2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group E

Teams: FC Barcelona, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, AS Roma, FC BATE Borisov

FC Barcelona (Spain)

Head Coach: Luis Enrique
Captain: Andres Iniesta
Ground: Camp Nou, Barcelona
Qualified: La Liga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1991-92, 2005-06, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Champions

Form Guide

Barcelona won La Liga last season by just 2 points over bitter rivals Real Madrid. The Catalans lost only four times for the season, and they conceded just 21 times. In the Champions League they came out on top, a 3-1 win over Juventus in Berlin enough to grant them a treble of league, cup and Champions League. The side was helped by a star-studded forward line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, who combined for 81 goals between them.

Strengths

Barcelona have one of the best all-round teams in the world. Messi is the headline act, and he has been crowned world player of the year on multiple occasions. Neymar is also a star, and while Suarez may be a hated player for some of his actions on the pitch he is also very good. The three of them formed a lethal combination last season, and it was made especially hard for defences who had no idea what to do. Ivan Rakitic slotted in well to the midfield of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets last season, and Barca will hope that they can combine well this time around. The defence is very strong, with Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano a great combination in the centre. On the flanks, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have a habit of pushing forward and wreaking havoc.

Weaknesses

The goalkeeping situation is not ideal, and while Marc-Andre ter Stegen was successful in the Champions League the defence was so strong he didn’t generally get much to deal with. Claudio Bravo is probably the stronger of the two keepers, although he may not be chosen in the side. The forward line is currently not functioning as it should be, and while they have won both games the victories were not particularly convincing. When Alba and Alves push forward it can create a space for wingers to tuck in behind, and this could be a very dangerous fault against players like Gervinho and Hakan Calhanoglu, who they will come up against in the group stage.

Star Player: Lionel Messi

Messi is arguably the best player in the world, and with 4 Ballon D’Or awards to his name Barcelona will be especially pleased that he cost them nothing in transfer fees. He is able to score frequently, netting 43 league goals last year. He is also the best in the forward line at creating chances, and they will hope that he can contribute in the assists column and on the scoresheet.

Key Player: Javier Mascherano

A veteran player with vast experience, Mascherano originally played in defensive midfield but has been converted into a centre back at Barca. He will need to bring his experience to the defence, and if he and Pique can combine well then Barcelona will be tough to beat. They will need him to cover for the counter-attack, something which made Barca look quite vulnerable last season.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Germany)

Manager: Roger Schmidt
Captain: Lars Bender
Ground: BayArena, Leverkusen
Qualified: Bundesliga, 4th (defeated SS Lazio in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (2001-02)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Leverkusen were only able to finish fourth in last season’s Bundesliga, although they were quite comfortably ahead of Augsburg in fifth. This meant a trip to the play-offs, where they faced Lazio. Keita scored in the first leg to give Lazio a one-goal advantage coming in to Leverkusen, but Lazio were blown away by Roger Schmidt’s side, goals to Hakan Calhanoglu, Admir Mehmedi and Karim Bellarabi enough to send them through.

Strengths

Leverkusen have a very potent and dangerous attack. Son Heung-Min has departed for Tottenham Hotspur, but he has been replaced by Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. Hernandez is joined by Stefan Kiessling, Bellarabi, Mehmedi and Calhanoglu in an attack that will no doubt be a real danger, even against a defence of Barcelona’s calibre. Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer will form an effective partnership in the engine room, with players like Charles Aranguiz giving support. Wendell and Roberto Hilbert are fullbacks who can be very dangerous getting forward, and Jonathan Tah will combine with Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Omer Toprak to provide solidity in defence. Bernd Leno is one of Germany’s brightest young keepers, and not much will get past him.

Weaknesses

In the first leg against Lazio the defence was repeatedly caught out on the counter-attack by Lazio, and this contributed to them losing the game. This kind of flaw could prove to have serious ramifications for the side, especially against a side like Barcelona or even Roma. The attack is strong, but was not working cohesively in the loss to Lazio, something that has to be fixed. The midfield of Kramer and Bender is solid, but in the case of injury there is a lack of depth in the squad, and this could be a worry. The only hiccup in the league so far was a 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, but Barcelona are at least at the same level as the German champions.

Star Player: Stefan Kiessling

Kiessling made his debut for Nuremberg in 2003, aged just 19, and moved to Leverkusen in 2006. He has scored the second most goals in the club’s history, and he has played 287 times for Bayer. His height allows him to get aerial balls, and despite a below-par season last time around he is a consistent scorer when in form, something that will be invaluable for Leverkusen.

Key Player: Christoph Kramer

Kramer is a very exciting young prospect for both Leverkusen and Germany, and he earned his fourth international cap in the World Cup final, a game which he started but was concussed early and took no further part in proceedings. He is undoubtedly a good midfielder, but he is relied on by Leverkusen and he needs to fulfil those lofty expectations if Leverkusen are to succeed.

AS Roma (Italy)

Head Coach: Rudi Garcia
Captain: Francesco Totti
Ground: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Qualified: Serie A, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1983-84)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

Roma gained automatic qualification to the Champions League for the second consecutive season, and it came with a little extra sweetness given that they edged out bitter rivals Lazio by a point to take out second place. They would have felt unlucky to miss out on the knockout stages of the Champions League, as Manchester City pulled off a remarkable comeback to edge them out by just 3 points with a last day win in Rome.

Strengths

Roma have a strong attack, particularly down the flanks. Mohamed Salah, Iago Falque and Gervinho are all strong players, and Edin Dzeko adds valuable height to the attack. Francesco Totti is a legend of Rome, and his experience in over 20 years of service for Roma will be invaluable. Radja Nainggolan, Alessandro Florenzi and Daniele de Rossi are solid in the middle, and the latter has plenty of experience playing for Italy and Roma. Miralem Pjanic is a very good playmaker, and if he can provide plenty of chances for the forwards and national teammate Dzeko then Roma will do very well. Antonio Rudiger, Maicon, Lucas Digne and Kostas Manolas are strong in defence and Morgan de Sanctis and Wojciech Szczesny will be in tough competition for the keeper’s spot.

Weaknesses

The side has talent, but the issues surrounding the transfer of Salah could prove a distraction. The affair is quite messy, and it is unclear what kind of consequences it could hold, even though the investigation centres around Chelsea. There are some issues surrounding the defence, and the loss of left-back Ashley Cole is big. Digne is a good young prospect, but he has not had much game time at PSG and his lack of experience could be a worry. The centre-back position is not particularly strong, with a number of competitors looking for a game but no real options stepping up. Defensive midfielder de Rossi was used there against Juventus, and that is a worry. The side is largely made up of loanees who have not played together, and this could create issues.

Star Player: Gervinho

Gervinho is an immensely talented player who can play on either wing, and has significantly bolstered Roma’s attack since his arrival from Arsenal in 2013. He is dangerous in front of goal, but his dribbling is also very good and he is a reliable creator of chances. He has improved his scoring in the past couple of years, and he should be a handful for all defences.

Key Player: Edin Dzeko

Dzeko has come into the side on loan from Manchester City, and he gives good height to the forward line, where he will provide a target for the wingers. The Bosnian international has not had the best time at City recently, where he has struggled to really contribute to the scoresheet. Roma will need him to retrieve his best form and be the target they are looking for.

FC BATE Borisov (Belarus)

Manager: Alyaksandr Yermakovich
Captain: Dzmitry Likhtarovich
Ground: Borisov Arena, Barysaw
Qualified: Belarusian Premier League, 1st (defeated Dundalk FC, Videoton FC and FK Partizan in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2008-09, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

BATE have had a stranglehold over the Belarusian league for some time now, and this year they are already well on their way to a tenth consecutive Belarusian title. They progressed to the group stage through qualifying, where they beat Dundalk and Videoton to go through to a play-off against Serbian champions Partizan. Mikhail Gordeichuk’s goal gave them the advantage, and a 2-1 loss in Belgrade was enough to send them through on away goals.

