Tonight see’s the opening games of the 2010/2011 UEFA Champions League competition. With all 4 English teams in the group stages and this being Tottenham’s first crack at Europe the competition will be given a lot of attention over the coming weeks and months. Few things have truly changed around Europe over the summer but the biggest being the defection of Treble winning Champions League stalwart Jose Mourinho’s to Real Madrid. Madrid have not won the competition – for which they are the record title holders – since 2002. A period where Barcelona have asserted themselves as the dominant force in European football despite a mid decade slump.
For the English teams the main talking points are Manchester United’s relatively poor start to the season (fans will say they are slow starters) and the plight of their talismanic striker Wayne Rooney. Chelsea fans will wonder if they can continue their dominant league form into the European arena as they try to right the wrongs of being dumped out by eventual Champions Inter (and Mourinho) at home. Arsenal will try to get over their current injury problems and see if they can continue their impressive record of reaching the knock-out rounds and then with a full squad press on to reach the final once more. Let’s just hope they don’t meet Barca again though.
The main point of interest in England will be the plight of Tottenham as I’ll detail later they’ve been dealt one hell of a group and having made the premier club-competition in shaky circumstances how will they cope with the 2 games a week format that their season will take. This shall be the true test of their squad depth and quality. Too often teams who have made it to Europe have suffered in the League and it will be interesting to see where Redknapp’s priorities lie. Third place in the group would not be a disaster but the Europa League could be an unwelcome distraction having been amongst Europe’s elite.
In the first part of my preview I will break down the groups with where I think each club will wind up, tonight it’s groups A through D.
Tottenham could not have wished for a tougher group on paper. The defending Serie A champions and oh yes, Champions League holders. The Eredivisie Champions, however now dereft of their Manager and finally the team who finished third in the very strong Bundesliga. They took care of a very strong Sampdoria team in the Qualifiers. Tottenham could not have picked a worse group, bar a trip to Camp Nou and the fact they missed 4th tier teams of the ilk of MSK Zilina and the Mighty CFR Cluj. This group should provide some very dire matches with a Rafa Benitez team amongst it but it will be very competitive and possibly the hardest to Judge for my money come December it will be.
1. Internazionale 2. Werder Bremen 3. Tottenham 4. FC Twente or in other words, their seeds. I hope I’m wrong.
Another competitive group but one where the big teams are in poor form; Lyon, Schalke and Benfica have all started their domestic seasons poorly (in France nobody is playing well). Hapoel are the weakest team but a trip to Israel is not every team’s favourite flight. Expect the Israeli team to amass some points at home but be cannon fodder on the road. This group may be about who can play to their standards rather than anyone punching above their weight. For me the final group standings will be.
1. Lyon 2. Benfica 3. Hapoel 4. Schalke
Manchester United have the edge in this group, the 2008 winners are still an elite team and are meeting three teams who are nowhere near their calibre. Valencia have been forced to sell 2 of their prized assets, they still maintain the tricky Juan Mata but without David(s) Villa and Silva they are not the team they once were, domestically though they have started well. Rangers are on a decline similarly to Valencia crippled by debts investment has not been forthcoming a robust, physical side their technical limitations should leave them floundering away from fortress Ibrox. Bursaspor are the unknowns in this group, Turkey is a notoriously hostile place for visiting fans and they seem to take perverse joy in winding up British teams. They’ve started their domestic in rip-roaring form with 4 wins on the trot so they will be no pushovers. Overall this may be one of the more surprising groups beyond the top dogs.
1. Manchester United 2. Bursaspor 3. Valencia 4. Rangers
The biggest gift of a group for Barcelona, despite their inauspicious weekend result if they don’t pick up 12 points from this group would be an Embarrassment. Panathanaikos (the SECOND SEEDS) have started with a Win and Draw. The only interesting part of this group would be the fact that both Rubin Kazan and Kobenhaven are in the middle of their seasons and are performing well at home. Barcelona did suffer a shock defeat in Eastern Europe last season but it is unlikely that this will happen again. It will be competitive to finish second to Barcelona but the quality is not that of the other groups. Even with Barcelona present this is the Group Spurs wish they had.
1. Barcelona 2.Rubin Kazan 3. Panathanaikos 4. Kobenhaven