The thing that spices up midweek, mid-afternoon days for unemployed sportsbums or just lazy college kids. And it’s pretty damn good entertainment – footy fan or no. It’s the best in the world doing something very few can. Appreciate it.
Last year, Lionel Messi led Barcelona to the title in Rome and now the road to Madrid’s Bernebau begins Tuesday. Can Messi and the Spanish champions repeat or will Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka’s arrival at Real Madrid tip the balance of power? And what about the English? Can they really repeat the impressive feat of putting three teams in the semifinals? And is there a sleeper team who spent wisely and can put a scare in a team or two (Lyon, Wolfsburg and Marseille, I’m looking in your direction)?
Never fear, TheBaker is here.
Juventus, Bayern Munich, Bordeaux and Maccabi Haifa.
Juventus and Bayern Munich are the definitive favorites in Group A. Juve has won the competition twice (1985, 1996) and Bayern Munich four times (a three-peat from 1974-76 and 2005). Italy’s Old Lady has gotten off to a flying start in Serie A (nine goals, three wins in three games) and the additions of Brazilians Felipe Melo and Diego have certainly strengthened the middle of the park. Bayern’s late addition of Arjen Robben from Real Madrid provides the Germans with terrorizing wing attacks. The Dutchman and Franck Ribery showed what they duo can do to a team with their 3-0 demolition of last year’s Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg two weeks ago. Bayern Munich has since added a 5-1 drubbing of Borussia Dortmund on Saturday and seem keen on making an impression on the European stage after a few down campaigns. Bordeaux’s inclusion in Group A is unfortunate for the French champions, who finally provided Lyon with some resistance in Ligue 1. Frenchman Yoann Gourcuff is pure class in midfield and is among Group A’s best. The forward duo of Argentine Fernando Cavenaghi and the lanky, but graceful Moroccan Marouane Chamakh each netted 13 times for Bordeaux last season and should prove a handful. The French champions are currently tied with Lyon atop Ligue 1 with 13 points (4-0-1) and could very well stake a claim for a spot in the competition’s next stage. Maccabi Haifa has been perfect to start the Israeli Premier League season after winning the title a year ago. Forward and team captain Yaniv Katan leads the line and Georgian forward Vladimir Dvalishvili looks like he could ruffle a few feathers. The Israelis route to the group stage definitely got the tournament started in exciting fashion. Click here for the overly dramatized video recap.
F Amauri (Juventus). The Brazilian striker arrived from Palermo in 2008 scored 12 goals in 32 appearances last season, finishing tied for second for the team lead (one behind Alessando Del Piero). The 29-year old is big, powerful and packs a ferocious punch.
M Yoann Gourcuff (Bordeaux). Gourcuff has flourished after leaving AC Milan for a return to French football last season. He scored 16 goals for Bordeaux in all competitions and has already netted four times in this season’s first five games. He’s certainly in the mood and has cemented a stake in Roland Domenach’s French national side. As he goes, so goes Bordeaux. On the negative, he seems to be way too French for my liking.
MF Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus). Sure he’s a midget at 5-foot-4, but that’s what makes him so effective. He’s not quite in the class of Lionel Messi, but Giovinco is a hornet with bags of tricks. (Watch.) He’s 22-years old now, so this is a season many have tabbed for a breakout. Diego’s hamstring injury should provide Giovinco with a starting opportunity Tuesday against Bordeaux.
MF Eyal Golasa (Maccabi Haifa). Just 17-years old, the Israeli scored twice in Champions League qualifying and he’s been tabbed Israel’s top prospect since Liverpool’s Yossi Benayoun. Never shy of shooting from outside the box, Golasa gets extra credit for having a name nearly identical to the breath-taking Spanish “Golaso!” call.
F Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich). The German striker celebrated his 20th birthday with a two-goal substitute appearance in Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing of Borussia Dortmund. Muller has come up through the Bayern system and will play a greater role with the first team this season. Saturday’s performance certainly won’t hurt his playing time chances. Luca Toni is unsettled and Miroslav Klose isn’t fully fit, so there’s a chance for Muller to make an impact in relief of Mario Gomez and Ivica Olic.
