Group D has an easy-to-predict first place but the rest of the group is wide open. FC Barcelona are a class above the teams they have been drawn in to Group C with, so complacency is going to be their biggest enemy. The real battle is going to be the home-and-away fixtures between FC Kobenhavn, FC Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos F.C.
Key Signing: David Villa. Villa, as we previously discussed, is one of the top goal scorers in Europe and will replace some of the pace and predatory instinct that Samuel Eto’o brought to the team a couple of seasons ago.
Key Departure: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I don’t know what has happened behind the scenes so this may turn out to be a positive move for both Zlatan and Barca. I felt that on the field, Zlatan gave Barca a different option than their small, pacy forwards such as Messi and Pedro. However, this Barca side are so domineering in possession that having an option to alter their style of play may be wholly unnecessary.
Player to Watch: Sergio Busquets. I anticipate a big season for Busquets. With Yaya Toure departing for Manchester City, a spot in the starting XI is no longer a question for Busquets. He rose through the Barca ranks and featured in the B team under Josep Guardiola, and was often preferred over Toure last season. Busquets is an intelligent defensive midfielder and like all Barca players, an excellent distributor of passes.
X-Factor: Complacency. Both domestically and in the group stages. Having swept aside the competition with seemingly little effort, Guardiola will have to work hard to get his troops focused for the full 90 minutes of each match. From the look of Matchday 1, he seems to have got his homework correct.
FC Kobenhavn (FC Copenhagen)
Key Signing: Solvi Ottesen. Signed from SonderjyskE for approximately 1 million Euros, Ottesen has already repaid the club by scoring a vital goal in the final round of qulifcation. His goal against Rosenborg B.K secured FC Kobenhavn a place in the group stage.
Key Departure: Atiba Hutchinson. A fixture in central midfield for several seasons, the Canadian international departed for PSV Eindhoven this summer after his contract expired. His experience and vision will be difficult though not impossible to replace.
Player to Watch: Dame N’Doye. The former Panathinaikos forward will get a chance to show his old club what they are missing out on. His headed goal on Matchday 1 carried FCK to an important 1-0 victory over Rubin Kazan. N’Doye is one of the leading goalscorers in the Danish Superliga early in the season with 6 goals in 8 matches.
X-Factor: Shutting the door. Goals against were a problem for FCK during qualification as they narrowly edged out both BATE Borisov and Rosenborg BK. They will need to tighten up defensively in order to progress. The defenders showed glimpses of their potential in the second leg vs Rosenborg and Matchday 1 again showed some positive signs but there were still some anxious moments and sloppy distribution from the back four against Rubin Kazan.
FC Rubin Kazan
Key Signing: Carlos Eduardo Marques (commonly called Carlos Eduardo). After moving from Gremio to German team 1899 Hoffenheim for 8 million Euros, Eduardo helped them reach the Bundesliga and solidify their status as a top-flight club. This summer Russian premier champions Rubin Kazan signed him for a fee of 20 million Euros and hope that his talent will carry them to another league title as well as Champions League success. Most often used as an attacking midfielder, Eduardo is quick, clever on the ball and has already scored some key goals for Rubin in their domestic campaign.
Key Departure: Aleksandr Bukharov. The 25 year-old striker moved to rivals Zenit St. Petersburg after scoring 34 goals in 72 appearances for Rubin. His height, presence in the opposition penalty area and goals will need to be replaced.
Player to Watch: Obafemi Martins. Attempting to replace some of Bukharov’s goals will be Martins’ job. After a moderately successful one-year stint at Wolfsburg, Martins has moved on to the Russian league and will hope to improve his goal-scoring rate.
X-Factor: Keeping their form. Unlike other European football leagues, the Russian Premier League runs from March to November, to avoid playing games under the cold and snowy weather in winter. This will not be a problem early in the group stage but if they progress it will mean that players might lose game sharpness.
Key Signing: Sidney Govou. The former Lyon forward will add some experience to the Greek club. One could see him fitting in quite nicely and forming an understanding with another former French international Djibril Cisse. If these two veterans can develop some chemistry, Panathinaikos could have a formidable strike duo.
Key Departure: None. There were several youth and fringe squad players that were moved on over the summer but none of the core starting XI were lost.
Player to Watch: Sotiris Ninis. The 20 year-old Greek playmaker has been attracting attention from bigger European clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has had little success in recent years finding a replacement for veteran Paul Scholes. Ninis has represented Greece at U21 and senior level including two substitute appearances at the 2010 World Cup in matches against Nigeria and Argentina. Ninis has been described as talented, fast and a good dribbler. While he prefers a central playmaker role he can be utilized as a right-sided midfielder as well.
X-Factor: Mental strength. After taking a battering from FC Barcelona on Matchday 1, the Greek side are going to have to quickly re-group and get back to the task at hand. The defenders in particular will need to improve their performance vastly or the team could quickly be left languishing at the bottom of the group.
Predicted Order of Finish
1) FC Barcelona
2) FC Copehagen
3) FC Rubin Kazan
4) Panathinaikos FC