Champions League group draw thoughts (Group A-D)

Europe’s premier footballing competition once again welcomed the officials of the elite clubs across the continent to the Grimaldi Forum, for what is quickly becoming the most comedic and most drawn out football draw ever . Even I would welcome Jim Rosenthal into the proceedings in an attempt to make it a little bit quicker than Ben Hur. The faux-drama of the event was astounding whilst the Inter players who won the club awards looked uninterested at the format. Meanwhile Gary Lineker was called upon to pick letters, a task he seemed utterly bemused by continually picking out Group C. Conspiracy? No of course not, just coincidence.

Unfortunately UEFA General Secretary David Taylor was replaced by The Hook from Thunderbirds for this year's draw. Also absent, Liverpool FC

But rather than ramble on about how convoluted and tedious the hour was, I shall discuss the group draw in full, looking at player reunions, the obligatory group of death and of course rate the British clubs chances of progressing.


Group A – Internazionale, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente

Where better to start than with the holders, Inter. Now Mourinho-less, it will be interesting to see what sort of system Rafa Benitez adopts at the club, and obviously we shall get a glimpse tomorrow evening for the Super Cup Final. My theory is if it ain’t broke , don’t fix it. But as we know Rafa surely won’t be keen on adopting the style of a manager he hasn’t exactly seen eye to eye on key issues, though he has managed to keep the bulk of that winning side. He could well strengthen it if he gains the services of Javier Mascherano, although apparently he has no authority. Like at Liverpool.

This isn’t an easy group for them by any stretch of the imagination. Werder Bremen have always promised much over the past few years but ultimately never delivered, and they marginally edged past Sampdoria 5-4on aggregate this week to make the groups.  Thomas Schlaaf may have lost World Cup star Mesut Oezil but in the first leg, Aaron Hunt played well in that ‘trecarista’ role. They have a resolute back-four (although they were poor in mid-week) and some great midfielders in Torsten Frings, Marko Marin and Tim Borowski. Not to mention forwards, Hugo Almeida and Claudio Pizarro (nothing like his Chelsea version). They shouldn’t be underestimated.

Especially by the next team, Tottenham Hotspur. Harry Redknapp’s first Euro-trip outside of a 2004 booze cruise to Dieppe. Spurs were caught cold by Young Boys in the first leg, citing the pitch but it was mainly down to Redknapp’s insistence on 4-4-2 away from home. If Spurs dare use that formation here, they will be ripped to shreds, especially by Bremen. The lack of Champions League experience could also be problematic, with only Heurelho Gomes and Peter Crouch having games at this level.

Finally, FC Twente, the Dutch champions (who were in pot 4, whilst runners up Ajax were in pot 3). Again, a decent side, but question marks remain over whether new manager Michel Preud’homme, with Champions League experience with Standard Liege last year, can replicate Schteve McClaren’s results at the club. They’ve kept top-scorer Bryan Ruiz, but I don’t seem them making it out of the group unfortunately.

Winner: Inter Milan Runners-Up: Werder Bremen

Group B – Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv

Possibly the weakest group of the eight, but certainly one of the toughest to predict position-wise. Olympique Lyonnais now under the tutelage of Claude Puel, will be hard pressed to improve last year’s semi final appearance but so far things look good for the French side. Some great buys this summer particularly in Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand replacing the deadwood in Sidney Govou plus the emergence of youth talent from the U19 France squad (the only French national side to do well this summer) such as Alexandre Lacazette. Add to that safehands Hugo Lloris and Lyon look as strong, if not better than last year.

Benfica in contrast have been raided over the summer. Their best players, winger Angel Di Maria and Ramires both have joined Real and Chelsea respectively in big money moves. What’s behind is a shell of that free-flowing attacking side of last year who lit up the Europa League with style although Nicolas Gaitan is a super replacement, signing from Boca Juniors. I think they may be heading to Europa League once again.

Schalke’s big summer signing came in Real Madrid legend Raul, who finally departed from the club after 550 league appearances and becoming their top scorer of all time. Guess he wanted something new. He’ll revitalise this side up front, who finished runners-up in the Bundesliga. Unfortunately for them, they sold Heiko Westermann to Hamburg in the summer, which makes them look a bit weak at the back. But Felix Magath will certainly sort that out. Look out for Ivan Rakitic, who looks a tremendous good midfielder at 22.

