Teams: FC Zenit, Valencia CF, Olympique Lyonnais, KAA Gent
FC Zenit (Russia)
Manager: Andre Villas-Boas
Ground: Petrovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Qualified: Russian Premier League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Round of 16 (2011-12, 2013-14)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage
Zenit won their first league championship since 2012 by a margin of 7 points, taking the title after two games and not relinquishing it to anyone. They did, however, struggle to find their feet in the Champions League, finishing third in a fairly tough group containing Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica. They managed to go through to the Europa League quarter-finals, defeating PSV and Torino along the way, but they will hope to pass the group stage here.
The attack is strong, with plenty of great options available to Andre Villas-Boas. Hulk is an explosive player, and he has great strength on the ball, pace and a great shot. He is joined by Artem Dzyuba, brought in from Spartak Moscow, and Danny as potential options up front. Nicolas Lombaerts and Ezequiel Garay should form a great combination in the centre of defence, and they will be ably backed up by Luis Neto. On the flanks Aleksandr Anyukov brings great experience at right-back, and he is joined by Domenico Criscito on the left. With Aleksandr Ryazantsev, Javi Garcia, Viktor Fayzulin, Oleg Shatov and Belgian star Axel Witsel in the middle and Yuri Lodygin in goal Zenit will be very tough to beat.
The attack was one of the best in Russia last season, although 28 of their 58 goals came from Hulk and Jose Salomon Rondon, who has departed Russia for West Brom in the Premier League. His loss will be a blow, and Dzyuba will be under some pressure to try and come close to matching his output. Hulk is undoubtedly a star, but an underwhelming performance at home in the World Cup could affect his confidence. Villas-Boas does not have a very good track record as a manager, taking a Chelsea side who would go on to win the Champions League under a caretaker and ensuring that they managed a lowly sixth in the league.
Star Player: Hulk
After some time playing in Brazil and then Japan, Hulk found success upon moving to Porto. He scored 54 goals in 99 games for the team, before moving to Zenit, where he has scored 44 goals in 78 appearances. This season he has played 8 times, and he already has 5 goals and 5 assists to show for it. Zenit will hope that he can remain prolific in the Champions League.
Key Player: Artem Dzyuba
With the departure of Rondon somebody needs to step up and fill the void left by the Venezuelan, and Zenit signed Dzyuba for that purpose. So far he has not justified the investment, with a solitary goal all he has to show for 8 matches played. Zenit need this to change, and it could jeopardise their campaign if he is not able to start scoring more goals.
Valencia CF (Spain)
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo
Captain: Dani Parejo
Ground: Estadio Mestalla, Valencia
Qualified: La Liga, 4th (defeated AS Monaco in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1999-2000, 2000-01)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
Valencia were able to hold a last-day lead over Sevilla to take fourth in La Liga, although they were not able to qualify automatically. To play in the group stage they had to overcome Monaco, and they were helped by a 3-1 win at the Mestalla. A fourth minute goal in Monaco to Alvaro Negredo basically sealed the deal, although goals to Andrea Raggi and Uwa Echiejile gave the host a 2-1 victory. They have not had much of a run in the Champions League recently, and they will hope for that to change.
Alvaro Negredo is a world class striker, and he should combine well with Paco Alcacer to provide plenty of goals for the side. Rodrigo should also chip in, and Dani Parejo, Zakkaria Bakkali, Sofiane Feghouli and Pablo Piatti are all strong players who can create plenty of chances between them. Enzo Perez and Javi Fuego will combine to provide strength in midfield, and the back four of Antonio Barragan, Ruben Vezo, Shkrodan Mustafi and Jose Luis Gaya is strong, the defence having only conceded once in three league games this season. Valencia have experienced the competition before, and while they have been drawn into a tough group they stand a very good chance of progressing to the knockout stages and beyond.
Fist-choice keeper Diego Alves is out of the side until November, and while Australian number 1 Maty Ryan is very good he has not experienced the Champions League before, and is coming out of the relatively weak Belgian League. It is rubbed in by Alves’ prowess as a goalkeeper, especially with his incredible penalty saving record. The defence has been further hurt by the departure of Nicolas Otamendi for Manchester City, after the Argentinian won selection in the La Liga team of the season for 2014-15. There is a general lack of experience throughout the side, and this could adversely affect their campaign.
Star Player: Alvaro Negredo
The former Sevilla and Manchester City striker was signed permanently by Valencia this summer after spending last season in Spain on loan. He already has a Champions League hat-trick to his name, and he has played 24 European fixtures in total. This kind of experience and his ability to find the back of the net will be invaluable to Valencia.
Key Player: Maty Ryan
Diego Alves will miss most of the group stage with a knee injury suffered last season, and it will be up to new signing Ryan to replace the Brazilian shot-stopper. He came to Valencia over the summer from Club Brugge, where he played for two seasons, and the Spanish side will hope that he can carry over his form from his days in the Belgian Pro League.
Olympique Lyonnais (France)
Manager: Hubert Fournier
Captain: Maxime Gonalons
Ground: Stade de Gerland, Lyon
Qualified: Ligue 1, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
Lyon suffered a fair drop in form after winning 7 straight league titles from 2001 to 2008, and it reached a new low in 2014 when they finished fifth in Ligue 1. After that performance Remi Garde was replaced by Hubert Fournier as manager, and the side recovered, bouncing back to provide a scare to Paris Saint-Germain on the back of 27 goals from Alexandre Lacazette. It will be interesting to see how the side fares.
Alexandre Lacazette is a brilliant talent, and he has the ability to score heavily in the Champions League. He will be supported up front by Claudio Beauvue and Nabil Fekir, and Mathieu Valbuena will be able to provide plenty of assists for the forwards. Corentin Tolisso, Maxime Gonalons, Jordan Ferri, Arnold Mvuemba, Steed Malbranque, Clement Grenier and Gueida Fofana provide plenty of options in midfield, ensuring great depth in that area of the park. The defence was strong last season, and there are plenty of options throughout. Samuel Umtiti, Milan Bisevac, Bakary Kone and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa are strong in the centre of defence, and Henri Bedimo, Rafael, Jeremy Morel and Christophe Jallet are good fullbacks. Anthony Lopes is strong in goal.
Lyon have not played in the Champions League for some time, and it is fair to suggest that some of their players may struggle to make the step up. Valbuena is a very strong player, but should he fall to injury then Rachid Ghezzal is not necessarily good enough to provide chances for the forwards. Rafael and Jallet, the two main right-backs, both come to the club from big sides where they have been pushed to the bottom of the ladder, especially in the case of Rafael, who struggled for consistent game time at Manchester United. Lacazette has not yet found his blistering form of last season, and his lack of goals in the league is a major worry going into a very tough group.
Star Player: Alexandre Lacazette
He may not be firing, but Lacazette is a star nonetheless, and at just 24 he has already played 139 games for Lyon, scoring 51 times. A fixture in Lyon’s starting line-up since 2011, Lacazette is an impact player, and he has had prior experience of the Champions League. If he can be the impact player and score the goals Lyon so desperately want they will be tough to beat.
Key Player: Maxime Gonalons
Gonalons may only be 26, but he has been a constant in Lyon’s team for years now. He marshals the midfield and is captain of the side, and he has missed just 11 games in the last four seasons. He is not expected to score goals, but if he can use the experience that he has gained to keep the midfield strong then Lyon will do well.
KAA Gent (Belgium)
Head Coach: Hein Vanhaezebrouck
Captain: Sven Kums
Ground: Ghelamco Arena, Ghent
Qualified: Belgian Pro League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Third Qualifying Round (2010-11)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify
Gent qualified automatically for the Champions League after winning their first ever Belgian title, beating Club Brugge by just 2 points and Anderlecht by just 3. This is their first ever time in the Champions League group stage, their previous best effort being in 2010-11, where they were knocked out in the third qualifying round by Dynamo Kyiv. They will hope that they can do better than their 6-1 aggregate defeat to the Ukrainians this time around.
Laurent Depoitre was one of the top scorers in the league last season, and he has scored four times in 7 league outings to start the year. He is ably supported by Moses Simon, Benito Raman and Kalifa Coulibaly, and Sven Kums, Thomas Foket and Danijel Malicevic are strong players in the middle of the park. Down back, Erik Johansson partners Lasse Nielsen in the centre of defence, and Nana Asare and Rafinha will make a good fullback combination. Matz Sels has plenty of experience, and he will start in goal. Gent will take lots of confidence from their landmark achievement in winning the Belgian crown, and this can only be a good thing.
Gent have no big-name players, and they have never experienced the competition before. Their last experience was an absolute humiliation, losing 3-0 and then 3-1 to Dynamo Kyiv, and there is no reason why this should not be any different. They do not face many high standard opponents in the Pro League, and they are about even with their competition, none of whom have fared well entering into the Champions League. They have done very well to get this far, but they have been drawn into a group against three seasoned opponents who are all very strong. Unfortunately they will struggle to compete with the teams they come up against, and this experience could well end in absolute humiliation for the team.
Star Player: Laurent Depoitre
Depoitre was very strong in the league last season, netting 13 goals and providing a further 9 assists for the team. He has a key role in the attack for the club, and they will hope that he can continue to contribute to the team as he has done this season, where he has scored four in seven games. He has good height, and Gent will hope he can put it to good use.
Key Player: Erik Johansson
The Swedish centre-back was acquired from Malmo this year, and he experienced the Champions League last season, playing 10 games for the Swedish champions in the tournament. This experience will be invaluable, and he will need to keep a cool head and steady the defence alongside Nielsen. If he can do this Gent will do much better.
Gent are very unlikely to pass the group stage in their first ever Champions League appearance, and they cannot compete with the other sides in the group, who will be very evenly matched. Valencia are probably the strongest of the three, although it will be very close. Zenit have more experience than Lyon, and this should give them the slightest of edges, although the difference is negligible.
Prediction: 1. Valencia, 2. Zenit, 3. Lyon, 4. Gent.
That concludes my Champions League preview, just in time for the kick-off a few hours from now. The Champions League is always tough to predict, as the top sides are all so strong, but reigning champions Barcelona simply seem to be a cut above the rest. They are my pick for the 2015-16 Champions League, but we will see who comes out on top. I hope you have enjoyed reading this preview.