Champions League Group C Preview
FC Basel 1893
How They Got Here:Basel beat Vitoria de Guimaraes (also known as Vitoria SC) 2-1 on aggregate in the third round of qualifying. Basel won the Swiss League last season.
Star Performer: MF Benjamin Huggel. An experienced member of the Swiss national squad, Huggel is a strong presence in central midfield. In his first stint with Basel he would get forward and pot the odd goal but now into his 30s, Huggel plays a more conservative game and is a steadying influence in the team. That said, he did score
a couple of important goals for Basel during qualification.
Key To Success: Basel will not be counting on any points from the matches against Barcelona so they must make the most of their other group games. If they maintain their 4-1-4-1 system and play positively against Sporting and Shakhtar they could steal valuable points from those clubs. One of the important parts of their campaign will be how new recruits Jurgen Gjasula or Marcos Gelaber will settle in. One of them will need to replace right midfielder David Degen’s contributions from last season. Degen
Players In: DF Behrang Safari (transfer from Malmo FF), DF David Abraham (transfer from Gimnàstic de Tarragona), MF Jürgen Gjasula, MF Marcos Gelabert (transfer from FC St. Gallen)
Players Out: DF Daniel Majstorovic (transfer to AEK Athens), DF Koji Nakata (released), ST Vratislav Lokvenc (loan deal expired), MF David Degen (loan deal expired)
Talking Points:Majstorovic was a massive loss for Basel. Not only was he a solid presence in central defence but he also had a phenomenal scoring record. In 85 appearances for Basel he scored 25 times, mostly scoring with his head from set-pieces as well as taking penalties. A neat little fact I came across while researching this article, Majstorovic reportedly speaks seven languages: Serbo-Croat, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, German and English. He is now captain at AEK but unfortunately they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the last qualifying round.
One thing that has been hampering Basel lately is that a lot of their promising players end up leaving for the German Bundesliga. Among those that have left are Philipp Degen, Ivan Rakitic and Hakan Yakin.
Predicted Finish:I don’t envision good things for Basel. This is a tough grouping for them and I feel they will finish last in the group.
How They Got Here:Finished 1st in Ukrainian League; defeated Dinamo Zagreb 5-1 on aggregate in 3rd qualifying round.
Star Performer:DF Tomas Hubschman. After helping Sparta Prague make the Champions League group stages on a couple of occasions, the Czech central defender has helped shore up the Donetsk backline and led them to three league titles and two domestic cup victories since tranferring in 2004.
Key To Success:
Players In: ST Marcelo Moreno (transfer from Cruizero), DF Mykola Ischenko (transfer from FC Karpaty Lviv), GK Rustam Khudzhamov (transfer from FC Kharkiv)
Players Out: GK Jan Lastuvka (loan to West Ham United), MF Zvonimir Vukic (transfer to FC Moscow), ST Oleksiy Byelik (transfer to FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk)
Talking Points:Like many other clubs in ‘smaller’ leagues, Shaktar has lost a number of their top performing players to richer clubs over the last few seasons. Elano, Nery Castillo and Julius Aghahowa are some of the players to leave Shaktar in the past couple of seasons. Seeing what Elano has done for Manchester City it’s hard not to think that Shaktar could have an even stronger stake in this group with him still in their side.
However, the club still does have a number of top players in the side and should challenge for either second or third. Shaktar, though a Ukrainian-based club has an increasing number of foreign, and in particular Brazillian, players. For example, this past weekend Shaktar defeated FC Illychivets Mariupil 3-0 in Ukrainian Cup action with the goals coming from the Brazilian trio of DF Ilsinho, MF Jadson and ST Luiz Adriano. While there are more foreign players in the squad, it’s not all doom and gloom as four Shaktar players were in the recent Ukraine squad for World Cup qualifying: Andriy Pyatov, Oleksandr Kucher, Vyacheslav Shevchuk and Yevhen Seleznyov.
Predicted Finish:As I mentioned, I think Shaktar should finish at least in the UEFA Cup spot and may even challenge Sporting for 2nd.