Israeli champs Hapoel Tel-Aviv make their Champions League debut after beating Red Bull Salzburg in the qualifier and are relatively based on unknown Israeli players (I won’t claim to know them) but do have stand-out keeper Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama who single-handedly tamed Lionel Messi at the World Cup.

Winners: Lyon Runners Up: Schalke 04

Group C – Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor

Sir Alex Ferguson will be licking his lips at this group. Mark my words. United couldn’t have got a better draw really. Over the summer, United have strengthened slightly with the arrival of Javier Hernandez, the other emerging player from the summer tournament. Other signings include Chris Smalling, who probably isn’t at this level yet, and the man who can’t make a reserve squad. Bebe.

Valencia, in serious debt, offloaded their star players David Villa and David Silva. They aren’t as strong as last year but shouldn’t be overlooked in this group. They should still progress though, since Juan Mata and Ever Banega will finally get their chance to shine, you’d hope. Unai Emery is more than capable of producing great things from this side. Sure they aren’t up there with the other Spanish giants, but still a trip to the Mestalla will be tough for United.

But not as tough as the Turkish trip, the pot 4 team I personally wanted to avoid. A mid-week game away in Turkey is never an ideal situation, but in contrast Arsenal and Chelsea have it worse. Bursaspor won the Turkish league last year, (in fact the first time they have finished in the top 3) and are a slightly unknown quantity, although United scouts should find that they are a side with a lot of decent Turkish players such as Ozan Ipek, a tricky winger. Their manager Ertuğrul Sağlam however led Besiktas to an 8-0 defeat at Anfield two years ago.

Rangers, as Charlie Nicholas rightly said on Sky Sports News, should only realistically look at this as a money-spinner. The squad has effectively been the same for 2 years now, and if last year’s campaign is anything to go by this could go awry for them. James Beattie has joined to bolster the attacking options, but I don’t see Rangers making it far.

Winners: Manchester United Runners-Up: Valencia

Group D – Barcelona, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Just like Sir Alex, Pep Guardiola will be delighted with today’s proceedings. This should be a cake-walk for Barca with lots of goals.

Barca look frightening this year with the addition of David Villa up front. If he doesn’t bag 30 goals with the supporting cast behind him, he’s a failure. Bold claim, but it should happen really. Also, the fact that Pedro should be even better than his debut season and it looks a lock that Barca will go far in this competition. In fact, they are my pick, although I made similar claims last year. There’s also that Lionel Messi lad too.

Panathinaikos qualify as Greek champions, and they really started to adopt a Franco-Greek Connection with the acquisition of Sidney Govou. He could link up well with top scorer Djibril Cisse in the 4-2-3-1 system, especially with influential Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis in the hole. Other Greek nationals to look out for are Giourkas Seitaridis at right-back and Kostas Katsouranis, both very capable players on their day. Not to forget Gilberto Silva of course, in the holding role and I think possibly Panathinaikos could be this year’s surprise package. Maybe

Copenhagen aren’t as good as the side from a few years back, who were in United’s group. But saying that, there are some decent players knocking about particularly young centre-back Mathias Jorgensen who seems destined for a bigger club after scouting from several big clubs. Martin Vingaard is a decent wide midfielder, with a few international caps to his name as well. They also have a few Brazilians, like so many European clubs, such as Cesar Santin who has grabbed 25 goals since his arrival in 2008 and also midfielder Claudemir, signed from Vitessa Arnhem this year, who again looks very good for his age.

Finally, Rubin Kazan who pulled off some astonishing results in last year’s competition, notably that win in the Camp Nou. Can they do the same this year? I highly doubt it is the answer. They aren’t as big a force in Russian football 12 months on although the addition of Obafemi Martins could be pay dividends for them. Turkish journeyman Fatih Tekke, who looks past his best now at 32. Other than that, no real notable names in the squad, and they will be lucky to escape this group

Winners: Barca Runners-up: Panathiniakos

So, after perusing the first 4 groups, I shall return tomorrow to discuss the fates of Arsenal, Chelsea and the scariest group of death I’ve ever seen (weekly hyperbole). I shall leave you with that Rubin Kazan win last year and my new favourite footballer song.



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Six Pointer: Opening Day

The Premier League has returned after what seems a very short amount of time since John Terry lifted that famous trophy above his head in front of a packed Stamford Bridge. Well, of course we’ve had the worst World Cup ever in between all that, if you are to gauge punditry opinion across the board. I can ramble and rant about that again (believe me you don’t want me to) but instead we shall focus on a spectacular opening day in the English top flight and other events across Europe. Yes, that’s right the format is back. Six points recapping the best European football topics of the last week. Let’s crack on shall we?

1 Blackpool tower above woeful Wigan

Tangerine sea, amazing scenes

The start of the 10/11 Premier League will only be remembered for this game I feel. Chelsea and United played their opposition off the park, the chasing pack drew with each other. Not that these games were particularly low quality, far from it. But there was no shocking result. Fortunately for us, Blackpool announced their arrival to the big stage in the best possible manner, humiliating Wigan at the DW Stadium.

As good as Ian Holloway’s side were, Wigan’s first half performance was utterly shambolic at the back. It’s quite clear to me for the £9.5 million Wigan have spent this year, they lack a leader. No Scharner, Bramble or Melchiot to lead the troops and it showed. The back four weren’t organised, and Martinez looked despondent at what was going on. He needs to sign someone with experience to get Wigan structured. To be fair to Martinez, his substitutes worked at half time. Ronnie Stam looked decent when he came on. But all in all it was a fairly disasterous day for Wigan.

Full credit to Blackpool was laying down a superb marker in what is sure to be a tough season. Holloway is certainly creating the right atmosphere and team ethos and they’ll love every minute of being the underdog in practically every game. Doesn’t exactly get any harder than Arsenal away next. Wigan have Chelsea at home, but they did win that fixture last year. Can’t really see it this time.

2. Bellamy comes home (sort of)

39- Number of clubs Bellamy is either wanted by or played for

The first real casualty of the mega-bucks spending of Manchester City, for this year at least, looks to be Craig Bellamy. As much as I find some of his behaviour in the past to be reprehensible, I can’t really deny how good he was last year for them. His performance in the first Manchester derby last year was brilliant. It’s real shame that at the time he’s got his act together, he gets treated fairly badly by City and shipped off on a season loan to Cardiff City.

A very shrewd business move by City. He was highly sought after by their rivals, so why not give him to an aspiring club one tier lower. No doubt for me now that Bellamy will be sensational in that league and he might obtain cult status at the club (more than likely already has with that amount of Bellamy shirts printed).

It still baffles me how Bellamy didn’t make the 25 man squad for the league considering his level of performances last year, and I kind of hope that decision backfires on City. It probably won’t and of course this is me being slightly biased.

3. Steve Bruce loses rag, contrast between red face and blonde hair stark

Anthony Taylor gives Cattermole a record 234,690th red card,

He may well be one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen at United, but he’s becoming an irritating fool now. As we all know, Lee Cattermole is prone to a rush of blood to his noggin, and also drawing it from opponents with his elbow. How Bruce can slag off the ref for his officiating in the game against Birmingham is beyond me really. First yellow card may seem harsh, but I think the second offence warranted a red so it balanced out.

Bruce complained at the fast-tracking of referees. He said: “The ref (Anthony Taylor) was totally inadequate. I believe he’s only been refereeing four years so that is a huge decision to promote him to the Premier League.” Has it not occurred to you, Mr Bruce that for a referee to obtain Premier League status that quickly, he must be doing something correctly and furthermore, for us to get good referees, they need to officiate at the highest level sooner or later.

Bruce added “The last thing I want to do is criticise a young lad trying to make his way in the game but he was absolutely awful” Yeah well done there, Steve. Do exactly what you say you’re trying to avoid.

It’s opening day, it’s not going to cost you in the long run surely. He’ll escape FA punishment as well it seems.

4. European elites get off to slow start

A change of pace now as we take a Euro-trip across the other top leagues, except not as beer-fuelled.

  • Things in France are certainly intriguing and not just with the France national team investigation that has just concluded. Champions Marseille are in an early season crisis (and no I don’t mean an Arsenal crisis as hinted at by the Telegraph). Didier Deschamps hinted at club unrest, most likely down to the decisions of Mamadou Niang, who has since left to join Fenerbahce, and Hatem Ben Arfa trying to broker a Premier League move.Deschamps said: “There are a lot of negative things going on off the pitch, but we are making a lot of mistakes on the pitch also. They are not excuses, they are explanations”. Marseille have lost both their games in Ligue 1 this season against Caen and Valenciennes.
  • Over in Portugal, Benfica were stunned with an opening day defeat to Academica, with a glorious last minute winner from Laionel. Interesting to see how Benfica do this year, they’ve been well and truly raided by other European clubs, and I for one am amazed to see Fabio Coentrao still at the club. I don’t think this defeat will lead to a slide, but I think it will be a lot closer title race that last year, with Porto and Sporting both hoping to improve on last years efforts. Here’s that strike by the way, the first winner of 6Pointer Goal of the Week

5.  How to make your debut, Joe Cole style

Not that type of player.... apparently

The biggest talking point from the Super Sunday game between Liverpool and Arsenal. Now remember ‘Joe Cole isn’t that sort of player’, what a ludcrious argument that is. It was in an area of the pitch where tackles like that aren’t needed and Martin Atkinson was right to send off Joe Cole. The Koscielny red card was more contentious only for the fact he wasn’t consistent with hand balls but I thought he looked reasonably assured on his debut.

Not that it really mattered, Joe Cole was kept incredibly quiet by Arsenal and was outlassed by his Arsenal counterpart in Samir Nasri. Liverpool kicked on from that to take the lead through David N’Gog, who often recieves harsh criticism and unfair comparisons to Fernando Torres. He was aided by some poor defending from Arsenal though.

Arsenal came back, as you’d expect and grabbed a late equaliser from Pepe Reina not being able to see a football through the sun. According to Andy Gray. Either way it ended in a draw, no surprises.

6. Toon Army  Facial Hair Watch – Fixture 1

Every villain needs a moustache. Mr March perhaps for Joey?

Last night Twitter exploded with the news of Joey Barton’s moustache. The Newcastle squad have vowed not to shave until they win a league game.

Now some people can pull of facial hair. Tom Selleck, Ian Rush (sort of) and the Red Baron from the Wacky Races. Unfortunately for none of the Newcastle players can and it could be seen for a long time yet with the way Newcastle performed last night. It wasn’t bad but they were outclassed.

Could we see Joey go through different stages as the season progress? In fact I call for a calendar just for Joey Barton’s Moustaches. May’s offering could be a Fu Manchu if the situation doesn’t improve. 6pointer will keep you informed with a new feature – Toon Tash Watch.

I’m off to watch Zenit Auxerre, hopefully an entertaining game, see you next week

World Cup Preview – Group B

One of the toughest groups to predict as teams from four different continents look for global dominance. Argentina have world class talent at disposal, Greece are former European champions, South Korea are capable of causing a shock and Nigeria have vast experience at playing at World Cups. This group should be sensational.

ARGENTINA

The two time winners are back, and eager to avenge recent failures at World Cups. They were put down as favourites in 06, but failed to live up the hype. Now, several players have fulfilled their star-potential and with Lionel Messi showing brilliance on almost a daily basis, surely now is the time to finally answer their critics.

Well, maybe not. Diego Maradona may well be an Argentian deity to the public but after being given the job back in 2008, he has failed to live up to his glorious reputation. The Argentines just about qualified from the South American qualifying group, thanks to Martin Palermo scoring very late on against Peru.

STRENGTHS – Lionel Messi for one. 47 goals in all competitions, the boy wonder has hit the form of his life just at the right time. But for Messi to be truly recognised as a legend, he must emulate his manager’s performances at World Cups. The side can also boast a very strong spine.

The ever-reliable Gabriel Heinze, Martin Demichelis and Walter Samuel have all been impressive this year. Add to that Javier Mascherano as a holding midfielder, and you have a very decent defence.