Prediction: Juventus and Bayern Munich finish 1-2. Bordeaux qualifies for the Europa League with a third place finish.
Manchester United, Wolfsburg, Besiktas, CSKA Moscow
Last year’s Champions League runner-up, Manchester United definitely will miss Cristiano Ronaldo (as evidenced by an early season loss to Burnley). The Red Devils still have plenty of quality to win Group B, but its doubtful they can hang onto their status of English Premier League champions this season. Replacing Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo with Michael Owen and Luis Valencia is quite the gap in quality. And it has showed. Wolfsburg pulled off a surprise Bundesliga championship effort last season behind the superb play by its striker pairing of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, the Bundesliga Player of the Year in 2008. The duo combined for an absolutely ridiculous 62 goals last season. Dzeko was linked with a move to AC Milan over the summer, but stayed in Germany, much to the delight of Wolfsburg fans. Besiktas made a bold move in bringing Nihat back to Turkey with an eye on the Champions League after a domestic league triumph in 2008. But any chance of a Turkish League title repeat has pissed away. Securing just six points in its first five games in 2009, Besiktas is well off the pace of Fenerbahce and Galatassary, both with a maximum 15 points. CSKA Moscow finished second in the Russian League a year ago and currently sit third in the league after 21 games. That wasn’t good enough for Zico, who was fired as the team’s coach last week and replaced with former Real Madrid, Sevilla and Tottenham manager Juande Ramos. The quality of play by Russian teams has increased in European competition in recent years, and CSKA certainly has a chance in what might be the weakest group.
F Edin Dzeko (Wolfsburg). This guy only seems to score beautiful goals, and he scored a lot of them – 30 in 30 games last season in all competitions for Wolfsburg. Um, that’s friggin’ nasty. He’s strong on the ball, has an uncanny knack of working through traffic and a shot feared by all Bundesliga goalies. The 23-year old Bosnian is among the brightest attacking options in all of European football.
F Wayne Rooney (Manchester United). To say United’s hopes will be shouldered by Rooney is quite the understatement. Rooney is the only Manchester United player to score more than a goal this season. Luckily for the Red Devils, he has five (tied with Jermain Defoe for the EPL lead).
MF Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow). Scoring 13 goals in 38 appearances is a solid strike rate for any player. But for a 19-year old midfielder, it’s outright phenomenal. Named the best young player in the Russian Premier League a year ago, Dzagoev became the youngest outfield player ever to debut for the Russian national team when he appeared in a World Cup qualifier against Germany last October.
D Johnny Evans (Manchester United). The 21-year old central defender started 16 times last season while Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand missed time with injury. He’s earned the trust of Sir Alex Ferguson and the Northern Irishman is becoming a fixture in the United Starting XI.
Prediction: Manchester United and Wolfsburg finish 1-2. CSKA Moscow qualifies for the Europa League in third place.
AC Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille, FC Zurich
How would you like to be Marsielle and FC Zurich fans? Congrats, you’re back in the Champions League. Now enjoy having the two winningest clubs in European competition to contend with (Real Madrid has nine European Cup/Champions League titles, while AC Milan has seven). Milan has gotten off to a mediocre start to the Serie A season and was embarrassed 4-0 by crosstown rivals and defending champion Inter Milan two weeks ago. On an American note, USA defender Oguchi Onyewu joined the Italian giants this summer, but can’t even make the bench. Had he stayed with his former club Standard Liege (who are in Group H), Onyewu might have actually seen the field in Champions League play. Funny how things work out. Everyone knows about the absurd amount of money Real Madrid splashed out this season for the likes of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, but less-heralded additions like Xabi Alonso (from Liverpool) and Esteban Granero (from Getafe) will more than prove their worth. The Galaticos Redux Edition are far too talented not to advance. Marseille finished three points behind Bordeaux in Ligue 1 last season, but scored a league-high 67 goals in 2008. The southern French club added shrewdly to its roster this summer with deals for Argentines Lucho Gonzalez (from Porto) and Gabriel Heinze (from Real Madrid) and Cameroonian stud defensive midfielder Stephane M’bia (from Rennes). If Milan stumbles, which is certainly possible, Marseille could surprise many. FC Zurich are the reigning Swiss champions, but don’t stand much of a chance in Group C. Just a third place showing would be considered a major achievement. Zurich has reached the semifinals twice in the competition, the last time being in the 1976-77 European Cp against Liverpool. To be honest, I only recognize three names off the team’s roster (Swiss national team players Johan Vonlanthen and Xavier Margairaz and Swedish midfielder Dusan Djuric). I don’t know if this is any consolation to Zurich fans, but I had plenty of sex in your beautiful city. Yeah, that probably didn’t help.
