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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Community Shield Preview – Chelsea vs Manchester United

At last the discussion over England’s worst World Cup in the history of all time can temporarily cease, as we prepare ourselves for the traditional curtain raiser: The Community Shield.

This will be the 88th Community Shield and the 5th contested between these two heavyweights. Chelsea of course won the double last year so United qualify as league runners-up. This is the first real opportunity to see how the two of the big sides will do this season, and more importantly for Chelsea and Manchester United to claim first blood in what is sure to be an interesting campaign.

Both have had contrasting pre-seasons. Ancelotti’s Chelsea have suffered 3 three straight defeats whilst travelling through Europe (against Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburg). Defeats on pre-season are never an indication of how things will turn out for a side clearly, but it was the manner of these defeats that must irk Carlo Ancelotti. Particularly against Ajax, a Chelsea fringe team were outplayed by Martin Jol’s side.

More worringly however is the fitness of goalkeeper Petr Cech who will certainly miss this game, and is in a race against time to make the Premier League day opener. He will be replaced by Hilario as Ross Turnbull who has been deputising in recent weeks hasn’t impressed.

The Bison is back

One real bonus for Ancelotti is the return of Michael Essien in midfield. Missing most of last year, he will link up well with Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel in the midfield engine-room.

For Manchester United, pre-season has been considered a success with some impressive results against ‘All-Star’ sides. The recent 7-1 victory over the Airtricity League XI allowed United to make proverbial mince-meat of inferior opposition and turn on the style. Of course this tie won’t be so easy.

They’ve also accumulated some injuries, most notably Michael Carrick (ankle) and Ferguson’s side will certainly miss his technical attributes. He may have had a reasonably poor season last time out, but his passing in one of the best in the league in my opinion, and he is the epitome of the underrated central midfielder as highlighted by Zonal Marking recently. He also allows United to retain possession well too. I don’t see being a major issue as Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher can operate well as the two holding midfielders.

Other players missing for Manchester United are Gabriel Obertan (ankle), Anderson (knee and stunt driving), Rafael and Fabio (food poisoning) and Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand are long term injury concerns. On the subject of Anderson, I think his days are limited at Manchester United following his near-death experience. Shame, but two major injuries at a young age could curtail a promising career.

Summer savings

Neither side has really been on a pre-season splurge over the summer months. Chelsea have added Yossi Benayoun, who will fit nicely into the Joe Cole mould of squad player. Roman Abramovich has yet to break the bank with a signing but the £17m transfer of Benfica and Brazil winger Ramires is certainly imminent.

Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez - the next big thing?

Ferguson on the other hand decided to delve into the market early with the signings of Chris Smalling from Fulham and Javier Hernandez. The decision to bring in Chicharito for £7million pre-World Cup looks to be a Ferguson master-stroke after he excelled in South Africa. His positioning and off the ball running look superb and a friend likened him to a young Michael Owen. I whole-heartedly agree that this guy looks a hot prospect. The only area where Manchester United really need some strengthening is at right-back (Gary Neville and Wes Brown don’t help) and on the left side of midfield, unless Nani finally realises his potential. His inconsistency wasn’t as bad last year however.

Strikeforce options

Speaking of which, if Owen does start it will mark the first competitive game he’ll have played since the League Cup final in March. I doubt this will happen however as risking him on a Wembley pitch before the season starts could turn out disastrously. Expect Rooney and Berbatov to start, with Owen and Hernandez making 2nd half appearances possibly. Then again Ferguson could decide to play Rooney up to with 2 of Valencia/Nani/Park making up the support. This would likely match Chelsea, allowing flexibility to match their 4-3-3 formation in attack or 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 in other situations.

Rooney will need to hit the ground running again this season in a attempt to mask the performances in South Africa where he looked lethargic and uninterested. I have no doubt that this will happen.

Carlo Ancelotti has named his side this afternoon. He’s decided to leave Drogba on the bench, favouring Nicolas Anelka. He will be supported by Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda on the flanks.

