Tuesday 20 February 2018


Evan Fanning


Internazionale, Werder Bremen, Tottenham, FC Twente

No matter how many times Harry Redknapp states that Tottenham were bottom of the league when he took over and so nothing should be expected of his team, there is no getting away from the fact that Spurs have the players and the strength in depth to make it out of this Champions League group. It is their first time in this competition since Bill Nicholson's side reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1962.

Holders Inter should ease through the group, but it remains to be seen how Rafael Benitez manages expectations in Milan having taken the reins at Jose Mourinho's all-conquering side. How he handles the temperament of players like Wesley Sneijder and Samuel Eto'o could be key to their success or otherwise.

The biggest challenge to Tottenham's push for second place would appear to come from Werder Bremen. The Germans have a distinct edge in terms of Champions League experience -- this is their sixth appearance in the group stages in the past seven years -- but their record is far from impressive, having only reached the last 16 twice in that period.

FC Twente, minus the services of Steve McClaren who led them to the Dutch title last season, are capable of causing upsets, particularly in their home games.

Key man: Gareth Bale (Tottenham, left)

Key game: Tottenham v Werder Bremen, November 24

Verdict: 1 Inter; 2 Tottenham; 3 Werder Bremen; 4 FC Twente

GROUP B Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel

Having reached the semi-final last year, Lyon spent big in the summer adding €22m playmaker Yoann Gourcuff to an otherwise settled side which has the potential for goals if Lisandro Lopez can hit form.

So far, it would seem their summer gamble hasn't paid off as Claude Puel's side have won just one of their opening four fixtures in Ligue 1. It is form that will need to improve drastically if they are to emerge from what looks an evenly matched group.

Benfica impressed in the Europa League last season, but have since lost Angel di Maria to Real Madrid and Ramires to Chelsea. They have managed to hold on to other in-demand players, such as defender David Luiz and Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo, as well as adding to the squad with the likes of highly-rated Argentine duo Nicolas Gaitan and Franco Jara.

Schalke too have been busy in the transfer market, adding Spanish veteran Raul and Germany defender Christoph Metzelder from Real Madrid, and Dutch striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar from Milan. Israeli champions Hapoel will hope the group stays as tight as possible giving them the chance to sneak into third place and the Europa League in the spring.

Key man: Oscar Cardozo (Benfica)

Key game: Schalke v Lyon, November 24

Verdict: 1 Benfica; 2 Schalke; 3 Lyon; 4 Hapoel


Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor

While the so called 'Battle of Britain' may dominate the media coverage of this group, it will merely be a distraction from the real challenges. Not that there are many. Manchester United should have no real difficulty in reaching the last 16, and should be able to give the likes of Javier Hernandez (pictured) plenty of Champions League experience along the way.

On paper, United's biggest challenge will come from Valencia but the Spanish side have lost David Silva and David Villa and while they still retain a creative midfield, with the likes of Ever Banega and Juan Mata prominent, it is difficult to see how they are going to replace Villa's goals.

Without the riches available to the Istanbul clubs, Bursaspor stunned Turkey by winning their first Super League title last season. No one will relish the trip to Bursa -- "the real hell" as it was billed when Ireland travelled there in 1999 -- and they will fancy their chances of pipping Rangers into third place. The Scottish champions have finally allowed Walter Smith to spend some money but, seeing as some of it was on James Beattie, Rangers fans might be wondering what was the point.

Key man: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)

Key game: Valencia v Manchester United, September 29

Verdict: 1 Man Utd; 2 Valencia; 3 Bursaspor; 4 Rangers


Barcelona, Panathinaikos, Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Barcelona could barely have picked a better group had they been allowed choose their own opponents, but for now that's a rule UEFA has yet to introduce, at least not officially.

The addition of Javier Mascherano may well help Pep Guardiola's side, particularly in games such as last year's semi-final against Inter where Barca were bullied out of contention. That allowance aside, it is more of the same. The signing of David Villa, and the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, would appear to strengthen an attack that is bordering on the ludicrous.

Russian champions Rubin Kazan, who won at the Nou Camp in the group stages last season, should have too much for Panathinaikos and Copenhagen in the battle for second place, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion. Their form in this season's Russian Premier League, which is entering its final third, has been patchy but if they manage a title push it will run concurrently with the Champions League group stages.

The Greek champions have former Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse up front, and former Newcastle and Rangers defender Jean-Alain Boumsong in defence (in theory their chances should end there), but elsewhere there is a mix of guile and experience in the likes of Gilberto Silva and another former Liverpool player Luis Garcia. Danish champions Copenhagen will provide a tough test for anyone visiting Denmark and should be solid enough to perhaps take a point or two on their travels.

