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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World Cup Preview – Group H

So, we reach the final group and a look at the team considered the favourites by many. Spain have built the best squad they’ve ever had, rich in quality in pretty much every position. Their time is surely now for the European champions to amend the failures of the past.

But don’t count out the other sides in this group. Chile qualified impressively and play with some real creativity on the wings. The golden generation of the 90’s may have passed but Chile’s progression under Bielsa makes them a reasonable threat. Honduras make their World Cup debut, but have been hampered by injuries to key players, Wilson Palacios and David Suazo. Their fitness is key for them. And finally, the perennial overachievers Switzerland are back as well, with a well organised side.

SPAIN

Two years ago, Spain finally overcame the curse that had dogged for more than 40 years; no trophies in the cabinet and nothing to show for the amount of talent they’ve nurtured over the years. But in Vienna, they showed the rest of Europe that they meant business. And hopefully for them, the momentum they’ve shown since, only losing one competitive game will lead Spain to their maiden World Cup

STRENGTHS

Where to start. The back, Iker Casillas is very consistent for both club and country and has cemented his place in the top 5 keepers in the world. And the back-up in the shape of Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes prove that there’s no worries in that department, I’d be happy to have any of them and a case could be made for starting with Valdes.

The centre back pairing of Puyol and Pique is strong and effective, with the latter improving a lot this year, so much so he should be the best centre-back in the next couple of years. Add to that the full-backs of Capdevilla and Sergio Ramos, that back-four is unbelievably talented and will be a fortress to break down.

The midfield is superb as well. The delightful duo of Iniesta and Xavi will be everpresent and hopefully feeding Torres and Villa with constantly amazing balls. (Iniesta is struggling to be fit for the first game however) Xabi Alonso is also in the centre for Spain and has had a terrific season. The selling of Alonso was criminal for Liverpool and the main reason for failure this year. Finally, on the left should be Valencia’s David Silva, who’s wanted by several European heavyweights. He can be a nightmare for full-backs and also terrorise as a traditional number 10. He could be the ace in the pack.

I should also highlight Jesus Navas at Sevilla. He’s a dynamic dribbling winger, who if given time could be a great impact substitute.

Then there’s the most deadly partnership in international football in David Villa and Fernando Torres, both with superb scoring records. Expect them both to firing in regularly in the group.

Try getting the ball off this side. The Spanish Armada may just steam-roll the opposition.

WEAKNESSES

By going through every position and concluding that they aren’t weak in any department, finding any weakness is tricky. Even the bench looks superb, with Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Pedro all in waiting. But the form of Torres is worrying, he’s so injury prone. Another concern for me is overconfidence, it can break the best of teams and it happened to Spain at the Confederations Cup last year.

Being hyper-critical here, the right-back area could be the best place for teams to attack. Sergio Ramos has strange positioning at times but this is a problem across many of the better teams at the tournament.

KEY PLAYER – David Villa

The now Barcelona frontman was prolific for Valencia and his international record is phenomenal as well. 38 in 58, he’ll want to get several here. Superb first touch, very intuitive and a killer finish. He really does have it all.

MANAGER – Vicente Del Bosque

Minus the superb bushy moustache of the past, he’s another veteran looking for one last hoorah. Likes to mix up his side and has several back-up plans say if Torres got injured. Tactically astute.

ODDS – To paraphrase John McCririck, ‘You’re odds on you are’, best odds probably about 4-1

PREDICTION – Should make the final with the side, but I reckon they might be derailed unexpectedly. We can always hope for an upset.

CHILE

This team would have been considered my ‘dark horses’ for the tournament had they not been paired up with ‘The Group of Death’ for the second round. But, Chile bring a certain ‘Crazy Gang’ factor to the tournament. The only side to operate a 3-4-3 formation. Their manager is slightly bonkers and they have some great footballers in their side. Maybe just maybe, they could provide a shock.

STRENGTHS

Free-roaming attacking football. They scored 32 goals in qualifying, aided by top scorer in the CONMEBOL, Humberto Suazo. The 3 up front were devestating in qualifying, rampaging through several defences with their youthful wingers. Former Liverpool player, Mark Gonzalez may not have had a happy time at Anfield but he prefers the free-flowing football of Spain, and is allowed to do that under Bielsa.

The manager could change the formation to allow Matias Fernandez to operate a roaming attacking midfielder which should reap dividends.

WEAKNESSES

I’m not confident of clean sheets for this side, especially with such an attacking formation. The back-three could be found out here and none of them looking particularly threatening. Chile will have to adopt the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ mentality if progression is to happen.


KEY PLAYER – Humberto Suazo

A very capable attacker at the forefront of this Chilean side. He will have to repeat his scoring feats of qualification and spur on his side. Another player struck by injury but set to start tomorrow against Honduras.

