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.
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).
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 are tied for the 4th most titles. Three of those titles came 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, 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 – 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.