Strengths

In Alexander Hleb the Belarusian champions have a quality player who has played for Arsenal and Barcelona, and has 69 caps for Belarus. The side is attacking, and Hleb is backed up in attacking midfield by the dangerous duo of Mikhail Gordeichuk and Ihar Stasevich. Vitali Rodionov has a habit of finding the back of the net, and he is a good player to have at centre forward. Down back, Filip Mladenovic, Dzyanis Palyakow, Nemanja Milunovic and Maksim Zhavnerchik are solid, and the midfield of Alyaksandr Valadzko, Ilya Aleksiyevich and Dzmitry Likhtarovich should be strong enough. By now the team has enough experience in Europe to be a contender and make the knockout rounds.

Weaknesses

BATE have had issues in Europe in the past, and last season they were awful. Aside from a win at home against Athletic Bilbao, they lost their other 5 games without scoring, and they conceded at least 5 on three occasions. They lost 6-0 to Porto before 7-0 and 5-0 losses to Shakhtar. They finished off the group stage with a 3-0 loss to Porto and a 2-0 loss to Athletic. Looking to this year, Barcelona, Leverkusen and Roma are better teams than that, and it could be a long campaign if this starts happening again. Hleb may be a star, but he was relegated to the left wing instead of his preferred position, and this may cause even more issues. BATE will be determined to improve, but determination may not be enough.

Star Player: Alexander Hleb

He is not necessarily a big scorer, but Hleb was good enough to get in to the first team at Arsenal, and he has large amounts of experience. He is skilled as well, and during his time in Germany he was known for his skills with the ball. His experience will be important, but even at 34 he has the potential to be a great player for BATE.

Key Player: Syarhey Chernik

Chernik struggled in goal in last season’s Champions League, letting in 22 goals with some bloopers along the way, most notable being when he threw the ball directly to Yacine Brahimi, who ran on to score. Despite this, he only conceded 12 times in the Premier League, showing he is capable, but BATE need him to step up to deal with harder opponents.

Prediction

Barcelona blitzed the Champions League last season, and I see no reason why it should be any different this time around. By the same token it is hard to see BATE do any better, even though they would struggle to do much worse. This leaves it down to Roma and Leverkusen, who are both strong and very evenly matched sides. I think, however, that Leverkusen have a slightly more solid side and should be favourites, but the difference is negligible.
Prediction: 1. Barcelona, 2. Bayer Leverkusen, 3. Roma, 4. BATE Borisov.

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Classy Barça too much for Juve

FC Barcelona have taken out the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League in Berlin, stylishly defeating the Italian champions 3-1. An early goal to Ivan Rakitić was cancelled out by Álvaro Morata, but goals to Luis Suárez and Neymar ensured that Barcelona would take out their fifth European title. The match had the perfect start for Barça when Rakitić opened the scoring within 5 minutes. Lionel Messi, Daniel Alves, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta combined in a great passing move to get the Croatian on his own in the area, and Gianluigi Buffon had no chance to save it. Barcelona continued to get most of the territory, although Juventus made some dangerous looking counter attacks. Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci were being pulled away from each other by the width of Neymar and Messi, and Iniesta was a dangerous presence in midfield.

At the start of the second half the momentum started to shift towards the Italians, with Juventus playing more inside their half. Despite this Barça started the half well, with Buffon making an incredible reflex save to keep out Suárez. Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio were starting to get some control back for Juve, however, and Marchisio’s backheel was the catalyst for an equaliser. Marchisio played the backheel past two Barça defenders to right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, who was able to get inside the penalty area and pass to Carlos Tévez. Tévez made an accurate shot which keeper Marc-André ter Stegen had a hard time saving, and the ball spilled out to Morata, who was easily able to stroke the ball into the back of the net. Paul Pogba was denied a penalty after he and Alves tussled for the ball inside the box, and a few minutes later Suárez had scored after a ruthless counter-attack. The Catalans swarmed in numbers upon the Juventus penalty area, and after Buffon made a great save to Messi’s shot Suárez pounced, easily putting the ball away. The die seemed cast when Neymar appeared to score with a header, but the goal was disallowed as the ball came of the Brazilian’s hand before going into the back of the net. Juventus were desperate for a goal, and they attacked doggedly, but Luis Enrique’s approach left plenty of open space around the ground for his forwards to run in to. A couple of positioning errors at corners by ter Stegen were not capitalised upon by Juve, and Neymar was able to get a goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time when he capitalised on Juve’s last-gasp attack. The goal signalled the end of the match, sealing a league, cup and Champions League treble for Barça and providing a fitting end to Xavi’s career with Barcelona.