MANAGER – Marcelo Bielsa

Notoriously mental but in a good way. Nicknamed ‘El Loco’, he’s idolised in Chile after taking them to South Africa. Great tactically and masterminded a win over Argentina in qualifying. He’s apparantly a football fanatic, complete with a massive video collection in his house. Educated and erratic it seems.

He said: “”I think we have done all the necessary steps to prepare for this important competition without major difficulty, or just the normal difficulties at least. We are fine and we are ready to begin.” He’ll want to change the abiding World Cup memory of a group stage exit with Argentina in 2002.

Encourages attacking football and rookies to make their mark. I love the fella.

ODDS – 50/1

PREDICTION – Will get out of the group but run into Brazil unfortunately. Should be entertaining nonetheless.

HONDURAS

A country full of political disrest, this World Cup could unite the nation. Although clearly seen as a rank outsider, they could upset some big teams here. Qualified 3rd in their group, they are the weakest team from Central America. Still beat Mexico in qualifying however, so they aren’t that bad.

STRENGTHS

The Wigan scouting network plucked some gems from Honduras, most notably Wilson Palacios. Had the pleasure of seeing him playing for Spurs against Preston in the League Cup this season, and he controlled the game. His presence was unrivalled and he’s a gritty midfielder not afraid of hard tackles. A delight in the modern game really. Although that game was merely a walk in the park compared to facing Spain.

Maynor Figueroa is another great player, capable of scoring from his own half. Doubt that’ll happen again but he’s a decent enough defender.  Hendry Thomas took over from Palacios at Wigan, and is of a similar mould. Tad bit slow though.

They also have a player called Georgie Welcome, this year’s prestigious winner of the Footballer Name of the Year. Used to player for Arsenal…..in Honduras

WEAKNESSES

The rest of the team doesn’t look strong enough to mount a challenge or even a reasonable threat in the group. They are incredibly defensively minded, and I don’t see David Suazo getting enough support. Could be thrashed if they let their heads drop.

KEY PLAYER – David Suazo

The Inter Milan forward was loaned out to Genoa last year. Bags of pace but has been average this year. Has the talent but not the execution.

MANAGER – Reinaldo Rueda

The only manager who’s never played professional football. Hints that he lacks the knowledge to suceed but to get this side to the World Cup is a pretty impressive feat.

ODDS – 700/1

PREDICTION – Bottom of the group

SWITZERLAND

Switzerland made it to South Africa in pretty uneventful circumstances. They only scored more than two goals once in qualfiying, and that was against Luxembourg (3-0). A pretty mediocre group with Greece the only challengers. No testing teams there and since qualifying, they’ve lost every single one of their friendlies and then bizarrely pulled off a 1-1 against Italy. Hardly great preparation really.

STRENGTHS

No one can argue the strength of their manager but we’ll get onto him in a minute. His organisation of this side is superb, operating a fairly basic 4-4-2 to great effect, meaning they could be tough to break down.

The midfield also looks fairly industrious with some good young players within it. Tranquillo Barnetta can play almost anywhere across the midfield, and is fairly adept as a holding midfielder. Likewise Gokhan Inler will help the Swiss maintain possession.

WEAKNESSES

Saying the defence could be a great unit is dependant on a lot of things, mainly Phillippe Senderos actually playing to his potential. He’s had to my knowledge one good season in football, for Arsenal quite a few years ago. He’s sluggish and makes a lot of mistakes.

I’m very worried by the strikeforce, or the apparent lack of one. Alexander Frei isn’t what he used to be and the qualifying stages proved that Switzerland couldn’t score, and it’s only tougher from here on in.

KEY PLAYER – Gokhan Inler

The diligent Udinese midfielder doesn’t get a lot of  goals, but he’ll be key to possession which could be the swinger against the other lesser sides in the group. Fairly creative as well.

MANAGER – Ottmar Hitzfeld

One of only three managers to win the Champions League with two different teams (Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund). A former mathematics teacher, who can frustrate teams with his superb tactics. Has a very full trophy cabinet over the years, one of Europe’s best.

Claims they can beat Spain. He said: “We could be one of the teams that could make one of the favourites tumble. The probability is there.”Every player of the Swiss team has an opportunity to showcase his talent. At one point we are going to beat Spain and why not now!” Hopelessly optimistic, I like it.

ODDS – 200/1

PREDICTION – Not enough firepower to get them out of the group.

With that I’ve previewed each World Cup side. Stay tuned for more World Cup related blogs once I’ve finalised a genuine idea.

I’ll leave you with my favourite moment of the World Cup so far. Cue Ghanian fan with a cauldron on his head.

And also that wonderful goal that started off proceedings, which was then followed by a drought. Ah well, I’m still enjoying the World Cup, hope you are as well.

Tot siens.