Category Archives: Ligue 1

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.

 

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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.


Thursday Thoughts – Soccer, Baseball and Football

Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t written a post in 10 days.  I’ve started taking classes again, and they have sucked up most of my free time.  My intention is to try to post 2 or 3 post per week while I am taking classes.  I will likely post on weekends, Thursdays and possibly Tuesdays.

Since my last post, tons of stuff has happened in the world of sports: the Champions League has played its second game; the Phillies clinched their 4th straight N.L. East title (and best record in the National League); the Red Sox have been eliminated from playoff contention; the Eagles have looked good with Michael Vick at quarterback (and face a game against former QB Donovan McNabb and the Redskins); the NHL preseason has started; and NBA training camps have kicked off.  I guess this is what happens when you don’t post for a week and a half.

Former Panathinaikos forward and current member of FC Copenhagen, Dame N'Doye has led the Lions to the top of Group D.

Soccer – The Champions League has played two rounds of soccer since my last post on the beautiful game, so this seemed like a good time to take a look at what has transpired.  The biggest surprise has to be F.C. Copenhagen who currently sit atop Group D with 6 points from 2 games.  This is no easy feat, as the group contains perennial contenders, Barcelona.  Copenhagen opened the campaign with a 1-0 victory of Rubin Kazan, and followed that victory with an impressive 2-0 victory over Panathinaikos in Greece.  Barcelona opened with a 5-1 drubbing of the Greeks but was held in Russia by Rubin Kazan, giving the Catalans 4 points from 2 games.  I expect Barça to win the group, but you have to think the Danes have the inside track on 2nd at this point (making my prediction of Panathinaikos finishing 2nd incorrect).

Equally surprising is the poor showing by Marseille, who have lost their first two matches and haven’t scored a goal (1-0 to Spartak Moscow at the Stade Vélodrome and 2-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge).   Marseille, last year’s Ligue 1 champions, currently sit 6th in the league and have enjoyed a good run of form domestically; however, they have not been able to translate that into international competition.  This is another group where my prediction could be terribly wrong, as Marseille need to make up 6 points on Spartak in order to finish 2nd (Chelsea is oviously going to win this group).

Of the big names, Arsenal and Chelsea have looked the most impressive to open the competition, with the Gunners enjoying a +8 goal difference (though their group is rather weak) and the Blues posting a +5.  Looking at the rest of the competition, the most of the groups have gone rather predictably, with no other major upsets or disappointments yet.

Baseball – My dream of my two teams once again making the playoffs came to halt this week when the Red Sox were eliminated from contention with a loss to the White Sox.  I suppose I should have been prepared for this when Theo Epstein said this was a “bridge” year for the Sox, but I held out hope (at least until I saw them get drubbed by the Blue Jays a month ago).  But even after that drubbing, I hoped the Sox could make a comeback.  They even teased me by winning the first two games of their series against the Yankees.  Had they been able to sweep, who knows what could have happened?

As for the Phillies, they have continued to steamroll through the N.L. on their way to their 4th straight division title.  This is new territory for me as a Phillies fan.  For my whole life, up until the last 6 or 7 seasons (and not counting that magical 1993 team), the Phillies have been terrible.  The team has never had a stretch where they have been this competitive for this many years (other than in the mid 70s).  I’m not sure how to be a fan of the front-runners.

The Big Three could start all but 2 of the Phillies' playoff games. Watch out MLB.

The Phils are clearly the favorites in the National League, some might argue the entire league.  With their “Big Three” pitchers, they will be tough to beat in a short series.  The Phils made a shrewd decision to select the longer division series (extra day off) giving them the opportunity to pitch on a three-man rotation.  Whomever they play in the first round should start booking their tee times because the series will be over in short order.

Football – The Eagles have certainly supplied a lot of drama over the first few weeks of the season.  Kevin Kolb, the anointed successor to former stalwart Donovan McNabb, went down with a concussion in the early part of the first game against Green Bay.  Following the injury, Michael Vick came in and led the Birds to a near comeback.  Vick looked good, and followed with a great game against Detroit.  Following the Detroit game, The Eagles announced that Vick would be the starter even after Kolb was healthy.

