Today we look at Group F which features defending English Premier League champs Manchester United, Roma, Sporting Lisbon and Dynamo Kiev. The group looks like ti should belong to the favourites and it will be a battle between Sporting Lison and Dynamo Kyiv for the UEFA Cup berth.
How they got here: Finished first in English Premier League, automatic berth into group stage of CL
Previous Best Showing: Won the competition in 1998-99, have struggled to get past the semi-final stage since then.
Strengths: Deep midfield
Good mix of veterans and young players
Weaknesses: Too many similar styled players
Currently lacking a reliable centre forward
Injuries mounting in defense
X-Factor: Louis Saha. As alluded to above, Louis Saha is a good centre forward but with his history of injuries United cannot bank on his presence and this becomes an issue for the club. They have struggled to create goals in the early part of the season mostly due to the balance of the squad being too heavily slanted in favour of players who are more comfortable operating wide or from deeper areas in behind the striker. For a Tevez, Rooney, Nani, Giggs or Scholes to be effective, they need a target man up front to work with. Saha can play that role but needs to stay healthy and have a good run in the side.
How they’ll fare: I don’t see them being knocked out but they may not top the group either. A second-place finish and a place in the next round would suffice, anything less would be viewed as a major disappointment.
Big summer signing: There were several but that has had the most impact so far is Nani (signed from Sporting Lisbon for 16-18m euros). Nani has contributed from open play and from set-pieces so far this season but much like Cristiano Ronaldo, he needs a little time to mature before we will see the most out of his potential. He’s a dynamic player and actually looks like the price tag may not be so unreasonable.
Star Performer: Paul Scholes. Scholes can be a frustrating player at times but his return to health last season was one of the reasons United marched to the Premier League title. He’s very calm and intelligent on the ball, rarely wastes possession in the first two-thirds of the field and can score a few goals as well. Those qualities are more enough to overlook the few shanked shots and poorly timed challenges that also seem to be a part of his regular match performance. Having Owen Hargreaves or Michael Carrick as a partner in central midfield has allowed him to venture forward more often and complement the wingers.
Keep an eye on: Cristiano Ronaldo. Last season’s standout performer for United has gotten off to a slow start this year, largely thanks to a three-match ban for a headbutt on Portsmouth’s Richard Hughes. If he can begin to regain last season’s form, he will add another dimension to the United attack. He has yet to show the same form in the Champions League that he has produced in the Premier League and this would be the next step for the player to establish himself as one of the top players in the game.
How they got here: Finished second in Serie A
Previous Best Showing: Reached the quarter-finals last season and were thrashed 7-1 by Manchester United in the second leg of the tie. They’ll be looking for vengence.
Strengths: I like the pairing of new-signing Juan (from Bayer Leverkusen) and Phillipe Mexes. Both are agile and positionally sound defenders who can get forward on set-pieces and score a few goals. Doni is also an excellent goalkeeper (one of the tops in Serie A in my opinion)despite the battering he suffered against the Red Devils last season.
Weaknesses: Over-reliance on Totti. As good as he has been, Roma do need to develop other consistent sources of goals. Alberto Aquilani has been grabbing goals from midfield early in the Serie A campaign but Roma could use a dominant centre forward to give themselves some flexibility in attack.
X-Factor: Their early schedule is tough. After facing Dynamo Kyiv, they take on Juventus, Fiorentina and Inter Milan in the Serie A before a tough away game at Old Trafford on October 2nd.
How they’ll fare: If they can grab some points from the early part of the schedule I think they should finish in the top two quite comfortably.
Big summer signing: Ludovic Giuly. After struggling to break into the starting XI at Barcelona despite many solid showings, Giuly will get a chance to showcase his talents at Roma. He’s added pace down the flank and has tons of Champions League experience having reached the finals with Monaco in 2003-04 and was part of the Barcelona team that won the competition in 2005-06
Star Performer: Francesco Totti. Last season’s Golden Boot winner as the top scorer in all of Europe (based on a system of total goals multiplied by a UEFA coefficient). He started his career as a midfield player but last season was used most often as an out-and-out striker. Totti is best known in a role the Italians refer to as the trequartista (or second striker), a compromise role where the player acts as a link between midfield and attack.
