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.
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.
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.
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.
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 prediction: Lyon will win this group, though not as easily as they should. Schalke finishes second.