Soccer

UEFA Champions League 2011-12 Group Stage Preview Part II

Yesterday, we previewed UEFA Champions League Groups E-F. Here, we look at the other four Groups, A-D, which begin play today.

Group A: This is the definite “Group of Death.” In a weaker group, all four could be favorites to advance. Bayern Munich looked troubled heading into this season. Winning seven of eight under the experienced Jupp Heynckes and outscoring opponents 22-1 has largely dispelled that. Man City are Champions League novices, but have one of the strongest squads in Europe. Unlike last year they are coherent and get forward fluidly. They’ve won all four of their matches. Samir Nasri already has four assists. Aguero and Dzeko have 12 goals combined. Napoli held on to Lavezzi and Hamsik and added Inler to a strong midfield. They also feature 33-goal scorer Edinson Cavani up front and a seasoned back line. It will be intriguing to see how teams counter their 3-4-2-1. Villarreal held onto Giuseppe Rossi, who gives them a potent strike partnership with Nilmar. Though, losing Capdevila and Cazorla over the summer, the rest of the squad may not be good enough to emerge from this grind. [Prediction: Bayern Munich, Man City, Napoli, Villarreal]

Group B: Inter retains much of the squad that won the tournament two years ago, minus Samuel Eto’o, now the world’s highest-paid team sport athlete. They are favorites, though the hiring of Gian Pero Gasperini, through one match, looks a complete disaster. Inter lost 4-3 to Palermo, because they played a 3-4-3 formation, with three defenders whose average age was 35. Lille, defending French champions, lost three key players over the summer, but kept Belgian wonderkid Eden Hazard and added Joe Cole. They have a strong midfield and a slick attacking game. They enter in fine form, having won their last four after a slow start. One thing to keep an eye on: They have yet to have a clean sheet this season, in France. CSKA have a good manager, but not that imposing squad. They’ll be the typical Russian tough away trip, but little beyond that. Trabzonspor don’t have much going forward and double-digit player turnover could affect their defensive continuity. [Prediction: Inter Milan, Lille, CSKA Moscow, Trabzonspor]

Group C: Fergie rigged the draw again. Man United have it easy. The Red Devils won the EPL last year and reached the Champions League Final. The worrying thing? That team wasn’t that great. This year, they’ve bolstered the squad with new signings and maturing academy players. They crushed Arsenal 8-2. Rooney is coming off back to back hat tricks. They are rolling. Benfica, second favorites, revamped the back line after shipping 12 goals during last year’s group stage. They will hope eccentric Jesus has the magic touch. Basel’s physicality won’t rattle United. Their backline is brutal. Otelul Galati does exist, and they have a yearly budget of around $4 million. [Prediction: Man U, Benfica, Basel, Otelul Galati]

Group D: Lyon and Real Madrid, together again. Los Blancos had a disappointing summer, which, for them, is only signing the Bundesliga player of the season and having their inevitable Neymar signing delayed until January. They’re the world’s second best team. Cristiano Ronaldo feasts on mediocrity. They should cruise. Lyon are a decent squad. Ligue Un quality is improving, with players such as Michel Bastos now opting to stay. How much of a challenge they can mount beyond the group stage, depends on getting something more from Yoann Gourcuff, ineffective since an emotionally draining World Cup. Ajax is an elite name, but no longer an elite club. Crossing the quality chasm between the Eredivisie and the Champions League, they will leap and hope for the best. Don’t see Dinamo Zagreb mounting much of a threat beyond their own stadium. [Prediction: Real Madrid, Lyon, Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb]

[Photo via Getty]

Previously: Champions League 2011-12 Group Stage Preview Part I

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