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Champions League preview

Normal service resumes as the Champions League is tonight upon us once more. Clear your schedule for the next two evenings and take in sixteen fixtures that should keep us all glued to our television sets. Let’s have a look at all of the fixtures in detail for matchday one:

Runners-up last season, Atlético Madrid embark on the new campaign as they travel to Piraeus to face Olympiacos. The Greek side will be a tough test for Diego Simeone’s men at the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis as Olympiacos last season won 16 out of 17 matches at home in the league last season.

Swedish champions Malmo travel to Turin to face Italian giants Juventus. It will be a tough test for Malmo who go into the fixture with some injury concerns while Juve’s Carlos Tevez will be out to prove a point. The Argentine has gone 14 matches without a goal in the competition since scoring in Man United’s 2-2 draw with FC Porto in April 2009.

Liverpool are back in the Champions League after a five year absence. The Premier League runners-up welcome Ludogorets to Anfield – the first meeting between the Reds and a Bulgarian team since the 2005/06 campaign. Emre Can and Lazar Marković are both suspended for Liverpool on matchday one while Ludogorets are without goalkeepers Vladislav Stoyanov and Ivan Čvorović through suspension and injury respectively. 

Four months after they conquered ‘La Décima’ in Lisbon, Real Madrid will begin their title defence against FC Basel. The Swiss side travel to the Spanish capital with new coach Paulo Sousa, who has won six of his first eight Super League games. Los Blancos can boast some of the biggest names in world football, as well as new additions in James Rodriguez, Tony Kroos and Chicharito – all ready for tonight’s fixture.

Monaco are back in Europe after an eight year absence as they tonight host Bayer Leverkusen. The Ligue 1 side replaced coach Claudio Ranieri with Leonardo Jardim in the summer and lost star players such as James Rodriguez, Eric Abidal and Falcao without getting any substantial replacements. Leverkusen are in fine form having won five out of five this season before last Friday’s 3-3 draw with Werder Bremen.

Zenit St Petersburg travel to Lisbon as they face Benfica in their opening match of the campaign. The Russian side have a good record against Portugese teams in the past 12 months having beaten FC Paços and FC Porto in the qualifying games and group stages respectively.

It’s new coach Cesare Prandelli’s first Champions League match tonight since taking charge of Galatasaray as they face Anderlecht in Istanbul. The Belgian side will be seeking to get their first win on Turkish soil in their history while Galatasaray will be more than aware that they have not won any of their last four opening-night fixtures.

No strangers to one another, Borussia Dortmund welcome Arsenal in their opening fixture. Jurgen Klopp will be hoping to reverse the home defeat they suffered to the Gunners 12 months ago while Arsene Wenger will be without defender Mathieu Debuchy, but will be keeping a close eye on star-signing Alexis Sanchez, who has scored in each of his last three appearances, to cause considerable damage to the Germans.

Ashley Cole is set to play in the Champions League for a third club as Roma tonight face CSKA Moscow in the Stadio Olimpico. The Italian side are without star players Daniele de Rossi and Kevin Strootman while the Russians are beaming with confidence coming off the back of four consecutive wins – their best since 2002.

Yet again Man City and Bayern Munich meet in the group stages – the third time in four years – but it still makes for a tasty fixture. The last time managers Pep Guardiola and Manuel Pellegrini met as coaches was during El Clásico in 2009/10 Spanish season. City are tonight without Pablo Zabaleta but can take comfort in the recent form of both Stevan Jovetić and Sergio Agüero.  

The only Irishman in the Champions League Cillian Sheridan and his APOEL team-mates travel to the Camp Nou to try topple giants Barcelona despite having never won away from home in the competition as Luis Enrique makes his European coaching debut with the Catalans.

Zlatan Ibrahimović returns to face his former club Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena with his Paris Saint-Germain team-mates. The Parisians are six games unbeaten in 2014/15 yet have won just one of their last seven away games. Ajax however started their season with two league wins before a 3-1 home defeat to PSV Eindhoven on 24 August cost them their first defeat in 25 league matches dating back to last November.

Chelsea welcome Schalke to Stamford Bridge once more having last faced the Germans a year ago. The Blues, and new star signing Diego Costa, are both in flying form have won four out of four in the Premier League this season while Schalke have failed to win any of their first four competitive games of a new season for the first time since 1968.

Slovenian side Maribor, regarded as minnows in the competition, play host to Sporting Lisbon for their first group stage campaign for 15 years. Sporting, under new coach Marco Silva, are in the group stage for the first time since 2008/09 but, as Maribor will be aware of, they have lost their last two opening-day fixtures in the competition.

FC Porto begin their 19th group stage campaign determined to put last year’s poor home results in the Champions League behind them and make ammends as they seek an opening-night win against BATE Borisov in what will be the Portugese side’s 200th European Cup fixture. BATE are no strangers to competition, but rarely make any impact and have lost their last three European away games.

