Tag Archives: Portugal

Champions League Preview: Group H

Finally we have come to the last group in our Champions League preview.  I must thank the UEFA schedulers for placing the back half of the draw’s first matches on Wednesday, which bought me more time to complete all of the previews.  While half of the opening matches have already been played, don’t forget to take a look at all the other group previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F and Group G.

Group H continues the pattern established by many of the other groups.  One team that is the prohibitive favorite (Arsenal), and several teams (Shakhtar Donetsk, Partizan Belgrade, and Braga) that are likely competing for second place.

Despite rumors that Cesc Fàbregas was rumored to be leaving the Emirates, he is still with the Gunners and will lead them on their quest for silverware.

Arsenal F.C. – One of the most storied clubs in English football, Arsenal have seen a bit of a hardware drought over the last 5 seasons.  Their last major trophy was the FA Cup in 2005.  While the North London side remain perennial contenders, they have not been able to break the recent ChelseaManchester United duopoly at the top of the English Premier League.  In addition, there has been only moderate success in the Champions League (advancing to at least the quarterfinals every year since 2007, and almost always advancing from their group), with their best finish being runners-up in 2006.

This year’s squad resembles the United Nations, with players from 17 different countries.  Manager Arsène Wenger is highly respected and seems to be able to get the best out of players (look no further than former Gunner Thierry Henry).  Wenger dipped into the transfer market this summer to sign Moroccan forward Marouane Chamakh, and a pair of French defenders (Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci).  Chamakh address the lack of depth at the forward position that was exposed when Robin Van Persie missed significant time with injuries last season.  With the departure of Eduardo to Group H rivals Shakhtar, the Gunners couldn’t stand pat.  Squillaci and Koscielny fill the hole created by the departure of William Gallas, who never really fit in at the Emirates. The one weakness that Arsenal did not address was goalkeeper.  Manuel Almunia and his two Polish deputies are just not good enough to lead a team to the Champions League trophy.  If Arsenal are going to make a deep run they will need to complete the rumored signing of Mark Schwarzer or sign another keeper.

While no team can match the high-flying start Chelsea has put together, Arsenal has seen a great deal of success in the early EPL season.  With a 3-1-0 record, the Gunners sit 2nd in the table, 2 points adrift of the Blues.  This year’s squad has the look of contenders in the EPL, but it might be too tough to catch the buzz saw that is Chelsea.

Arsenal are the clear favorites in this group.  With a history of advancing deep into the tournament, a manager that is one of the world’s best, and a beautiful brand of attacking football, Arsenal should win Group H with little trouble.

Former Gunner Eduardo, now with Shakhtar Donetsk, will seek to oust his former teammates.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk – The 2009 UEFA Cup winners, Shakhtar have become a fixture in the Champions League over the last decade.  Consistently in the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League, Shakhtar are looking to advance from the group stage for the first time.  Thanks to the rise in competitiveness of the Ukrainian League, Shakhtar were able to qualify directly for the group stage of this year’s competition.  In year’s past it had taken at least one round of qualifying for Shakhtar to make the group stage.

Shahktar’s current squad is made primarily of Ukrainian and Brazilian players, with players from the former Soviet Union making up the bulk of the rest.  Perhaps the two biggest signings of the summer were the aforementioned capture of Eduardo from Arsenal, and the signing of young, Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barcelona.  The squad, captained by veteran, Croatian midfielder Darijo Srna certainly has the talent to make an impact in the Champions League.

On the domestic front, the Ukrainian league has completed 9 rounds, and Shakhtar sit atop the table.  With a 7-1-1 record, Shakhtar are 2 points ahead of rival Dynamo Kyiv.

Following their victory in the 2009 UEFA Cup, it is clear that Shakhtar need to be taken seriously.  In their last trip to the group stage, in 2008-2009, Shakhtar finished 3-0-3 and narrowly missed advancing.  This season, they might top that performance. Given this composition of this group, Shakhtar are in a good position to advance to the knockout round.

Braga are making their first Champions League appearance. Will they find beginner's luck?

