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.
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 Chelsea–Manchester 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.
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.
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.
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.