The first matchday in the 2011-12 edition of the UEFA Champions League did not fail to raise the bar for the tournament after a series of stupendous action, game after game. The Camp Nou miracle executed by Milan was followed by an upset of mammoth proportions that saw Inter being outdone at San Siro by Trabzonspor who would not have even featured in the tournament if not for the leakage of malpractices in Turkish football.
The action returns as the second matchday beckons and some mouth-watering clashes are already lined up. On the second bracket of the matches scheduled, teams from groups E, F, G, and H lock horns with an intention to secure as many points as possible during the initial rounds of Group stages to avoid any significant pressure later.
Group E – Chelsea (England), Valencia (Spain), Genk (Belgium), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Valencia v Chelsea – Estadio Mestalla, 28 September, 2011
Having failed to register three points from their trip to Belgium on the first matchday, Unai Emery’s men would be more than keen to register their first European victory of the season but the lions of Andres Villas-Boas won’t be easy ones to hunt down. The match will garner a great attention from both the Valencia and Chelsea circles as Juan Mata will make his first return to the Mestalla stadium since his move to West London earlier this summer. He is certain to start on the wing, deployed alongside Fernando Torres, who is going to miss premiership action in the weekend approaching, serving a suspension he earned against Swansea City. Frank Lampard should once again start from the bench.
Valencia have lost a string of supremely talented players in last two seasons and all of them are arguably playing the best football of their life elsewhere. Wounds of the departure of ‘Deadly Davids’ were still fresh and the West Londoners came knocking only to snatch the team’s most talented prodigy in the form of Juan Mata. However, Los Che are considered one of the better teams in Spain and at their own den, may well surprise their English opponents by taking the game to them. Robert Soldado shall be the sole man deployed up front with Canales, Alba and Hernandez playing behind him. After sustaining an injury during midweek against Barcelona, midfielder David Albelda is a doubt for this fixture.
THT Prediction: Valencia 1-1 Chelsea
THT Players To Watch Out For: Sergio Canales (Valencia), Juan Mata (Chelsea)
Bayer Leverkusen v KRC Genk – BayArena, Leverkusen, 28 September, 2011
Last season’s Bundesliga runner-up did not start the on-going European campaign in a desired fashion, having lost to Chelsea on the opening matchday. Their league campaign too hasn’t gone exactly as planned, having managed only ten points in seven games played and are currently struggling at eleventh position in the table. Robin Dutt is facing a selection headache too going into this clash with as many as five Leverkusen players being ruled out on fitness grounds. Michael Ballack should only start from the bench whereas other notable absentees are Rene Adler and Tranquillo Barnetta. Having served his suspension, Andre Schrulle should find his way back in the playing eleven.
Belgian champions successfully held Valencia for a stalemate during the latter’s visit to Belgium and have all the reasons to feel confident of earning a point in Germany. The last time Genk played in a Champions League competition was way back in 2003-04 where they were grouped with the bigger names like Real Madrid and AS Roma. The only major name missing from their roster for this game is the young Centre Back Torben Joneleit. Leverkusen did play the Belgians in their pre-season schedule and registered a convincing 3-1 victory, a result which will certainly not be easy to repeat, given their currently unconvincing state of affairs.
THT Prediction: Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 KRC Genk
THT Players To Watch Out For: Andre Schrulle (Leverkusen), Jelle Vossen (Genk)
Group F – Arsenal (England), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Marseille (France), Olympiacos (Greece)
Arsenal v Olympiacos – Emirates Stadium, 28 September, 2011
Arsene Wenger’s merry men have seen two of their best players parting ways with the club ahead of the season and have quite expectedly suffered to get going. Wenger is still working on finding the ultimate mix to represent the North London club but the ever-growing list of injuries – something quite typically Arsenal-esque – isn’t helping his cause. Theo Walcott picked up a hamstring injury during the weekend clash against Bolton but is deemed to be fit.
However, in consideration to the epic North London derby that is happening later this week, Wenger may not opt to risk his priced weapon. Jack Wilshere has been ruled out from any on-field action for another four months at least, while Diaby and Vermaelen too are unavailable for selection. Arsenal could only manage a draw against Borussia Dortmund and must aim to seal three points out of this fixture against the Greeks who have never managed to earn a single point on English turf. The other two opponents in the group are relatively stronger and can cause the uncertainties over the progress – something similar to what SC Braga did last season.
The reigning Greek champions haven’t got off to flyer this season, as they are standing fifth in the league table and aren’t really expected to perform any miracle at the Emirates. The two teams met in the group stages during the 2009-10 edition of Champions League, where each ended up winning the home game against the other.
THT Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 Olympiacos
THT Players To Watch Out For: Mikel Arteta (Arsenal), Kevin Mirallas (Olympiacos)
Marseille v Borussia Dortmund – Stade Velodrome, 28 September, 2011
Marseille registered an away win over Olympiacos on the opening matchday; however, the contest would be of an enhanced difficulty level when they welcome the current German champions Borussia Dortmund for the second round of group matches. The Ligue 1 runner-up of last season are seeing their domestic fortunes being jeopardised after gathering only seven points from eight rounds of matches and slipping into the bottom half of the table.
