The group stage kicks off in about two weeks so until then I will be doing previews of the group stage in alphabetical order. I wanted to wait until after the transfer window had closed so that I would be able to judge the rosters fairly. There were some last minute moves that could have a huge impact on certain teams (e.g. Berbatov to Manchester United) and other moves that were rumoured to be happening that did not (e.g. Robinho to Chelsea FC) which could also affect club’s fortunes. Enough preamble, on to the analysis!
CFR 1907 Cluj
How They Got Here: 2007-08 Liga 1 Champions — automatic berth to group stage
Star Performer: MF Eugen Trica — though he is 32, he is ranked as one of the very best players in the Romanian League. He has vast experience which includes some UEFA Cup experience with CSKA Sofia.
Key To Success: Like most underdog teams, Cluj will need to make the most of their home matches and try not to be blown out in away games.
Transfer Ins: FW Yssouf Koné (Rosenborg)
Transfer Outs: FW Antonio Semedo (Steaua Bucharesti), LB Mikael Dorsin (Rosenborg)
Talking Points: There has been a change of manager already — never a good sign. Maurizio Trombetta, a former Romanian international defender, has replaced Ioan Andone as the club look to improve on a poor start to their Romanian Liga 1 campaign. The loss of Portuguese forward Antonio Semedo will not help matters as he contributed several timely goals to their winning campaign last season. Argentinians Sebastián Dubarbier, Sixto Peralta and Diego Ruiz, brought in during the January 2008 transfer window, will be expected to make up the loss of offence from Semedo’s transfer.
Cluj were the first team in the history of Liga 1 to field a starting XI without a single Romanian player. There are some Romanian players on the squad but the majory of the squad are from Portugal, Africa and South America. The club has developed a talent development partnership with Portuguese giants Benfica.
Predicted Finish: Last place — they might nick a couple of points but I don’t see them having enough to edge out the other clubs in this group.
How They Got Here: 2nd place in English Premier League — automatic berth to group stage
Star Performer: Michael Essien. The engine of the team. This guy can and does play everywhere and does well no matter role he’s asked to play. Often overlooked on this star-studded squad but I feel he’s their MVP.
Key To Success: Staying focused and not taking any of these squads lightly. The other key will be to keep their
Transfer Ins: MF Deco (Barcelona), Jose Bosingwa (FC Porto)
Transfer Outs: MF Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Claudio Pizarro (Werder Bremen), Steve Sidwell (Aston Villa), Claude Makelele (Paris St Germain), Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart), Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City), Andriy Shevchenko (AC Milan)
Talking Points: What does it mean for Chelsea to have been outbid in the transfer market by the newfound wealth of Manchester City? New manager Luiz Felipe Scolari had to have been looking forward to the club acquiring Robinho but City, backed by the deep pockets of the Abu Dhabi United Group, splashed a British record transfer fee of about £32m to acquire the Brazilian forward.
Chelsea only have Nicolas Anelka, the oft-injured Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou as experienced strikers. I say only somewhat hesitantly as that is a decent stash of talent for any squad. I can see where Chelsea would have wanted another player around to cover injuries/suspensions. There are a lot of fixtures and it will be interesting to see how Chelsea fare as the season wears on. I suspect they will lean heavily on their star-studded and over-packed midfield. They may even need to adopt a system similar to what Manchester United and AS Roma have played in the past, which resembles a 4-6-0 at times.
Predicted Finish: First in group, advancing to the knockout phase. A favourable draw considering their circumstances. It will allow Chelsea a chance to load up another striker come January.
FC Girondins de Bordeaux
How They Got Here: 2nd place in Ligue Une — automatic berth to group stage.
Star Performer: I may be indulging in some hyperbole here but Bordeaux’s new loan signing Yoann Gourcuff is going to be a fantastic player for the squad. He has already demonstrated his skill and leadership in a 2-1 French league win over Caen. The 22-year-old Gourcuff, scored once and generally controlled the midfield with his pace, vision and technical ability. The hope is that Gourcuff and Argentine striker Fernando Cavenaghi can form a lethal 1-2 punch.
Key To Success: Like Cluj, Bordeaux will need to make the most of their home matches and tighten up a bit defensively both at home and in away matches. The back four has been fairly sound in domestic action but will be tested to a higher degree by Chelsea and Roma’s attacking power. That said, they must remain positive in their approach and not simply sit back in a defensive shell that will let the ‘bigger’ clubs overrun them.
Transfer Ins: MF Yoann Gourcuff (on loan from A.C. Milan), LB Placente (San Lorenzo)
Transfer Outs: Johan Micoud (out of contract), Jemmali (Grenoble), Alonso (Monaco), Bregerie (Metz), Manga (Angers), FW Youssef Sekour (Sedan), Ecuele Manga (Angers), DF Paul Baysse (Sedan)
Talking Points: Will relative rookie boss Laurent Blanc be able to keep up with the master tacticians he’s going to encounter in this group? Both Scolari and Spalletti have deeper sides so Blanc will have to get his game plans spot on in order to try and finish higher than third.
Predicted Finish: 3rd Place, UEFA Cup berth
How They Got Here: 2nd place in Serie A — automatic berth to group stage
Star Performer: When it came to Champions League nights, Mirko Vucinic was a key figure as he was often asked to play in a variety of roles. He was used as a winger in Roma’s 4-2-3-1 system. Totti often plays as the lead forward but in a unique fashion. He is used as a playmaker and relies on the 3 to make intelligent runs in order to create channels for Totti to distribute to. Vucinic can also play as the lone forward if called upon. His versatility and goal-scoring (4 goals in 8 CL appearances) will be vital to Roma’s success this season.
Key To Success: Moving away from their over-reliance on talisman and captain Francesco Totti. When Totti is healthy, he is still capable of scoring plenty of goals for this squad. However, when he’s not in the lineup, no one seems prepared to step up and take the team by the collar and lead them forward. Totti should return soon from his ACL injury that required him to have surgery in the off-season.
Transfer Ins: DF John Arne Riise (Liverpool), MF/FW Julio Baptista (Real Madrid), MF Jeremy Menez (Monaco)
Transfer Outs: MF Mancini (Internazionale), MF Ludovic Giuly (Paris St Germain), DF Matteo Ferrari (out of contract),
Talking Points: With Mancini gone, can new signing Jeremy Menez step up and fill the playmaker role? Menez is the youngest ever scorer of a hat trick in Ligue 1, the youngest ever winner of Ligue 1′s Player of the Month award and like most other young talented French footballers has had the albatross hung around his neck — he has been compared to Zinedine Zidane.
Cicinho recently had a training ground row with Luciano Spalletti…will team chemistry be an issue?
Predicted Finish: 2nd in group, advancing to the knockout phase