An exciting day–it’s the start of the UEFA Champions League group stage! Matchday 1 consists of eight matches today and eight tomorrow, with all 32 teams in action. Four of the eight groups play their matches today (Groups E, F, G, H), with the other four in action tomorrow. As usual, all the matches kickoff at 20:45CET (= 2:45pmET for those of us in the US; as the saying goes, check your local listings for TV info).
The big one to watch today is defending champion Barcelona hosting Italian Serie A champions AC Milan. But let’s take a quick look at all of today’s fixtures:
Tues 13 September 2011
Chelsea-Leverkusen (Stadium: Stamford Bridge, London): The Blues should win at home, despite not being quite settled: seems like they’re still adjusting to new manager Andre Villas-Boas, the Fernando Torres situation is still unclear, especially after AVB sat him for the entire match over the weekend; and it’s same old guys at the core of the squad (Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole). Indeed, a bit of controversy erupted this week when Torres said as much in an interview to a Spanish newspaper–that Chelsea needed to bring in Juan Mata because the midfield was too slow. And indeed, newly arrived Juan Mata, as well as back-from–loan Daniel Sturridge, give the Blues a new look and some more creative play, making them somewhat more interesting to watch. As for Leverkeusen, all eyes will be on Michael Ballack, in his return to Stamford Bridge.
Genk-Valencia (Stadium: KRC Genk Arena, Genk): Speaking of Juan Mata, Valencia looks to regroup after losing their star player at the end of the summer transfer window. But it’s not as if they’re not used to it–the previous summer they lost the two Davids, Villa and Silva, but still managed to finish third in La Liga yet again. They are indeed the unsung heroes of La Liga. Watch for striker Robert Soldado, who has been on fire in the first couple La Liga matches–a hat-trick against Racing Santander and then the game-winner against Atletico Madrid this past weekend. Indeed, Soldado is making a case to be included in Vincent del Bosque’s Spain squad (perhaps at the expense of the aforementioned Torres?). Behind Soldado, look for Argentines Éver Banega and Pablo Piatti (both of whom have been capped playing for La Albiceleste), and Spaniards Pablo Hernandez and Sergio Canales. Regarding the latter, The Football Ramble writes that a “potentially exciting arrival was former child prodigy Sergio Canales on loan. Canales looked incredibly good when he burst on the scene in early 2010 and starred as Spain U-19s bamboozled England. Then last season he got jammed up in the cogs of Mourinho’s Madrid machine. Still only 20 years old, he’ll probably need to be slowly eased back on track.”
Olympiacos-Marseille (Stadium: Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus): We have very little to say about this matchup, other than we do rather like OM, after looking at their squad ahead of their Champions League matchup against ManU last spring: “Marseille does have some interesting players to watch in attack: French internationals Loïc Rémy and Mathieu Valbuena, and French-born Ghanaian international André (Dédé) Ayew“–the latter the older of the two sons of Marseille/Ghana legend Abedi Pele Ayew that now play for OM. Read more about Valbuena, Rémy, Ayew, and Abedi Pele in our post from last spring.
Dortmund-Arsenal (Stadium: BVB Stadion Dortmund, Dortmund): Rob Kirby has posted at length about this tough German test for the Gunners, to which we’d links to our coverage of Die Schwarzgelben last season: match reports from Bundesliga contests versus Bayern Munich and Eintract Frankfurt.
Porto-Shakhtar Donetsk (Stadium: Estádio do Dragão, Porto): Porto had a remarkable season last year: domestically, they were Portuguese Invincibles, winning Liga Sagres by going undefeated. In Europe, they won the Europa League title. But the centre could not hold: over the summer they sold star Colombian striker Falcao to Atlético Madrid, and perhaps more significantly, their special manager Andre Villas-Boas left for the big time. But his 2nd-in-command stepped into the managerial chair, and they’ve still got Hulk and James Rodriguez in attack, to which they’ve added Kléber, another young Brazilian.
Ukrainians Shakhtar Donetsk also had a successful season–they won their Champions League group last fall, finishing ahead of Arsenal (you can see the video highlights of them beating Arsenal here), and hammered Roma in the Round of 16, before inevitable falling to the tiki-taka onslaught of Barcelona in the quarterfinals. Indeed, Shakhtar has been displacing Dynamo Kyiv as the club power in Ukraine. They’ve still got that full complement of Brazilian midfielders and strikers–forming what’s been called Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov‘s Brazilian carnival in far eastern Ukraine.
APOEL-Zenit (Stadium: GSP Stadium, Nicosia): Since you’re probably wondering, APOEL FC is in Cyprus, which is where this match will be played. In fact, Wikipedia informs us that the club name is, in the original Greek, ΑΠΟΕΛ Ποδόσφαιρο; short for Αθλητικός Ποδοσφαιρικός Όμιλος Ελλήνων Λευκωσίας– Athlitikos Podosfairikos Omilos Ellinon Lefkosias – “Athletic Football Club of Greeks of Nicosia”). Zenit is of course from St. Petersburg.
Barcelona-Milan (Stadium: Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP): The biggie. We’ll be back with a separate preview of this match shortly. It’s the one we’ll be watching, along with most of the continent and footballing world.
Plzeň-BATE (Stadium: Eden, Prague): Again, just some geographical context. Plzeň is, as you can see, in Prague, while BATE is the Belarusian club FC BATE Borisov (Belarusian: ФК БАТЭ Барысаў, IPA: [baˈtɛ]; Russian: ФК БАТЭ Борисов, FK BATE Borisov. Meaning that not only Plzeň but also Barcelona and AC Milan will have to travel to the 2nd largest city in Belarus (with a population of <150,00, one-tenth the size of the capital Minsk).
Here are tomorrow’s fixtures–we’ll be back with some preview comments before they kickoff Wednesday:
Wed 14 September 2011
Man. City-Napoli (Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester)
Villarreal-Bayern Munich (Stadium: Estadio El Madrigal, Villarreal)
Lille-CSKA Moskva *Stadium: Lille Métropole, Lille)
Internazionale-Trabzonspor (Stadium: Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan)
Basel-Oţelul Galaţi (Stadium: St. Jakob-Park, Basel)
Benfica-Man. United (Stadium: Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon)
Dinamo Zagreb-Real Madrid (Stadium: Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb)
Ajax-Lyon (Stadium: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam)