As the Libero sat down to watch this week’s first round of Champions’ League Group Games, it is the first time in a few years that he was genuinely excited by the competitions Group stage. Over the last few years, Champions League Autumns have largely been non contests, with the big clubs proceeding through with relative ease against the same teams that turn up year in year out, pick up their few million and return to their domestic game richer and more dominant. Whose to say that this year won’t end up in the same procession like fashion, or with the usual suspects dining at the top table come the spring, but there is something refreshing about the names that crop up when you browse the fixture list this year.
There are 5 debutants in this year’s competition, including Man City and Napoli, who clashed at the City of Manchester Stadium/Eastlands/the Ethiad Stadium (delete as appropriate) on Wednesday night. Both sides bring something new, City’s millions are well known, but with Aguero, Silva, Nasri and co Mancini seems to have finally built a team which is based on flair rather than steal. Serie A viewers have long been raving about Walter Matterazzi’s Napoli side, whose front three of Lavezzi, Cavanni and Hamisk are amongst the best in Europe and who many consider to be dark horses who may do something big this year. Their placement in the ‘Group of Death’ with a revived looking Bayern Munich and the consistent Villareal, is enough alone to get excited about the tournament pre-Christmas. And there’s more…..
Romania’s Oțelul Galați and the Czech Republic’s Viktoria Plzen, bring unknown qualities to the completion. Plzen comfortably overcame FC Copenhagen in the Champions’ Route Qualifiers and Galati qualified directly to the group stage. Whilst no big teams are likely to embrace the prospect of travelling to play either side, both teams face tough groups which may limit their mark on the competition in their virgin season. This is something which the remaining debutants, Trabzonspor wasted no time in doing, with a shock 1-0 win over Inter at the San Siro. The Turks, who gained a default entry into this year’s competition following the exclusion of Fenerbache, will be hopeful of building on this victory in what now appears an open Group B.
It’s not only the debutants, but the return of some old friends that increases the interest level for the Libero. Rudi Garcia’ Lille return after a 5 year gap, bring a different French angle to the competition. Despite losing some key players in the summer, the retention of highly rated internationals such as Eden Hazard, Adil Rami and Moussa Sow could see also Lille make an impact in Group B.
But the two names which really which gets the Libero’s belly tingling are those of the German duo Borrusia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkussen. Both teams return after after long absences from the competition and bring with them fond memories of previous Champions league classic moments. Dortmund’s win over the great Juventus side in 1997 seems like only yesterday, and following an impressive Bundesliga win last year and with players such as Mario Götze and Lucas Barrios they may be one to watch this year. Leverkussen were one of the most exciting sides in the competition in the early part of the millennium, reaching the final in 2002. With the talisman of that era, Michael Ballack returning to the Club, the German’s face a difficult task with Chelsea and Valencia in their Group. Whatever the fortunes of both sides, their fans will bring a vibrancy and colour to some cold winter nights.
With round two of groups games coming in two weeks, the Libero’s pick of the ties are:
Napoli vs. Villareal, Bayern v Man City and Marseille vs. Dortmund…
Lets hope they live up to my hype!