Key man: David Villa (Barcelona)

Key game: Panathinaikos v Rubin Kazan, October 20

Verdict: 1 Barcelona; 2 Rubin Kazan; 3 Copenhagen; 4 Panathinaikos


Bayern Munich, Roma, Basel, Cluj

Bayern Munich will be hoping it is a case of as you were as they hope to go one better than last season with a squad which is largely unchanged.

Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery will again be relied on to provide the guile and if they can get Miroslav Klose producing anything like his international form at club level, then they should have few problems in this group.

Roma have been tipped by many to push Inter for the Serie A title and under Claudio Ranieri they have a settled, if somewhat uninspiring, side. Ranieri has gambled on the fitness of Adriano, bringing the Brazilian back to Europe in a move that will bring good business to the restaurants of Rome.

The loan signing of Milan striker Marco Borriello is something of a coup for Ranieri, but elsewhere the old reliables of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi will be expected to deliver.

Romanian champions CFR Cluj are making their second Champions League appearance, having won in Rome during the group stages two years ago.

They will again rely on an exotic mix of South Americans, Africans and Romanians, but their realistic goal will be to secure third place ahead of Swiss side Basel, who can only dream of of matching the achievements of the 2002-'03 side and emerging from the group.

Key man: Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich, left)

Key game: Bayern Munich v Roma, September 15

Verdict: 1 Bayern Munich; 2 Roma; 3 Cluj; 4 Basel


Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, Zilina

Chelsea's group looks to be the trickiest of all the Premier League teams, but then again Carlo Ancelotti's side are the strongest of the four English teams and should have no real difficulties in reaching the knock-out stage. Their biggest strength is goals can come from so many sources but it is defensively, with Ricardo Carvalho's departure and John Terry showing signs of slowing down, where they will come under most scrutiny, even if they are not really tested until the knock-out stages.

Aiden McGeady will have a new experience in the Champions League in so far as the level of expectation that Spartak will get through the group is greater than it ever was at Celtic, and he will be expected to deliver the goods after his big-money move.

Marseille look to be the Russians' biggest threat to progression. Didier Deschamps has established a solid, if occasionally uninspiring side. Mamadou Niang, who has impressed in recent years, has left for Fenerbahce, but Deschamps has added French duo Loic Remy and Andre-Pierre Gignac to his attack and much will depend on how they bed in.

Zilina became the first Slovakian side to reach the group stages when they beat Sparta Prague in the play-off and if they can finish in third place, they will consider it a successful venture.

Key man: Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow, left)

Key game: Marseille v Spartak Moscow, September 15

Verdict: 1 Chelsea; 2 Spartak Moscow; 3 Marseille; 4 Zilina


Milan, Real Madrid, Auxerre, Ajax

It might seem odd when he is taking charge of the most expensively assembled squad in world football but Real Madrid may well be the biggest challenge of Jose Mourinho's managerial career to date.

Mourinho needs to change an entire culture that champions individuals into a hard-working team where there is room for only one star -- Mourinho himself. His success or otherwise won't come in the group -- from which they should emerge reasonably comfortably -- but in the latter stages where their record in recent years is appalling.

Milan seem to have adopted the now proven to be flawed galactico model and it will be interesting to see how their front four develops with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line with a trio of Brazilians -- Robinho, Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato -- prompting from behind. The success or otherwise of this very un-Italian system will dictate Milan's fate.

Ajax's big achievement of the summer was to hang on to manager Martin Jol and captain Luis Suarez, but this side is a pale imitation of the great Ajax sides of the past. Saying that, if Milan implode, and that is always a possibility, they will see an opportunity to sneak into second place as Auxerre will hold no fears for any of the other three.

Key man: Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid)

Key game: Milan v Real Madrid, November 3

Verdict: 1 Real Madrid; 2 Milan; 3 Ajax; 4 Auxerre


Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga, Partizan

If Arsenal's weakness is their strength in depth, then they must have some friends in high places as this group gives them ample opportunity to assure qualification with a game or two to spare.

Arsenal will certainly be expected to win all their home games but, as ever, much will depend on their injury situation and with Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie already facing spells on the sidelines, the initial signs are not encouraging. They will look to new signing Marouane Chamakh to provide the goals in Van Persie's absence.

Shakhtar Donetsk will provide tough opposition, particularly as winter arrives in Ukraine. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo will want to make an impression against his former club; however their disappointing record away from home should mean that the second qualifying spot from this group is up for grabs.

Braga, who have named 12 Brazilians in their 25-man squad, have already disposed of Celtic and Seville to reach the group stages so their confidence will be high and they will feel that they have enough to win their home games, while Belgrade, with the atmosphere created by Partizan's passionate fans, will be an intimidating trip for all three sides but however loud the crowd noise it is unlikely to be enough to make up for the deficiencies in their side.

Key man: Marouane Chamakh (Arsenal)

Key game: Shakhtar Donetsk v Arsenal, November 3

Verdict: 1 Arsenal; 2 Shakhtar Donetsk; 3 Braga; 4 Partizan

Sunday Independent

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