern did not bringing in players, no major players left the squad.

In what has become something of a trend among Champions League teams, Bayern has stumbled out of the gate in the Bundesliga.  Prior to the international break, Bayern split its first two games, winning 2-1 at home against VfL Wolfsburg and losing 2-0 away to Kaiserslautern. Louis Van Gaal will look to right ship when Bayern host Werder Bremen on Saturday.

As with last season, Bayern will go as far as, Dutch international, Arjen Robben can take them.  If the oft-injured Dutchman can stay healthy and pair with World Cup revelation, Thomas Müller, Bayern have the team to make a deep run.

Which Adriano will Roma get? The prolific scorer or party-going, locker room distraction.

A.S. Roma - Seemingly always the bridesmaid, and rarely the bride, Roma are looking to break that tradition this season.  Roma’s best showing in the Champions League came when they finished runners-up in 1984.  This year’s squad will look to repeat their stunning 2007-2008 group win (they pipped Chelsea to the top spot).  There are some similarities between this season and 2007-2008.  Roma were clearly the 2nd (or even 3rd) best team on paper in their group (this year they are 2nd).  Though they won the group, Roma couldn’t advance past the round of 16, losing on penalties to Arsenal.

Looking to build on their recent success, Roma was relatively active in the transfer market, adding firepower to their strike force, and reinforcing their defense.  Roma are the most recent team to take a chance on mercurial forward, Adriano, and added Marco Borriello. Adding this offensive talent to Francesco Totti, Mirko Vučinić, and Jeremy Menez should net Roma plenty of goals.  On the backline, Roma added the brothers Burdisso, Nicolás (from Inter) and Guillermo (from Rosario Central in Argentina).  With no major subtractions, Roma should be a better team this season.

Following a second place finish (just 2 points behind Inter) Roma will look to make a breakthrough on the domestic scene.  Currently, the Giallorossi have played just one game in Serie A (a 0-0 draw with Cesena) and could be facing a long layoff from domestic play as the Serie A players’ union have announced a potential strike to begin on September 25.

Roma are clearly the favorites to finish second in this group.  With a very talented squad, and the lack of additions by Bayern, Roma might be able to push the German champions for first in the group.

Alexander Frei, the all time leading scorer for the Swiss national team, is the danger man for FC Basel.

FC Basel 1893 – The Swiss champions, FC Basel, have been fixtures at the top of the league since 2002.    With 5 Swiss championships since 2002, Basel will look to advance from the group stage for the first time. Their best showing in the Champions League came in 2002-2003 when they made it to the second group stage (equivalent to the group stage in the current format).  Basel entered the competition in the 3rd qualifying round and defeated Hungarian champions, Debreceni VSC (group stage participants last season) and Moldovan champions, Sheriff Tiraspol on their way to the group stage. Domestically, Basel have played 7 games, posting a 4-2-1 record, good enough for second place behind FC Luzern.

Basel, because they are in one of the middling leagues in Europe, tend not to make a big splash in the transfer market.  All of Basel’s signings over the summer were from within the Swiss League (with the exception of Fwayo Tembo, who joined from ES Sahel of Tunisia) .  The only major loss was Portuguese winger, Carlitos, who signed with Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga.

Basel will look to have a better showing than last season’s Swiss entrant, FC Zürich, who finished 1-1-4 with a -9 goal difference.  While I believe Basel will play better, I don’t see them advancing.  They might be able to pull off one upset (perhaps against Roma) when playing at home.  Zürich was able to pull an upset of AC Milan at the San Siro last year, so anything is possible.  A best case scenario for the Swiss side is to finish 3rd in the group and qualify for the Europa League.

CFR Cluj are relative newcomers to the European stage. Will they be able to pull off an upset, as they did in 2007-2008 against Roma?

CFR Cluj – A team with relatively little history in the Romanian top flight, just 16 seasons since 1946, Cluj are an example of what a team can do if they suddenly acquire significant financial backing.  In the Romanian third division as recently as 2002, Cluj have risen through the Romanian soccer ranks to capture two of the last three Liga I titles. During their previous appearance in the Champions League group stage, Cluj defeated Roma 2-1 in Rome, and drew with Chelsea in Cluj-Napoca.

Cluj’s squad has surprisingly few Romanians, as the team has imported international players in an attempt to win the league and compete in Europe.  One of their best players, Ciprian Deac, left the club over the summer and signed with fellow Champions League side, Schalke.  Cluj did add some new, international talent over the summer, but nobody of note.

