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.

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