Champions League

Shakhtar’s Brazilian Carnival Shocks Chelsea

October 24, 2012 — by Suman1


It was quite an exciting first half to Champions League Matchday 3 yesterday. We watched at Woodwork again, which was nicely mellow, with 3 different matches on their 3 screens–from left to right: Shakhtar-Chelsea, Juve-Nordaelland, and Barcelona-Celtic, with the house sound system tuned to the Barça match for the first half, and the Juve match for the 2nd.  (One Manchester United fan showed up too late to claim a TV, and so was reduced to streaming the match against Braga on his laptop.)

For a while it looked like we were headed towards upsets at the Camp Nou, at Old Trafford, and at Nordsjælland. But while the “big” club escaped in each of those matches (although Juve only with a point, thanks to a fantastic late goal by Vucinic), our attention was primarily on the Shakhtar-Chelsea match, and out in far eastern Ukraine the upset held. As the Mirror cheekily put it, it was “A Shaktar the system: Champions Chelsea outclassed and outplayed in Donetsk.

And although yesterday was good, today just might be better.  Of the eight remaining Matchday 3 fixtures, the ones to watch, IOHO, are Arsenal-Schalke, Málaga-Milan, and of course the two matches in the Group of Death—Ajax-Man City and Borussia Dortmund-Real Madrid this time around:

Today’s fixtures, screengrabbed from UEFA’s cool interactive tournament calendar

Champions LeaguePreviewSchedule

Champions League Final, Bayern vs Chelsea–Today!

May 19, 2012 — by Suman


The culmination of the European club season is upon us. Bayern Munich takes on aging interlopers Chelsea in the Allianz Arena–which happens to be Bayern’s home ground.  (For US viewers: kickoff is at 2:45pmET, and the match will be televised on Fox’s main network.  In fact, the Fox networks are going full bore with almost-Super Bowl levels of TV coverage–see below for the full schedule.)

And what a season it’s been–especially the past month.  Recall that it was just (over) a month ago that the Champions League semifinals started, with Bayern defeating Real Madrid at the same venue, and with Chelsea shocking the world with a 1-0 win over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. The return legs the following week were even more dramatic. Chelsea even more unbelievable result at the Camp Nou, eliminating the defending Catalan champions; and the next day Bayern downing Madrid in PKs at the Bernabéu.

At some point we’ll have to revisit those extraordinary matches, as well as the ensuing events (Pep Guardiola’s announcement that he will step down, and the dramatic events in the various domestic leagues and cups).

But with kickoff just hours away, here’s a pregame reading/listening list to get you ready for today’s match:

If Chelsea did an ‘Inter 2010′ in the semi-final against Barcelona, they need to repeat the trick here – Inter went onto beat Bayern in the final that year.

Jose Mourinho’s side played extremely defensively in the final two years ago, essentially continuing the strategy they’d used at the Nou Camp a few weeks earlier, despite the fact they were playing a much more attacking game in Serie A at the time. Will Chelsea do the same?

Broadly the same approach makes sense. No-one plays quite like Barcelona, but in terms of ball retention, Bayern are the closest thing. Barca lead the way in terms of average possession and pass completion rate across Europe’s major five leagues, but Bayern are second in both categories. Though they’ve always been a side with fine passers, they’ve become even more about retention since the final two years ago – then, they mixed possession play with direct play down the flanks from Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Those two are still in the side, of course, but tend to find themselves trying to break down packed, deep defences more frequently.

Zonal Marking's probable lineup for the 2012 Champions League Final

The 2012 UEFA Champions League final isn’t just a contest for the greatest prize in club football; it is the latest instalment in a never-ending tactical argument.

Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern belong to the grand tradition of Bill Nicholson, Jock Stein, Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola in which teams dominate possession, take the initiative and feel obliged to win in style, as Danny Blanchflower once put it.

Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stand for a different, no less valid, tradition in which teams seek to draw the opposition out and punish them on the counter.

