Devastation for Atletico as Real take title

An exhausted Real Madrid have taken their eleventh Champions League title in Milan, defeating bitter rivals Atletico Madrid in a penalty shoot-out at the San Siro. The game was pulsating as Real scored early and Atletico equalised late, and a missed penalty from Juanfran ultimately proved costly as Cristiano Ronaldo coolly slotted his penalty past Jan Oblak to seal the deal. Atletico started the game shakily, and Gareth Bale’s work early on nearly led to a goal when Oblak was forced to act quickly to save a deflection from Karim Benzema at close range. It was not long before Real’s early opportunities led to the first goal, and it came when Bale flicked Toni Kroos’ free kick on towards Oblak, allowing captain Sergio Ramos to tap it in. Real continued to cruise, passing the ball around and generally not allowing Atletico to have a sniff, but Atletico recovered and had the momentum going their way at the end of the first half.

Atletico continued to build on their momentum in the second half, and should have levelled straight after half time when Pepe fouled Fernando Torres in the box. The ensuing penalty, taken by Griezmann, was drilled into the underside of the bar, and Real escaped with their lead intact. Atletico continued to push, and Real manager Zinedine Zidane took the foot off the gas, allowing Atletico to control the tempo and the midfield. Real nearly had a goal on the counter-attack when Benzema found himself one-on-one with Oblak, and it looked as though Atletico had petered out. Real came incredibly close to doubling their lead in the 78th minute when Ronaldo went one-on-one in the six-yard box, and Bale’s shot was blocked on the goal line by a desperate Atletico defence. It was not to be for Real, however, and Atletico levelled through the dangerous Yannick Carrasco, who took advantage of an excellent cross from Juanfran to find the back of the net from close range. Carrasco continued to look dangerous for the remainder of normal time, but Atletico eased off and Real, for all the control of possession, never looked like scoring.

Extra time began with the same sluggish tempo, and neither side really looked like breaking the deadlock as the heat and fatigue began to get to the teams. Real still controlled possession, but Atletico held firm while Bale and Ronaldo seemed to crumble, the former making some very ambitious efforts on goal and generally ending up on the ground as a result. The game was destined for a tie-breaking penalty shoot-out, and it, much like the 120 minutes before it, was an excellent contest. The first seven penalties were scored, and Griezmann managed to redeem himself, but Juanfran could not put his penalty on target, as the ball hit the post and rolled away. Oblak tried hard to save Ronaldo’s final effort, but Ronaldo was unfazed by the pressure and hit it into the back of the net with ease, sealing the Champions League for Real Madrid.

San Siro – Milan
Real Madrid 1 (Ramos 15)
Atletico Madrid 1 (Carrasco 79) (a.e.t, Real Madrid won 5-3 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Real Madrid: Navas – Carvajal (Danilo 52), Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos (Isco 72), Modric, Bale, Benzema (Lucas Vazquez 77), Ronaldo.
Atletico Madrid: Oblak – Juanfran, Savic, Godin, Filipe Luis (Lucas Hernandez 109), Saul Niguez, Fernandez (Carrasco 46), Gabi, Koke (Partey 116), Torres, Griezmann.

Top 5
1. Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid)
Carrasco entered the game at half time when Atletico were facing an uphill battle, and his pace through the middle and on the break changed the game and turned it against Real. The goal he scored late was a just reward for his performance, and he put more pressure on the Real defence than any of his teammates.
2. Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)
The work of Luis was key to Atletico gaining a foothold in the game, and the Brazilian’s work putting long crosses into the box helped put some pressure on Real in a time of dominance. His work supplementing the attack was key, and while he went off injured in extra time he left a big mark on the game.
3. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
Bale’s best work was done early on in the game, but he remained a threat throughout despite limited supply. He won two early free kicks in dangerous positions early, and he provided the assist for Ramos’ goal from one of those set pieces. He was exceptionally dangerous and rounded out a solid game by slotting home his penalty in the shoot-out.
4. Gabi (Atletico Madrid)
Gabi played excellently throughout and was Atletico’s rock in the centre of midfield. He ran almost as hard as anyone on the field, and his determination to get the ball and ability to use it was a big issue for Real. He provided the ball that led to Carrasco’s goal, and was never far from the action for the full 120 minutes.
5. Casemiro (Real Madrid)
Casemiro played the whole game and was constantly plugging away for Real. He worked tirelessly in the centre of midfield, and while his forays forward were not always successful he nearly managed to set up a goal when he pinched the ball from Atletico in the centre of the park. His work-rate was excellent and he was a constant for Real for the whole game.