Teams

Chelsea (4-3-3) – Hilario; Paulo Ferreira, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole; Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard; Salomon Kalou, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda

Verdict – As expected. Near full strength. Interesting to see if Ivanovic can continue his improvement in the centre-back role alongside the increasingly outspoken and erratic John Terry.

Manchester United – TBA

Prediction

It will be tight and possibly a tense affair. I have an inkling that United will win here, mainly due to Chelsea’s pre-season form being sketchy. Ancelotti has complained that his players aren’t showing good enough fitness levels yet and that showing of his deck could prove costly. It might end with a penalty shoot-out but I think United will edge it 1-0.

Community Shield Trivia

  • The last three winners of the Community Shield went on to win the league that year. Will that trend continue this year?
  • Also the last three games have ended in a penalty shootout.
  • Andre Marriner will take charge of the game on Sunday. Not exactly one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourite referees after sending off Nemanja Vidic at Anfield last season.
  • A win for Ryan Giggs on Sunday would mean 8 Community Shields, the same as Everton have won.

To whet your appetite, here’s last season’s game highlights. Featuring general Nani goal.

Group D – The Germans

Nobody can deny that in international history, Germany are always among the front-runners. The Germans hold an impressive pedigree having won the World Cup three times, finishing runners-up on four occasions and having made the Quarter Finals in 14 of 16 appearances. The reason for this winning mentality: belief and efficiency. Even when critics have written them off, Germany manages to produce the goods.

So what of this year’s injury-ridden squad. Can they live up to their predecessors?

Germany will miss their talismanic captain

The injury to captain Michael Ballack has clearly hit Germany hard. He’s arguably been the best German footballer of the last decade, with almost 100 caps for his country. This season he’s been given more game time at Chelsea, with Michael Essien out injured, and he’s shown the quality that made him one of Europe’s best players.

Seeing him leaving the Wembley pitch at the FA Cup Final, you could see immediately that he knew he was out of the tournament, A real shame for someone who wants to eradicate the memories of previous World Cups, especially in 2002 when Ballack missed the final due to suspension.

The captain’s armband has been given to full-back Philipp Lahm, who’s improved a lot in the past few years. His first responsibility was to calm down the media hysteria over the plague of injuries.

He told reporters at a recent training camp: “‘The team cannot be allowed to be influenced by these injuries. The big aim is the semi-finals but you first have to deal with the group stage. We want to get into the semis and the team does indeed dream of more than that.”

But it isn’t just Ballack that won’t be on the plane to South Africa. Leverkusen’s keeper Rene Adler will miss the tournament after picking up a rib injury last month. His club team-mate, midfielder Simon Rolfes, who hasn’t played since January has lost his fitness battle as well.

Add to that injuries to Schalke’s Heiko Westermann, who was impressive in qualifying, and Stuttgart’s young midfielder Christian Traesch has seen Joachim Low effectively have his squad picked for him.

Although the first-team is largely unaffected, Low clearly has a large gap to fill in the centre of midfield if Germany are to be considered amongst the rest of the favourites. However, over the past year, the Bundesliga has seen a wealth of talented midfielders emerge, and consequently made the rest of Europe take more notice in the league itself.

Several of these players hold dual nationality. Werder Bremen’s young attacking midfielder, Marko Marin for example was born in Yugoslavia and expects Serbia to be their main rivals in Group D. He’s often compared to Joe Cole by scouts, being fairly adept in the attacking midfielder role.

Similarly, his team-mate Mesut Ozil (who’s half Turkish) has received rave reviews, and has been linked with a post World-Cup move to Arsenal. It is clear that if the younger players perform well, their stock in the transfer market will sky-rocket.

Low has several options up front available to him but it seems certain that Lukas Podolski will be on the left and Thomas Muller on the right, with the experienced but out-of-form Miroslav Klose in the centre. Klose tends to be prolific at World Cups, with 5 goals in each of the last two tournaments.