How They Got Here:Finished 3rd in La Liga; defeated Wis?a Kraków 4-1 in the 3rd qualifying round.
Star Performer:Xavi. This is a player I’ve touted and heaped praise on since the inception of this website. Long underrated, Xavi is finally starting to get some of the acclaim from the mainstream media that he deserves. Named Best Player by UEFA at Euro 2008, Xavi’s passing and composure in the center of midfield are critical to the dominant ball possession that Barcelona typically enjoy.
Key To Success:Getting the new players integrated into the squad quickly. Barcelona are in a rebuilding phase and the squad has seen turnover at some key positions. It was a busy summer for the Catalans as they sold about 50m Euros worth of player rights and bought about 88m Euros worth. Barca have started their domestic campaign with a loss and a draw. Another draw or loss in their opening Champions League match may shake the confidence around the team and put pressure on new coach Josep Guardiola very early. A win will settle the squad and let them go on and play with a more relaxed attitude.
Players In: DF Dani Alves (transfer from Sevilla), MF Alexander Hleb (transfer from Arsenal), MF Seydou Keita (transfer from Sevilla), DF Gerard Piqué (transfer from Manchester United), DF Henrique (transfer from Palmeiras)
Players Out: DF Edmílson (transfer to Villarreal), FW Giovani dos Santos (transfer to Tottenham Hotspur), MF Deco (transfer to Chelsea), FW Ronaldinho (transfer to AC Milan), DF Oleguer (transfer to Ajax)
Talking Points:The biggest story, at least to start the year, will be the departure of Ronaldinho and how Barca perform without their talisman. Many will say that Lionel Messi is now the leader up front but thus far he has been injured for large stretches of the past few seasons. If he can remain healthy then I could see him making up for some of Ronaldinho’s offensive output. Bojan Krkic is another young star to keep an eye on. With his pace and dribbling skill he should see even more first team action this season.
Barca have made their worst start to a season in quite some time and their recent form has been poor. After losing the second leg in the qualifier against Wisla Krakow in Poland, Barca then failed to score against Numancia on the opening weekend of La Liga and only managed to score via a penalty kick against Racing Santander this weekend. Barca’s sharpness around the opposition goal will need to improve if they are to better last season’s domestic and Champions League records.
Predicted Finish:First place. Barcelona will have to struggle massively to finish lower in this group.
Sporting Club de Portugal
How They Got Here:Finished 2nd in Portuguese Liga — automatic berth to group stage
Star Performer:MF Joao Moutinho. Judging by the number of rumours and the dollar amounts being quoted for the 22-year-old playmaker, Sporting are lucky to have retained his services for another season. In 36 total appearances last season, Moutinho scored 7 times and created many more goals for his teammates. Moutinho turned down a move to Everton, who had bid in the neighborhood of £12m for his rights, and is thought to be more interested in going to Italy or Spain than England.
Key To Success: Like most of the other clubs in this group, it’s a case of making hay against the other teams in the group and anything gained from the two matches against Barcelona will be a major bonus.
Players In: MF Fabio Rochemback (free transfer from Middlesbrough), ST Helder Postiga (transfer from FC Porto), DF Leandro Grimi (transfer from AC Milan)
Players Out: DF Marian Had (end of loan from Lokomotiv Moscow), ST Milan Purovic (loan to Kayserispor)
Talking Points:This Sporting’s their third successive season in the UEFA Champions League group stage but they have yet to secure a place in the knockout rounds. Sporting exited last season’s competition before Christmas after finishing third in their section, behind Manchester United and AS Roma.
Sporting have one of the best sports academies in the world and in recent years have produced some of the games top players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani (now with Manchester United), Simão Sabrosa (now with Atlético de Madrid) and Hugo Viana (now with Valencia) The current squad boasts many academy graduates including Joao Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, Yannick Djaló and several others. It is a source of strength for the club and a nice bonus this season is that they have not suffered any major losses in the senior XI. They’ve retained their core and added a few veteran players such as Helder Postiga.
Predicted Finish:I think this is Sporting’s best chance to advance and if they can defeat Shaktar in both matches, they should finish 2nd.