Along with Unirea Urziceni, Cluj have (over the last several seasons) displaced the Bucharest teams at the top of the domestic table.  This season, though, seems to be returning the Bucharest teams to power, as Cluj currently sit in 10th with a 2-2-3 record.  Will playing the Champions League hurt Cluj’s chances to win a 2nd straight Liga I title?  Time will tell.

Cluj need to manage expectations in this competition.  If Cluj can even duplicate the success of their last appearance, they would be lucky.  Given their poor domestic form, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cluj finish at the bottom of this group.

Predictions: Bayern Munich will top this group, though I do see a bit of a struggle for them against Roma.  Roma will finish second, taking advantage of matches against clearly weaker sides.

Check out the rest of the Champions League previews:
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group B

Having already previewed Group A, we move on to Group B.  This group is, perhaps, the most intriguing in the tournament.  With Lyon, a semifinalist last season; Benfica, the Portuguese Liga champions; Schalke, perennial contenders in the Bundesliga; and Hapoel Tel Aviv, Israeli champions, this group is competitive from top to bottom, even if it lacks some of the star power of other groups.

Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon made a surprising run to the semifinals last season, their first appearance at that stage.  They made the jump to the semis after three straight appearances in the quarterfinals.  In order to make the semis, Lyon took out Real Madrid and Bordeaux along the way.  Domestically, Lyon finished 6 points behind Marseille, but earlier in the decade Les Gones won 7 straight Ligue 1 titles.

Lyon added French playmaker, Yoann Gourcuff in an effort to regain the Ligue 1 title and replicate their semifinal run from last year.

In Ligue 1 this season, Lyon currently sits at 1-1-1.  They started the season with a defeat of Stade Brestois, but then lost to SM Caen, and drew with AS Monaco.  Seemingly in response to this less than stellar beginning of the season, Lyon nabbed Yoann Gourcuff from Bordeaux for €22 million.  Gourcuff is widely regarded as the future of French soccer, and is often saddled with the “next Zidane” title.  Gourcuff was French Player of the year in 2009 and provides Lyon with the playmaker they have been lacking. Earlier in the summer, Lyon signed Jimmy Briand from Stade Rennes to bolster their attack.  Adding Briand and Gourcuff to a team that already included the stellar Hugo Lloris in goal, the dangerous Michel Bastos on the wing, and 2010 Ligue 1 player of the year Lisandro López, make Lyon a formidable team.

With no major subtractions from the team that made last years semis, Lyon is the favorite in this group. Last year, they made it out of a group containing Liverpool, Fiorentina and Debrecen (from Hungary).  This year’s group is easier. While the group is by no means a shoo-in for Lyon, they should take most of the points at home and steal a few on the road.

S.L. Benfica - Last season, Benfica lost only 2 games on their way to their 32nd league title, their first since 2005.  This season’s Champions League marks the first appearance in the Group Stage for Benfica since the 2007-2008 season. Benfica will look to replicate Porto‘s 2009-2010 form, when the Portuguese champions advanced to the round of 16.

Benfica will miss the talents of Ángel di María, who has signed with Real Madrid. Do they have enough talent remaining to make a run?

Of the teams that we have previewed thus far, Benfica have been the most active in the transfer market this summer, both bringing in players and seeing players leave the team.  Joining the team are: former Arsenal midfielder Alyaksandr Hleb (on loan from Barcelona) UPDATE: Turns out the news that Hleb signed for Benfica was still just rumor.  He has instead signed with Birmingham City; promising young forward Rodrigo (from Real Madrid); and young, Argentine defender Nicolás Gaitán.  While Benfica have added some talent, they have lost more than they gained. Winger Ángel di María and midfielder Ramires both have moved on to bigger clubs (Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively).  Replacing these players will not be easy, as di María’s attacking prowess and Ramires’s control in the midfield were vital to the Lisbon side last season.  Benfica have not brought in adequate replacements and have already seen a drop in form as a result.  They have sputtered to an 0-2-0 start, losing 2-1 to Académica in Lisbon and 2-1 to Nacional away.

Benfica need to figure things out and find replacements for di María and Ramires if they want to make it out of the group.  A Europa League spot may be in their future.

F.C. Schalke 04 - The Bundesliga runners-up last season, Schalke always seem to contend for the German title.  While they have not won the title in since 1958, they have finished second 3 times in the past six seasons and have not finished outside the top half since the 1999-2000 season.

