Group B is home to a surprising Cypriot side, a Greek side in transition, a German side sometimes called ‘everyone’s second team’, and an Italian club with a little something special. Confused? Let me explain!
Anorthosis Famagusta FC
How They Got Here: Became the first and only Cypriot football club to reach the group stages of the Champions League by defeating Olympiacos FC of Greece in the third qualifying round.
Star Performer: ST ?ukasz Sosin. The Polish striker has continued the excellent strike rate he posted in the Polish league and has notched 20 goals in 37 apperances for Anorthosis.
Key To Success: Make the most of their matches against Panathinaikos and perhaps catch Werder on an off-day. The prospects don’t seem great considering their UEFA Cup outing last season when they were worked over by Tottenham Hotspur 7-2 on aggregate.
New signing Traianos Dellas will be called on to play at his best in defence and the hope will be that he can show the “Colossus of Rhodes” form that helped him lead Greece to the 2004 European Championsip win.
Players In: MF Tiquinho (AEL Limassol), DF Traianos Dellas (AEK Athens F.C.), MF Cédric Bardon (Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv F.C.)
Players Out: FW Milan Beli? (AEP Paphos FC), MF William Boaventura (Metallurg Donetsk), Hamad Ndikumana (to AC Omonia)
Talking Points: One positive for the club is that the transfer of Hamad Ndikumana means that his rows with the club’s manager, Temuri Ketsbaia, come to an end, which will be good for overall team spirit. Ketsbaia, while not a seasoned manager (he arrived at Anorthosis in the summer of 2002 as a player-coach) does have playing experience in Greece and England.
Predicted Finish: Last place — the fairy-tale run ends here. I don’t see them edging out Panathinaikos for third.
How They Got Here: Defeated Sparta Prague 3-2 on aggregate in the Third Qualifying Round
Star Performer: Striker Dimitris Salpigidis was one of the most expensive transfers between Greek teams ever. He rewarded them last season by being the third highest scorer in the league with 15 goals. A quick note to say that Marcello Mattos looks to be a potential star as he featured regularly in the same Corinthians side that Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano starred in.
Key To Success: Their defensive record was fine last season, the problem came in scoring goals. Beyond Salpigidis, the rest of the team only managed 29 goals in their domestic league and that’s simply not good enough. When you consider they missed out on the title by only four points, a few more goals might have made all the difference. That fact will only be magnified in the Champions League as the defences they will be facing will be of a higher quality than in their domestic league.
Players In: MF Gilberto Silva (Arsenal), ST Rodrigo de Souza Cardoso (Flamengo), DF Gabriel Rodrigues dos Santos (Fluminense), FW Ante Rukavina (Hejduk Split)
Players Out: DF Nasief Morris (loaned to Recreativo de Huelva), DF Takis Fyssas (retired), FW Manucho (loan return to Manchester United), FW Hélder Postiga (transfer to Sporting Lisbon)
Talking Points: Panathinaikos FC has a tumultuous year finishing third in the Greek Super League (after most supporters believed the team had no option but to win in honor of their centenary) leading fans to protest against the long time owners of the club, the Vardinogiannis family. Just days later, club president and main shareholder, Giannis Vardinogiannis gave a press conference in which he announced that his family would be reducing their share in the club to 50 per cent. How that will affect the team’s on-field fortunes remains to be seen.They did not hesitate to spend money in the offseason and have added a lot of Brazillian flavour to the side but it is actually a Croatian that might be the best buy. Young striker Ante Rukavina has lit it up for his national side at the U21 level and had a decent goal rate with Hejduk Split in the Croatian league. It’ll be interesting to see if he can step his game up another notch.
Predicted Finish: Third place — Bremen and Inter will need to have complete meltdowns for the Greek side to finish higher.
SV Werder Bremen
How They Got Here: 2nd in Bundesliga — automatic berth to Champions League group stage.
Star Performer: Midfield maestro Diego Ribas da Cunha (Diego for short) is the star player on this squad, no question about it. As he goes, so goes the performance of the squad. A stellar passer and clever dribbler, Diego creates many chances as well as scoring a few goals of his own.
Key To Success: Consistency. For every 8-1 win (last season over Arminia Bielefeld) there seemed to be a 2-1 loss (against Bochum) to offset it. In particular they played poorly in the Champions League, only winning two matches (against Real Madrid) and losing the rest including both matches against Olympiacos. The team needs to perform to its best each and every time out as with the losses of talent they have had over the past couple of seasons (Miroslav Klose in particular), they simply cannot cruise through games. The talent is there to win but manager Thomas Schaaf must get the most out of his squad.
Players In: FW Claudio Pizarro (on loan from Chelsea FC), DF Sebastian Prödl (transfer from SK Sturm Graz),
Players Out: FW Ivan Klasnic (transfer to FC Nantes), MF Tim Borowski (transfer to FC Bayern Munich), LB Pierre Womé (transfer to 1. FC Köln)
Talking Points: German club Werder Bremen have been called ‘everyone’s second team’ and with their attractive, attack-minded football featuring the talents of midfield maestro Diego Ribas da Cunha, it’s easy to see why that might be the case. Despite winning the Bundesliga in 2003-04, the club has often failed to continue that success and good starts to the season (such as in the 2006-07 season) have gone for not.
It will be intersting to see how the team compensate for the loss of Tim Borowski who was an integral part of a strong Bremen midfield. The departure of Klasnic, while not perhaps the best from a football point of view, will remove an unhappy figure from the dressing room. Klasnic had fallen out with the team over medical treatment he received for his kidney ailment and accused the team doctor of negligence. A lawsuit was filed and settled out of court but it was best for both parties to have Klasnic move on. He will suit up for Nantes in Ligue 1 this season.
Predicted Finish: Second place — Bremen and Inter will need to have complete meltdowns for the Greek side to finish higher.
How They Got Here: Serie A Champions — automatic berth to group stage.
Star Performer: Julio Cesar. Often overshadowed by Buffon, Cesar is one of the best keepers in Serie A, and perhaps the world as well. He made numerous crucial saves down the stretch last season to help Inter hold onto their lead depsite their dip in form. He has also established himself as first-choice goalkeeper for Brazil ahead of Roma’s Doni and Dida of AC Milan.
Key To Success: Discipline. After dominating their group last season (5 wins, 0 draws, 1 loss), Inter were beaten on aggregate 3-0 by Liverpool and knocked out in the Round of 16. In both legs of the tie with Liverpool, Inter had a player sent off for receiving two yellow cards.
Players In: MF Ricardo Quaresma (bought from FC Porto), MF Mancini (bought from AS Roma), MF Sulley Muntari (bought from Portsmouth)
Players Out: FW David Suazo (loan to Benfica), MF Santiago Solari (end of contract), FW Alvaro Recoba (released)
Talking Points: The biggest change in the off-season was at the manager position. Out went Roberto Mancini, in came ‘The Special One’ Jose Mourinho. Mourinho has already changed the look of the team. Expect to see Inter go with a 4-3-3 look most of the time with Quaresma and Mancini as the width players and Zlatan Ibrahimovi? (or possibly a rejuvenated Adriano) as the target man in the middle. Mourinho has been a little more humble since moving to Inter, a club with a lot of success in their past. He knows he’ll need to do more than talk a good game if he is to be judged favorably by the rabid but knowledgeable Inter fans.
Predicted Finish: First place — they’re just a notch above the other squads in overall quality and that will help them to take first place. They could be devastating in attack if their front trio gel quickly.