Bayern Munich vs Chelsea - Jupp Heynckes vs Roberto di Matteo
With the game being played in Munich, and the home side having the duel threats of Ribery and Robben to throw at Chelsea, Bayern are clear favourites to win the trophy.  But they are susceptible to teams who counterattack well – as last weekend’s 5-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund proved in the German Cup final – and they will be wary of the English side who knocked out Napoli and Barcelona in previous rounds with the odds stacked against them.  There is bad news and good news for Chelsea in terms of player availability – both Ivanovic and Ramires miss out through suspension; but so too does John Terry.

The team in white celebrated wildly. Reduced to 10 men in their semi-final second leg on 24 April at the Camp Nou, they’d held on for an improbable 3-2 aggregate victory over Barcelona to reach the European Cup final.

Earlier in the season they’d looked in disarray. An upstart young manager who was supposed to oversee the rejuvenation of the squad had been ousted after alienating a core of senior players, but a safe pair of hands everybody assumed was a short-term appointment had arrived, soothed egos and reawakened some of the old fire.

The league was beyond them, but doggedly they’d scrapped their way through to within one game of the prize – the greatest prize – that had eluded them through all their years of success. In that final that side in white faced Bayern Munich. Undone by some scandalous refereeing, they lost and were never the same again.

The similarities with Leeds United in 1974-75 and Chelsea’s success at the Camp Nou 29 years later are striking.

Here’s the full day’s US televeision schedule, via WaPo’s SoccerInsider:

1 p.m. ET: Pregame show on Fox Soccer and Fox Deportes

2 p.m.: Pregame show on Fox’s main network

2:30 p.m.: Match coverage on Fox’s main network and Fox Deportes

5 p.m.: Postgame show on Fox Soccer and Fox Deportes

5 p.m.: Match tape on

8 p.m.: Match tape on Fox Soccer

10 p.m.: Match tape on Fox Deportes

Sunday at 3 a.m.: Match tape on Fox Soccer

Sunday at noon: Match tape on Fox Soccer

Sunday at 5 p.m.: Match tape on Fox Soccer Plus


Champions LeaguePreviewSchedule

Barcelona & Bayern Advance, Six More Semifinalists To Go

April 4, 2012 — by Suman2


Barcelona beat Milan 3-1 in yet another controversial Camp Nou Champions League result, while Bayern finished off Olympique Marseille with another 2-0 victory, for an aggregate score of 4-0.

Wednesday, April 4 (both kickoffs at 2:45pmET):

Chelsea vs BenficaThe match to watch on Wednesday.  Chelsea pulled out a 1-0 victory at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon last week–continuing a remarkable turnaround from when they were down 3-1 after the first leg in Napoli in the Round of 16.  We’ll be rooting for the Portuguese.

Well, turns out there aren’ aren’t many actual Portuguese in Benfica’s squad.  For instance, Ben Shave‘s list of 5 Benfica players to watch, published prior to the 1st leg, consisted of a Brazilian (goalkeeper Artur), a Uruguayan (defender Maxi Pereira), a Spaniard (holding midfielder Javi Garcia), an Argentine (aging semi-legendary playmaker Pablo Aimar), and a Paraguayan (striker Oscar Cardozo).  You can add to that list two more young Benfica players we’ve been hearing a lot about: Argentine Nicolás Gaitán and afro’ed Belgian Axel Witsel (attacking midfielders both).

And on the other side of the ball, Chelsea’s Brazilian duo of David Luiz and Ramires both started their European club careers with Benfica (whereas Chelsea’s Portuguese players–Raul Meireles, Jose Boswinga, Paulo Ferreira–broke thru domestically with Porto.  Not a coincidence, as all three played under Jose Mourinho at Benfica’s northern archrival before eventually following him to Stamford Bridge.)

Listen to CNN’s Pedro Pinto sitting in on this week’s Guardian Football Weekly podcast for more on this depressing aspect of Portuguese football. In fact, listen to the whole thing–includes a preview of this match, and then at the end Sid Lowe and the rest of the pod also previewing Barcelona-Milan.