Stay tuned over the next few days for my team-by-team preview of UEFA Euro 2016, starting in France next month.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group H

Teams: FC Zenit, Valencia CF, Olympique Lyonnais, KAA Gent

FC Zenit (Russia)

Manager: Andre Villas-Boas
Captain: Danny
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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Prediction

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group G

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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
Captain: Maicon
Ground: Estadio do Dragao, Porto
Qualified: Primeira Liga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1986-87, 2003-04)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Prediction

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group D

Juventus FC (Italy)

Manager: Massimiliano Allegri
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Ground: Juventus Stadium, Turin
Qualified: Serie A, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1984-85, 1995-96)
2014-15 Champions League: Runners-up

Form Guide

Juventus won their fourth consecutive Serie A last season by a margin of 17 points over their nearest rival. They also made the Champions League final in new manager Massimiliano Allegri’s first season in charge, but lost to Barcelona. They have lost Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez over the off-season, although Paul Pogba has stayed at the club after he rejected a big money contract from Chelsea.

Strengths

New signings Hernanes and Sami Khedira will give Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio support in the middle of the park, and they have signed three new strikers to try and replace Tevez. Mario Mandzukic is a strong player, and Paulo Dybala and Simone Zaza could be very good players in the future. Juan Cuadrado has been loaned in from Chelsea, and he can play on either flank. The defence is the one area where Juve have not lost anyone, and Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are very strong players, and Patrice Evra, Alex Sandro and Stephan Lichtsteiner should ensure that there is no shortage of quality fullbacks. In goal, Gianluigi Buffon is still going strong after 20 years keeping at the top level for Parma and Juventus.

Weaknesses

While they have found replacements for their losses there is no guarantee that the replacements will be able to match the level of Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez. Juventus will not draw any confidence from their start to the season, with a disappointing loss to Udinese followed up by a loss to championship rivals Roma. Buffon, Chiellini, Marchisio, Bonucci, Barzagli and Evra are getting older, and while there are young players coming up in attack, the same players are not coming through in the defence. Allegri does not have a great track record as a manager, and whether the successes of last season were due to him or his great players is unclear.

Star Player: Paul Pogba

Pogba is currently one of the top midfielders in the world, and Chelsea were willing to shell out vast amounts of money to land the young French star. At 188 centimetres he is Juve’s main scoring option from set pieces, and he is a capable tackler and very capable in attack. Juventus will be particularly happy that he came from Manchester United for almost nothing.

Key Player: Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon is the only player to have 150 international caps for Italy, in an international career spanning back to 1997. He has played 425 times for Juve, and has never disappointed. His goalkeeping was good enough for him to be shortlisted, alongside 4 teammates, for the European player of the year award, and if he can keep as well as he did last season then Juve will do well.

Manchester City FC (England)

Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Ground: Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Round of 16 (2013-14, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Manchester City were comfortably beaten in the league by Chelsea last season, and were knocked out for a second consecutive year by Barcelona in the Champions League. They have improved significantly under Manuel Pellegrini, and this year they are yet to concede a goal in the Premier League, with the side currently sitting pretty after four consecutive victories. This season they will be looking to build on their round of 16 exits of the last two tournaments.

Strengths

City have spent lots of money assembling one of the best squads in world football. German footballer of the year Kevin de Bruyne has been brought in from Wolfsburg for big money, and he will combine with the likes of Fabian Delph, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Fernando and Samir Nasri in midfield. Vincent Kompany marshals the defence, playing alongside Aleksandr Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Eliaquim Mangala, Martin Demichelis and Nicolas Otamendi. Joe Hart is in goal, and he has plenty of experience. Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony are quite different players, and they can combine well in attack. New acquisition Raheem Sterling is immensely talented, and his pace will prove too much for some teams to handle.

Weaknesses

While the side is very strong some questions still remain. Sterling is still largely unproven, and while his talent is beyond doubt there is some question as to his aptitude, and he has a tendency to get under the skin of the press and cause media scandals. The extra pressure that will be placed upon them to get past the round of 16 could prove too much, and comfortably getting through their group is something that they will try to work on. Last season it took a last-gasp goal against Bayern Munich to progress, and this is something they would like to avoid. Hart may have played a lot for England and Manchester City, but he is certainly not the best keeper going around.

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

In a team packed with stars, Aguero is the standout. He made his debut for Independiente aged just 15, breaking a record set by Diego Maradona in the process. While he found the net frequently with Atletico Madrid, with City he has stepped it up a notch, and he will need to continue to score well to help his side through.

Key Player: Yaya Toure

Now that de Bruyne is likely to take a spot in midfield alongside David Silva, Toure is likely to find himself playing in a more traditional defensive midfield spot. While he will be forced to play a more defensive game how the Ivorian gets forward and creates chances will be integral. If he can keep a fairly regular flow of goals while maintaining defensive duties then City will be very tough to beat.

Sevilla FC (Spain)

Manager: Unai Emery
Captain: Jose Antonio Reyes
Ground: Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Seville
Qualified: UEFA Europa League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (1957-58)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Sevilla finished a tense La Liga season in fifth, 1 point behind Valencia and 2 behind Atletico Madrid, but they qualified after winning their second consecutive Europa League title. They defeated Borussia Monchengladbach, Villareal, Zenit and Fiorentina on their way to the final, and in the first Europa League final which guaranteed the winner a Champions League spot they delivered, with two goals to Carlos Bacca enough to seal a 3-2 win against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Strengths

Europa League hero Carlos Bacca may have left, but the forward line is still strong. Fernando Llorente, Michael Krohn-Dehli and Ciro Immobile have come in, joining former PSG frontman Kevin Gameiro. Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Steven N’Zonzi add strength in the middle of the park, and Yevhen Konoplyanka should cause plenty of issues in tandem with captain Jose Antonio Reyes. Benoit Tremoulinas, Coke and Adil Rami are strong players in defence. Beto and Sergio Rico are both strong goalkeepers, and their competition for a spot in the team should lead to good performances from both men. Sevilla have played a lot of Champions League quality teams in the Europa League, and the step up should not bother them too much.

Weaknesses

Questions remain about some areas of the side. Coke and Tremoulinas have got the fullback positions pinned down, but it is unclear who is the best player to partner Rami in the centre of defence. Krychowiak was chosen for the first game, but he is a defensive midfielder, not a centre back. Immobile may have been great at Torino two seasons ago, but at Dortmund it is fair to say he was a bit of a flop. As such, whether he is a suitable replacement for Bacca is unclear. The amount of Champions League experience on the team is not very high, and while they have faced some of their potential opponents they have not faced many teams of the calibre of Juventus and Manchester City. Their 3-0 loss to Atletico last time out will not fill them with confidence.

Star Player: Fernando Llorente

Llorente has been hanging on the edge of the Spanish team for years, first while at Athletic Bilbao and then with Juventus. His career with Athletic was very successful, and he played 333 times in all competitions for the side. He has arrived from Italy and is now in the first team at Sevilla, who will be hoping that he can deliver and score plenty of goals.

Key Player: Grzegorz Krychowiak

Krychowiak can play in the centre of defence or in midfield, and he had great success in his first season with Sevilla. He was the only player from the club named in the La Liga team of the season, and he is likely to take up a role in the centre of defence alongside Rami. Sevilla will be counting on him to perform his duties effectively and keep the defence solid.

Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany)

Manager: Lucien Favre
Captain: Martin Stranzl
Ground: Stadion im Borussia-Park, Monchengladbach
Qualified: Bundesliga, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1976-77)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Monchengladbach finished three points behind Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, but were still able to qualify automatically for the Champions League as a result. This season they will be hoping for success after years out of the competition, although they will be part of a tough group. Their European campaign finished last season at the hands of Sevilla in the Europa League round of 32, and they will hope that they can defeat the Spaniards this time around.