Keep an eye on: Cicinho. After failing to impress at Real Madrid, the Brasilian was sold to Roma this summer. He is often compared to another Brasilian wingback, Roberto Carlos, due to his ability to attack. He showed some flashes of his offensive ability at Real but only made 26 apperances in 2 years with the club.
Sporting Lisbon (Though their proper name is Sporting Clube de Portugal, Sporting Lisbon is the term commonly used by most)
How they got here: Finished second in the Portugese Liga – automatically entered into group stage.
Previous Best Showing: They did make it to the finals of the UEFA Cup in 2004-05 but have never gotten past the group stage of the Champions League.
Strengths: Youth academy continues to produce gem after gem
Weaknesses: Squad turnover. Sporting had 14 players leave and 11 players arrive this summer. Not all of the arrivals and departures directly impact the starting XI but some departures, like Nani, will be felt. It might take a little while for the squad to gel but they’ll have to get something from their early games in order to keep the pressure off.
X-Factor: Uncertainty between the sticks. Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovi? has started the season with a couple of clean sheets but he was dropped within weeks of moving to Nantes from Red Star Belgrade so this is an area to keep an eye on. Stojkovi? is currently first-choice goalkeeper for Serbia so the ability is there but he must prove himself against the top clubs. Long-time Sporting keeper Tiago Ferreira is his backup.
How they’ll fare: I think they are unfortunate to be in the same group as Roma and Manchester United. It looks to be a long uphill battle for them and a UEFA Cup berth is the most likely outcome.
Big summer signing: Milan Purovic. Sporting brought in the towering (1.93 m or 6 ft 4 in) Montenegrin forward from Red Star Belgrade at a cost of 2m euros. Purovic gives them a more direct aerial presence if teams try to clog the midfield to slow down their skill players.
Star Performer: João Moutinho. A midfield maestro not unlike Cesc Fabregas or Deco, Moutinho has been handed the captain’s armband this season. He debuted with the club at the age of 17 and has been linked to a number of clubs like Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona and others. Rumour has it that Manchester United were actually scouting Moutinho but became impressed with Nani’s skills and decided to sign him instead.
Keep an eye on: Ronny, fullname Ronny Heberson Furtado de Araújo. In addition to having a catchy name, Ronny, is considered by many to be one of the best young Brasilian players. The ability he has shown with his left-foot from set-pieces has people comparing him to Roberto Carlos. To prove the point, he scored a famous goal against Naval, a thunderous free-kick that reportedly travelled 16.5 metres in 0.28 seconds. That’s roughly 132mph or 211 km/hour !!!
How they got here: Champions of the Ukrainian Premier League; defeated FK Sarajevo in the third round of qualifying
Previous Best Showing: On the strength of Andriy Shevchenko’s scoring exploits, they reached the semi-finals in 1998-99 but were eliminated by FC Bayern Munich
Strengths: Well-organized and tactically sound under coach Anatoliy Demyanenko
Weaknesses: Pape Diakhaté was brought in to address some defensive liabilities but will he be enough when he returns to the lineup?
X-Factor: Serhiy Rebrov. Most famously remembered for his transfer to Tottenham Hotspur for nearly 16 million euros, Rebrov has performed well in both stints at Dynamo Kyiv, scoring many timely goals and even though he is now 33, he may still have a winning goal or two left in his boots.
How they’ll fare: I’m usually up for seeing the underdog get a result but I don’t think it will happen in this group. Kyiv will be fortunate to grab a UEFA Cup spot but I see them finishing last in the group and being eliminated from Europe.
Big summer signing: Pape Diakate. The Senegalese central defender was signed for a rumoured cost of over 6m euros from French club Nancy. Unfortunately, he has sustained a shoulder injury and will be out of action for the next few weeks, including the first two Champions League fixtures for his new club.
Star Performer: Ruslan Rotan. An emerging player for his country, Rotan is a creative midfield player with good pace and vision. I’ve only had the opportunity to watch him play for his country in the World Cup and Euro qualifying but have been impressed by his performances thus far. He has a nagging injury problem and is doubtful for Matchday 1.
Keep an eye on: Michael (full name Michael Anderson Pereira da Silva) is another talented young Brasilian plying his trade overseas. Dyanmo Kyiv picked him up from Palmeiras for a rumoured fee of 3 million euros. He is likely to get a start out wide on the left if Kyiv go with a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 lineup.