PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
Manager: Phillip Cocu
Captain: Luuk de Jong
Ground: Philips Stadion, Eindhoven
Qualified: Eredivisie, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1987-88)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
After a disappointing 2013-14 season, PSV bounced back in 2014-15, winning the league by a comfortable margin of 17 points over Ajax. They dominated the league, with one draw and 4 losses the only blips on a near perfect campaign. They have had some fairly large losses over the summer, most prominent that of Memphis Depay to Manchester United, but they should do well.
PSV blitzed the league last season, and after they took first place (two rounds into the season) they did not let it go, comfortably taking first place. The side fired in attack as well, Depay and Luuk de Jong scoring 42 times between them. Depay is now gone, but players like Maxime Lestienne, Luciano Narsingh and Florian Jozefzoon have the potential to replace him. PSV have a lot of depth down back, with Jetro Willems, Jeffrey Bruma, Joshua Brenet, Santiago Arias, Simon Poulsen, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Hector Moreno all competing for spots. Andres Guardado, Davy Propper, Stijn Schaars and Adam Maher are strong players through the middle, and Jeroen Zoet is solid in goal.
PSV have lost big players over the off-season in Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, who contributed 36 goals to the side last season. That they will have to face Manchester United and with it their former star Depay adds insult to injury. The side still lacks a lot of experience, with most of the players fairly young. Luuk de Jong, the captain, is still only 25, and he will also shoulder much of the responsibility for replacing the goals scored by Memphis. Their will also be added pressure on the other young forwards, with Narsingh (24), and Lestienne (23) needing to find the back of the net. PSV will be in for a tough challenge, and it will be interesting to see how they fare.
Star Player: Luuk de Jong
The captain, first-choice striker and one of the most experienced players on the team (at just 25), de Jong is very important for PSV. He has scored 4 times in 5 games this season in all competitions, and Phillip Cocu is relying on him to continue. He has had experience playing in England and Germany, and this will help him during the tournament.
Key Player: Andres Guardado
Guardado is a very experienced player, and he brings that to a young team. He has experience playing in Spain and Germany, which will be helpful. At age 28, he is one of the oldest members of the side, and he will need to use that experience to take control of the midfield. As such, he is a key member of the side, and if PSV are going to do well he needs to play well.
Manchester United FC (England)
Manager: Louis van Gaal
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 4th (defeated Club Brugge KV in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1967-68, 1998-99, 2007-08)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Manchester United. After the retirement of Alex Ferguson as manager David Moyes could not control the club, who plummeted from 1st to 7th in a season. He was sacked after 10 months in the job, and United hired Louis van Gaal. His reign started badly as well, but he recovered to take out fourth. A comfortable 7-1 aggregate win over Club Brugge was enough to send them through.
Manchester United have spent big money on compiling a very strong team. Sergio Romero and David de Gea will compete for the top goalkeeping slot, although the fact that the latter has not played for the side this season suggests Romero will stay in goal. The back four is Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw, and van Gaal has Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo there as well. They have only conceded twice this season, and big signings Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial will bolster an attack containing Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, while the midfield contains the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.
While the side has been good defensively, their attack, while good on paper, has been found wanting. Depay gave glimpses of his best in the first leg against Club Brugge, scoring twice and setting up Fellaini, but he is still goalless in the league. Overall, van Gaal’s men have scored just 3 goals, with one of them an own goal by Kyle Walker. The Red Devils will hope that the latest signing, Martial, can change things and start scoring, but he is only 19, and too much pressure cannot possibly be a good thing. The other teams in this group have solid defences, and so if Manchester United cannot find some penetration soon they could miss out on the knockout rounds.
Star Player: Wayne Rooney
Rooney has played 344 league matches since joining Manchester United in 2004 aged 18. Back then he was worth 25.6 million pounds, and he has justified that sum since joining. He has been one of England’s best players, and has had incredible success with United, winning 5 Premier League titles alongside the Champions League, the League Cup (twice) and the Club World Cup.
Key Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger
Schweinsteiger was signed for big money from Bayern Munich over the summer, and he will be hoping to add a second Champions League trophy to his cabinet. He will play a key role as the most experienced player in the centre of midfield, and will need to provide solidity, while United will hope that he can be a helpful source of goals.
PFC CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Manager: Leonid Slutsky
Captain: Igor Akinfeev
Ground: Arena Khimki, Moscow
Qualified: Russian Premier League, 2nd (defeated AC Sparta Praha and Sporting CP in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
CSKA were edged out by 7 points in the league last season, although they in turn snuck over FC Krasnodar on goal difference. As a result the side had to go through qualifying, where they pulled off a brilliant comeback in Prague to progress to the play-offs and a date with Sporting. Bryan Ruiz and Islam Slimani gave the Portuguese the advantage, but Seydou Doumbia scored twice in Moscow to send CSKA through. They will hope for a better effort in the Champions League this time round after crashing out in last season’s group stage.
The CSKA defence is one of the strongest in Europe, with Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski, Georgi Schennikov and Mario Fernandes providing support for captain Igor Akinfeev in goal. Finnish attacking midfielder Roman Eremenko scored plenty of goals last year, but with Seydou Doumbia returning on loan from AS Roma most of the goals should come from the Ivorian and pacy Nigerian winger Ahmed Musa. That pair contributed 6 out of the 9 goals the Muscovites scored in qualifying, and if Alan Dzagoev, Zoran Tosic, Pontus Wernbloom and Bibras Natkho can chip in then CSKA stand a great chance of making it through a tough group and into the knockout stages.
CSKA have played frequently in Europe over the last few seasons, but they have struggled to really make their mark upon the competition. The side has barely changed, and they are taking on a group containing teams from larger leagues with much better competition. The defence is strong, but questions remain about Wernbloom and Natkho, especially given the lack of high level football the latter has had. Both are essentially defensive midfielders, and that could lead to poor links between attack and defence. Doumbia has been successful with CSKA before, and they will be happy to have him back, but his unsuccessful spell at Roma could have sapped some of his previous confidence.
Star Player: Seydou Doumbia
After starting his career in Japan and then with BSC Young Boys in Switzerland, Doumbia has enjoyed great success in Russia with CSKA. He has won two Russian Premier League titles and played 95 matches for 61 goals. Now returning on loan after 6 months playing in Italy with Roma, Doumbia has started well with CSKA and they will be hoping this form continues.
Key Player: Igor Akinfeev
Akinfeev broke into the CSKA starting line-up at just 17, and has played 317 times for the club since then. During that time he has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Russian League, having never conceded more than 30 times in the one season. He has vast Champions League experience, and will be invaluable to CSKA as they look to progress.
VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)
Head Coach: Dieter Hecking
Captain: Diego Benaglio
Ground: Volkswagen Arena, Wolfsburg
Qualified: Bundesliga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
After years of poor performance in the league Wolfsburg bounced back in 2014-15, finishing second in the Bundesliga. After a rocky start they quickly rose up the table, and were part of a top two with Bayern Munich that did not change for 25 straight games. They managed to edge out Borussia Monchengladbach by three points to qualify for the first time since winning the league in 2008-09 under the guidance of Felix Magath.
Wolfsburg have a very strong side, and have made some very good transactions over the off season, picking up Max Kruse from Monchengladbach and Dante from Bayern. Kruse will help Bas Dost and Nicklas Bendtner in attack, as well as Andre Schurrle, purchased last season from Chelsea. Down back, Dante and Naldo should form an excellent partnership in the centre of defence, and Ricardo Rodriguez should add plenty to the team from left back. In goal, Diego Benaglio is the captain of the side and is one of the best keepers in the world. New signing Julian Draxler will bolster the side in behind the strikers, joining Vierinha, Daniel Caligiuri, Schurrle and Maximilian Arnold, and Luiz Gustavo and Josuha Guilavogui patrol the area in front of the defence.
Wolfsburg may be strong, but the sale of Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City is going to be very hard to get over. The Belgian starred in the Bundesliga last season and was crowned German footballer of the year for his efforts which included a league-best 21 assists. Draxler is a potential replacement, as is Arnold, but Wolfsburg will struggle to find a player of de Bruyne’s calibre again, although the reported transfer fee of 75 million euros will come in handy. As a result of European inactivity many players in the current squad have not had experience playing in the Champions League, and this could prove to be a handicap.
Star Player: Bas Dost
With 16 league goals last season, Dost was one of the league’s top scorers, and this time around he has already found the net twice in three games. With Max Kruse slotting in behind him he is the main source of goals for Wolfsburg, and his form for the side has given him two caps for the Netherlands. Wolfsburg will be hoping that he can find the net against stronger opponents.
Key Player: Diego Benaglio
The Swiss keeper is the captain of the team and has been capped 224 times for Die Wolfe, having been at the club since 2008. He performed well at the World Cup despite letting in five goals against France, and he will be essential to Wolfsburg’s first tilt at the Champions League since 2009. If he can keep clean sheets and the defence fire then Wolfsburg have a potent enough attack to progress.
This group will be very tight, as all four sides look very strong on paper. Manchester United should go through with their star-studded side, and I would expect the main battle to be for second place. Wolfsburg look to have the strongest team of the three, and they should be able to cope without de Bruyne. PSV should take third, as I see no reason why CSKA should do any better than in past years even with a strong side on paper.
Prediction: 1. Manchester United, 2. Wolfsburg, 3. PSV Eindhoven, 4. CSKA Moscow.