More worryingly for Low seems to be his defence. Only Per Mertesacker and newly appointed captain Philipp Lahm hold experience at international level, although Jerome Boateng is held in high regard at Hamburg. Low’s key problem is finding another full-back to complement the defence.

Just like bears, Germany have grizzly determination

Erratic and now retired goal-keeper, Jens Lehmann spoke out against the lack of experience, especially in the keepers, in the German national team.

He said: ‘You can’t win the title with relatively inexperienced keepers. Neither plays regularly in the Champions League, at the highest level.’

It’s fair to say that they haven’t found an adequate replacement goalkeeper since Oliver Kahn, but with so many great young outfield players coming out of the Bundesliga, the negativity from former players doesn’t exactly help the team.

If German fans finally show some optimism towards the array of youth on show and get behind the side, like on home soil in 2006, then they should do very well. Never count out the Germans, their record speaks for itself.

And failing that, a penalty shootout always serves them well.

I leave you with the first goal from 2006, a peach by new Germany captain, Philipp Lahm

World Cup Preview – The rest of Group C

So we’ve had a look at the 3 Lions, but how will the other three teams in Group C do. The USA side have finally hit their potential by making the Confederations Cup final last year. Algeria have surged up the FIFA rankings in recent years, and had a good African Cup of Nations campaign. Slovenia could be a dark-horse in this competition. England better not get overconfident here then.

USA

The US were ridiculed throughout the 90s when it came to football. After holding at the World Cup in 1994, they went to France 98 full of optimism; only to be the worst team in the competition (this could be down to a certain situation reminiscent of a certain England player however).

Just over ten years later, the US made the Confederations Cup final in 2009 proving they had finally overcome the barrage of criticism aimed at ‘the rebirth of soccer’ initiative set up in the early 90’s . They even beat European champs and tournament favourites Spain along the way.

But last time out in the World Cup, things didn’t exactly go to plan as the Yanks crashed out of the group stage. They will hope to emulate their 2002 campaign where they made the Quarter finals.

STRENGTHS

One thing they can rely on is certainly their goalkeepers. All three selected play at Premier League clubs and Tim Howard has had a pretty solid season at Everton this year. They can also count upon some great midfielders at their disposal, who have made a name for themselves at various European clubs. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey is fairly adept in midfield and can be a decent frontman when called upon. Landon Donovan showed exactly what he can do from his loan at Everton.  This side isn’t about style and flair, but build upon strong foundations of being tenacious at times.

WEAKNESSES

Where some players thrive in the Premier League and Europe, others flounder. Jozy Altidore barely scored at relegated Hull. Former Rangers winger, Da Marcus Beasley has barely played in the last few months and hasn’t looked anywhere near as good as he was at PSV Eindhoven. Former wonderkid, Freddy Adu now finds himself at Greek side Aris. The fact that many of these players  failed to live up the hype shows that the Americans don’t have a strong enough side to contend.

They also lack an out and out goalscorer. Donovan and Altidore will lead the line and neither are complete strikers. The defence seems a bit weak as well, and certainly injury prone. Milan’s Oguchi Onyewu has only made fleeting appearances for them, last playing in October. His partner in defence will likely be Jay Demerit, who has had a terrible season on the sidelines with a serious eye injury and currently nursing an abdominal strain. The defence doesn’t look formidable and Tim Howard will have his work cut out.

Will Donovan inspire?

KEY PLAYER – Landon Donovan

A move to Germany early in his career didn’t prove to the smartest move, and he struggled to make an impact. Back from the Bundesliga, in the MLS, he became the league’s most valuable player at LA Galaxy (until a certain superstar transferred). He is the US’s all time leading goalscorer and became the catalyst at Everton on loan, turning their season around.