Unlike several of the teams already previewed, Schalke actually imported talent from Real Madrid, adding defender Christoph Metzelder and forward Raúl.  In addition to the pair, Schalke also added forward Erik Jendrišek from Kaiserslautern.  Jendrišek scored 15 goals for Kaiserslautern last season in the 2. Bundelisga and will combine with Raúl to help replace the scoring lost when Kevin Kurányi departed for Dynamo Moscow.  Does Raúl still have some gas left in the tank? Schalke needs Raúl to recapture some of his former scoring touch if they hope to replace Kurányi, who has been in fine form for Dynamo, scoring 3 goals in 4 games.

Jermaine Jones is finally healthy and looks to help Schalke to the Bundesliga title and the Champions League round of 16.

Schalke has its first two games in the Bundesliga, by identical 2-1 scorelines.  With German international goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, captaining the side and U.S. international Jermaine Jones healthy once again, I expect Schalke to bounce back and compete for the Bundesliga title this season.  The battle for 2nd in Group B will likely come down to Benfica and Schalke, though both have the talent to pip Lyon to the top spot.  If Schalke can get production out of Raúl and recent signing Ciprian Deac (signed from CFR 1907 Cluj and unveiled on Friday) a spot in the round of 16 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Hapoel Tel Aviv F.C. – I will admit that I didn’t know much about the Israeli champions prior to writing this preview.  Israeli soccer is on the fringes of Europe, both geographically and on the pitch.  However, in each of the last two seasons, the Israeli champion has advanced to the group stages, despite entering the competition during the 2nd qualifying round.  Along the way, Hapoel defeated Bosnian champions Željezničar, Kazakh champions Aktobe, and Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg.  Ironically, Red Bull Salzburg was also the last victim of Maccabi Haifa on their way to the group stage last year.

Goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, is the key to Hapoel's chances.

Due to Israeli FA restrictions, only 5 non-Israeli players are permitted on the roster at any given time.  This rule handicaps Israeli teams when they enter European competitions, where most teams are a mix of domestic and foreign talent.  Hapoel’s best known player outside of Israel is probably Nigerian international goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama.  Enyeama acquitted himself nicely during this summer’s World Cup, putting on an acrobatic display against Argentina.

Hapoel will look to avoid Maccabi’s fate, as Maccabi lost all 6 games last season and failed to score a goal.  Hapoel has a better shot of pulling a result or two, especially at home, as Maccabi was in a group with Juventus, Bordeaux and (eventual runners-up) Bayern Munich.  This group is certainly easier, but it might be too much to ask for the Red Demons to advance.  The Israelis would do well to qualify for the Europa League.

My predictionLyon will win this group, though not as easily as they should.  Schalke finishes second.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group A

With the Champions League group stage draw announced yesterday, The Rally  Cap is bringing you a series of previews (1 for each group) over the next several weeks (prior to the first matches on September 14/15).  Stay tuned and check back often for updates.

The logical place to start is with Group A made up of Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente .

F.C. Internatiozionale Milano – The current Champions League holders and 5-time reigning champions of Serie A, Inter Milan, are a team that face one huge question mark entering the season.  Can they replace manager José Mourinho? Who left for Spanish giants, Real Madrid.  Mourinho’s class was on display as he out managed the rest of Europe and led Inter to its first European title since 1965, and the first treble (league, domestic cup, and European cup) in Italian history.  His brand of soccer might not be the flashiest, but it produces results.  With Mourinho at the Bernabéu, defending their titles will be tough.

While Rafa Benetize be able to replace the Special One and lead Inter to glory?

To replace the Special One, Inter brought in Rafael Benítez. The oft-maligned former manager of Liverpool F.C. will still have plenty of top class players at his disposal in his effort to win his 2nd Champions League trophy (he won his first with Liverpool in 2005-2006).  The core of the team that won last year’s title remains, with no major additions and only the loss of Mario Balotelli (to Manchester City) and Ricardo Quaresma (to Beşiktaş J.K.) qualifying as even semi-important.  The subtraction of Balotelli might be an addition, as his moody attitude will not be missed in the locker room.

With Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and World Cup star Wesley Sneijder leading the attack, Inter should have a potent offense.  One thing that is troubling is the lack of forward depth behind Milito, Eto’o and Pandev.  If one of them goes down with an injury, Milan will have to rely on David Suazo or unproven Jonathan Biabiany. The defense and the midfield remain solid, with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso holding in the middle of the park just in front of some combination of Lúcio, Wálter Samuel, Maicon, Thiago Motta, Iván Córdoba, and Cristian ChivuJúlio César will once again be between the wood work.

