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.
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.
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.
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 – 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.