Top 5
1. Neymar (Barcelona)
Neymar had a great impact on the game in the first half, where he was a constant threat on the left wing. His pass to Iniesta was a key part of the first goal, as was the part where he drew two defenders out of the box to create extra space. He kept Stephan Lichtsteiner busy throughout, and scored a much deserved goal at the end of the game.
2. Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Pogba deserves credit for the way that he played, both in attack and defence. He was hard-working in defence, and was treated fairly harshly by the refs for his combative style of play. He stuck with this style despite being booked in the first half, and he was a key player in attack, assisting Andrea Pirlo from deep in midfield.
3. Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona)
Iniesta may have been subbed out of the game late, but his impact in the early stages largely contributed to Barcelona’s success. He provided an assist for Ivan Rakitić after a great burst of speed into space and then a clever pass to the unmanned player. He was incredibly dangerous throughout the first half and was a constant struggle for the Italians.
4. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi was very effective on the right wing throughout the first half, and during the second half he was dangerous on the counter. His shot was the spark for Barcelona’s second goal to Luis Suárez, and he was dangerous when he cut in from the wing during the second half. In that play he combined twice with Suárez, but his shot was just over the bar.
5. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
Buffon kept Juventus in the game when Barcelona were pressing in the first half with some great saves. He couldn’t have done much to stop the goals that the Catalans scored, but he made great saves to both Daniel Alves and Luis Suárez, the first of which he made with his weight going in another direction.

Berlin – Olympiastadion
Juventus 1 (Morata 55)
Barcelona 3 (Rakitić 4, Suárez 68, Neymar 90+7)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakir (Tur)
Juventus: Buffon – Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Bonucci, Evra (Coman 89), Pogba, Pirlo, Marchisio, Vidal (Pereyra 79), Tévez, Morata (Llorente 85).
Barcelona: ter Stegen – Daniel Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Rakitić (Mathieu 90+1), Busquets, Iniesta (Xavi Hernández 78), Messi, Suárez (Pedro Rodríguez 90+6), Neymar.

PSG edge out Barça in thriller

Paris Saint-Germain vs Barcelona  

Paris Saint-Germain have pulled off a 3-2 victory against Barcelona in an exhilarating contest. The Parisians held on for over half an hour to deny the visitors victory. The game started at a fairly quick pace, both sides looking to keep possession while attempting penetrative passing moves. A tenth minute free kick to the home side, however, changed the game dramatically, as David Luiz outdid Javier Mascherano in the air and put the ball past Marc-Andre ter Stegen into the bottom corner. Barça didn’t have to wait long for the equaliser, however, a perfectly constructed passing move allowing Lionel Messi to score past Salvatore Sirigu. The game continued in the same manner, Messi nearly sending through Neymar with an ingenious ball, but a Lucas corner again exposed Barça’s weakness at set pieces. Marco Verratti found space behind Ivan Rakitić and headed the ball past an out of position ter Stegen to again give PSG the lead. Both sides continued with their styles of play, PSG nearly catching Barça out on the counter-attack a few times, but the score was the same when the teams came in for the break.

The even contest of the first half continued after the break, and after Blaise Matuidi finished off Gregory van der Wiel’s cross PSG took a 3-1 lead and a clear advantage. The two-goal buffer didn’t last long, however, after Dani Alves’ cross flew over the contest to Neymar, who finished calmly. Barça continued to push, but were consistently knocked back by the Parisian defence, while Javier Pastore initiated a number of dangerous attacks from inside PSG’s defensive half. Manager Luis Enrique started to make changes, with Xavi and young guns Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramírez brought on. Jordi Alba had a perfect opportunity in the 82nd when his attempt from inside the 6-yard box was brilliantly blocked by a sliding Marquinhos. Munir’s long range effort hit the post, and Ramírez only just missed the target from just inside the area. Barça kept pushing, and PSG kept denying them. PSG started to take advantage of Barça’s defensive imbalance on the counter-attack, and Barça were not able to deny them victory on the night.