MF Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid). Duh. He’s arguably the world’s best player and has scored in each of Madrid’s first two La Liga games this season. He seems rather motivated wearing the famous white shirt of Madrid, and with Portugal struggling in its World Cup qualification efforts, the Champions League might be Ronaldo’s major stage for 2009-10. He’ll shine. He usually does.
F Mamadou Niang (Marseille). Last year’s top scorer for the club with 13 goals, Niang has already netted three times in five games in 2009 and the 29-year old Senegalese star has ascended to Marseille’s captaincy. He’s quick, strong and resilient in front of goal. He’ll provide Milan and Madrid defenders difficulties.
F Pato (AC Milan). The young Brazilian is the lone Milan player to find the net season (he has two goals in three games). He’s been everything he was touted of being when he came over from Brazil, scoring 23 goals in his first season and a half in Serie A. The 20-year’s speed gives defenders fits and his shot equally lethal. He’s a star in the making. With Kaka gone, his goal numbers should only increase.
F Karim Benzema (Real Madrid). Overshadowed by the big money moves for Kaka and Ronaldo, Benzema cost Madrid only $50 million. He terrorized Ligue 1 defenders, scoring 38 times in his final two seasons with Lyon. Benzema has yet to open his Real Madrid account, but it’s only a matter of time. He’s already proven his class in the Champions League with a booming strike against Manchester United in the 2007-08 competition coming to mind.
Prediction: Real Madrid and Marseille finish 1-2. AC Milan qualifies for the Europa League with a third place finish.
Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, FC Porto, Apoel Nicosia
Chelsea allowed a devastating last gasp goal to Barcelona in the second leg of its semifinal matchup that saw the Catalans advance on away goals. The Champions League has been a long suffering affair for Chelsea, but with former AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, it seems the Blues are ready to cash in on their recent Champions League heartbreak. The recent year-long transfer ban won’t make things any easier, but there is still plenty of world class players at Chelsea’s disposal. Madrid’s other team, Atletico, is loaded with attacking talents with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, Simao and Maxi Rodriguez, but proved an inconsistent bunch finishing fourth in La Liga last season. The start to the 2009 campaign hasn’t gone to script, with a 3-0 loss at the hands of Malaga a few weeks ago, but it’s still very early in the Spanish season. Porto, who won the Champions League in 2004 under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, claimed its 24th Portuguese League title a year ago, but Porto lost a good portion of talent in the transfer window. Porto cashed in on Lucho Gonzalez (Marseille), Lisandro Lopez (Lyon), Aly Cissokho (Lyon), Pablo Machado (Toulouse) and Paulo Assuncao (Atletico Madrid) to the tune of $130 million. That’s not usually a good omen for Champions League success. Apoel Nicosa are the Cypriot champions, who earned their way into the group stage by knocking off FC Copenhagen. It’s the first trip to the group stage for Apoel, but if Anorthosis Famagusta taught us anything last year, it’s that you can’t take teams from Cyprus for granted. I still will.
F Didier Drogba (Chelsea). Limited to just 15 EPL starts last year, Drogba netted just five times for the Blues in 2008. Not exactly Drogba-like. It seems Carlo Ancelotti is ready to get the best out of Drogba in this World Cup year. The Ivory Coast striker has scored four goals in Chelsea’s first five games (all wins) and forms a lethal pairing with Nicolas Anelka.
F Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid). Sergio Aguero gets most of the headlines because he’s got more flair and is from Argentina. But his Madrid teammate Forlan scored nearly twice as many goals than Aguero last season (32 to 17), and was La Liga’s leading scorer in 2008. Forlan is far from the player who flamed out at Manchester United. He has set La Liga on fire since arriving in Spain in 2004, scoring 102 goals. Giddy up. Plus, he’s from Uruguay – the homeland of TheBaker’s No. 1 fan, Pablo.
F Falcao (FC Porto). While Porto did a bunch of selling this summer, one positive business move was the acquisition of this 23-year old Colombian. Falcao comes to Porto after spending five seasons with Argentina power River Plate, where he scored 45 times. So far Porto is getting a great return on its purchase as Falcao has scored four goals in the team’s first four league games this season. Goal compilation.
M Keko (Atletico Madrid). Born Sergio Gontan Gallardo, this 17-year old is just plainly Keko. Works for me. The midfielder made his first team debut on Saturday coming on as a substitute in the 63rd minute of a 1-1 draw with Racing Santander. He didn’t do anything entirely distinguishable in his debut other than putting one cross into the box. But for a 17-year old to find his way into the first team just two games into the season, says an awful lot about this kid’s potential.
Prediction: Chelsea and Atletico Madrid finish 1-2. Porto qualifies for the Europa League with a third place finish.
It seems Liverpool saves its best performances for the Champions League and Rafa Benitez has certainly shown he’s capable of leading the Reds on the European stage. Being able to trot studs like Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres certainly doesn’t hurt. The loss of Xabi Alonso hurts, but when former Roma midfielder Alberto Aquillani gets fit, he’ll provide another steadying influence in the middle of the field. Lyon saw its grip on the Ligue 1 crown slip after winning seven consecutive titles. In fact, Lyon didn’t even finish runner-up. So with a third place finish obviously not up to Lyon’s high standards, the team went out and spent lavishly despite the loss of star forward Karim Benzema to Real Madrid. Benzema’s loss was offset with the signings of high-scoring forwards Lisandro Lopez (Porto) and Bafetimbi Gomis (St. Etienne). Brining in attacking fullback Aly Sissoko (Porto) and midfielder Michel Bastos (Lille) were also good moves. Lyon’s new look side demolished Belgian side Anderlecht in the qualifying stage and Les Gones are tied atop Ligue 1 with defending champions Bordeaux five games into the season. Fiorentina is off to an unbeaten start in Serie A (2-0-1) and has definite quality with the likes of Alberto Gilardino, Adrian Mutu, Riccardo Montolivo and Juan Vargas. La Viola can definitely escape Group E, especially with one of the best goalies in the world in Sebastien Frey, but Lyon seems too determined. Debrecen earned its way into the group stage by beating Levski Sofia in the final qualifying stage. The Hungarian champions have a heavily native makeup, which might not be such a bad thing as the Hungarians are surprisingly still in the mix for a World Cup berth. But don’t expect much.
D Glen Johnson (Liverpool). Possibly the best right back in the world right now, Johnson has been an absolute force for the Reds to start the 2009 campaign. The English right back joined Liverpool from Portsmouth over the summer and has proved he’s every bit worth the nearly $30 million Rafa Benitez spent on him. The 25-year old has pace and a wicked shot that has a tendency to produce the sublime. With regular first team football at a world power, Johnson is primed for a huge season especially with this being a World Cup year.
F Lisandro Lopez (Lyon). A proven goal scorer, the 26-year old Lopez already has 13 Champions League goals to his name, including six in 10 games last season for Porto. He’ll be counted on to make up for the loss of Karim Benzema to Real Madrid, and Lopez has already netted twice in three Ligue 1 contests and scored four times against Anderlecht in the two-legged Champions League qualifying round last month.
M Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina). The 24-year old influential midfielder has made nine appearances for the Italian senior national side and wants to force Marcelo Lippi’s hand in naming him to the 2010 World Cup roster. One of the best young Italian talents, Montolivo can be a force in the middle of the park and loves to let shots fly from outside the box. He scored just five times on 95 shots last season, but that number could jump to 10 this year.
F Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina). As a 17-year old, Jovetic scored a hat trick in a 2007-08 UEFA Cup qualifying game for Partizan Belgrade. Now 19, the Montenegrin made 19 starts last season, scoring just two goals for La Viola as he adapted to Italian football. Jovetic’s best is definitely yet to come. A gifted passer, he can play either forward, left wing or attacking midfield. Plus, Fiorentina fans constantly compare him to Queen guitarist Brian May because of his flowing locks. And I’m a sucker for Queen.
MF Miralem Pjanic (Lyon). Another 19-year old starlet from a former Yugoslav republic, Pjanic grew up in Luxemboug and came up through French side Metz’s system. Lyon signed him in 2008 (most likely because of this performance against them) with an eye on him eventually replacing the side’s influential midfield maestro Juninho. With Juninho now gone, Pjanic has assumed the No. 8 jersey and free kick duty that the Brazilian made his own during his time at Lyon. Pjanic, who chose to play for his native Bosnia rather than Luxembourg, wasted little time showing his class with a brilliant free kick goal against Anderlecht in the Champions League qualifying round.
Prediction: Liverpool and Lyon finish 1-2. Fiorentina qualify for the Europa League with a third place finish.
Barcelona, Inter Milan, Dynamo Kiev, Rubin Kazan
Arguably the world’s two best teams in one group is utterly unfair for Dynamo Kiev and Ribin Kazan, but both the Ukrainian and Russian side were always going to be fighting for Europa League spot rather than advancing in the Champions League. Barcelona, the reigning European champions, have plenty to repeat and should be the favorites. Swapping Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Samuel Eto’o will probably be a wash. It’s world class for world class, so both Inter and Barcelona will bear fruits from the move. Inter Milan, winners of four consecutive Serie A titles, has its eyes squarely on a Champions League title. Inter hasn’t won the competition since pulling off back-to-back European Cup titles 1964-65. Can The Special One change Inter’s recent Champions League shortcomings? Perhaps. Dynamo Kyiv had its glory days in the the late 1990s with Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov and reached the semifinals in 1999 and quarterfinals in 1998. The Ukrainian champions brought a 32-year old Shevchenko back to Kiev after the former AC Milan sniper bombed at Chelsea. The defending Russian Premier League champions, Rubin Kazan, currently hold a six-point lead over Spartak Moscow 21 games in this season. Twenty-four year old striker Aleksander Bukharov has scored 11 goals in 15 games this term and leads the frontline for the Russians, while national team mainstay and Rubin Kazan veteran captain Sergei Semak holds down the center of the pitch.
F Lionel Messi (Barcelona). Simply the most exciting thing going in soccer right now. Messi is an absolute delight to watch. He dribbles as if the ball is an extension of his foot and he’s constantly buzzing around opposing defenses. He was integral in leading Barca to the crown last year, and he’ll be at the forefront again this go-round.
MF Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan). If Inter was missing one thing from its roster it was a creative, crafty playmaker in the middle of the field. And that’s if you were looking far too hard for a chink in the armor. Well, the addition of Sneijder from Real Madrid certainly puts that to bed. During Holland’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland a week ago, the announcer best described Sneijder as a fox. I couldn’t agree more. He continuously pops up in dangerous positions and plays some of the most audacious passes you’ll see in the game. Absolute class and poised for a dynamic season.
MF Alejandro Dominguez (Rubin Kazan). A key player in Zenit St. Petersburg’s run to the UEFA Cup title in 2008, Dominguez rejoined Rubin Kazan where he scored 21 times in 63 games from 2004-07. In 17 matches played this season, the Argentine playmaker has netted an impressive 13 goals and is the guiding force in Kazan’s attack, which has scored a league-high 47 times this season (nine better than second place Spartak Moscow).
D Davide Santon (Inter Milan). Only 18-years old, Santon showed flashes of brilliance in his 14 starts last season at left back. He’s making Jose Mourinho think long and hard about entrusting a defending position to a teenager, but this kid is that good. He’s already made an appearance for the Italian senior national side, which is desperate to infuse some youth to an aging side for next year’s World Cup.
