The continent is full of anticipation with the Champions League group stage set to return this week. Each year, Europe’s most prestigious club trophy provides thrilling fixtures intertwined with fascinating story lines. With England boasting five teams in this year’s competition, supporters of the Premier League with have plenty of matches to enjoy.
Manchester United, after qualifying by way of the Europa League, find themselves drawn into Group A. The Red Devils are joined by Portuguese and Swiss champions Benfica and FC Basel, as well as Russian runners up CSKA Moscow. While Group A is certainly not the group of death, it will surely provide some entertaining fixtures.
Champions League Group A Preview
Benfica saw many key pieces to their title winning team depart this summer. However, they were very active in regards to incoming transfers to remain among Portugal’s best. Despite a 1-1 draw at Rio Ave, Benfica has still begun the domestic season undefeated. Rui Vitória has his young and exuberant team playing very attacking football. Averaging almost 18 shot attempts per game has resulted in 12 goals through five league matches. Being drawn from Pot 1 should see them as strong contenders to progress from the group.
Key Player: Jonas
Brazilian striker Jonas is one of the key components who remains after Benfica’s summer overhaul. Last season, he recorded 13 goals in 20 appearances in the league – a very respectable return. This season, however, has seen the 33-year old raise his game. Six goals and two assists in five appearances makes Jonas the central figure in Benfica’s attack.
Fans of the Red Devils have been long awaiting their return to the Champions League. In addition, a seemingly favourable draw should see Manchester United progress comfortably from Group A. A draw against Stoke at the weekend has seen Manchester United falter slightly, however they still enter match week one atop the Premier League. The challenge of the Champions League will test the Red Devils’ squad depth, as well as Jose Mourinho’s man management.
Key Player: Romelu Lukaku
While Manchester United possess many players with game changing ability, their x-factor in Europe is Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has been vocal about his eagerness to prove himself against the continents top clubs. He will need to be at his very best in order to succeed. Lukaku’s success in the Premier League comes from his physical prowess – outmuscling and overpowering defenders. Yet European centre backs are a less physical, much more intelligent breed. For Lukaku to find the goal he will need to use more brains than brawn.
Coming off of their eighth successive league title, FC Basel are no strangers to the Champions League. Additionally, they also have a history of upsets – having beaten both Manchester United and Chelsea since 2011. The departure of Seydou Doumbia back to AS Roma creates a problem in regards to goal scoring. However, new manager Raphael Wicky’s no nonsense style of play could see the Swiss club battle their way to results.
Key Player: Ricky van Wolfswinkel
Former Norwich City striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel is who Basel have chosen to replace Doumbia’s production. While he struggled in England, van Wolfswinkel has seemingly found his home in Switzerland. Seven goals from seven matches to start the season has the Dutchman on pace for his best return ever. Basel’s opportunities will be limited in the Champions League, therefore van Wolfswinkel needs to be clinical.
CSKA Moscow has gotten off to a slow start in the Russian Premier League this year. Just five wins and a draw from their opening nine matches sees them sitting fifth. A disappointing return of ten goals speaks to a lack of creativity within the team. Moreover, manager Viktor Goncharenko heavily favours the 3-5-2 formation, despite the back three having an average age of 36.
Key Player: Igor Akinfeev
Despite promising youngster Aleksandr Golovin, Igor Akinfeev remains the most important figure in this Moscow team. Having only scored more than two goals just once this season, Akinfeev will need to be on top of his game in order to earn results. The speedy wingers of Benfica and Manchester United should easily expose their ageing defence, leaving Akinfeev on his own.
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