Category Archives: Serie A

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 G

The penultimate group in this year’s Champions League is upon us, with the final group to follow tomorrow (thankfully the latter half of the draw plays Wednesday). As we wrap up our previews, don’t forget to check out the rest: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E and Group F.

Followed by previews of groups where one team stood head and shoulders above the rest followed by teams competing for second, we reach the ‘Group of Death‘.  Every international soccer competition has one and Group G is this year’s version.  With three former Champions League winners (A.C. Milan, Real Madrid, and AFC Ajax), and a relative newcomer from a top 5 league (AJ Auxerre), this group is tough from top to bottom.

Zlatan Ibrahimović will look to find his scoring touch with AC Milan. In his last stint in Italy, he scored 57 goals in 88 appearances for Inter.

A.C. Milan – The second team in the competition from Milan, A.C. Milan are a fixture in the Champions League.  Milan have won the title 7 times (2nd most all-time), the most recent in 2007.  Since that win, Milan haven’t made it past the round of 16.  Milan are looking to make a deep run in the Champions League, and certainly have the roster to make that a reality.

Milan, a team that hasn’t won the scudetto since 2004, made a determined effort this summer to add new talent to an already talented squad.  Joining the Rossoneri were Robinho (from Manchester City), Zlatan Ibrahimović (from Barcelona), Kevin-Prince Boateng (from Portsmouth), Mario Yepes (from Chievo Verona) and Marco Amelia (from Genoa).  To add this many players with much talent is almost unheard of.  By adding Robinho and Ibrahimović to an attack that already boasted Alexandre Pato, Filippo Inzaghi and Ronaldinho, Milan have one of the best forward lines in the competition. Ibrahimović even suggested that Milan should play as many as 5 forwards because there is “[n]o need to track back if you score plenty of goals.” While I don’t see this happening the thought of those five players running around the offensive half of the field is exciting.  The other summer additions, add depth to the defense and midfield and by adding Amelia, Milan got much stronger between the posts (though for some reason incumbent keeper Christian Abbiati has started both Serie A games thus far).  The biggest departure from the club was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who joined Schalke.  His departure, after a lackluster time at the San Siro, will not impact Milan very much and was addressed by the additions of Robinho and Ibrahimović.  Also, there needs to be a quick mention that Milan have Oguchi Onyewu, one the U.S.’s best players currently on their roster.

With the threat of a player strike in Serie A looming, Milan are currently 1-0-1 in domestic league play.  Following a 4-0 demolition of U.S. Lecce in Milan, the Rossoneri suffered an embarrassing 2-0 loss to newly promoted A.C. Cesena.  The most interesting fact about the loss to Cesena, is that the plucky side from Emilia-Romagna had been in the Italian third division just two season ago.  For Milan, 7 time European champions and 4 time world champions, to lose to a club of that stature is shocking.  Perhaps Massimiliano Allegri should listen to Ibra’s suggestion and play 5 forwards.

Milan certainly have the talent to make noise in this group, but if the team has too many uninspired outings like their recent match against Cesena, they will be playing in the Europa League (or worse not playing in Europe at all).

The 'Special One' will look to guide Real Madrid to the Champions League title after guiding Inter Milan the last season's hardware.

Real Madrid C.F. – The all-time leaders in Champions League victories (9) haven’t won the competition since 2002.  Despite their best efforts to collect as many soccer superstars as possible, the Blancos continue to come up short in Europe.   Real Madrid have not been past the round of 16 since 2004 when they were ousted by A.S. Monaco in the quarterfinals. Typically known for their splashy additions, they made one of the biggest moves of the summer by adding José Mourinho as manager.  Mourinho is a master tactician and led Inter to the title last season.  Will he have the same success in at the Bernabéu? Club president Florentino Pérez certainly hopes he does.

Like fellow group-mate, Milan, Real Made made several high-profile signings over the summer.  Apparently whomever makes the personnel decisions for the Blancos was watching the World Cup, as Real Madrid went out and signed several players who burst onto the seen in South Africa.  Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira both proved their worth for Germany this summer and joined Real Madrid from SV Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart respectively.  Also joining the Spanish side were Ricardo Carvalho (from Chelsea) and influential, Argentine winger Ángel di María.  Adding these players to the other Galácticos already at Real Madrid gives the team the appearance of a fantasy soccer league team.  The amount of attacking talent rivals that of Milan, with the added bonus of having arguably the world’s best goalkeeper (Iker Casillas) between the posts.

On the domestic front, Real are continually locked in a battle with Barcelona for the top spot on La Liga.  Fans in the Spanish capital will certainly be hoping that the Special One can deliver another La Liga title, but Real Madrid are off to a lackluster start.  Thus far Real Madrid has played to a 0-0 draw with RCD Mallorca away, and a narrow victory over Osasuna 1-0 in Madrid.

Despite the slow start, Real Madrid remain a co-favorite to win this group.  With the amount of talent they possess (I didn’t even mention the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kaká) Real Madrid should easily secure a spot in the knockout round.

Ajax will look to recapture the success they enjoyed in the early 1970s when they were led by Johan Cruyff.

AFC Ajax - The Dutch side have by far the most Champions League titles of any team not from the big 4 (sorry France) leagues.  With 4 titles to their name, Ajax are tied for the 4th most titles.  Three of those titles came during a dominant stretch in the early 1970s when they were led by the inimitable Johan Cruyff.  Over the past several seasons, Ajax seem to have lost their grasp on Dutch football, having not won an Eredivisie title since 2004.  While they have been titleless, Ajax have been near the top of the league.  Due to the odd method (a 4 team playoff between teams 2-5) the Dutch use to determine their Champions League representatives Ajax, despite finishing 2nd for several season, has not been in the Champions League since 2008.  This season marks their first appearance in the knockout round since 2006.

Despite a strong showing last season, and the promise of Champions League soccer, Ajax have seen several players exit the Amsterdam Arena.  The most notable are Marko Pantelić and Dennis Rommedahl (to Olympiacos), and Kerlon (to Inter).  On the positive side, Ajax brought in some of the top talent in the Dutch league, signing Andre Ooijer (from AZ Alkmaar) and Mounir El Hamdaoui (from PSV Eindhoven).

Clearly the departures has not affected Ajax, as they currently top the Eredivisie standings.  Through 8 games, Ajax have a 6-2-0 record and a +18 goal differential.  Already three points clear of their nearest competitors, it looks like Ajax could recapture the league title this season.

With Ajax in fine form entering their first Champions League match (against Real Madrid in Madrid), the Dutch side merit watching.  They have a history of winning this tournament, and while their recent history hasn’t been as bright, they are not a team to underestimate.

AJ Auxerre will look to crash the former winners' party in Group G.

AJ Auxerre – Not among the “name” teams in the Ligue 1, Auxerre enter this campaign a relatively unfancied side.  When I was researching for this post, I came across an interesting tidbit which said that Auxerre is the only team to have never been relegated from the French first division.  I found this shocking, but I found the fact in multiple sources. Relative upstarts in this group, Auxerre finally return to the Champions League after an 8 year absence.  Their last trip to the Champions League in 2002-2003 saw them finish third in a group behind Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, but ahead of PSV.

The Burgundy side saw stability reign over the summer with few players coming or going, none worth noting.  The current squad is a mix of French players and players from Francophone Africa, with a few other European players included. Valter Birsa made a name for himself at the World Cup, by scoring against the U.S. in the controversial draw with Slovenia.  An interesting roster note is that Auxerre are the only team I have ever seen to have a player from Madagascar (forward Anicet Andrianantenaina).

Auxerre have gotten off to a slow start in Ligue 1, drawing 4 times in five games.  While they have only lost once, it is clear that the Champions League is on their minds.  Auxerre will need to step up their game if they intend to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

As far as their prospects go this season, I think Auxerre are the weakest team in this group.  That said, they could knock off a complacent Milan, or take some points from Ajax.  If Auxerre replicates their performance in the 2003 Champions League, where they went 2-1-3, the Burgundians should be happy.

Predictions: Real Madrid win this group, with Ajax pulling an upset to finish 2nd.  I feel that A.C. Milan are a tad too dysfunctional to make a run, despite their talent.

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 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