The Champions League is one of the oldest competitions in the sports history. The year-long contest pits the top teams in Europe against each other for the right to be called champion of club football. The 2010-11 Champions League, set to start on September 14-15, is the competition’s 56th edition. The draw for this year’s group stage was recently held at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. The 32 qualified teams have been divided evenly into 8 different groups, headlined by one of eight seeded clubs. In this article, I will preview each of the groups and offer predictions on which teams will advance past the 2010-11 Champions League group stage.
1. Group A – Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham, FC Twente
Prediction: Inter Milan, Tottenham
Defending champion Inter Milan was handed a formidable group. Both Tottenham and Werder Bremen are highly talented clubs, who are capable of giving the Italian champion a tough time in the group stage. While all the pieces that led Inter to last year’s Champions League title are still in place, the team will have to contend with the departure of Coach Jose Mourinho-the instrumental force behind the team’s success last season. Yet, Inter Milan still enjoys one of most talented rosters in European club football led by superstars Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder. Advancement to the knockout stage won’t be easy for Inter, but the team should still be able to win the group and earn a spot in the knockout stage.
2. Group B – Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv
Prediction: Lyon, Schalke
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Group B is expected to be the most competitive of the groups. While Lyon has dominated Ligue 1 for the past decade, its record in the Champions League is only slightly above average. The team’s best result in the European competition to date has been last year’s lopsided defeat to Bayern Munich in the semifinal round. If Lyon were to advance past the group stage, the team will have to contend with two strong teams in Benfica and Schalke. Both of these teams are seasoned competitors of the Champions League, and are enjoying good form coming into the tournament. One should expect a number of close contests between the three clubs, though Lyon is the top favorite to advance.
3. Group C – Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor
Prediction: Manchester United, Valencia
Group C is one of the more difficult groups in the draw. Even though Manchester United is the clear favorite to advance, Valencia and Rangers are no pushovers. Still, the real battle will be between Valencia and Rangers for second place in the group. On paper, Scottish League champion Rangers appears to have the edge. Valencia’s squad has suffered several key losses, namely star striker David Villa and playmaker David Silva. Additionally, the team’s morale is at a low as it struggles to cope with its massive debts. Due to the team’s history, one should not easily dismiss Valencia’s chances. However, the team’s odds of reaching the second round are sinking by the day.
4. Group D – Barcelona, Panathinaikos, Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan
Prediction: Barcelona, Rubin Kazan
Barcelona is handed with one of the easier groups in the preliminary stage. Panathinaikos, Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan are hardly household names. There is little doubt that the 3-time Champions League winner will win Group D. The second spot in the group will likely go to Rubin Kazan. The Russian League champion is a true Cinderella story. The team was only recently promoted to the Russian Premier League, but has already achieved a lot of success during its current stay on the top flight. All eyes will be on the two games between Barcelona and Rubin Kazan. The two teams met twice in last year’s group stage, with the Russian team handing Barcelona a shocking loss at Camp Nou.
5. Group E – Bayern Munich, Roma, Basle, Cluj
Prediction: Bayern Munich, Roma
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Group E is one of the weakest groups in the preliminary stage, with Bayern and Roma widely expected to capture the top two spots. How each of the two teams fare against the other two teams will likely determine the group’s winner. Bayern Munich, with its roster of great talents, has a clear edge over Roma. One should expect some really lopsided matches in this group.
6. Group F – Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, MSK Zilina
Prediction: Chelsea, Marseille
Group F is one of the more difficult groups in the group stage. Yet, Chelsea is on such a great roll right now that none of the remaining teams (talented as they may be) is likely to give them any trouble. Chelsea is widely expected to win this group easily. The real battle will be for second place, with Marseille the most probable candidate.
7. Group G – AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, Auxerre
Prediction: Real Madrid, AC Milan
It is hard for one to imagine a scenario where AC Milan and Real Madrid won’t advance past the group stage. The two games between the European titans will likely decide which team will win the group.
8. Group H – Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Braga, Partizan Belgrade
Prediction: Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk
Group H is the most interesting groups in the current stage, as it features very obscure teams in European club football. Other than Arsenal, none of the other teams has had much history in the Champions League. In fact, a few of them are not even well-known in their domestic leagues. As newcomers to the Champions League tend not to fare well in the competition, Arsenal should have no trouble dominating the group. The only team that could even remotely challenge the English club is Ukrainian champion Shakhtar Donetsk.