Tag Archives: Real Madrid C.F.

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Real Madrid – Barcelona

Yesterday, we previewed the Manchester United-Schalke match, if you missed it check it out. The second semifinal (April 27th at 2:45 Eastern) will be the 3rd edition of El Clásico in 11 days (the first match was a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu , the 2nd a 1-0 Real Madrid victory in the Copa Del Rey final).

  Much has been written about this matchup, which is widely regarded as the best rivalry in world soccer, and maybe even in sports – apologies to Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, and Duke-North Carolina.  Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals should be a treat.

The Champions League trophy has arrived in London ahead of the final. Hopefully, London mayor, Boris Johnson takes better care of this trophy than Sergio Ramos. (image from of UEFA.com)

Barcelona has been the best side in world soccer for the past several years and are looking for their 3rd title since 2006 (2006 and 2009).  Sure Inter won the Champions League last year, but Barcelona has been dominant in La Liga the past three seasons and won an unprecedented 6 trophies in the 2008-2009.  Currently, Barça sit 8 points clear of Real atop the La Liga table. Pep Guardiola‘s side, led by mighty-mite Lionel Messi, play some of the most attractive soccer in the world.  Messi has been brilliant this season, scoring 50 goals in all competitions.  It’s not out of the question that the diminutive Argentine could hit 60 this season.  While Messi gets all the praise, he isn’t alone.  Midfielders, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been superlative this season, and David Villa (21 goals in all competitions) has proved an excellent deputy to the reigning World Footballer of the Year.

It was originally thought that Iniesta might miss the first leg of the semifinals after deliberately provoking a yellow card in Barcelona’s first leg defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk. UEFA decided to forgo any further punishment.  This is a huge boost for Barça who would have certainly missed Iniesta’s creativeness in midfield.  While Iniesta will be available for the Catalan giants, Adriano will not.  The defender/midfielder is out for four weeks with a torn thigh muscle.

Update: In addition to Adriano, Maxwell has now been ruled out for the match.  Barcelona will be scrambling to patch together a back four.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carles Puyol play LB with either Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets play CB.  Busquets has played CB multiple times this season, and Mascherano turned in a fine performance in central defense in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Osasuna on Sunday.  Barcelona will need to find a defensive alignment that works in order to stop Real’s offense.

Real Madrid, who won their first Copa del Rey since 1993, against Barcelona earlier this week and looked excellent in their game against Valencia following their victory. Los Blancos are looking to make it to their first Champions League final since 2002 when they defeated Bayer Leverkusen. Real, who have played second fiddle to Barça for the past 3 or 4 seasons, attempted to address their short comings this summer with the signing of José Mourinho as manager.  While it appears the league will slip through the grasp of the Special One, the ultimate prize – the Champions League trophy – is still a possibility.

While Barça have Messi leading the way, Real have Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo leads Real with 42 goals and 12 assists in all competitions.  That output is bested only by Messi.  Gonzalo Higuaín (10 goals), Karim Benzema (21 goals) and Ángel Di María (9 goals, 13 assists) have provided extra spark for Mourinho’s side.  One player who will be missing from the side when they take the pitch in Madrid is German international Sami Khedira. Khedira, like Adriano, suffered a torn thigh muscle that could keep him off the pitch for the rest of the season.  At a minimum, he will miss the next several weeks.  The defensive midfielder will be missed, as he has featured in 8 of Madrid’s Champions League games.

Real Madrid and Barcelona face off for the 4th and 5th time this season for the right to play for the Champions League title.

Prediction: Despite Madrid having the momentum following their Copa del Rey victory, I expect Barcelona to advance to the final. The Special One will certainly have something up his sleeve when the two teams meet, keep in mind he led Inter to victory over the Catalans in last season’s semifinal, but Barcelona are just too good.  Expect home wins from both side, with Barça finding the extra goal needed to advance.  Also, as an American sports fan whose teams have befallen curses for their transgressions, I expect Real to pay the price for running over the Copa del Rey.

While the Champions League trophy has already arrived in London, we don’t know the teams that will walk out on the pitch at Wembley on May 28th.  The games on Tuesday and Wednesday should go a long way to providing us the answers.

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.


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 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