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Leagues: Champions League

Champions League Group B Preview: Sept. 14, 2010

Group B features clubs with varying levels of experience ranging from perennials Olympique Lyonnais to debutants Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC. This group feels a little more predictable than Group A but the battle at the top could get quite interesting.

Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC
Key Signing: Salim Toama. Toama rejoined Hapoel on a two-year contract following spells abroad with Royal Standard de Liège and Greek side Larissa FC. The 31 year-old will bring experience and a steadying influence to the squad.

Key Departure: None noted. Squad news was a little tough to come by for this team.

Player to Watch: Gil Vermouth. The 25 year-old playmaker was Israel’s player of the year last season after racking up 13 goals and 16 assists in 34 league matches. Vermouth scored some of Hapoel’s biggest goals last season including a goal in the title-winning victory over Beitar Jerusalem FC on the final day of the season as well as recording a brace against Bnei Yehuda Tel-Aviv FC in the Israeli State Cup final.

X-Factor: The element of surprise. Hapoel will have to take advantage of the fact that they will be unfancied to even record a point in this group. While their rivals in the group will have scouted them, it does not mean they wont take them lightly. If the other teams in this group come focused and prepared, Hapoel could be handed some heavy defeats.

SL Benfica
Key Signing: Nicolás Gaitán. Benfica splashed out 8 million Euros to bring in another talented Argentine. Gaitán joins from Boca Juniors after scoring 13 times in 66 appearances. The 22-year-old attacking midfielder will be asked to replace some of the creativity lost when Angel di Maria was sold to Real Madrid.

Key Departure: Two big talents were sold by Benfica this summer. It’s hard to say which of Angel di Maria or defensive midfielder Ramires Santos do Nascimento (shortened to Ramires in the press) will be missed more. Looking at the lineup, it appears to me that the holding midfield role can be covered by Javi Garcia or Ruben Amorim. A creative player with di Maria’s pace and skill is not

Player to Watch: Roberto Jiménez Gago (shortened as Roberto). Benfica made another bold swap over the summer, allowing long time first-choice keeper Joaquim Manuel Sampaio da Silva (shortened as Quim) to join rivals Sporting Braga. Last season, Quim played every minute for Benfica as they won the league for the first time in five years. Roberto will need to provide the same stability and organization. Benfica have surrendered 6 goals in their first four matches so things must improve.

X-Factor: Slow start. As alluded to above, Benfica have not gotten off to a great defense of their title despite a good record in their pre-season friendlies. With only 1 win and 3 losses, they currently sit in 13th spot two points above the relegation places. With their domestic woes on their minds, Benfica might be ripe for an upset or two.

Olympique Lyonnais
Key Signing: Yoann Gourcuff. The young playmaker had a rough summer as part of that infamous French squad that flopped so spectacularly. Lyon will pay a total of 22 million in a series of installments so they will certainly hope that Gourcuff can recapture the form that helped Bordeaux win Ligue 1 in 2008-09 and earned him French Player of the Year honours.

Key Departure: None of Lyon’s core players left during the summer but depth players such as Sidney Govou, Mathieu Bodmer and François Clerc were moved on and replacements from the reserve/youth team have been promoted. Two other notable transfers saw Pape Diakhaté brought in on loan as central defence cover and Jimmy Briand was bought from Rennes as further cover at the forward position.

Player to Watch: Lisandro López. The Argentine hitman scored 15 times in 37 Champions League appearances in his career including 6 in 10 games for Porto during the 2008-09 season.

X-Factor: Perpetual failure. With so many talented players having come through the ranks and with so many appearances in the Champions League, it is amazing that Lyon have not yet made it to the final. Their semi-final appearance last season was there best showing ever but they were swept aside 4-0 on aggregate but eventual runners-up FC Bayern Munchen. Can they overcome that disappointment and take that final step?

FC Schalke 04
Key Signing: Raúl González. The all-time leading scorer in Champions League history left his long-time club Real Madrid this summer. After playing in Spain’s La Liga for so long, it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the Bundesliga.

Key Departure: Heiko Westermann. I was surprised to see this Schalke let such a versatile player go. Westermann can play any defensive position and has also played as a defensive midfielder on occasion. He was transferred to Hamburger SV for a reported fee of 7.5 million Euros.

Player to Watch: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Huntelaar was shuffled off by AC Milan after they had signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Barcelona. Schalke swooped in with a 13 million Euro bid and signed the Dutch striker with the hopes that he can regain his goal scoring form. After scoring 76 times in 92 appearances for Ajax, Huntelaar has only scored 15 times in his 45 appearances for Real Madrid and AC Milan. I don’t think he ever received much opportunity at either club. Given regular playing time and learning from a master poacher like Raul, Huntelaar could prove to be a bargain.

X-Factor: Back 4. Schalke have looked shaky at the back to start the season and have yet to record a win. They sit in the relegation zone after 3 matches having conceded 6 goals and scoring only 2. Clearly there is much work to be done on the training ground in the coming weeks.

Pre­dicted Order of Fin­ish:
1) Olympique Lyonnais
2) FC Schalke 04
3) SL Benfica
4) Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC

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