Real Madrid vs APOEL: If Bayern-OM is medium-well, this one is completely well-done. Madrid won 3-0 in Cyprus.  Only reason to watch this one is to see some of the talent that’s been wasting away on Mourinho’s bench all season–players like last year’s Bundesliga player of the season Nuri Şahin, who finally got a start in the 1st leg.

(It’s a shame Sahin didn’t stay with Borussia Dortmund.  We’ve been seeing reports that Madrid (Morinho?) don’t think he’s made the transition–maybe we can hope for a loan back to Dortmund next season?  Dortmund’s chief has called the transfer a mistake (on Sahin’s part?), but seems to be ruling out a return.)



This Week in Europe – From Elite Eights to Final Fours

April 3, 2012 — by Suman


We did tune in over the past few weeks for bits of March Madness–culminating in Calipari’s Kentucky completing the professionalization of the college game last night–but we found it mostly uninteresting.  And although we haven’t found the Champions League completely compelling this year either, we’ll certainly be watching these quarterfinal 2nd leg matches over the next couple days to see which clubs advance to the Final 4–at which stage it should get very interesting.  And it’s not only the Champions League winnowing down from 8 to 4 this week.  The Europa League too–that largely overshadowed European stepchild to the Champions–also has its quarterfinal 2nd legs this week.  True to our name, we actually find Europa League worth following–and this season especially so, given Athletic Bilbao’s scintillating run which has them on track for the semifinals.

Here are the fixtures and some match notes:

Tuesday, April 3 (both matches kickoff at 2:45pmET):

Barcelona vs Milan: The match of the week, and of the competition so far. After a taut scoreless draw last Wednesday at the San Siro, Milan have a realistic chance of eliminating the defending champions.  It’ll be the 4th Champions League meeting between these two this season, since they were drawn into the same group.  The first match last September was similar to last week’s: despite dominating possession, Barcelona could do no better than emerge with a draw. At least there were goals in that one though–Pato’s stunning 1st minute goal and Thiago Silva’s extra time equalizer sandwiched around Barcelona goals by Pedro and Villa.  The return at the Camp Nou in November was an exciting affair with even more goals: Xavi’s 2nd half score eclipsed goals by Zlatan and that memorable finish by Kevin-Prince Boateng.

We expect that Barcelona will emerge victorious again today (at least this half of the CultFootball board does–like El Classico, this is a fixture that divides us)–when was the last time Barcelona lost a European fixture at the Camp Nou? Well, UEFA’s match preview conveniently provides the answer: “Barcelona are unbeaten in 14 home fixtures dating back to October 2009, with 12 wins and two draws at the Camp Nou since then, including the 7-1 defeat of Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the round of 16.”  That’s preceded by these fascinating historical tidbits:

• Milan earned a 0-0 draw at Barcelona in their 2005/06 UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg but lost the tie because of the preceding 1-0 home reverse.

• The lineups for that second leg on 26 April 2006 were:
Barcelona: Valdés, Belletti, Márquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst, Edmílson, Deco, Iniesta, Giuly (Larsson 69), Eto’o (Van Bommel 89), Ronaldinho.
Milan: Dida, Kaladze, Costacurta (Cafu 64), Stam, Serginho, Gattuso (Rui Costa 68), Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaká, Shevchenko, Inzaghi (Gilardino 79).

• Milan’s last victory against Barcelona came on 20 October 2004 in the UEFA Champions League group stage, Andriy Shevchenko scoring the only goal. Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf and substitute Massimo Ambrosini played for the Rossoneri with Xavi, Carles Puyol, Víctor Valdés and substitute Andrés Iniesta lining up for Barcelona. Ambrosini is the sole survivor of Milan’s only previous victory at the Camp Nou, 2-0 on 26 September 2000.

• The clubs’ most high-profile encounter was the 1994 UEFA Champions League final in Athens, which Milan won 4-0. Milan also prevailed when the pair met in the 1989 UEFA Super Cup, winning 1-0 at home after a 1-1 away draw.

