SL Benfica (Portugal)
Head Coach: Rui Vitoria
Ground: Estadio da Luz, Lisbon
Qualified: Primeira Liga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1960-61, 1961-62)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
Benfica won their 34th league title last season, edging out Porto by 3 points. The side performed very well, with Jonas and Lima scoring well and former Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar taking out the best goalkeeper award. In the Champions League the side did not fare so well, finishing fourth in a fairly tough group, but Benfica will be hoping that they can improve on previous results under new manager Rui Vitoria.
Benfica were excellent in the league last season, scoring 86 times and conceding just 16 goals. The side is strong, and after 20 league goals last season Jonas will lead the attack, with support from new signings Adel Taarabt, Kostas Mitroglou and Raul Jimenez, as well as Filip Djuricic, Nelson Oliveira and Victor Andrade. Andre Almeida, Andreas Samaris, Talisca, Pizzi, Nico Gaitan and Ljubomir Fejsa patrol the centre of the park. Down back, Lisandro Lopez, Luisao, Nelsinho and Eliseu are very solid. While Julio Cesar may have had a poor World Cup, letting in 10 goals in the last 2 games, he showed that he is still a quality goalkeeper last season, conceding just 9 in 23 appearances.
The departure of Lima, who netted 19 times in the league last season, to Al Ahli leaves a hole, which will have to be filled by one or both of Jimenez and Mitroglou. This extra pressure may not be helpful for the pair as they try to settle in, and Mitroglou has struggled since going on a goal-scoring spree in late 2013, being put on loan consistently by Fulham. He did score well in the Greek League last season, however, so there may be some room for optimism. The full back positions could also be an issue. At the moment Benfica are using Eliseu, who is fairly experienced, in conjunction with Nelsinho, who has recently been promoted to the first-team. Playing in the Champions League against the best in the world could be too big a step too fast.
Star Player: Jonas
With three league goals in three games already this season, Jonas is in great form. The former Valencia striker scored 20 league goals last season, and Benfica will need him to keep this kind of form going in the Champions League. It will be interesting to see how he handles the step up, and his goal tallies are likely to take a hit, but he still has a key role to play.
Key Player: Julio Cesar
Julio Cesar was unbeatable in the league last season, and he, unlike most of Benfica’s squad, is a Champions League winner, having been in goal when Inter took out the title in 2009-10. He has gone into something of a decline since then, with a barren spell at Queen’s Park Rangers nearly derailing his career, but he has found his feet again and will be key for Benfica.
Club Atletico de Madrid (Spain)
Manager: Diego Simeone
Ground: Estadio Vincente Calderon, Madrid
Qualified: La Liga, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1973-74, 2013-14)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals
Atletico Madrid finished third in La Liga last season, although they probably picked up enough points to take first or second in any other league. They survived a dramatic last-day shootout with Valencia and Sevilla to take out automatic qualification, and they will be looking to emulate their success of a couple of seasons ago when they made the Champions League final. After making the quarter-finals last time around Atletico will hope to improve this season.
Atletico’s attack of Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres and Jackson Martinez should prove a handful for defences everywhere, and if Torres can find his best form then he could be unstoppable. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco could also be damaging down the right, and Koke is a very exciting young prospect who can pass well and should provide good balls from midfield. Tiago Mendes and Gabi provide depth in the middle of the park. Down back, Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez and Stefan Savic should prove to be very solid, and Juanfran and Filipe Luis should form a very strong fullback combination. Diego Simeone has been a great manager for Atletico, and he is the man to bring this team as far as they can possibly go.
The outfield positions may be fairly well covered, but there is a worrying lack of depth in the team. Oliver Torres, Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey are still young in midfield, and Angel Correa and Luciano Vietto are probably not reliable scorers. Since Thibaut Courtois was called back to Chelsea goalkeeping has been a potential achilles heel for Atletico, and questions remain over Miguel Angel Moya and Jan Oblak, the pair recruited to replace the Belgian star. Taking Fernando Torres from Milan is a bit of a gamble, and while the ex-Chelsea striker is a very good player he has, at 31, still not realised his great potential.
Star Player: Jackson Martinez
Jackson moved to Atletico this summer from Porto, where he had played for the last few seasons. He was top scorer in the league three seasons in a row, netting a total of 67 times in 89 games. He averages about a goal every two games in European competitions as well, and this is a very encouraging sign for Atletico, who will be hoping he can maintain his form.
Key Player: Diego Godin
Godin is a vastly experienced centre-back with a habit of scoring goals at critical moments. He scored an equaliser against Barcelona which gave Atletico the La Liga title, and scored in the Champions League final a week later. He marshals Atletico’s defence, and will play a crucial role in their Champions League campaign.