F Mario Balotelli (Inter Milan). A handful as much for opponents as he his his own manager, Balotelli is the proverbial “me” player. But the kid backs it up with inspiring and audacious play at times. The 19-year old is tall, strong, fast and is one of the most confident players on the ball I’ve seen in a while. Balotelli seems hellbent on trying to force his way into Marcello Lippi’s Italian national team picture. If the Azzurri doesn’t come calling, Balotelli could be tempted to pledge his allegiance to Ghana, though he’s always declared his desire to play for Italy (despite chants from Juventus fans claiming “a black Italian does not exist”). A tad harsh as far as trash talk goes.
Prediction: Inter Milan and Barcelona finish 1-2. Rubin Kazan qualifies for the Europa League with a third place finish.
Sevilla, Stuttgart, Rangers, Unirea Urziceni
There’s no shame in finishing third in La Liga behind the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Sevilla managed the feat despite scoring just 54 goals all season (Barcelona scored 105). That low total is a bit surprising considering Sevilla employs the likes of Luis Fabiano and Federic Kanoute. Kanoute did his part providing 18 goals, however Fabiano, a starter for the Brazilian national team for much of 2009, chipped in with just eight tallies. Still ever dangerous, Fabiano should be a lock for double-digit goals this year. The addition of former Real Madrid striker Alvaro Negredo, he of the 19 goals for Almeria last term, should help. Stuttgart has stumbled to open the 2009 Bundesliga campaign, allowing more goals than they’ve scored through five games. Luckily for the Germans, who finished third last season domestically, Group G isn’t too difficult. Talent-wise Stuttgart should go through, but those Scots at Ibrox can always be tricky. Rangers won the Scottish Premier League title last season on the strength of their 15-2-2 home record. American Maurice Edu is still rehabbing back from a knee injury, but when healthy, we should see him make an appearance or two in the latter portions of the group stage. I was relieved to find out Unirea Urziceni wasn’t some new penis disease. Instead, it’s the name of the first-time Romanian champions and first-time entrants in the Champions League. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about this team other than its most threatening player is Portugal’s Antonio Semedo, otherwise known as “The Black Panther.” That’s all I got.
F Cacau (Stuttgart). Stuttgart’s sale of Mario Gomez to Bayern Munich is obviously a big blow. Much of the pressure to replace Gomez’s 24 goals will fall on Cacau and Russian import Pavel Pogrenyak. Cacau’s seven goals a year ago tied him second on the team with Sami Khedira, a young promising player. Brazilian born, Cacau acquired a German passport and was drafted into Joachim Low’s German national side after an impressive campaign last season.
GK Allan McGregor (Rangers). Rangers allowed a league-low 28 goals in 38 SPL games last year and if they plan on progressing, that form will have to remain because offensive firepower isn’t exactly the Scottish champion’s forte. McGregor had rebounded from being banned from Scottish national team duty after a drunken night out following a Scotland World Cup qualifier in March. He’s Rangers undisputed No. 1 between the sticks and will be vital in keeping the blue half of Glasgow happy.
MF Timo Gebhart (Stuttgart). The Germans made a transfer coup this summer capturing 21-year old Zdravko Kuzmanovic from Fiorentina. But the 20-year old Gebhart is keeping the Serbian attacker on the bench through the first five games of the 2009 Bundesliga season. Gebhart began last season with 1860 Munich of 2.Bundesliga, the German second division. he scored five times in 13 starts for 1860 Munich, but transferred to Stuttgart midseason, making 10 starts. A complete midfielder, Gebhart is comfortable with the ball at his feet and has impressive vision for such a young player.
MF Diego Perotti (Sevilla). Far less heralded than the other 21-year old Sevilla midfielder named Diego (Capel), Perotti has emerged as the club’s first choice left winger. The Argentine scored the goal that secured Champions League play for 2009, has moved ahead of Capel in the pecking order.