In fact, Sid Lowe produced a column on that 1994 Champions League final last week, calling it “the night the Dream died”–i.e., the symbolic end of Cryuff’s Dream Team era, which featured among others a young Catalan holding midfielder named Pep Guardiola.

Bayern München vs Olympique Marseille: This one is pretty much done. Bayern won 2-0 in Marseille last week, and have been on a hot streak lately.  It’s highly unlikely OM will win by 3 in Munich, and so the Bavarians are on track to continue their quest to play in the final in their home stadium on May 19.

Wednesday, April 4 & Thursday April 5:

We’ve split off our previews of the other two Champions League matches & Thursday’s four Europa League matches into a separate post.


Champions League

Three Slightly Frozen Memories From the Milan Massacre

February 17, 2012 — by Tyler


Miserable indeed.

Three slightly frozen memories, ready to be thawed and forgotten:

(1) The coin toss. Compatriots Seedorf (class act and true legend) and Van Persie (legacy yet to be determined) faced each other, hugged, and exchanged symbols of their respective clubs. Seedorf was jovial, calm, confident, and looking RVP in the eye. Robin seemed unwilling, nay, unable, to look Clarence in the eye for more than a second or two. Van Persie seemed… twitchy. He looked around, he appeared distracted.

Maybe he was foreshadowing (and influencing) his team’s performance that night, admitting to himself that the game might be over before it  begins. Maybe his mind was already tanning on the Mediterranean beaches of Barcelona or the navigating lively and bustling streets and plazas of Madrid.

(2) I’ve been focusing on Sagna a bit, wondering if he’s been thinking, “Hell, Clichy went to City, I’m just as good, maybe better, I actually start for my country, so why I am I still here?” Even before his injury, Bacary has seemed lazier this season. (Watching as he jumped for that ball against Assou-Ekotto, his awkward attempt that caused his injury a few months ago, I wondered, “Why would you jump so needlessly, so awkwardly?”) Yesterday, Sagna’s passes were poor, he wasn’t charging forward (but who was?). And then the moment that infuriated me: The ball was put to the space in front of Zlatan, Sagna appeared to assume that Ibra was offside, so Sagna fucking JOGGED as the mustached, cheesy-nightclub-predator-looking Swede sprinted, collected the ball, and fed it to Robinho. 2-0. Pitiful. Sagna, the team veteran and two-time selection to the Premier League Team of the Year as voted by his peers, seems to be gone as well. Only he knows where, but I doubt he knows where, for his contract isn’t up until 2014.

(3) Starting Rosicky (experience) instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain (potential world-class talent): I understand the reasoning, but in hindsight it was such a bad decision.

Watching the Milan game, I found even more respect for Cesc. It’s been obvious all season, but last night it was glaring: This year’s squad simply thinks about going forward. They wait an extra second or two, make an extra pass or two, and often send it back to a defender or goalkeeper in order to regroup for absolutely no reason at all. Not so with Cesc. With Fab 4 we were going forward, one-touching, passing with instinct, and then thinking, if thinking was even necessary. With Cesc, there was no thinking, just doing.

Arsene, and ONLY Arsene Wenger, could admit his team still has a chance to move on and at the same time put a value on how slim the chances are: “Two to five per cent chance.” Got to love him!

The Telegraph ran interviews over the past few days with Arsenal legends Denis Bergkamp and Emmanuel Petit, before and after Wednesday’s game, respectively. Of the two, Bergkamp was more politically correct in his interview (conducted by an Arsenal striker from a previous era, Alan Smith).  The Dutchman reminisced about The Invincibles, remembering Henry and Vieira, the all-English back four they had back then.  But he also had criticisms of the present squad: he mentioned that Arsenal have too many players who are similar in the way they play, that there is not nearly enough diversity, no impact player to come off the bench and bring a new dimension. He wondered if Arsenal need more English players, but he professed his continuing trust in the Professor, that Wenger has endured peaks and valleys before now.

