FC Barcelona – Barça, three-time Champions League winners and two-time defending La Liga champions, are one of the most well-known teams in the world. With fans on every continent, Barça is also one of the wealthiest clubs in the world. This has allowed Barça to put together an impressive collection of talent, including 8 members of the World Cup winning Spanish side. Barça last won the Champions League in 2008-2009 and are looking to make it back to the finals, after losing last year to eventual champs Inter.
While Barça hasn’t been overly active in the transfer market, buying just 3 players, those players will have a huge impact on both the La Liga and Champions League seasons. Barça was able to land prolific striker David Villa from fellow Champions League competitors Valencia, defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano from Liverpool, and defender Adriano from Sevilla. The addition of Villa and the emergence of Pedro made Thierry Henry surplus to requirements. Villa’s signing also allowed Barça to send misfit, Zlatan Ibrahimović, to AC Milan on loan. Others leaving the Catalan side include: Yaya Touré (Manchester City); Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy, and Rafa Márquez (New York Red Bulls). Barça opened La Liga play with a 3-0 victory over Racing Santander in Santander with Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Villa scoring goals.
Interesting tidbit: this season marks the 2nd straight year they have been drawn into the same group with Russian champions, Rubin Kazan. Rubin upset Barça 2-1 at the Camp Nou and drew 0-0 in Kazan. No doubt, Barça will not take Rubin lightly this year and will be looking for revenge.
Barcelona are the clear favorites in this group, just as Manchester United and Inter Milan were in their groups. It would be a shock of epic proportions if Barça finished in any other position than 1st.
F.C. Copenhagen – Copenhagen are currently the class of the Danish league, having won 4 of the last 5 Superliga titles, including the last two. Of the teams in Group D, they were the only team to play in the qualifying rounds (entering in 3rd qualifying round). Along the way, the Lions beat Belorussian champions FC BATE Borisov and Norwegian champions Rosenborg; not exactly a difficult path out of qualifying.
This season marks their first appearance in the group stage since the 2006-2007 season. That year they finished last in their group but did manage 2-1-3 record, which included a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in Copenhagen. Last season, the Lions lost to surprise group stage entrant APOEL in the play-off round.
The Copenhagen squad is made up of mostly Scandinavian players, with several players representing the Swedish and Danish national teams. During the transfer window, Copenhagen brought in Costa Rican international Christian Bolaños, and Brazilian midfielder Claudemir. Copenhagen doesn’t have any player that would qualify as an international start, but like the Danish national team, they win with good team tactics and chemistry.
Copenhagen, while certainly not a pushover (especially at home), will likely be happy if they qualify for the Europa League. Competing with Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan for the 2nd spot might be asking too much of the plucky Danish side.
Panathinaikos F.C. – The Superleague Greece champions, Panathinaikos benefit from the Greek league gaining an automatic group stage qualifying spot at the expense of the Belgian league. Last season, Panathinaikos entered in the 3rd qualifying round, ultimately bowing out in the play off round, losing to Atlético Madrid. Panathinaikos’ league win broke a string of 6 consecutive titles by rivals Olympiacos. Thus far, Panathinaikos have played a single game this season, drawing with Skoda Xanthi 1-1. The next game they play will be against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
Panathinaikos has been active in the transfer market over the past few seasons, showing a particular interest in French internationals (obviously, they hope to avoid the drama of the French national team). Prior to the 2009-2010 season, Djibril Cissé joined the club, and Jean-Alain Boumsong and Sidney Govou followed this summer. Both Govou and Boumsong moved from, fellow Champions League entrants, Lyon. The addition of Boumsong and Govou, as well as Luis García, make Panathinaikos a better team than the one that qualified for the Champions League. The only major subtraction was Greek international forward Dimitris Salpigidis, who returned to former club PAOK.
Panathinaikos certainly have the talent to make a run in the Champions League. In addition to their French contingent, Gilberto Silva and several Greek internationals occupy the roster. Second place in this group isn’t out of the question, and will likely be a battle between the Greeks and Rubin Kazan.
FC Rubin Kazan – The two-time defending Russian Premier League champions are making their 2nd appearance in the group stage. As mentioned above, this will be the 2nd straight year Rubin Kazan will be in the same group as Barcelona. Last season, they finished 3rd in their group, qualifying for the Europa League where they lost to Wolfsburg in the Round of 16. This season, Rubin currently sit 2nd, 6 points behind Zenit St Petersburg after 19 games.
Rubin has been very active in the summer transfer window, with a dozen players both coming and going. The biggest signing of the summer was Obafemi Martins, wh moved from Wolfsburg. The Nigerian international should give Rubin more fire power up top and help replace the departed Aleksandr Bukharov (now with Zenit). Rubin have benefited from the new wealth that has poured into the Russian Premier League over the past few seasons. Teams that had previously consisted of primarily Russian and for Soviet players are now true multinational teams. Rubin have players from countries all across the globe, and have pieced together a team that can compete internationally.
With Rubin’s 4 points from 2 games against Barcelona last year, this team cannot be taken lightly. The competitiveness of the Russian league has skyrocketed over the last several seasons. Rubin have the tools to finish 2nd in the group.
Prediction: Barcelona take this group with little effort. They have too much talent and will overwhelm the rest of the group. With the talent brought in over the summer, Panathinaikos finish second. Though, it wouldn’t surprise me if Rubin nabbed that spot instead.
If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment. The Group E (Bayern Munich, Roma, FC Basel and CFR Cluj) preview will come after the Labor Day holiday.