Prediction: Sevilla and Rangers finish 1-2. Stuttgart qualifies for the Europa League with a third place finish.
Arsenal, AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos, Standard Liege
Arsene Wenger’s young Arsenal team was seemingly handed a spot in the next phase of the competition with their Group H draw. AZ and Standard Liege are far from European royalty. The Gunners haven’t started the season like it would have liked with just six points in the team’s first four matches. But the goals have been flying in with 13. Losing Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure are big blows, but because the two were physical presences in a team sometimes lacking muscle. Tomas Rosicky and Eduardo’s return from injury will be a big boost, as long as Eduardo stays on his feet. AZ Alkmaar just about ran away with Eredivisie title last season, finishing 11 points clear of Twente Enschede. The only Dutch entrant in the Champions League group stage, AZ Alkmaar’s strength lies in its defense, allowing a league-leading, stingy 22 goals last season in 34 league games. Bayern Munich poached the Dutch champion’s manager Louis van Gaal, who was replaced by former Ajax and Barcelona great Ronald Koeman. Finding a coaching replacement is one thing, but locating a replacement for defensive midfielder Demy de Zeeuw might be more difficult. The Dutch national team member moved to Ajax in the summer and leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the field for AZ. Olympiakos, last year’s Greek champions, allowed just 14 goals in 30 league games last season, though the Greek Super League, is anything but. Olympiakos will rely on Brazilian Diogo and Englishman Matt Derbyshire for goals and the Argentines Luciano Galletti and Cristian Ledesma providing the imagination in the midfield. The additions of Italian midfielder Enzo Maresca and Swedish defender Olof Mellberg will certainly help and the three-time defending Greek champions have a chance to advance. Standard Liege won its second consecutive Belgian title in 2008 and boasts and impressive lineup of young talent, namely 21-year old captain Steven Defour and 20-year old whiz kid Axel Witsel. Both Witsel and Defour are attracting interest from across the continent. However, the Belgians were dealt a devastating blow this week with news that Defour will miss at least three months after breaking a bone in his foot over the weekend. And Witsel will miss Wednesday’s match versus Arsenal as he serves an eight-game suspension for doing this to opponent’s leg. Now a larger burden will be put on Congolese striker Dieumerci Mbokani (31 goals in 61 games for Liege) and Serbian forward Milan Jovanovic (47 goals in 96 games for Liege). The loss of U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu will hurt, but he’s been replaced by former Benfica and Tottenham defender Ricardo Rocha. Liege has some potentially world class players and were drawn into a group that is wide open, but the Defour injury and Witsel suspension is certainly a buzzkill.
F Mounir El Hamadaoui (AZ Alkmaar). A Dutch-born Moroccan, El Hamadaoui has scored 34 goals for AZ in 57 games since 2007. The 25-year old had a brief loan stint with Derby County in England and was on Tottenham’s books, but injuries curtailed his time in the U.K. He has completely owned the Dutch Eredivisie since returning. His 23 goals last season were tops in the league, and he’s already banged home five in six games this season.
MF Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal). World class with the ball at his feet, Arshavin is an absolute whiz. He has the tricks, pace and shot to trouble every defense and was vital to Russia’s run to the Euro 2008 title game and Zenit St. Petersburg’s 2008 UEFA Cup winning performance. Arsenal
MF Alex Witsel (Standard Liege). The winner of the Belgian League’s Golden Shoe, which is awarded to the league’s best player, Witsel is a precocious midfielder with an eye for goal. The 20-year old has scored 16 times for Liege and represented his country nine times at the senior level. He’ll miss the Arsenal clash because of suspension, but should be available later in the competition.
MF Rasmus Elm (AZ Alkmaar). Fresh off an impressive performance at the U-21 Euros for Sweden, Elm was a transfer target for England’s Everton before inking a deal with the Dutch champions. Elm has made just one substitute appearance for AZ in 2009, but given time to settle the 21-year old midfielder will prove a hit in Holland. Video compilation.
Prediction: Arsenal and Olympiakos finish 1-2. AZ Alkmaar qualify for the Europa League with a third place finish.