Petit was more direct and honest in his comments. After the game, he mentioned that Ramsey appeared to be a “twin” of himself on Wednesday, that Theo hasn’t grown at all in the past few years, and that Arshavin and Rosicky need to go. (I’ll add Djourou to that shortlist.) He said that that 6 new players around the age of 27 need to be brought in–that “we shouldn’t hesitate to talk about the end of the cycle.”

It’s important and worth noting that these former and future Arsenal legends are speaking out. It means that times are truly, officially, tough. It means they care, it means they are bothered.

Last year saw Birmingham (February, Carling Cup), Barcelona (March, Champions League) and Manchester United (March, FA Cup) assist Arsenal in their self-destruction. By mid-March, the season was over, save for the 4th place finish. This year, Milan has played the role of Barca twofold, ending the Gunners’ Champions League aspirations in only one game. Sunderland (FA Cup) and Tottenham (crucial league match and chance for to avenge last year’s home loss) are next.

Last year’s fall from contention in three competitions was official and final in March. These next two pivotal games fall in February. I hope Arsenal doesn’t fall in February. Wenger is no Caesar, not yet anyway, but I’d rather not revisit his Ides of 2011. I’d rather not see him stab himself in the back for a second consecutive year, one
month earlier.

How many of us can endure another early fall, just before Spring?


AC Milan Needs to Beat the Top Teams, Stat

February 3, 2012 — by Rob Kirby


The Tevez-Pato “will he? won’t he” questions ricocheted every which way this January as the musical chairs transfers song played at AC Milan, but at the end everyone retook their own chairs. Boring. Perhaps they were dating Berlusconi’s daughter, or were on £200,000 a week slave wages that no one else could match, but whatever the reason, that anti-climax will be followed up by a busy February and early March. The Rossoneri take on first-place Juventus twice in the Coppa Italia and once in the league, Napoli and Udinese in the league, not to mention the two Champions League legs against Arsenal.

It all starts with the home match/grudge match against Napoli this Sunday at 2:30 ET (Fox Soccer).

To put the upcoming matches in perspective, Milan has not beaten any team in the top five in a league match this season, including the painful loss to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina in January. Furthermore, Napoli beat Milan 3-1 in their only other matchup this season. If Milan continues to find itself unable to beat the top teams, this upcoming run could prove very difficult and very damaging.

However, aside from the Tevez-Pato dud of inaction, Milan did bring in five reinforcements over the window to deal with the second half of the season, including striker Maxi Lopez from Catania and out-of-favor midfielder Sulley Muntari from Inter. Coming off a disappointing 2-0 loss to Lazio that could have seen them take pole position, they have everything to play for—and conversely, everything to lose.

Napoli has stuttered to a string of draws and a defeat to Genoa of late, but Cavani fired them to a 2-0 victory over Inter in the Coppa Italia last week and they could come roaring back this Sunday.

Feb 5, 9:00 ET  AC Milan  vs.  Napoli
Feb 8, 2:45 ET  AC Milan  vs.  Juventus
Feb 11, 12:00 ET  Udinese  vs.  AC Milan
Feb 15, 2:45 ET  AC Milan  vs.  Arsenal
Feb 19, 9:00 ET  Cesena  vs.  AC Milan
Feb 21, 2:45 ET  Juventus  vs.  AC Milan
Feb 25, 2:45 ET  AC Milan  vs.  Juventus
Mar 3, 12:00 ET  Palermo  vs.  AC Milan
Mar 6, 2:45 ET  Arsenal  vs.  AC Milan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 15 goals in the Serie A this season. But should he get injured or need a breather during the fast-and-furious fixtures ahead, Lopez may be called into action. Alexandre Pato suffered a thigh strain last month that may see him missing out on the next 4 matches, including the home leg against Arsenal. Lopez was not top-choice at Catania, so while there is cover, it’s not of the same quality. The decision between Lopez and Tevez was never one of equals, rather of finances.

New loan signing Muntari continues his international engagements with the Ghana national team in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon and may not be back in time for the Champions League fixture against Arsenal in the San Siro, either. Muntari was brought on to help bolster a depleted midfield that has lost Mathieu Flamini, Gennaro Gattuso, Alexander Merkel and Alberto Aquilani to injury. Kevin Prince-Boateng also has spent quality time on the injury table of late.

Obviously, with talented players such as Thiago Silva, Robinho, van Bommel, Seedorf, Ambrosini and Zambrotta all hale and hearty, the team is not in crisis, but performances this month could very well determine their fates in all remaining competitions: the league, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League.

It should be getting quite interesting quite soon.


Barcelona-Milan: A Matchup of European Giants on Matchday 1

September 13, 2011 — by Suman

There aren’t many bigger clubs than Barcelona and AC Milan, so it’s quite a pleasant surprise to have them meeting on Matchday 1. Unless there are some serious surprises over the next couple months, they should finish 1-2 in their group–it’s hard to imagine either of slipping behind Zenit St. Petersburg or Cyprusians APOEL FC (see our run through today’s fixtures for a full account of what APOEL is an acronym for)–so their two matches should be crucial, determining who finishes atop the group and gets the better seed going into the knockout stage (which doesn’t start until five months from now, in Februrary).

Frankly, though, it will be a quite a surprise if Milan finish with more points than Barcelona.  The latter are, of course, as you’ve likely been hearing ad nauseum, one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game: two Champions League titles in the past three years, plus La Liga champions in each of those three years.  All achieved with not only an incredible collection of talent–led of course by Lionel Messie–but with a tactical style that could very well be the next evolutionary step in the game.

(We’ll post more about that latter idea in the near future; for now, read’s Peter Staunton‘s column titled “With the signing of Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona could begin the next great tactical revolution” (“Pep Guardiola has become adept at using midfielders ‘out of position’ at centre-back. But what if that was the plan all along?”).)

On the other side, Milan have the history. They are seven-time winners of Champions League (1962–63, 1968–69, 1988–89, 1989–90, 1993–94, 2002–03, 2006–07), second only to Real Madrid (see the list); and eighteen-time winners of the Serie A title (tied with crosstown rivals Inter Milan, behind Juventus’s imposing total of 27; list).

(Indeed, these two sides met in the final of the 1994 Champions League–Milan was managed by Fabio Capello, who had succeeded the legendary Arrigo Sacchi at Milan, while Barcelona was managed by none other than Johan Cryuff.  The latter were favored, but Milan destroyed them 4-0.  See here for video highlights of that match.)

But although the current Milan side was top of the table in Serie from start to finish last season, they don’t feel particularly imposing.  In the Champions League last spring, they were knocked out of the Round of 16 by Spurs, who were subsequently exposed by Real Madrid (and in the Premier League) as not an especially strong side themselves.  They’ve got a big name multinational strikeforce–Pato, Inzaghi, Ibrahimovic, Cassano, Robinho–but they don’t come across as big game players (aside from perhaps the aging Inzaghi).  Ibrahimovic is out for today’s match due to injury, so it will likely be Pato and Cassano partnering up front.

Behind them, are they still going to rely on Clarence Seedorf to give them some presence in the midfield? Probably not–against Lazio in Milan’s Serie A season opener against Lazio, they played Ghanaian Kevin-Prince Boateng in an attacking midfield role, ahead of Alberto Acquilani (recently returned to Italy on loan from Liverpool) and hard man Rino Gattuso.

It will be interesting to see if those three can manage to contain Barcelona’s midfield.  Somehow we think it unlikely, given that no one else has managed to over the past few years.  Xavi, Iniesta, new arrival Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets pushing forward from his holding role, Lionel Messi dropping deep from his center forward position, Dani Alves and Adriano flying up the wings..there’s a lot there to deal with in the middle third of the pitch.


Our Quick Champions League Preview: Group Stage Matchday 1

September 13, 2011 — by Suman1

Balls Out for the UEFA Champions League

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

Group E:

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.”

Group F

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.

Group G:

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.


Group H:

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: