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.
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.
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 Chivu. Júlio 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.
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.
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.
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.