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?
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.
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.
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 – 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.