Inter is certainly primed for a run in the Champions League, and certainly should advance from this group.  I don’t see any team in this group being able to trouble Inter.  Perhaps a team might steal some points when they play Inter at their respective home stadiums, but Inter should coast to the top spot in Group A.

SV Werder Bremen - Werder Bremen sneaked into the Champions League by finishing third in the Bundesliga last season.  They entered the competition at the play-off round and needed some late game heroics to make to the group stage.  If not for Markus Rosenberg’s goal in the 93rd minute (which sent the game into extra time) and Claudio Pizarro‘s goal in the 100th minute, we’d be talking about Sampdoria in the group stages instead.

If Werder hope to advance, they need to find somebody to replace Mesut Özil.

Like Inter, Werder lost one of its most influential figures to Real Madrid this summer.  World Cup breakout star, Mesut Özil, followed Mourinho to the Spanish capital and left a huge whole in the Werder midfield.  Werder Bremen made a move to fill the gap, signing Brazilian midfielder Wesley from Santos and  Felix Kroos from Hansa Rostock, but I just don’t think is enough.  With no other major additions how can Werder think Wesley (who has scored 13 goals in his entire career) and Kroos (who hasn’t scored any goals in the top flight) will replace Özil (11 goals last season)?  Beyond Özil’s goals, will Kroos or Wesley be able to replace his creativity in attack?

Werder does have veteran leadership in the form of midfielders Torsten Frings (USMNT fans love him!) and Tim Borowski and in defender Per Mertesacker.  If the veterans can lead the show the youth how to play in Europe, Werder has a shot of advancing from this group.  That said, they have already lost to TSG Hoffenheim 4-1 to start the Bundesliga season and need to right ship if they hope to advance.

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. - Spurs enter their first Champions League campaign with high hopes.  Spurs finally broken into the top four in the English Premier League, thanks to a late season 1-0 victory over Manchester City.  Spurs opened the EPL season with a 0-0 draw against Manchester City, a team that has spent has spent £325 million over the past two years to bring in new talent.  Following the draw, Spurs defeated Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium.

Gio Dos Santos hopes Spurs can make it out of the group stage the way Mexico did this summer at the World Cup.

The team has many names familiar names, including forward Peter Crouch (he of the robot goal dances), Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos, Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios, and forward Jermain Defoe.  Spurs also have a couple of my favorite players to watch: Aaron Lennon, who uses his amazing pace to make defenders look foolish, and Luka Modrić whose play making ability is world-class but gets little recognition for his stellar play (sort of like when a player like Hanley Ramirez puts up huge numbers in relative obscurity with the Marlins)

Tottenham’s only major addition over the summer has been William Gallas, meaning the team goes into this season with a measure of stability that is unusual in top flight English soccer.  I expect this familiarity to work to their advantage, and would not be surprised to see this ambitious team advance to the knockout round.  However, in order to do this, Spurs will need to play more like the team that beat Young Boys 4-0 at White Hart Lane (securing a spot in the group stage) than the team that lost 3-2 in Bern.

F.C. Twente - A recent fixture in the Champions League qualifying rounds, having made it the past three seasons, Twente finally broke through this season.  Twente will make their first appearance in the Group Stage, and hope to have better luck than last year’s Dutch entrant (AZ Alkmaar, who finished with 0 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses).  Twente have made a steady climb up the Eredivisie table over the past 5 or 6 years and finally won the title last season, pipping Ajax. Former English national team manager Steve McClaren led Twente during its resurgence, but has since left for the greener pastures of the Bundesliga, taking over at Wolfsburg.

Who will replace the scoring of Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz if he makes a move to Liverpool or Sevilla? Twente's chances may rest on the answer.

How well Twente will compete in this group is anybody’s guess.  They should certainly not be written off, but with McClaren gone, all-time leading scorer Blaise Nkufo now playing for Seattle Sounders FC, and last season’s leading scorer, Bryan Ruiz the target of clubs such as Liverpool and Sevilla there are many questions surrounding the team.  With Nkufo gone, if Ruiz leaves, who will score?  Can new manager Michel Preud’homme continue the run of success started under Fred Rutten and continued by McClaren?  Will keeper Sander Boschker stand up to international competition?

I expect Twente to be a tough game when they play in the Netherlands, but not trouble the bigger clubs when they play on the road.  Twente would do well to qualify for the Europa League out of this group and might be happy if they do.

My prediction:  Inter easily wins the group.  Tottenham finish 2nd, edging Werder.

Check out the previews for:
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F