Teams: Chelsea FC, FC Porto, FC Dynamo Kyiv, Maccabi Tel Aviv FC
Chelsea FC (England)
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Captain: John Terry
Ground: Stamford Bridge, London
Qualified: Premier League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (2011-12)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16
Chelsea won the Premier League by eight points over Manchester City, and a successful campaign was capped off with six players being named in the Premier League team of the year. While they fared well in the league, they were unable to beat PSG in the round of 16 after comfortably passing the group stage, with two late equalisers, one in normal time and one in extra time, knocking out the Londoners.
Eden Hazard has been a prodigious talent ever since he broke on to the scene at Lille, and after a few years at Chelsea he is arguably the best player in the world. He has the ability to score and create, and he slots in to a star-studded side including Diego Costa, Pedro, Oscar, Willian, Loic Remy and Colombian striker Radamel Falcao. John Terry and Gary Cahill were at the centre of the best defence in the Premier League last season, and Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta will combine well and provide solidity on the flanks. Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, John Obi Mikel and Ramires provide plenty of options in midfield. Belgian star Thibaut Courtois is quickly becoming one of the best keepers in the world, and he should perform well.
Chelsea have had a bad start to the season, losing to Manchester City, Crystal Palace and Everton and drawing with Swansea City. Their only win came against West Bromwich Albion, a game in which they conceded twice, had Terry sent off and conceded a penalty. This start to the season is not at all encouraging, and it puts extra pressure on the side to perform in the Champions League. Falcao may be one of the best strikers in the world, but he had a disappointing last season with Manchester United, although he is sitting on the bench. Chelsea have also got most of their squad out on loan, and this means that they are throwing away a large amount of young talent.
Star Player: Eden Hazard
Hazard scored 14 Premier League goals last season playing on the wing, and even though Costa is the main scoring option Hazard can still pitch in. He can also provide assists, and he has incredible pace and technical ability. He will cause all sorts of problems for defenders, and he has the potential to be the star if Chelsea make it into the latter stages of the Champions League.
Key Player: Cesc Fabregas
Schooled in the famous Barcelona academy, Fabregas has become a star, even though he has not stayed at Barca. As a result of his training, however, he is a very accurate passer, and he will be distributing the ball from wherever he is deployed on the pitch. His versatility is good for Chelsea, and if he can fire from wherever he plays then they will win matches.
FC Porto (Portugal)
Head Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Ground: Estadio do Dragao, Porto
Qualified: Primeira Liga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1986-87, 2003-04)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals
Porto were beaten to the title by three points by bitter rivals Benfica, although they still qualified automatically. They did fare better in the Champions League, topping their group and coming up against Basel in the round of 16. A 4-0 victory at home ensured that they progressed to the quarter finals, but Bayern Munich proved too much. Porto topped the Germans at home, but they were beaten 6-1 in Munich, ending their campaign.
Iker Casillas has been signed from Real Madrid, and he brings his experience as a three-time Champions League winner, a two-time European Championship winner and a World Cup winner. Bruno Martins Indi and Maicon should form a strong partnership in the centre of defence, and Maxi Pereira is a handy signing from Benfica. Hector Herrera, Andre Andre and Giannelli Imbula are all strong players in the centre of midfield, and Julen Lopetegui has no shortage of attacking options to call upon. Yacine Brahimi is a dangerous winger, as is Silvestre Varela, and at centre forward Vincent Aboubakar, Dani Osvaldo and Jesus Corona are all good scoring options. Miguel Layun and Aly Cissokho should compete for the left-back spot, having been brought in on loan.
Porto have a strong team, but a regular flow of strikers going out the door could be starting to take it’s toll. The losses of Lisandro Lopez, Radamel Falcao and Hulk were being covered by Jackson Martinez, but now that he has been poached by Atletico there is a spot up for grabs which is waiting to be filled. Casillas could be a great goalkeeper, but he has had a difficult couple of years and he was shown up during the World Cup in Brazil. Pereira is a strong player on the right, but there is still doubt surrounding the left-back position. They have used Alex Sandro (now at Juventus), Cissokho, Martins Indi and Layun on the left, and the insecurity surrounding the position could prove costly.
Star Player: Yacine Brahimi
Brahimi has not been a constant scorer for Porto or Granada before that, but he is a good dribbler and he has the ability to provide assists. He also established himself as a threat up front during last season’s Champions League, scoring a hat-trick against BATE Borisov and netting five times in 11 appearances, and he scored in the World Cup as well.
Key Player: Iker Casillas
Casillas is a very decorated player, although over the last couple of years he has struggled, losing his spot in the Spanish team and being transferred by Real Madrid. He has the potential to be a massive influence on Porto’s success, and if he can return to his best then Porto will be a tough side to defeat, but they will struggle if he cannot recover his form.
FC Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine)
Head Coach: Serhiy Rebrov
Captain: Oleksandr Shovkovskiy
Ground: NSC Olimpiyskiy, Kyiv
Qualified: Ukrainian Premier League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (1976-77, 1986-87, 1998-99)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
Dynamo broke a long streak of missing out to Shakhtar Donetsk in the league, taking the title by 10 points over their Premier League rivals. This allows them to return to the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2012, where they struggled against PSG and Porto. They have made regular forays into the Europa League during that time, and in 2011 they made the Europa League semi-finals, showing that they can make it in Europe.
Andriy Yarmolenko is one of the brightest young stars in Ukrainian football, and he will cause plenty of problems playing on the left flank. He is joined by Oleh Husyev, Denys Harmash and Derlis Gonzalez on the flanks, while Younes Belhanda plays in attacking midfield. In the centre of the park Miguel Veloso and Radosav Petrovic are strong, and a defence consisting of Yevhen Khacheridi, Domagoj Vida, Vitorino Antunes, Aleksandar Dragovic and Danilo Silva will always be strong. Veteran goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi has earned 92 caps for the Ukrainian national team, and is still playing despite his international retirement in 2012. He brings 403 games worth of experience to Dynamo, and they will be grateful for that.
The departure of Dieumerci Mbokani to Norwich City has left a hole in Dynamo’s attack that needs to be filled. Junior Moraes seems to be the current first preference, and while he was prolific at Metalurh Donetsk that is no guarantee against Europe’s best. There is plenty of talent in the side, but the teams being put up by Dynamo may have too much variation, and this could adversely affect success. Dynamo may be stronger than they were the last time they entered the competition, but it is doubtful whether they can compete with the likes of Chelsea and Porto, both big clubs with more money and more weight to throw around on the transfer table. Yarmolenko is already developing as the star the team is built around, but he may not be able to handle the pressure.
Star Player: Andriy Yarmolenko
Yarmolenko has won plenty of accolades during his relatively short career, and at just 25 he has already been capped 50 times by Ukraine and been crowned Ukrainian footballer of the year and Ukrainian Premier League footballer of the year twice apiece. He led the Europa League in assists last season, and Dynamo will hope that this form can carry over.
Key Player: Junior Moraes
Now that Moraes has taken the mantle of first choice striker he will be most responsible for ensuring that Dynamo score plenty of goals. His haul in the Premier League has been average so far, and Dynamo will hope that he can adjust quickly. Their campaign could well hinge upon how much he is able to find the back of the net, and Dynamo will hope he has a prosperous season.
Maccabi Tel Aviv FC (Israel)
Manager: Slavisa Jokanovic
Captain: Eran Zahavi
Ground: Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa
Qualified: Israeli Premier League, 1st (defeated Hibernians FC, FC Viktoria Plzen and FC Basel in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2004-05)
2014-15 Champions League: Third Qualifying Round
Maccabi Tel Aviv secured the Israeli title over Ironi Kiryat Shmona by a margin of 6 points. This allowed them to go into qualifying, where they took on Hibernians of Malta. After losing 2-1 in the first leg they wiped out their opposition at home, winning 5-1, and progressed to play Viktoria Plzen. They defeated the Czech champions by virtue of two very late goals to Eran Zahavi in the second leg in Plzen, before they took out Swiss powerhouse Basel on away goals.
Eran Zahavi was a scoring machine in the Israeli league last season, netting 27 goals, and he scored a total of 7 goals in qualifying to add to that. Tal Ben Haim II and Eden Ben Basat add to the attack, and Nosa Igiebor chipped in with some handy goals throughout qualifying. Gal Alberman partners Igiebor in the centre of the park, and Avi Rikan and Nikola Mitrovic will also contribute. Tal Ben Haim I has great experience playing in England, and this will be an invaluable contribution to the back four of Yuval Spungin, Ben Haim I, Eitan Tibi and Omri Ben Harush. Juan Pablo is no longer in goal, but he is replaced by young Serbian keeper Predrag Rajkovic.
Despite the presence of Ben Haim I the defence is fairly inexperienced, especially at Champions League level. Zahavi has been responsible for most of their goals, and he scored all three in the two legs against Basel. If he were to be nullified or ruled out with injury the attack would lose some menace, and Ben Basat has struggled to find form over the last couple of seasons. Rajkovic is still very young, and while he has already been called up for Serbia it is unclear whether he is ready to take on the world’s best. They may have toppled two teams who have strong pedigree in the Champions League during qualifying, but they were still beaten by Hibernians, who a team like Chelsea could beat handily.
Star Player: Eran Zahavi
Zahavi was comfortably the top scorer in the Israeli Premier League last season, where he managed 27 goals, 11 more than the next best. He scored in a remarkable 18 consecutive games last year, and he has won 27 caps for Israel, scoring four goals. He is versatile, being able to play as an attacking midfielder and a striker.
Key Player: Tal Ben Haim I
Ben Haim I has plenty of experience, having been capped 89 times for the Israeli side. He enjoyed a long career in England with Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea, Manchester City, Sunderland and Portsmouth amongst others, and he brings this experience to the table for his side. He will be responsible for keeping the defence steady against strong opponents, and it will be tough.
Chelsea have not had a good start to the season, but their class should be enough to win out over Porto and Dynamo. Maccabi Tel Aviv simply do not have the strength to challenge, and their attack is too one-dimensional. The battle for second will be tough, but I think that Porto’s experience of the competition will pay off and they should be able to hold off Dynamo.
Prediction: 1. Chelsea, 2. Porto, 3. Dynamo Kyiv, 4. Maccabi Tel Aviv.