Paris – Parc des Princes
Paris Saint-Germain FC 3 (David Luiz 10, Verratti 26, Matuidi 54)
FC Barcelona 2 (Messi 12, Neymar 56)
Referee: Rizzoli (Ita)
Paris Saint-Germain: Sirigu – van der Wiel, Marquinhos, David Luiz, Maxwell, Verratti (Cabaye 71), Thiago Motta, Matuidi, Lucas (Bahebeck 90+1), Cavani, Pastore (Chantôme 86).

Barcelona: ter Stegen – Daniel Alves (Ramírez 83), Mascherano, Mathieu, Jordi Alba, Rakitić (Xavi Hernández 69), Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro Rodríguez (El Haddadi 69), Messi, Neymar.

Top 5
1. Javier Pastore (Paris Saint-Germain)
Pastore started the game slowly, but as the match went on his influence grew. In the second half he was one of the most influential players on either side, with his runs, sometimes starting deep in his own half, often fortuitously disrupting the momentum of Barcelona’s attack.
2. David Luiz (Paris Saint-Germain)
Playing in the heart of defence Luiz barely lost an aerial contest all day, and his early goal was influential in shaping the course of the match. As the pressure ramped up he stepped up, winning several key aerial contests and making many key blocks with his head.
3. Lucas (Paris Saint-Germain)
Lucas was the best player on the field from both sides in the first half, his pace far too great for anyone Barça could assign to him. His corners and free-kicks, two of which bore goals, provided the Barcelona defence with many headaches, and while he dropped off in the second half he was still one of the best on ground.
4. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi scored an early goal, and was one of the best players in the first half. He was Barça’s creative fulcrum, and the chipped pass he played over three PSG defenders was one of the best balls played during the match. In the end he provided a lot of trouble for the PSG defence.
5. Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Matuidi was one of the hardest working players on the ground, going from attack to defence and playing his role to perfection. His goal in the second half gave PSG a definite edge in the match, but his concise passing and hard-running was what set him apart.

In other matches:
Moscow: A Thomas Muller penalty was the only goal of the match as Bayern Munich defeated CSKA Moscow.
Manchester: Francesco Totti’s strike cancelled out Sergio Aguero’s early penalty as Manchester City drew Roma.
Nicosia: Ajax and APOEL drew 1-1 after Lucas Andersen’s goal was cancelled out by Gustavo Manduca’s penalty.
Lisbon: Nemanja Matic scored the only goal of the game as Chelsea beat Sporting.
Gelsenkirchen: Damjan Bohar’s first-half effort was cancelled out by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as Maribor drew Schalke.
Lviv: After missing an early penalty and going 2-0 down in the 85th two goals from substitute Jackson Martinez saved Porto from defeat at Shakhtar.
Barysaw: Goals from Dzyanis Polyakow and Alyaksandr Karnitskiy were enough to give BATE Borisov a 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Tables

Group E P W D L GF GA GD Pts
FC Bayern München 2 2 0 0 2 0 2 6
AS Roma 2 1 1 0 6 2 4 4
Manchester City FC 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
PFC CSKA Moskva 2 0 0 2 1 6 -5 0
                 
Group F P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Paris Saint-Germain FC 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 4
FC Barcelona 2 1 0 1 3 3 0 3
AFC Ajax 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
APOEL FC 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
                 
Group G P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Chelsea FC 2 1 1 0 2 1 1 4
NK Maribor 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
FC Schalke 04 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
Sporting Clube de Portugal 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
                 
Group H P W D L GF GA GD Pts
FC Porto 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 4
FC BATE Borisov 2 1 0 1 2 7 5 3
FC Shakhtar Donetsk 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
Athletic Club 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1