Strengths

Borussia Monchengladbach had one of the best defences in the Bundesliga last season, conceding only 26 goals. Yann Sommer has stepped up to become one of the league’s top keepers, and he has had experience in the competition with Basel. The defence of Martin Stranzl, Tony Jantschke, Oscar Wendt and Roel Brouwers is very strong, and Andre Hahn and Granit Xhaka provide solidity in midfield. Thorgan Hazard has a chance to try and step out of his brother Eden’s shadow, and he will be able to combine with Raffael, Patrick Herrmann, Josip Drmic and Lars Stindl to score plenty of goals. Harvard Nordveidt has lots of experience with Norway and he will add a lot to the midfield.

Weaknesses

The loss of Max Kruse to Champions League rivals Wolfsburg is big, and the side will struggle to make up the 11 goals that he scored last season, especially given the attack only managed 53 goals in the Bundesliga. Josip Drmic will have to play a key role in scoring those goals, and this pressure could have negative consequences for his form. Gladbach have not had a good start to the season, losing to Borussia Dortmund, Mainz and Werder Bremen and sitting at the bottom of the table. A lack of experience in the competition could ultimately cost them, and if they cannot handle the step up to the Champions League then they could be out the door very quickly.

Star Player: Yann Sommer

Sommer has become one of the best goalkeepers in Germany, and he is undoubtedly a star for Monchengladbach. Since breaking into the Basel first team he has not missed a beat, and after a great season in the Bundesliga he is ready to tackle the Champions League head on. His experience with Basel will be key, as the Germans have not made it to the Champions League for years.

Key Player: Raffael

Raffael was the leading scorer for Monchengladbach in the league last season, and they will hope that he can increase his output to try and cover for the loss of Kruse. He is a player who can definitely step up for Die Fohlen, and if he can score plenty of goals then this process will be made much easier for Gladbach.

Prediction

This group will be very tough, with four strong teams battling it out, but Manchester City and Juventus have more experience and look to have a slight leg-up over their inexperienced opponents. Borussia Monchengladbach may struggle, especially when trying to fill the void left by star player Kruse, who scored 11 goals and had 7 assists last season.
Prediction: 1. Manchester City, 2. Juventus, 3. Sevilla, 4. Borussia Monchengladbach.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group C

SL Benfica (Portugal)

Head Coach: Rui Vitoria
Captain: Luisao
Ground: Estadio da Luz, Lisbon
Qualified: Primeira Liga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1960-61, 1961-62)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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
Captain: Gabi
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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Prediction

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group B

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

Form Guide

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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Prediction

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group A

The world’s premier club football competition is back, the draw is set, and on September 15 it will kick off with teams from all around Europe. Over the next couple of weeks I will be looking at all the teams and groups in depth. Enjoy.

Paris Saint-Germain FC (France)

Manager: Laurent Blanc
Captain: Thiago Silva
Ground: Parc des Princes, Paris
Qualified: Ligue 1, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (1994-95)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Form Guide

PSG won their third straight league title last season, although they faced stiff competition after a slow start to the season, with Marseille and Lyon both enjoying extended periods at the top of the table. Despite this, they rallied late and took home the title by eight points over Lyon. In the Champions League they made it through to the round of 16 comfortably, and after knocking out Chelsea they were comfortably beaten by eventual champions Barcelona.

Strengths

As with any side blessed with near-unlimited transfer funds, PSG have got a stacked side. Mercurial Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the frontline act, having scored 75 goals in 92 league games since joining in 2012. Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas, Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore provide more than adequate support, and the midfield group of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta provides solidity. Kevin Trapp has seemingly upstaged Salvatore Sirigu as first choice goalkeeper, and this must be encouraging given the ability of the latter. Down back, Thiago Silva and David Luiz are both stars, and formed the backbone of the Brazilian side at the World Cup.