Obviously, the Argentines can dazzle up front as well. Higuain has potential to be a great front man, and Diego can call upon Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero as replacements up front. The Argentine bench scares me.

WEAKNESSES – Diego Maradona, but we’ll talk about him later. Some players in the side are way past their prime, namely Juan Sebas Veron, who is now 35 and Martin Palermo is 36. Palermo’s goal which cued Diego’s celebrations (see below) may have sent them to South Africa, but he isn’t anywhere near the quality of the other strikers. Veron was sensational at World Cup 98, but he hasn’t been as good since.

There is also some concern over Maradona’s selection. He decided to pick Newcastle’s Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez ( the latter certain to start). Both are good enough but the decision to leave Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti behind baffles me. Both have experience at this level in abundance and have played in the Champions League this season. Coloccini and Jonas haven’t.

KEY PLAYER – Lionel Messi

Who else. The best player in the world right now. The fact that he was scored 34 Barca goals in the league underlines his quality. No player since Ronaldo (96/97) has done that. He clinched a domestic title last night as well, so will be wanting to add another winners medal to the already full cabinet. He can change a game within an instant. It could be argued that he is only as good as when Xavi and Iniesta are supplying him, but no one can deny how much of a talent Lionel Messi is.

MANAGER- Diego Maradona

Diego hopes for water park facilities

The Hand of God will have to strike again if Diego wants to lift the World Cup as a manager. This is his competition. He was part of the most controversial moment of World Cup history (the aforementioned Hand of God) and also scored the best World Cup goal in the same game. Management wise, he doesn’t have much experience. At any level. Tactically things could go awry. No matter what happens, he will still be an idol in Argentina come July.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 9/1

PREDICTION – Semi finals at best. One man or manager doesn’t make a World Cup winning side. Argentina don’t like having the tag of favourites, which this time, they do not.

GREECE

It’s been 6 long years since Greece against all odds lifted the European Championship against hosts Portugal. They haven’t qualified for a tournament since and this is their first World Cup since 1994. The Greeks will be hoping for a miracle performance once again, but it’s fair to say that their squad isn’t as good as the 04 one. Don’t expect style but expect a lot of gritty determination

STRENGTHS – The increasingly good performances of Sotirios Kyrgiakos at Liverpool will hopefully be instrumental to Greece keeping other teams out. The side is also full of strong strikers, such as Euro 2004 hero Angelos Charisteas and top-scorer in qualfying, Theofanis Gekas, means that the Greeks can willing muscle their way to victory. Giorgos Karagounis also has the experience to boss the midfield, if needs be. Ten players are from Panathiniakos so the team bond isn’t in question.

WEAKENESSES – No star quality player that other nations possess is a key flaw in this Bolton-like Greek side. The bench doesn’t look very good either, so inspiration from there looks unlikely. Also akin to Bolton, they are an aging nation and it remains to be seen whether the squad can keep up with fitness past the group stage. Celtic’s Georgios Samaras may only be a bit part player in South Africa, but playing in Scotland for a few years shows you that Greece can’t call upon top leagues for their players, and have to rely on their own.

KEY PLAYER – Giorgos Karagounis

The Greek captain will have to do something sensational to lift his team. But this side play well when no one has any expectations of them, which is exactly what happened in 2004. Karagounis is now a veteran of European football having plied his trade at Inter Milan and Benfica before returning to Panathinaikos in 2007. He is the Greek playmaker and will also help his team from set-pieces.

MANAGER – Otto Rehagel

Named ‘Greek of the Year’ (despite being German) in 2004 for the exceptional triumph in Portugal, the 71-year old will be wanting his last moment on the stage to be glory. Also won the Bundesliga in 1998 with Kaiserlautern. His experience tactically could be key for the Greeks getting out of Group B

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1

PREDICTION – Not enough quality to get out of the group. Will have to play very direct football against the others in the group, to stand a chance.

SOUTH KOREA

It wouldn’t be a World Cup without them, this will be their 7th consecutive World Cup. Only problem here is that South Korea have never won a World Cup game abroad. Their run in 2002 was the main highlight of that World Cup as they dumped out Spain and Italy in the knockout stages and finished 4th overall. They were undefeated in qualifying in AFC Group 2, so they clearly have some pedigree too.

