September 18, 2012
In many European countries, the soccer season is just starting up but the biggest competitions in the continent have already been running for a couple of months. The top teams from the smaller leagues in Europe have been battling through several rounds of knock-out competition to qualify for the lucrative group stages against the big names of European soccer.
At the group stage of the Champions League, each team plays the others in the group twice (once at home and once away) and the top two teams qualify for the later knock-out stages. The third place team in each group qualifies for the Europa League and the last team is out of the competition. A total of eight groups split up the seeded and less fancied teams so that most of the big names have a good chance of progressing.
The first group pits one of the richest teams in Europe, Paris St Germain against the Eastern European powers of Dynamo Kiev from the Ukraine and Dinamo Zagreb from Croatia. The other club in the group is the Portuguese giants Porto. Last season, both Zagreb and Porto were champions of their respective leagues and the other two teams came second.
According to the UEFA club coefficients, the two favorites to progress in the competition are Porto (ranked 8) and Dynamo Kiev (22). Paris St Germain (36) are next, but have had major overseas investment from the Qatar Investment Authority and bought some top players. Dinamo Zagreb (80) will probably struggle to progress from the group.
Last Season: Dinamo Zagreb came last in their group and Porto came third to qualify for the Europa League. PSG came third and failed to progress from their group in the Europa League and Dynamo Kiev were knocked out of the Champions League before the group stages.
Group B pits the French champions Montpellier against Arsenal from the Premier League, Schalke 04 from Germany and Greek Champions, Olympiakos. Both Arsenal and Schalke 04 ended the last season in third position in their league competitions.
As the top ranked team, Arsenal (UEFA coefficient 6) will expect to qualify for the round of 16 with Schalke 04 (18). Olympiakos (31) should qualify for the Europa League; however Montpellier (106) must have some class to beat PSG to the league title last season even if they have little European experience.
Last Season: Arsenal lost out in the Round of 16 to AC Milan, Olympiakos came third in their group to qualify for the Europa League and lost out in the Round of 16. Schalke 04 progressed through that competition to the Quarter Finals and Montpellier did not play in Europe.
The third group faces the Italian giants AC Milan with Anderlecht of Belgium, Malaga of Spain and Zenit St Petersburg of Russia. Of these teams, only Malaga did not win their countries domestic league last season.
The favorites to qualify from this group are AC Milan (14) and Zenit St Petersburg (23), who have both had plenty of success in European competitions. Qualification for the Europa League will be close between Anderlecht (47) and Malaga (89).
Last Season: AC Milan lost in the quarter-finals of the Champions League to Barcelona and Zenit St Petersburg lost to Benfica in the Round of 16. Anderlecht were beaten in the Round of 32 of the Europa League and Malaga did not play in European competition.
The “Group of Death” puts the Spanish champions Real Madrid against the English champions Manchester City and German champions Borussia Dortmund. The final team in the group is the Dutch champions Ajax.
This group is difficult to predict with some of the real powerhouses of European soccer playing. Real Madrid (5) should be strong enough to progress in the competition, but it will be close between Manchester City (19), Ajax (24) and Dortmund (60) for the other qualification spots.
Last Season: Real Madrid were beaten semi-finalists, but both Ajax and Manchester City finished third in the groups to qualify for the Europa League with neither progressing past the Round of 16. Borussia Dortmund finished last in their group.
This group puts the defending champions, Chelsea against Italian champions Juventus, Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk and Danish champions Nordsjaelland.
Chelsea (4) should easily progress through to the knock-out stages, while both Shakhtar (12) and Juventus (35) will hope to progress. Nordsjaelland (135) look likely to struggle as one of the lowest ranked teams left in the competition.
Last Season: Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalties in the final to lift the trophy for the first time. Shakhtar came last in their group and Nordsjaelland fell at the first knock-out round of the Europa League. Juventus did not play in Europe last season.
Last season’s losing finalists Bayern Munich will face Lille from France, Valencia from Spain and BATE Borisov from Belarus. Only BATE Borisov were champions in their domestic league last season.
Bayern Munich (2) should qualify easily with Valencia (10), while Lille (43) and BATE Borisov (57) battle it out for the Europa League spot.
Last Season: Bayern Munich only lost three games to progress to the final, and Valencia were one of three Spanish teams in the semi-finals of the Europa League after finishing third in their group. The other two teams both came bottom in their groups.
Group G is a battle between two of the biggest Iberian sides in Barcelona (Spain) and Benfica (Portugal), who both came second in their leagues last season. These sides will face Scottish champions Celtic and Spartak Moscow who finished second in Russia last season.
Barcelona (1) are the top team in Europe and should easily progress with Benfica (13) progressing in the Champions League and Spartak Moscow (53) going through to the Europa League. Celtic (66) are going to struggle.
Last Season: Benfica lost to Chelsea at the quarter-final stage and Barcelona lost to the same team in the semi-final. Celtic failed to progress beyond the group stage of the Europa League and Spartak Moscow lost out in the play-off round of the Europa League.
The final group puts Manchester United against Braga, who ended last season third in Portugal, CFR Cluj from Romania and Galatasaray from Turkey. Both CFR Cluj and Galatasaray won their league competitions last season.
Manchester United (3) will want to do better than last season when they finished third in their group, while Braga (26) and Galatasaray (56) will fight for the other qualification places. CFR Cluj (73) may cause the odd upset, but will probably come last in the group.
These teams will battle it out over the next two months with the later rounds of the competition in the spring of 2013. All 32 teams will want to appear at the famous Wembley Stadium in the final on May 25, 2013 but the finalists are likely to come from one of England, Germany or Spain.
Of the English teams, all four could easily make the Round of 16 and from there it is just a matter of luck to get through to the later stages and maybe even win the competition like Chelsea did last season. Both Manchester clubs will be desperate to get past the group stages this year after failing last season, and Arsenal are always capable of progressing.