Weaknesses

The side may have taken vast amounts of money to compile, but questions remain about the defence. The fullbacks are not particularly strong, especially when compared to the stars in the rest of the team, and questions must be raised about Luiz, who struggled defensively against Barcelona in last season’s quarter-final. Trapp, who is now the first choice goalkeeper, is still inexperienced in European competitions, and the French champions are a massive step up from Eintracht Frankfurt. While they should pass the group stage, they will be under pressure to succeed and pass the quarter-final stage, and this could rub off on the results of the team.

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic is one of the biggest characters in world football, and his European record is incredible. He has scored 46 times in 116 matches, and he has freakish athleticism and skill, meaning that he has scored some truly incredible goals. He has been very successful for PSG, finding the back of the net an incredible 106 times in just 126 matches for the French side.

Key Player: Blaise Matuidi

Matuidi has been a fixture of PSG’s side since 2011, playing 135 out of a possible 152 league matches. He is a very capable midfielder, and he provides a very important link between attack and defence. He is a strong runner and is able to get forward, but he is also very solid and PSG will be hoping that nothing gets past him.

Real Madrid CF (Spain)

Head Coach: Rafael Benitez
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Ground: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
Qualified: La Liga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1955-56, 1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1965-66, 1997-98, 1999-2000, 2001-02, 2013-14)
2014-15 Champions League: Semi-Finals

Form Guide

Last season may have been considered a disappointment for Real Madrid, with bitter rivals Barcelona edging them out for the title and an away goals loss to Juventus knocking them out in the semi-finals. They sat in first for much of the season, but after Barcelona wrestled it from their grasp they did not give it back, holding on to clutch the title by 2 points. Carlo Ancelotti paid for his side’s inability to win a title with his job, and Rafael Benitez will hope to succeed.

Strengths

Real Madrid have incredible amounts of money to play around with, and they have built an elite squad. The current squad took 554 million euros to compile, and has three players who cost over 80 million. Just this transfer window alone they have spent 86.9 million euros on new acquisitions such as Danilo, Mateo Kovacic, and Kiko Casilla. On the park they are incredibly strong, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale forming what could be a great forward line. With James Rodriguez, Isco, Kovacic, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield the side has immense quality. Down back, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Danilo, Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane ensure nothing gets past them.

Weaknesses

While the side has plenty of stars all over the park, they have had some fairly big losses as well. Iker Casillas may have been slightly out of sorts, but he had massive experience, and while Keylor Navas acquitted himself well with Costa Rica in the World Cup he now has much more expectation on his shoulders than before. The losses of Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira leave the midfield slightly lacking in depth, and an injury to a couple of their centre midfielders could leave them in a bad position. Despite having 20 shots to 3 in their first league encounter with Sporting Gijon, they were not able to return a goal, a disappointing result given the quality of the opposition.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

The most expensive player ever when he joined from Manchester United in 2009, he has been a revelation at Real. He has scored 225 times in 201 league games, and in 64 Champions League outings for Los Blancos he has netted 64 times, averaging a goal a game. Since joining Real he has scored more goals, and he is now the primary source for Spain’s biggest club.

Key Player: Toni Kroos

Kroos first played for Bayern Munich at the age of 17, and after winning the World Cup with Germany he was signed by Real. His first season saw him play 36 times, and he is likely to be just as much of a fixture this time around. He can play as a central or attacking midfielder, and he has a great free kick which sets up plenty of goals. He will be relied upon to create chances in midfield, and also from free kicks.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

Manager: Mircea Lucescu
Captain: Darijo Srna
Ground: Arena Lviv, Lviv
Qualified: Ukrainian Premier League, 2nd (defeated Fenerbahce SK and SK Rapid Wien in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2010-11)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Shakhtar failed to take home the Ukrainian title for the first time since 2008-09, and consequently had to go through qualifying. Entering in the third qualifying round, they took on and beat Fenerbahce, before a 1-0 victory in Vienna against Rapid was enough to send them into the group stage. Last season the Ukrainians passed a group consisting of Porto, Athletic Bilbao and BATE Borisov, before a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich spelt the end of their campaign.

