England’s perennial Champions League representatives Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have been joined by a big spending debutant in the form of Manchester City for the 2011/12 campaign, and all four have been given groups that will test their resolve. With the transfer deadline passed, which, if any, will face problems getting through the pool stages?
Premier League champions Manchester United have probably the easiest group on paper, being drawn alongside FC Basel, Benfica and first timers Otelul Galati. With Sir Alex Ferguson’s side’s usually impeccable home form in Europe, nine points from the three games at Old Trafford is a realistic target, which would all but send the Red Devils through.
Swiss champions Basel have improved vastly over the last decade, and could pose a tricky opponent at St Jakob-Park; rising star Xherdan Shaqiri is one to watch, and could be a ready made replacement for Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford in the future. Benfica have spent well in the transfer window this summer and the craft of Pablo Aimar and new signing Axel Witsel will test United’s midfield battlers. Galati won the Romanian top fight for the first time in 2010-11 and will be excited to play at Old Trafford, but may potentially be looking for an all inclusive vacation rather than realistically challenging one of Europe’s top teams.
Manchester City have been drawn in the ‘group of death’, and will certainly be tested in their first Champions League campaign as they face Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal. The Bundesliga side have started their season well, and despite losing their opening game in the Bundesliga unexpectedly have re-found their form and are now again looking ominous. Mario Gomez is proving to be a top striker and has been hitting the back of the net on a regular basis for the Bavarian outfit.
Villarreal have managed to hold onto talismanic frontman Giuseppe Rossi, and have the cauldron of El Madrigal as a hurdle for Roberto Mancini’s men. The Yellow Submarine have competed at this level on a fairly consistent basis, and are technically good. Finally, Napoli managed to break into the top four in Serie A last term, and the firepower of South American duo Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who have both been linked with a transfer to Eastlands, will be a real threat to the Premier League side’s rearguard.
Chelsea have to entertain Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Racing Genk, and the ties against the Spanish side in particular will be exciting spectacles between two good footballing teams; Juan Mata’s summer transfer to Stamford Bridge should also spur the Andalusians towards potential victory. Leverkusen have not started with the same gusto this term as last, and seem to be missing Arturo Vidal, who moved on to Juventus in July. Genk beat the likes of Anderlecht and Club Brugge to the Belgian title in 2010-11, and will be no pushovers either – attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne will look to inspire the Cristal Arena faithful in the home leg.
Arsenal have also been drawn against good teams, with Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Olympiakos sure to make the Gunners passage to the knockout stages difficult. Dortmund won their first Bundesliga title in ten years last year, and playmaker Mario Goetze looks like the next big thing in German football; new signing Per Mertesacker will know the side in yellow and black well from his time at Werder Bremen. Marseille are now an ever-present at this level and have a host of talented international players in their team – the Velodrome will not be an easy venue for Arsene Wenger’s men. Finally, Olympiakos relived past glories last year to win the Greek top flight, and although they should be beaten at the Emirates, the atmosphere at the Karaiskakis Stadium will make it daunting for Arsenal’s young stars.
All four Premier League sides will fancy their chances of making the knockout stages, and the respective fans will be disappointed with elimination. Manchester United and Chelsea have the more favourable draw and should progress with relative ease, City and Arsenal however will have to work hard to make it to the next round.
Gareth McKnight writes at Soccerlens.com.