Galatasaray SK (Turkey)
Manager: Hamza Hamzaoglu
Captain: Selcuk Inan
Ground: Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul
Qualified: Super Lig, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (1988-89)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
Galatasaray snuck past bitter rivals Fenerbahce by 3 points to take the Turkish title, their third in four seasons. The Champions League, however, was not such a success. Drawn alongside Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Anderlecht they finished fourth, a 1-1 draw with Anderlecht their only points for the campaign. Their side is not a strong as a couple of seasons ago, but they have the potential to succeed in a fairly tough but not impossible group.
The signing of German international and World Cup winner Lukas Podolski should bolster the forward line, and he will provide good support for Burak Yilmaz and Umut Bulut. In midfield, Wesley Sneijder and Selcuk Inan should provide plenty of chances, and they should be able to chip in and get their names on the scoresheet. Aurelien Chedjou and Jason Denayer are both strong players, and should combine well with Hakan Balta, Semih Kaya and Koray Gunter in defence. The experience of veteran Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera should prove invaluable throughout the campaign.
The transfer window has been fairly unsuccessful for Galatasaray. They lost Swiss international Blerim Dzemaili and Felipe Melo, both of whom could have formed a very solid base in defensive midfield. Bruma is now gone, along with Alex Telles, and while they picked up Lukas Podolski they managed to single-handedly bungle a transfer with Borussia Dortmund for Kevin Grosskreutz, who is now unable to play for the club until January, ruling him out of the group stage. If he comes into the side during the knockout rounds he will not have played for four months. As a right-back, he would have given a lot to a defence which could certainly be stronger.
Star Player: Wesley Sneijder
The Dutch international is a dangerous player from the centre of midfield, where he can provide assists and score some handy goals. He has been at Galatasaray for some time now, and having settled into the line-up he will be a very important player during the campaign. With the defence not as strong possible he will need to chip in.
Key Player: Aurelien Chedjou
Chedjou is the most experienced player in the defence, which has lost Dany Nounkeu and Alex Telles over the off season. The side’s success could well hinge upon Chedjou and his combinations with the rest of the defence, and they will need him to step up and call upon his experience to marshal the defence and keep clean sheets.
FC Astana (Kazakhstan)
Manager: Stanimir Stoilov
Captain: Tanat Nusserbayev
Ground: Astana Arena, Astana
Qualified: Kazakhstan Premier League, 1st (defeated NK Maribor, HJK Helsinki and APOEL FC in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: First qualification
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
Astana only came into being in 2008, following a merger between Megasport and Alma-Ata. Soon after their inception they started having success, and after winning their first Kazakhstan Premier League in 2014 they had their first go at the Champions League. They knocked out Maribor and HJK, and after Baurzhan Dzholchiev put them ahead against APOEL they held a 1-0 edge going into the return game in Nicosia. They went down after 60 minutes, but a late equaliser to Nemanja Maksimovic was enough to send them through.
Astana have had plenty of money since their inception into the Kazakh league, and they have picked up some experienced players. Branko Ilic has been capped 59 times for Slovenia, and he joins Dmitri Shomko, Marin Anicic and Evgeni Postnikov in the defence. Baurzhan Dzholchiev, Nemanja Maksimovic, Foxi Kethevoama, Patrick Twumasi, Roger Canas, Tanat Nasserbayav and Georgy Zhukov provide goalscoring opportunities in what is a fairly attacking midfield and forward line. Their success in qualifying can only give them confidence, and they have absolutely no pressure upon them, which can only be a good thing going into a tough group.
Astana simply cannot compete in personnel or financial terms with the best in Europe. Against the likes of Benfica, Atletico and Galatasaray they are not likely to succeed, a lack of experience likely to be a prime factor. Maksimovic has won the under-19 European Championships and scored the winning goal in the under-20 World Cup final, but the pressure of being one of the side’s key players could prove too much. Many of the Kazakh internationals in the team do not have much international experience and Kethevoama has only received 22 Central African caps, despite being the captain of the team. This lack of experience is quite worrying and may adversely affect their campaign.
Star Player: Nemanja Maksimovic
Maksimovic joined this season from Domzale in Slovenia, and he has already won big with the Serbian under-age sides. He scored the winning goal in extra time of the under-20 World Cup, and seems to have a knack for scoring big goals at key moments, given his 84th minute goal which sent Astana through to this tournament.
Key Player: Branko Ilic
He may be playing at right-back, but Ilic will be the key to the Astana defence. He is a versatile player who can also play centre-back or defensive midfield. He is experienced internationally, with 59 caps, and his experience at the 2010 World Cup will be very valuable. If he can stay calm then he can act as the person holding the defence together.
This group is fairly strong, but Astana can probably be ruled out as contenders due to their lack of experience and weaker personnel. At the other end, I think Atletico are a cut above Benfica and Galatasaray, and with a strengthened forward line they should progress. While Benfica have never really prospered in the competition they should progress, mainly due to the defensive struggles faced by Galatasaray.
Prediction: 1. Atletico Madrid, 2. Benfica, 3. Galatasaray, 4. Astana.