At the same time, Dortmund too have failed to replicate last season’s heroics and have already been beaten thrice in the Bundes Liga so far. Against a wounded Arsenal too, it took them a wonder goal from Ivan Perisic to seal a single point at home. Given the present turmoil both the teams are facing, the match could be won by whosoever overcomes their difficulties faster and means more business on the pitch as the whistle blows.
THT Prediction: Marseille 1-1 Borussia Dortmund
THT Players To Watch Out For: Lucho Gonzales (Marseille), Mario Gotze (Borussia Dortmund)
Group G – Porto (Portugal), APOEL (Cyprus), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
Zenit St. Petersburg v Porto – Petrovsky Stadium, 28 September, 2011
The all-conquering Portuguese champions of last season are devoid of the services of their astute success-carver Andre Villas-Boas who took a flight to England in search of greener pastures. The most priced weapon of Villas-Boas’ juggernaut – the Colombian beast Radamel Falcao – too moved to Atletico earlier this summer but the Portuguese side has so far maintained the dominance in the national scene and the league table sees them sharing the summit position with Benfica.
Porto registered an impressive start on the first matchday, defeating Shakhtar Donetsk at home after falling a goal behind. A win from their Russian trip would drastically strengthen their position as group leaders. Striker James Rodriguez, who was unavailable during the 2-2 draw with Benfica due to a suspension, will join the squad back whereas Guarin will still miss out on this game, as he is serving the suspension he earned during the Super Cup match against Barcelona.
The Russian hosts, on the other hand, suffered a defeat in Serbia as they begun the continental journey and must aim to seal three points, making the most out of adversities travelling teams face in Russia. Their run in the league has been fairly impressive this season as they hold a thin lead at the top of the table. Portuguese Centre Back Bruno Alves will not be part of the Zenit squad as he is serving a suspension.
THT Prediction: Zenit St Petersburg 0-1 Porto
THT Players To Watch Out For: Danny (Zenit), Hulk (Porto)
Shakhtar Donetsk v APOEL – Donbass Arena, 28 September, 2011
Ukrainian champions host the champions from Cyprus with an intention to claim the first three points in the group stages and avoid enhanced pressure in the further matchdays to progress to the next rounds.
With the presence of teams like Porto and Zenit in the group, it is going to be no mean task to ensure a qualification and it is very important for the Eastern European outfit not to drop points at this stage. Both Yaroslav Rakytskiy and Dmytro Chygrynskiy will miss out on the match after the red cards they earned against Porto, and Oleksandr Kucher and Oleksandr Chyzhov are set to fill into their shoes.
APOEL kicked off the campaign with a thrilling victory over Zenit and should expectedly be coming to Ukraine with an intent of earning a single point from the game. APOEL have managed an impressive record on their away trips in Europe, having earned a point at places such as Stamford Bridge in the past.
THT Prediction: Shakhtar Donetsk 3-1 APOEL
THT Players To Watch Out For: Luiz Adriano (Shakhtar Donetsk), Gustavo Manduca (APOEL)
Group H – AC Milan (Italy), FC Barcelona (Spain), BATE (Belarus), Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic)
BATE Borisov v Barcelona – Stadion Dynama, 28 September, 2011
Current holders of the Champions League, Barcelona travel to Belarus to meet the local champions BATE in what is going to be the first match ever between the two sides in history. BATE are the only side from Belarus ever to have qualified for the group stages in Champions League and this is the second time they have accomplished this feat.
A host of BATE players are going to remain unavailable for this contest after holding Czech outfit Viktoria Plzen for a draw a fortnight ago. Midfielder Dmitri Likhtarovich returns to action after missing out for more than a month but is only expected to start the game from bench.
The visitors must be aiming to seal their first victory of the group stage and the opposition couldn’t have been easier to do that. However, the fact that the Catalonians have never played them before may be a factor for the hosts to string in a surprise or two.
Barcelona are missing the long term absentees such as Andres Iniesta, Ibrahim Affelay and Alexis Sanchez, while both Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol have recently returned from injuries and may well start in the centre of the defense. Some key players may be rested by Guardiola for this game, keeping in mind the upcoming La Liga action.
THT Prediction: BATE 0-3 Barcelona
THT Players To Watch Out For: Mateja Kezman (BATE), David Villa (Barcelona)
Milan v Viktoria Plzen – Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, 28 September, 2011
Milan stunned the champions at their own den with an incredible last minute draw two weeks back. Now is the time to earn three more points as they welcome Czech champions at San Siro in what could in all probability be an easy cruise towards the first victory in Europe this season. The game will be the first ever played between the two sides involved.
The injury-Gods seem to be in no mood to be kind towards Allegri as half the squad is still unavailable to him and with the big game against Juventus approaching this weekend, it makes little sense to risk the depleted players and aggravate their brittle conditions. Cassano should once again lead the attacking pack, whereas the omission of Pippo Inzaghi from the Champions League squad may come down haunting Allegri at a situation when all three of his lead forwards are unavailable.
The visitors are expected to field an unchanged eleven from their last weekend’s draw in the domestic league and the manager Pavel Urba should deploy his favoured 4-3-2-1 shape against the Italian champions.
THT Prediction: Milan 2-0 Viktoria Plzen
THT Players To Watch Out For: Clarence Seedorf (Milan), Marek Bakos (Viktoria Plzen)