Group C contains annual challengers Manchester United, a Valencia team facing life post-David Villa, a Rangers side facing transition and newcomers Bursaspor who won the Turkish League for the first time in their history.
Manchester United FC
Key Signing: Javier Hernández Balcázar (commonly known as “Chicharito”). The 22 year-old reminds me a little of Michael Owen in the way he makes intelligent runs and can turn defenders inside-out in close quarters. He will offer them depth and a different element coming off the bench. Manchester United were clever in wrapping up his transfer before his breakout performance for Mexico at the 2010 World Cup.
Key Departure: No core players from last season’s squad departed. Several youth/reserve players have been sent out on loan while goalkeeper Ben Foster has been sold to Birmingham after seeing his chances at the backup/future #1 role diminish.
Player to Watch: Park Ji-Sung. Often overlooked in this star-laden lineup, Park is able to play anywhere across the midfield and his discipline, work rate and movement off the ball all ensure that he will play a role at some point for Sir Alex’s team.
X-Factor: Wayne Rooney’s health. This is a two-pronged problem. Rooney does have a history of injury but his recent off-field problems may also play a part in his performance this year. Last season’s haul of 34 goals in 44 appearances will be tricky to replicate even without the distractions. If he is not producing at the same rate, other players such as Dimitar Berbatov and Nani must step up their production. When Rooney is on his game, United have one of the world’s top players to rely upon and he has shown that he can carry them far.
Key Signing: Roberto Soldado. It would be cruel to expect Soldado to replace the goals that David Villa took with him to Barcelona. Villa had scored 108 times in his 166 league appearances for Valencia and is one of Europe’s elite strikers. However, if Soldado can repeat or improve on his 16 goals in 26 appearances from last season, Valencia will at least have some base upon which to achieve results. As we’ll talk about in the next section other departures point towards a different style of play for Valencia this season.
Key Departure: The Davids. Losing both Villa and Silva in the same off-season is a major blow for Valencia though the 70 million Euros will go some way to easing their financial concerns. The club debt had climbed to over 500 million Euros and work on their new stadium, Nou Mestalla, has been halted. While the sales might be a success in the boardroom, on the field the departing Davids took with them some of the major creative force that had driven Valencia back into the Champions League last season. Villa’s scoring prowess we have already discussed. David Silva contributed 10 goals and 15 assists in 36 appearances last season and had he stayed would have certainly eased the loss of David Villa. With both gone, Valencia will have to look at a more conservative style of play to be successful in this season’s Champions League.
Player to Watch: Juan Mata. Much rumoured to also be on the way out to alleviate the debt load, this young star remains with Valencia for a while longer. His pace, vision, and goalscoring ability will give the side some spark. He had a strong season in 2009-10 with 11 goals and 13 assists (second in La Liga to FC Barcelona’s Xavi).
X-Factor: Matches v Rangers. I feel this group will come down to a battle between Valencia and Rangers for second place. Valencia simply need to defeat Rangers at home and a minimum of a draw in Glasgow. If they can avoid being upset at home and get something away, they will be in great shape to make the Round of 16.
Key Signing: James Beattie. After the departures of steady goal scorer Kris Boyd, Beattie has a tall order on his hands to match or come close to Boyd’s production rate. 101 goals in 143 appearances for Boyd will be somewhat of a measuring stick but if Beattie can produce timely goals and form an effective partnership with Kenny Miller or Kyle Lafferty, the signing will have been a success.
Key Departure: Certainly the aforementioned Kris Boyd would rank high on Rangers supporter’s minds but I think the departure of central midfielder Kevin Thomson will be felt at the club. Thomson was a key contributor to Rangers winning their second title in a row in the 2009-10 season.
Player to Watch: Kenny Miller. The Scottish international has been red-hot with 6 goals from the first 4 SPL matches. Rangers will be hoping his run of form carries on into their Champions League campaign.
X-Factor: Walter Smith. Smith signed a new one-year deal to continue as Rangers manager throughout the 2010-11 campaign, stating that it will be his last within football. This could work one of two ways for Rangers FC. Either the players will want to perform for Smith to give him a good send-off or he could be viewed as a “lame duck” manager and the team could falter as rumours about a new manager begin to circulate.
Key Signing: Gokcek Vederson (born Wederson Luiz da Silva Medeiros). This Brazilian-born central defender received Turkish citizenship in March 2007 and took his Turkish name from Melih Gokçek, the mayor of Ankara and the honorary president of Ankaraspor where he was playing at the time. He gained valuable Champions League experience in his time with Fenerbahce and will be expected to provide some guidance to this younger, inexperienced side.
Key Departure: Tomas Zapotocny. The veteran centre-back was recalled by Besiktas from Bursaspor after a successful loan spell last season. His experience and the occasional goal will be missed.
Player to Watch: Ozan Ipek. The 23 year-old midfielder is one of the rising stars of Turkish football. Mostly known as a creative, goal-scoring winger, Ipek was deployed as a central midfielder for Bursaspor before the arrival of manager Ertugrul Saglam. Saglam moved Ipek to the left side of midfield and he flourished in the new role. It had been rumoured earlier in 2010 that Chelsea had scouts watching Ipek but for now he remains a Bursaspor player.
X-Factor: Confidence. This was a tough draw for Bursaspor. With a 4-0 home defeat to Valencia already on the books, I simply hope that they do not let Champions League defeats like this affect their domestic campaign.
Predicted Order of Finish
1) Manchester United FC
2) Valencia CF
3) Rangers FC