MANAGER – Bob Bradley

Took over from Bruce Arena after the last World Cup, he made a slow start and fans called for his removal because of his style of play. But after the 2009 Confederations Cup run, he’s finally been accepted by the fans. This will be the 6th straight World Cup for the US and anything better than 2006 is expected as a minimum requirement.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP –  66-1

PREDICTION – Should make it out of the group as runners up

SLOVENIA

Much is unknown about the Slovenians but they managed to knock out a good Russian side in the playoffs to South Africa. A Russian side with multi-million pound talent available to it in Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavluchenko to name two. This isn’t their first World Cup either, after appearing in 2002, in what I can describe as the weirdest group of World Cup history. But I shouldn’t knock this side, to make 2 World Cups in only 20 years after declaring independence from Yugoslavia, is pretty impressive. This side is completely different to the previous side as well.

STRENGTHS

Keeping it simple. Straight out 4-4-2 with short neat passing. By looking at their qualifying campaign, it seems they keep clean sheets and work hard to achieve good results.They have a decent young keeper in Samir Handanovic who has made over 100 appearances for Udinese. Other players that you should look out for are former West Brom player Robert Koren, who will captain the side from the centre of midfield. Another good player is frontman Mile Novakovic, who’s scored 14 goals for his country and 51 in 108 league games for Cologne. He could grab a few here.

Slovenia also have some gifted youth players. Rene Khrin plays for Inter and has yet to become a household name in that side, but to even be at a club of that stature shows his talent.

WEAKNESSES

Their greatest strength looks set to be their downfall. Keeping the football simple works against sides worse than you, but against the US and England, they might well be torn apart. Several players are fringe players at their clubs across Europe, which isn’t going to help either. Pure determination won’t be enough unfortunately.

KEY PLAYER – Zatko Dedic

The scorer of the winner against Russia, he’s a tireless worker for the side. Will support Novakovic up front. Think Carlos Tevez but not as profilic.

MANAGER – Matjaz Kek

He got this side to the World Cup, so should be loved in his country. After wining titles with Maribor, he was appointed in 2006 as the national coach of the smallest country in this World Cup.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Out at the group stage, not enough quality here

ALGERIA

The Desert Foxes (what a nickname) endured what can only be described as the most long winded and dramatic route into the World Cup. Facing fierce rivals Egypt in a playoff, which included 15,000 police being deployed in Sudan to control riots after the game, the Algerians came out on top and make the trip to South Africa.

They will make their first appearance at World Cup since Mexico 86 after more than 20 years in the wilderness. They had a reasonable successful Cup of Nations earlier this year, which was marred by stupidity against Egypt in the semi final. This game saw several red cards, one of which for a headbutt on the referee, and Algeria finished the game with 8 men.

STRENGTHS

Algeria have a lot of pace. Nadir Belhadj was one of Portsmouth’s better players this season, and can fly down the left side, and even grab a goal or two if needed. Hassan Yebda, also of Pompey this season, can also trouble defenders on the right. Expect a counter attacking nature from this side.

Majid Bougherra, who often turned up late from international duty with Rangers, can be a very good centre-back and will aid a defence who will be under siege at times.

WEAKNESSES

Algeria are very ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. It all depends which side turns up in South Africa. As shown as against Egypt, the heat of the moment can get the better of them at times. Occasionally tactical suicide occurs as well, after deploying a 3-5-2 against Malawi in the group stage at the Cup of Nations. They lost 3-0.

They undoubtedly have the desire and capability but this might be one tournament too far for them.

Can Belhadj translate club form to the national side?

KEY PLAYER – Nadir Belhadj

He certainly made an impact at Portsmouth, with some exceptional running from left-back and he grabbed a few goals as well, notably in a 1-0 win against Liverpool. Looks certain to leave the relegated club with West Ham (under Avram Grant) or Roma being possibilities.

MANAGER – Rabah Saadane

Little is known of the 64 year old former defender. Vast experience throughout African football and has managed Algeria 5 times. You just can’t get rid of him, so he must be good.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 500/1

PREDICTION – Too crazy, not enough talent. Group stage exit

Overall, it has to be England and the US going through. Next time on 6 Pointer, we take a look at Group D, and more specfically the Germans, but never count out the Aussies or the Serbs.

I leave you with the greatest Algerian never to play for Algeria, Zinedine Zidane