Strengths

Mircea Lucescu has built an impressive side, with a solid defence consisting of Darijo Srna, Oleksandr Kucher, Ivan Ordets, Yaroslav Rakitskyi and Vyacheslav Shevchuk,while Andriy Pyatov provides great back-up in goal. The side played impressively in qualifying, a 3-0 aggregate win over Fenerbahce the highlight, and will hope to continue that form. Marlos, Alex Teixeira, Bernard and Taison are all strong in attacking midfield, and Fred will combine well with Taras Stepanenko in behind the attack. Oleksandr Hladkiy is up front with support from Facundo Ferreyra, Dentinho and Eduardo.

Weaknesses

Shakhtar have not lost many players in this transfer window, but the ones they have lost will leave holes. Star striker Luiz Adriano has departed for Milan after playing in Donetsk since 2007, and he will be sorely missed, especially considering his 9 goals in last year’s Champions League. Hladkiy will be responsible for replacing him, and he will be under some pressure. The loss of Douglas Costa to Bayern is also a fairly big one, although they do have replacements in his position. The loss of Fernando to Sampdoria takes away some of the depth that they have in midfield. Despite this, big losses are nothing new for Lucescu and Shakhtar, and they should be able to cope.

Star Player: Alex Teixeira

Teixeira has started the Ukrainian season in stunning form, with 7 goals in his first 6 league outings. After a quiet start at Shakhtar, he is now vice-captain, and was the leading scorer in the Ukrainian Premier League last year, with 17 goals. This kind of form is exactly what Shakhtar are looking for, and if he can keep it up he will be a big threat.

Key Player: Oleksandr Hladkiy

With Luiz Adriano’s departure to Milan it is Hladkiy who will most likely need to fill the void left by his departure. While no goals in 6 games is not a great start, Teixeira has been providing enough, but he will need to improve if Shakhtar are to defy the odds and defeat PSG or Real in a very tough group. Two goals in qualifying is a start, but this form has to continue.

Malmo FF (Sweden)

Head Coach: Age Hareide
Captain: Markus Rosenberg
Ground: Swedbank Stadion, Malmo
Qualified: Allsvenskan, 1st (defeated FC Zalgiris Vilnius, FC Red Bull Salzburg and Celtic FC in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1978-79)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

After a fairly unsuccessful run in a tough group in last season’s Champions League, Malmo managed to defend their Swedish title, something that had not been done since 2003. As a result they went back into the qualification system, and they scraped through a seemingly simple tie with Zalgiris of Lithuania by a margin of 1-0. After going down 2-0 to Red Bull Salzburg they claimed a 3-0 victory in the second leg, and a similar thing happened against Celtic, a 2-0 win in Malmo enough to proceed.

Strengths

Malmo have a fairly strong squad headlined by Markus Rosenberg, who has experience playing in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and England. He leads the team, which also contains Johan Wiland in goal and internationals such as Rasmus Bengtsson, Yoshimar Yotun and Kari Arnason in defence. Former Ajax midfielder Tobias Sana is backed up by former Cardiff City players Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Jo Inge Berget, as well as Enoch Kofi Adu, Oscar Lewicki and Vladimir Rodic. Guillermo Molins and Nikola Djurdic provide support for Rosenberg up front, capping off a fairly strong set-up.

Weaknesses

Malmo are a strong side, but a lack of real competition and world-class players means that they will seriously struggle. They have produced great players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the comparative standard of the Allsvenskan means that they cannot keep players and cannot attract stars either. When compared to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid they stand no chance, and the group they have been drawn is tougher than the group they had last year, but this lack of expectation could prove helpful as the side has absolutely no pressure upon their shoulders.

Star Player: Markus Rosenberg

Rosenberg has plenty of experience playing against the world’s best, and has been capped 33 times for his native Sweden. His experience paid off for Malmo last season, and he has netted 22 times for the club in 48 Allsvenskan matches. He was also strong in the Champions League too, scoring 7 times in 12 Champions League outings.

Key Player: Johan Wiland

Wiland has lots of experience, having played 206 times for Elfsborg and 142 times for Kobenhavn. With Kobenhavn he also took part in the Champions League, and so has experienced the competition. His experience will be key for Malmo, as will be his goalkeeping, which has seen him regularly called up to the Swedish national team.

