German teams were handed a tough draw in this year’s Champions League group stage. Bayern München, Bayer Leverkusen and defending German champions Borussia Dortmund were drawn in arguably the three most difficult groups in the competition. With the final being staged at the Allianz Arena in Munich and the Bundesliga’s recent leap over Italy’s Seria A in the UEFA coefficients this presents the best opportunity for German football to prove that it rightfully belongs in the top three leagues in the world and has once again arrived as a true threat in Europe. On the other hand, it can just as well present the perfect opportunity for German sides to slip up.
Bayern have the unfortunate privilege of being in this year’s “Group of Death”, or what is generally considered the strongest group in the competition. They face three very strong and up and coming sides that could each threaten the Bavarian’s passage to the knockout stages in different ways. Below is a preview of what can be expected from each side going into this year’s tournament.
Germany’s record champions will not be short on motivation this year, having made and lost the final in ’10 as well as facing the prospects of playing this year’s final in their own stadium should they reach it. New coach Jupp Heynnckes has come in and started working on shoring up Bayern’s defensive vulnerabilities which might preclude some of the attacking potential shown in the last two years, at least in the short term. On the other hand, it would make Bayern more primed for European competition considering the more tactical and defensive nature of the competition. New signings Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng and Rafinha are a big part of that defensive overhaul and Heynckes will look to them as well as veterans Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger to cut out all the defensive leaks that have troubled the club in Europe over the years.
On paper, few sides in Europe can match Bayern’s starting eleven and if key players remain fit, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben in particular, Bayern should realistically qualify for the knockout stage. Because the group is full of teams with firepower up front and it will still be relatively early in Bayern’s season they could be troubled, particularly by Napoli and Villarreal’s attack oriented playing style. That said, Bayern do have the players up front to exploit such offensive sides and should win both home matches against the two sides. The strongest challenge will be posed by Manchester City, arguably the biggest threat to Bayern as they are expected to push the Bavarians for top spot in the group. The English club’s vast resources and depth have them pegged by many to go far in the competition and their squad may just be more balanced than Bayern’s.
Key Players: Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Franck Ribery
Prediction: Should Bayern continue to tidy up their defense and maintain it there is no reason not to finish in the top two in this group.
The “Yellow Submarine” were beaten semi finalists in 2006 and this will be only their third appearance in the Champions League but the club has come a long way from lower division obscurity to being one of Europe’s most dangerous and entertaining attacking sides. Villarreal went out in the semi finals against eventual Europa League champions Porto last season but had impressive performances throughout the competition and eliminated Bayer Leverkusen along the way so their pedigree in Europe is not to be taken lightly. Being so devoted to attacking, questions remain about Villarreal’s defense but the purchase of Udinese’s highly rated Cristian Zapata and the presence of the experienced Carlos Marchena could be invaluable in their European adventure.
Their biggest strength of course is their quick passing and dynamic attack, led by the formidable Giuseppe Rossi. The American born Italian international has improved every single season since arriving in Spain and has established himself as one of Europe’s deadliest strikers. Rossi and Brazilian strike partner Nilmar will be supported by a plethora of creative midfielders including Cani, Bruno Soriano, Marcos Senna and the underrated playmaker Borja Valero. Many likened their lively football to Barcelona last season and at their best even Real Madrid and Barcelona felt the force of their abilities. Crucial to Villarreal will be how they perform at the Madrigal. If they manage six to nine points at home and allow their natural game to do the damage on the road they could be a serious threat to the rest of the group.
Key Players: Borja Valero, Giuseppe Rossi, Cani, Carlos Marchena, Marcos Senna
Prediction: It will not be easy for Villarreal with two powerhouses like Bayern and Manchester City but if any team in this group has the potential to surprise it is the Spaniards. A second or third place finish is not unrealistic for the “Yellow Submarine”
Foreign investors have quickly transformed Manchester City into the biggest threat to Europe’s “old guard”, and ethical merits aside, the club has built a formidable squad that on paper is able to compete with the best in Europe. It is no surprise then that Manchester City just came off their best league finish in England’s top division in over 30 years and this season they are aiming even higher. A rotating attack of Dzeko, Balotelli, Silva, Tevez, Johnson, Nasri, Toure and Aguero is telling of just how stacked Manchester City are and when it comes to participating in multiple competitions, squad depth, particularly quality in depth, can give teams a big advantage. As is the case with Villarreal, Bayern could struggle against Manchester City’s firepower. The Germans have almost always struggled against technically strong attackers and City are spoiled for choice in that department.
On the flipside, Manchester City are relatively inexperienced when it comes to European football. Their elimination by Dynamo Kiev in the Round of 16 in last year’s Europa League proved that Europe is a an environment that Manchester City still have to properly acclimate to. In addition, many still remain skeptical whether former Inter Milan coach Roberto Mancini is the right man to bring all the elements together and get the best out of such a talented squad. Inter Milan only took off in Europe after Mancini was replaced by Jose Mourinho and many seem to believe the same will hold true at Manchester City. In that sense, whether or not they will advance, or make it far in the competition, will very much rest on how Mancini balances the ambitions, large squad and expectations of the club. Being drawn in the Group of Death has made that balancing act that much harder.
Key Players: Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Edin Dzeko, Vincent Kompany, Nigel De Jong, Sergio Aguero
Prediction: Considering the vast array of quality players at their disposal, Manchester City should progress and possibly even top the group. It will come down to how Mancini manages them throughout the group stage.
Napoli had their best finish in almost 20 years last season, not an indicator of how far they have fallen since the days of Maradona but of their incredible revival over the last couple of seasons. Coach Walter Mazzari has never coached in the Champions League before and has relatively little experience outside Italy. On top of that, Napoli struggled against the bigger sides even in their own league last year and were eliminated by Villarreal in the Europa League. That said, Napoli managed to hold on to all their star players and in Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik they will have three of the most talented players in the tournament on their side.
Like Villarreal, Napoli emphasize the attacking side of football and utilize the unconventional 3-4-2-1 formation to give additional support to their attack through their wing backs. When the system works it can produce some of the most exciting football around, as witnessed in their 3-0 win over Juventus or their 4-3 comeback against Roma last season. When it does not work it can leave the side pretty uninspired and vulnerable, as evidenced by their 3-0 loss to Milan or their 3-1 loss to Liverpool in the Europa League. Both defeats also revealed the weakness of Napoli’s system, namely the three man backline, often successful against two strikers but a liability against the common and widely used single striker formation deployed in Europe nowadays.
Key Players: Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik, Juan Camilo Zuniga, Christian Maggio, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gokhan Inler
Prediction: Napoli face the toughest task in this group. Their inexperience combined with the risky system can very well mean a last place finish. Then again, in the Group of Death, just about anything is possible.
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