S.C. Braga – A truly unfancied side from Portugal, Braga stormed out of the gates last season and found themselves atop the Portuguese Liga early in the 2009-2010 season.  Ultimately, Benfica finished atop the table, but Braga had secured their first trip to the Champions League.  After dispatching Celtic and Sevilla on the way to the group stage, it is clear Braga have come to play.

Braga was relatively quiet on the transfer front, and why not, the team had its most successful season last year.  The current squad consists almost entirely of Brazilian and Portuguese players, with one of my favorite names in soccer: George Lucas (wouldn’t the Imperial March from Star Wars be great intro music for him and his teammates?)

While Braga had been hanging around the top 4 or 5 for the better part of this decade, they were finally able the break into the top 2.  The Portuguese Liga is one of the most top-heavy leagues in European soccer, being dominated by just three teams: FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting CP.  The fact that the plucky side from the north of Portugal displaced one of the “Big Three” is refreshing. This season sees Braga sitting 4th in the table, at 2-1-1.  With the only  loss coming to table-topping Porto, Braga should be happy with their record heading into their first Champions League group stage match.

Braga certainly have the talent to compete in this group, but their lack of experience at this level could be a handicap.  In a group where the other three entrants have all played multiple seasons in the Champions League, you have to wonder if Braga will be able to put together the consistency necessary to make it to the knockout round.

Partizan have been extremely successful domestically, can they transfer their success to the Champions League?

FK Partizan – Easily one of the most storied clubs in Serbia, Partizan are making their third straight appearance in the Champions League, but their first group stage appearance since 2003-2004.  Interestingly, Partizan have the same number of runner-up finishes as Arsenal, despite being from a much smaller league, and being far less known.

The current rosters consists almost entirely of Serbian players, many of them new to the squad.  Partizan were busy during the transfer window, bringing in 19 new players and sending 13 players packing.  One has to wonder if that much change to a squad that is the three-time defending champions of the Serbian League is wise.  No names jump out as me as being major additions or subtractions, so perhaps Partizan will not lose chemistry and moment with such a high turnover.

If the results from the domestic league are any indication, the roster turnover has not hurt Partizan.  With 4 wins from 4 matches, Partizan sit atop the table with 12 points and a +8 goal differential.  If Partizan continues to play at such a high level, the Belgrade side just might win its 4th league title in a row.

Partizan are a bit of an unknown. While the team has the tradition, the current squad has not been together long enough.  Also, Partizan has been absent from the group stage for 7 seasons.  Will this lack of experience hurt Partizan?  Partizan’s last trip to the group stage was not a good one, as they finished last in their group with a 0-3-3 record.  I suspect the Serbian side will acquit themselves better this time around, though more than a Europa League spot might be a pipe dream.

Predictions: Arsenal outclass the rest of the group and win easily.  Shahktar finish second to become the first Ukrainian side to advance past the group stage.

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

Football at Fenway

A ticket from the first soccer game at Fenway park in over 40 years.

Fenway Park: hallowed ground for many American sports fans; site of many dramatic baseball events, some good (Fisk’s home run), some bad (Bucky “F-ing” Dent’s home run); soccer pitch?  Wednesday, the historic venue, played host to a sport looking to capture the hearts and minds of Americans the way the Red Sox have captured those in New England.

Gone was the pitcher’s mound, replaced by penalty spots. Gone were line drives into the corner, replaced by corner kicks. Gone was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, replaced by soccer chants rendered almost unintelligible by the enthusiasm with which they were sung. For non-soccer fans, the game was a novelty. For those who are fans of the beautiful game, this was a chance to see two storied European clubs face off, and it just happened to be taking place in “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark”.

Wednesday marked the first time a soccer ball has touched the Fenway grass since 1968 when the Boston Beacons of the NASL used the field at the corner of Yawkey Way and Brookline Ave.  as their home ground.  The match up between Celtic FC and Sporting Clube de Portugal, while lacking the cache of a Manchester United or Real Madrid, still presented the fan the opportunity to see high level soccer.  Celtic is one of the most storied clubs in Scotland, having won the Scottish League 42 times and the European Cup (the predecessor to the Champions League) in 1967.  Sporting, one of the “Big Three” soccer clubs in Portugal along with FC Porto and Benfica, has won 18 Portuguese League titles and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964.