Prediction

With PSG and Real Madrid in the same group it is almost certainly going to end one way, as Shakhtar and Malmo simply cannot match it with the hordes of stars being brought in. Real Madrid should just edge out PSG for 1st place, but the match-ups between the two will be sure to entertain. Despite this, Shakhtar and Malmo should not be ruled out, but progress is unlikely.
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Paris Saint-Germain, 3. Shakhtar Donetsk, 4. Malmo.

Keita goal the difference as Lazio triumph

Lazio have triumphed in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League play-off with Bayer Leverkusen after a late goal from Keita. Both sides played in an aggressive style from the start, and Lazio caused the Germans some early issues by getting the ball into the box. Leverkusen recovered, however, and soon looked like the more accomplished side, with Karim Bellarabi appearing particularly skilful. Heung-Min Son was denied by some good defence by Mauricio, and soon after both sides hit the post in the space of a minute. Lars Bender’s shot from range smashed into the woodwork, before Lazio worked the ball to the dangerous Felipe Anderson, who managed to play in Miroslav Klose. The veteran was unable to finish, however, being diverted well by Bernd Leno, and he hit the post under duress. Leverkusen continued to find their feet as the game went on, and Lazio were relying more upon the counter-attack. Hakan Calhanoglu nearly managed to catch Lazio keeper Etrit Berisha off guard with a shot from past halfway, but the shot just missed. Controversy ensued just before the break, when Wendell, already cautioned, blocked Felipe Anderson. This prompted Lazio to call for a second yellow, but their request was denied.

At half-time the experienced Klose was brought off for Keita, a substitution that proved to be incredibly influential. The signs were there when only some great defence from Jonathan Tah and Leno prevented the young Senegalese forward from getting through. Leverkusen still looked on top, but Keita managed to get in behind again on the counter, although it went over the bar. Leverkusen had a goal disallowed in the 69th minute, as the ball clipped an offside Stefan Kiessling while Calhanoglu put it into the back of the net. Leverkusen could have been through again when substitute Admir Mehmedi was played through after some excellent work by Christoph Kramer, only for Mehmedi to get ahead of the ball and overrun it. Keita got through again, this time forcing a save from Leno. He was clearly too quick for the Leverkusen defence and he scored 5 minutes later, running into open space between midfield and defence and beating Tah before firing past Leno. The ball bounced off the far post and in. From that point on it became clear that the Germans were simply dropping out of the match. Keita was obviously and deliberately fouled twice, by Tah and Kyriakos Papadopoulos, the latter drawing calls for a straight red when he blocked him just outside the box. Leverkusen simply could not create any clear cut chances, and from the moment Keita scored the result was inevitable.

In other matches:
Astana Arena, Astana: Astana defeated Cypriot champions APOEL 1-0 after a goal from Baurzhan Dzholchiev, and they take the advantage going into the second leg in Nicosia.
Borisov Arena, Barysaw: A late goal to Mikhail Gordeichuk gave BATE Borisov a win at home against Partizan, after Marko Jevtovic was sent off for the visitors.
Old Trafford, Manchester: An early own goal by Michael Carrick put Manchester United behind, but two goals to Memphis Depay and a late sealer to Marouane Fellaini gave them a 3-1 win over Club Brugge.
Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon: A late goal to Islam Slimani gave Sporting the advantage over CSKA Moscow, after earlier goals to Teofilo Gutierrez for the hosts and Seydou Doumbia for CSKA.

Rome – Stadio Olimpico
Lazio 1 (Keita 77)
Bayer Leverkusen 0
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Swe)

Lazio: Berisha – Basta, De Vrij (Gentiletti 89), Mauricio, Lulic, Onazi (Milinkovic-Savic 53), Biglia, Parolo, Candreva, Klose (Keita 46), Felipe Anderson.
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno – Hilbert, Papadopoulos, Tah, Wendell, Bellarabi, Bender, Kramer, Son (Mehmedi 46), Hakan Calhanoglu (Brandt 84), Kiessling (Kruse 92).