STRENGTHS – A decent attack, which is bolstered by some great midfielders behind it. Captain Park Ji-Sung, who has finally become an important member of his club side, will be pivotal to success for the Korea Republic. Pro Evolution Soccer sensational buy, Park Chu-young can often be in blistering form and contributes a lot to the side Lee Chung-young has been a revelation for Bolton this season, and expect him to weigh in with a few goals too.

The fact that the Korean and Japanese leagues are fairly unknown to many outside Asia, makes them an unknown entity, which could also benefit them.

WEAKNESSES – Their defence without question. Only Lee Young-pyo is recognised at having played at a top club level, when he was left-back for Spurs. But he now plays in Saudi Arabia. The defence weren’t troubled much in qualifying but on the big stage, many will have to be in superb form if they are to make it out of the group.

KEY PLAYER – Park Ji-Sung

Park can score in big games

The Manchester United midfielder is an A-list celebrity back in his homeland and the key to South Korea’s form in qualifying. This season, Park has finally shaken off the tag of only being bought to boost shirt sales and put in some genuinely brilliant performances. Notably against AC Milan in the 2nd leg of the Champions League 1st knockout round. His goalscoring record isn’t too bad either. In 86 appearances for Korea, he has amassed 11 goals. This may not seem like a lot, but for someone who sits back often, it’s not too bad at all.

MANAGER – Huh Jung Moo

Now in his third spell as national boss, he has had to emulate the sensational performance of Guus Hiddink in 2002, so fans took a while to get used to his style of football. His use of youth talent has impressed the natives as well. He hasn’t lost a game since he began his tenure in 2007: that run may well end here.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 250/1

PREDICTION – Out at the group stage. Could very well lose all 3 games and an early flight home.

NIGERIA

The biggest nation in Africa, and also the most powerful of African teams. Renowned for strength and crunching tackles, Nigeria missed out on the 2006 World Cup. Failure at the African Nations this year saw Swede Lars Lagerback take over a lumbering side, who might just shock people in South Africa.

STRENGTHS –Stature. Players like Yakubu, Joseph Yobo and Daniel Shittu are well built and will probably provide a culture shock to Argentina. They are robust and supported by a very defensive midfield including Chelsea’s John-Obi Mikel, who will provide the link up play. Nigeria never have been flashy, but have relied on pure strength and sticking to what they know best, could see them progress far.

If Yakubu brings back some form that he showed back in his early games for Boro, then Nigeria will also have a large frontman capable of finishing. Peter Odemwingie is also key to Nigeria, as the winger will look to terrorise left-backs.

Another plus is the amount of fans that the Nigerians will bring to South Africa. Passion is merely an understatement for Nigerian fans

WEAKNESSES – Strength and speed don’t go hand in hand, and the fact that only the first choice left-back Marseille’s Taye Taiwo can bomb forward on the wings suggest that Nigeria only have one game-plan under Lagerback, keep it direct and down the middle. This could prove to be their downfall if they don’t find goals from somewhere.

KEY PLAYER – John Obi Mikel

Chelsea’s holding midfielder will be looking to protect his defence from onslaughts from bigger nations, and it’s pretty clear that Mikel has improved in this season under Ancelotti. Decent passer and tackler, although often makes stupid fouls. Less of that, and the World Cup should prove to be successful for Mikel.

MANAGER – Lars Lagerback

Swedish manager for 9 years and took them to 5 consecutive tournaments. Failure to qualify for 2010, saw him join the Nigerian set-up. It’s a completely different challenge here for Lagerback, and it certainly won’t be easy, but he can call upon his CV for vital experience in this competition.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1

PREDICTION – Might make the knockout phase, but not much more than that.

I think that Argentina will win the group. The other place is heavily contested but I feel Nigeria look best on paper, and will be helped by their supporters. The Argies will make the semi-finals, Nigeria out straight after the groups

Until next time where I look at England’s prospects, here’s my favourite goal from Japan/South Korea 2002

Enjoy very muchly. Dario Rodriguez, take a bow son.