Michael Vick has looked good in his two starts. Will he lead the Birds to the promised land?

Who saw this coming?  I expected Vick to play at some point, because I wasn’t sold on Kolb, but I never saw the Eagles abandoning Kolb so early in the season.  Andy Reid had just traded the franchise to a division rival because he believed Kolb was the answer, and then he gives the kid a quarter to prove himself?   Crazy!  Undoubtedly, Vick has looked good in his time as the starter (though he has yet to face a decent team), but to abandon Kolb seems short-sighted.  Unless the Eagles truly believe they can win the Super Bowl this season, I just don’t think this move makes sense.  I know they have a soft schedule to start the season and they need to rack up as many wins as they can, but they are stunting Kolb’s growth by not allowing him to start.  Vick is clearly not the long-term answer, and Kolb (who I wasn’t sure was the answer either) may never evolve into that solution. I have enjoyed watching Vick play the last couple of weeks, and there is nothing America loves more than a redemption story, but the Birds need to think about the long-term.

On another note, I think the first couple of games has shown that perhaps Andy Reid should have been the person shown the door instead of McNabb.  Reid’ poor clock management and less than stellar play calling have continued.  In the game against Green Bay, Reid used all of his timeouts before the 5 minute mark of the 4th quarter and he called a misguided 4th-and-1 play where Vick ran a draw rather than a simple run up the middle.  These calls could have drastically changed the outcome of the game.  Maybe the Birds didn’t need a new quarterback, just a new coach.

Other Sports – In other news, the Flyers have started the preseason and look to make another run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Sixers have started training camp.  Both should merit watching and will be covered more in this space once the NHL and NBA season get closer.

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 F

The Champions League previews continue at a fast and furious pace due to my slacking. With Group E previewed Friday, we move on to Group F. If you haven’t already, check out the rest of my previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D.

Group F, with Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Žilina, has the chance to provide some interesting soccer matches.  While Chelsea are the clear favorites, especially when considering their form in the early part of the EPL season (4 wins, 17 goals), the rest of the group should prove competitive.

Didier Drogba has been on fire to start the EPL season, scoring 4 goals and dishing out 4 assits in just 4 games.

Chelsea F.C. – Chelsea, last season’s Premier League champions, have during this decade become perennial contenders for both the EPL and Champions League titles.  The runners-up (to Manchester United) in 2008, the Blues are looking to finally win the big one this season.  Always the stated goal of owner, Roman Abramovich, this could be the year that Chelsea break through and take home the move coveted trophy in club soccer.

Last season, Chelsea exited the Champions League at an early stage (by their high standards), losing to eventual champions Inter in the round of 16.  Each of the previous three seasons saw Chelsea make it to at least the semifinals.  In an effort to get themselves back to the semifinals, Chelsea undertook an extreme team makeover.  While their only major signings of the summer were Brazilian midfielder Ramires (from Benfica) and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun (from Liverpool), Chelsea allowed several older players to leave the team.  Gone are Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Juliano Belletti. Chelsea allowed these players to leave in an effort to get cheaper and younger.

In the EPL, Chelsea have been in top form from the beginning of the season.  With consecutive 6-0 victories to start the season (against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan), Chelsea’s offense is firing on all cylinders.  Prior to conceding against West Ham United in the 85 minute, Chelsea hadn’t given up a single goal.  While these stats are impressive, Chelsea has had a bit of a cupcake buffet to start the season.  The best team Chelsea has played thus far (Stoke City) finished 11th last season in the EPL.

Chelsea are clearly the favorites in this group.  The team has been in fine form to start the season.  While Marseille could trouble the Blues, especially in France, Chelsea should dominate this group.

André-Pierre Gignac, one of Marseille's biggest signings over the summer, should add fire power to an already potent offense.

Olympique de Marseille – Marseille, winners of Ligue 1 last season, have in each of the past three seasons made it to the group stage of the Champions League.  In each of those seasons, the French side has been unable to make it to the knockout rounds, finishing third all three times.  Marseille will look to improve upon that showing, in a group where they have a chance to finish second.

