This has the makings of a group of death and so it is no surprise that the big story in the group will be how the managers perform. Each will have a big impact on their sides chances, some more than others. Let’s examine each side before I predict who moves on and who will go home.
Tottenham Hotspur FC
Key signing: William Gallas. While the Rafael Van der Vaart signing should not be understated, Gallas gives Spurs a defender with extensive Champions League experience. The squad is a bit thin at the central defender spot so this was an important signing to be sure.
Key departure: None of note. Spurs held all the key members of their squad from last season despite continued speculation about forwards Robbie Keane and Roman Pavluychenko as well as midfielders David Bentley and Jamie O’Hara.
Player to Watch: Gareth Bale. Bale has started to blossom into the player I thought he would become when he first emerged with Southampton as a left fullback. I always felt he was a dynamic player going forward but was not well suited for the defensive responsibilities. Now playing as a left midfielder, he has been freed up to take on defenders and scored a stunning volley against Stoke City.
X-Factor: Injuries. Who will step up to score the goals now that Jermain Defoe has been ruled out for three months with ankle ligament damage? Key defender Michael Dawson will also miss the first few fixtures and could be out for up to two months after spraining his left medial knee ligament while on England duty.
Key Signing: Marc Janko. After scoring 75 times in 108 appearances for Red Bull Salzburg, Janko will now be expected to replace the goals that former striker Blaise N’Kufo provided. n’Kufo departed for Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders in the summer transfer window.
Key Departure: Steve McLaren. The much-maligned former England national team coach did a great job in his two seasons at the Enschede-based club. Expectations have been set high and pressure will be on his replacement, Michel Preud’homme. Preud’homme has a strong pedigree in the game, having been a top goalkeeper for club and country (including being named the best goalkeeper at the 1994 World Cup) and leading Standard Liège to its first Belgian Championship in 25 years as a manager.
Player to Watch: Bryan Ruiz González (often referred to as just Bryan Ruiz). The 25 year-old forward is a versatile weapon in Twente’s arsenal. Ruiz can play in any position up front or as an attacking midfielder. His pace and trickery allow him to attack from wide areas yet remain a lethal goal threat. He scored
X-Factor: Home cooking. It might sound a little simplistic or contrite but Twente must make the most of their home games. They have had a strong record at home domestically and they must extend into European competition if they hope to have some success. To expect them to captures points away to Inter or Werder Bremen might be asking too much for a club with such little experience at this level.
Note: UEFA.com has an interesting multi-part video feature about this relatively ‘new’ club.
FC Internazionale Milan
Key Signing: There were no major signings for Inter this summer but they did recall a number of younger players who had been out on loan at various clubs and they did retain some of the players rumoured to be moving on such as fullback Maicon.
Key Departure: Jose Mourinho. As with FC Twente, the managerial change is the big story for Inter. Mourinho led the club to Champions League glory last season and the lure of managing Real Madrid proved to be too strong for the Portuguese mastermind. Mourinho’s style may not be flashy but it certainly was effective. Inter brought in Rafa Benitez who had mixed results in his Liverpool tenure. Champions League winners in 2005, the club crashed to seventh place last season and a change seemed the best result for both parties. If you asked me to pick who I’d hire as a manager, I’d say Mourinho over Benitez without hesitating. While I am not one of them, many are saying that only a repeat win of the Champions League and Serie A will silence the critics. A tall order to be sure.
Player to Watch: Wesley Sneijder. One of my favourite players to watch so perhaps this choice is biased. The Dutch playmaker does all the little things right, has great vision, is a precise passer of the ball and pops up to score the big goals for both club and country. While he is more prolific for his country, Sneijder did score 3 times in 11 Champions League matches last season.
X-Factor: Avoiding the shadow of last season. Inter will be reminded at every turn of the magnificent success they enjoyed last season. This can work for them or against them — they can either take great confidence from being the reigning champs or they can buckle under the pressure of trying to repeat. It will be up to Rafa Benitez to make sure they react in the right way.
SV Werder Bremen
Key Signings: Marko Arnautovic. The 21 year-old Austrian joined from FC Twente after an earlier move to Internazionale fell through. Arnautovic can play as a winger or striker and has already shown glimpses of his potential by scoring a brace and adding an assist in a 4-2 win over FC Koln in the second game of the Bundesliga season.
Key Departure: Mesut Ozil. One of the young stars of the thrilling German World Cup team, Ozil left for Real Madrid in the summer. Many other big clubs were rumoured to have been interested but ultimately I think Madrid have landed a bargain if the reported 15 million Euro fee is accurate.
Player to Watch: Mikael Silvestre. With centre-back Per Mertesacker out for the next month with a broken eye socket and Naldo also missing with a knee injury, this will mean that the former Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre will start in defence. His experience will be vital to any success Werder will have in the early group games.
X-Factor: Thomas Schaaf, who spent his entire playing career, and so far his coaching career, with Werder Bremen. Schaaf took the job in 1999 with Werder facing relegation and since has brough stability and success to the club winning the German Cup on two occassions as well as winning the league in the 2003-04 season. Werder have also been regular qualifiers for the Champions League, missing out in 2008-09 but they still played in the UEFA Cup that season. Schaaf has the experience to guide his team through to the round of 16.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1) FC Internazionale Milan
2) SV Werder Bremen
3) Tottenham Hotspur FC
4) FC Twente