You have got to admire this woman's fervor. (Picture courtesy of Jon Couture)

The whole experience was a tad surreal.  The Fenway area was nearly as busy as when the Sox play, bared out by the announced attendance of 32,162, with tables at many of the area restaurants hard to com by.  As I was walking toward Fenway to meet my friends for dinner before the game, I was surrounded by a sea of green, horizontal stripes (both Celtic and Sporting use a green and white striped jersey as their main kit) instead of the ubiquitous Red Sox jerseys and “Yankees Suck”  t-shirts.  Replacing the pink hats were women with green wigs (some of them riding power scooters).

Once I entered the park, the entire surreal experience continued as a good portion of the infield and parts of the warning track had freshly laid sod over the dirt.  The pitcher’s mound was gone but it’s specter remained, as you could clearly see the outline of where the mound had been on Sunday.  While the pitch seemed a little smaller than normal, the transformation was astonishing.  The center circle was just past 2nd base in shallow right-center.  One goal was where third base used to be, the other goal in RF.  It was a such a crazy site, one accompanied by fans with Portuguese flags tied around their necks in the right field bleachers and fans with the Scottish lion or St. Andrew’s Cross nestled next to the Green Monster.

The game followed usual protocol, with both teams entering the pitch and lining up while the national anthem was played.  Both teams fielded their B+ teams, some of their usual starting eleven were in the game, but many started on the bench or did not even accompany the team on their North American tours.  One of Sporting’s best players, João Moutinho, was transferred to Porto prior to the tour but, Portuguese internationals,  Pedro Mendes (started) and Liédson (off the bench) both played roles in the game.  Celtic without former starting keeper Artur Boruc, now with Fiorentina, but did start Georgios Samaras and captain Scott Brown .

Once the game got started, the first half was less than beautiful.  The type of soccer played in the first 45 minutes belied the fact that both teams are in preseason, and fed into every stereotype Americans have about soccer.  While there were a couple of half-chances, neither team looked like they were going to score.  The game did pick up in the second half, with both teams attacking more, but still not looking comfortable on the makeshift pitch.  Several corner kicks, mostly by Sporting, were sent flying over the 18 yard box, much to the consternation of the Sporting fan sitting next to me.  Liédson, introduced at the beginning of the second half, looked dangerous and provided a near goal with a well placed header.

Celtic prepare to take a corner kick.

Celtic drew first blood in the 71st minute thanks to a penalty kick by Samaras.  Samaras created the chance when he was taken down in the box on what looked to be a bit of a flop, but by the rules of the game, it was a penalty and the ref made the right call.  Samaras fooled the keeper, Rui Patrício, sending the ball to the Patricio’s right as he dove left.  The goal drew a hardy roar from the Celtic fans and prompted chanting from both sides.  Sporting was able to level 10 minutes later when Hélder Postiga, who had been subbed on just minutes prior, nodded home a rebound off the crossbar.  Following the goal, the Sporting fans had Fenway rocking with intense cheers and flag waving.  There were several other good chances, but the game ended regulation in a 1-1 draw.  Since the Fenway Football Challenge Trophy was at stake, there had to be a winner.  Rather than playing the usual 30 minutes of extra time, the game went straight to the penalty shootout, much to the delight of the crowd.  While soccer purests may dislike the shootout, you cannot deny the intensity it creates.

Hélder Postiga scoring the first PK of the shootout.

The entire stadium was on its feet as Hélder Postiga stepped to the spot to takethe first PK, which he was able to put past keeper Łukasz Załuska despite Załuska getting a hand on it.  The clubs alternated scoring until Liédson stepped to the spot for the 6th PK.  As he stepped to the spot, I turned to one of my friends and mentioned how Liédson was probably the best player on the pitch and that he should easily make the spot kick.  Apparently, I jinxed him, as he sent his shot high over the bar and into the bleachers.  Paul McGowan, then stepped to the spot and won the game for Celtic 6-5 on penalties.  The mostly pro-Celtic crowd erupted as the team celebrated on the field. As “Dirty Water’ blared in the background, I consoled my pro-Sporting neighbor and left the park hoping that Football at Fenway would become a yearly tradition.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine