What do Werder Bremen, Villareal, Atletico Madrid, Panathinaikos, PSV Eindhoven, Marseille, Dynamo Kyiv, Celtic and Fenerbahce have in common (hint: the answer is not “They’re all in the Champions League group stage which starts today”)? Give up?
Well, all of these clubs are in fact in the group stage of the Champions League, but the answer is that all of them have escaped the group stage at one point or another. Sporting Lisbon, however, is another story. Perennially a contender in the Portuguese top division, Sporting’s European history has been mediocre at best. Discounting its 1964 Cup Winners Cup title, Sporting has been to the Champions League four times and never had a sniff of the knockout stage. Its best showing in the old European Champions Cup was in 1982-83 when it reached the quarterfinals, losing to Real Sociedad.
This year may be different. There may be light at the end of the tunnel for the Lisbon club. Sporting begins group stage play Tuesday at Barcelona, and despite this difficult challenge out of the blocks, Sporting was given a favorable draw. FC Basel 1893 and Shakhtar Donetsk round out Group C, and one would have to figure Barca for clear sailing to the knockout round and Sporting and Shakhtar duking it out for second place.
But how about Sporting for favorites to win the group outright? How about a true underdog pulling a shocker?
All we can judge is today, but today, Sporting might be a more well-rounded deeper club, Lionel Messi not withstanding for Barcelona. Sporting has won its first two matches in the Portuguese Liga and knocked off F.C. Porto for the Portuguese SuperCup to open the season. Sporting had a fruitful offseason, signing Helder Postiga Marco Caneira, Leandro Grimi, and re-signing Fabio Rochemback. They also have had another year of maturity for standout youngsters such as goalkeeper Rui Patricio, fullback Ronny, strikers Yannick Djalo, Rodrigo Tiui.
And speaking of seasoning? Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso were kept from the plentiful pockets of Inter Milan and Manchester United respectively in the offseason. For the first time in a long time, Sporting has managed to keep some homegrown talent from fleeing for greener pastures–at least temporarily.
Sporting is an interesting package for Barcelona to contend with. The Catalans had a tenuous offseason to contend with as new manager Pep Guardiola settled in. Ronaldinho is gone (some may say that’s a plus), and Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Carles Puyol, Thierry Henry, Iniesta and Rafa Marquez remain. Yet, Barca has gotten off to a putrid start under Guardiola, losing its La Liga opener to promoted Numancia and battling Racing Santander to a 1-1 draw this weekend. Worse yet, new signee Alexander Hleb from Arsenal will miss the Sporting match with an ankle injury.
If nothing else for Sporting, this year’s draw is a lot less cluttered with billion-dollar clubs. Last year, Sporting had to contend with Roma and Manchester United, and the year before, Inter and Bayern Munich. In Basel, Sporting sees a familiar opponent having wiped out the Swiss club in the UEFA Cup. Shakhtar, the kings of the Ukraine, are an unfamiliar foe.
Should Sporting gain a result Tuesday and Barcelona continues to be a shaky proposition in a difficult La Liga, Sporting could be poised to surprise and win the group.