Marseille have enjoyed their recent resurgence and with the nearly unlimited funds from the estate of French billionaire Robert Louis-Dreyfus, they should be able to bring in talent to keep them at the top of Ligue 1.  In an effort to boost  what was one of the most prolific attacks in French soccer, Marseille imported French international André-Pierre Gignac (from Toulouse FC) and Loïc Rémy (from OGC Nice).  As if those additions weren’t enough, it has recently come to light that Marseille attempted to buy Didier Drogba from Chelsea.  The only major exit from the squad was tempestuous winger, Hatem Ben Arfa.  I feel that the subtraction of Ben Arfa, who has been a distraction virtually everywhere he has played, could actually help Marseille.

While Marseille enjoyed a lot of success domestically last season, this year’s campaign has gotten off to a rocky start.  Manager Didier Deschamps and sporting director José Anigo had a falling out over the transfer strategy, and the team has gotten off to a 1-1-2 start.  Marseille started the season with a 2-1 loss to SM Caen at Stade Vélodrome, followed by a 3-2 loss away to Valenciennes FC.  It seems that they have found a way to bounce back, defeating Lorient in Marseille and drawing with Bordeaux.  Marseille will have to find their form quickly, as they host Spartak on 9/15.

Marseille certainly have the firepower to compete with many teams in Europe, though to ask them to top Chelsea might be asking too much.  While pipping Chelsea to the top spot might be out of the question, a second place finish and a trip to the knockout rounds is certainly within Marseille’s grasp.

Aiden McGeady was Spartak's biggest summer signing. Expect the Irishman to star for the Russians.

Spartak Moscow – Spartak enter this season looking to win their first league title since 2001.  During the early years of the Russian Premier League, Spartak dominated, winning 9 championships in the first ten seasons.  Since then, their best finish was last season when they were runners-up to Rubin Kazan. Spartak are making their second recent appearance in the Champions League group stage.  Their prior appearance, during the 2006-2007 season, saw Spartak finish third in their group behind Inter and Bayern Munich. The Russians will be looking to improve upon that result this season.

As with fellow Russian entrants, Rubin, Spartak was extremely active in the transfer market.  With over a dozen players joining and at least that many leaving, Spartak has dramatically reshaped its team.  The biggest signing was the capture of Aiden McGeady from Celtic.  The Irish midfielder will add a steady, attacking presence to the Spartak midfield and should significantly upgrade the club.  With McGeady providing service for Brazilian forward Welliton, Spartak should see their offense improve.

The Russian Premier League has a different calendar than most of the rest of Europe, starting in early spring and ending in November.  Due to this schedule, Spartak have already played 19 games in the domestic league.  With an 8-5-6 record, Spartak sit 5th in the Russian Premier League and look likely to miss out on Champions League football for next season.  With this in mind, expect Spartak to make the most of this opportunity and provide some tough competition to Marseille for the second position.

While I do love the addition of McGeady, I ust don’t see Spartak having the fire power to finish in the top two.  Playing in the Luzhniki Stadium can be intimidating for visiting clubs, but Chelsea played Manchester United there in the 2008 title game.  Spartak will likely finish third in this group and ear their way into the Europa League.

MŠK Žilina are just the 2nd Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage.

MŠK Žilina – I have to admit no prior knowledge of Žilina before writing this post.  The most I knew about the Slovak Superliga was that Artmedia Bratislava made it to the Champions League group stages a few seasons ago. There always seems to be one team that comes out of nowhere to qualify for the group stage, and I think Žilina are that team this year.

Champions of the Slovak Superliga, Žilina are making their first appearance in the group stage of the Champions League.  Having previously qualified for the Champions League on 4 occasions, Žilina defeated Birkirkara F.C. (Maltese champions), Litex Lovech (Bulgarian champions), and AC Sparta Prague (Czech champions)  along the way.

Žilina’s team consists mostly of Slovak and Czech players, and doesn’t contain any international stars of note.  Žilina are the second Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage, following Artmedia Bratislava (who finished third in their group in the 2005-2006 season).  If Žilina are able to replicate Artmedia’s success, the Slovaks would have to be happy.

Prediction: Chelsea easily top this group.  The Blues are in fine form this season and open their campaign against Žilina in Slovakia.  Marseille finish second.

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