Finally, tomorrow is Athletic Bilbao‘s first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 1998/99  as they face Shakhtar Donetsk in their brand new stadium at San Mamés. Despite political unrest in the Donestk region and forced to play their home games some 1,200 km away in Lviv, Shakhtar’s form is very good having won eight out of eight in all competitions in 2014/15, scoring 18 and conceding just once in the process.

The fixture list in full:

16 September 2014
(Group A)
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR) – Stadium: Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, Piraeus (GRE)
(Group A)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL) – Stadium: Juventus Stadium, Turin (ITA)
(Group B)
Referee: Matej Jug (SVN) – Stadium: Anfield, Liverpool (ENG)
(Group B)
Real Madrid
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN) – Stadium: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)
(Group C)
(Group C)
Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen (NOR) – Stadium: Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)
(Group D)
Referee: István Vad (HUN) – Stadium: Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi, Istanbul (TUR)
(Group D)
Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR) – Stadium: BVB Stadion Dortmund, Dortmund (GER)
17 September 2014
(Group E)
CSKA Moskva
Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP) – Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, Rome (ITA)
(Group E)
Man. City
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP) – Stadium: Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)
(Group F)
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (GER) – Stadium: Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)
(Group F)
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (GER) – Stadium: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (NED)
(Group G)
Referee: Ivan Bebek (CRO) – Stadium: Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)
(Group G)
Referee: Clément Turpin (FRA) – Stadium: Stadion Ljudski vrt, Maribor (SVN)
(Group H)
Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED) – Stadium: Estádio do Dragão, Porto (POR)
(Group H)
Shakhtar Donetsk
Referee: Tasos Sidiropoulos (GRE) – Stadium: Estadio de San Mamés, Bilbao (ESP)

The next blog will be coming to you directly from Italy, as I head to Milan to see what a big game in the San Siro is like as AC Milan take on Juventus – historically two of Serie A’s and Europe’s most famous and successful teams.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)


Champions League preview (6/3/12)

Arséne Wenger has absolutely nothing to lose. After the 4-0 hammering his Arsenal side received at the San Siro at the hands of AC Milan on February 15th last, the French boss may aswell go for it. What has he got to lose? Can the Gunners do what seems like the impossible? He must, of course, be wary of the Italian giants. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in fine form, having scored a hat-trick at the weekend and not to mention the difficult time Robinho can give the North London side. To quote Del Boy Trotter: he who dares, Arséne, he who dares.

Also on Tuesday sees Zenit St Petersburg travel to Portugal to take on Benfica. The excellent five-goal-thriller in Russia last month gives Zenit the edge, but Benfica’s domestic form and their two away goals may count for something for Jorge Jesus’ side if they go all guns blazing at Luciano Spaelletti’s men. Watching from the sidelines will be the cup-tied Andrei Arshavin, who recently returned to Zenit from Arsenal.

Tomorrow, Barcelona host Bayer Leverkusen at the Camp Nou. The German outfit’s hopes of reaching the next stage of the competition appear slim at best, given that they go into this leg trailing 3-1 from the previous encounter at the BayArena on Valentine’s Day last. But Bayer’s form is quite good –  consecutive wins against Augsburg, Koln and then upsetting the mighty Bayern Munich could give Robin Dutt’s men the confidence for a massive upset in Catalonia. Pep Guardiola, of all people, will be well aware of this.

Also on Wednesday, APOEL host Lyon. The French side have only a slender 1-0 lead against the Cypriots and Ivan Jovanovic’s men will be seeking to make a historic win at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia (a place most of us Irish fans would prefer to forget after THAT game).

All in all there is some interesting ties with some more even more interesting ones next week. What’s your predictons? Let me know or hit me up on Twitter.



Champions League last 16 round-up

Lyon coach Rémi Garde had been disappointed by Saturday’s defeat by Caen and looked to freshen his side up by making four changes in their Champions League game on Tuesday against APOEL FC. One of these was the hot prospect Alexandre Lacazette and it was his 58th minute goal that secured the French side’s a vital home victory.

Also on Tuesday was Bayer Leverkusen who played hosts to current holders Barcelona. And despite it being Valentine’s Day, Barça showed the Germans no love or no mercy. Alexis Sánchez scored twice as the Catalans took a giant step towards a place in the quarter-finals. Michal Kadlec did score for Leverkusen but it was, of course, Leo Messi whose goal two minutes from time made him the competition’s outright leading scorer so far. See the video below for highlights:

[jwplayer mediaid=”1676″]

Arsenal have a mountain to climb at the Emirates. The reason? AC Milan put four past them at the San Siro. Ouch! Two goals from Robinho, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty and a spectacular Kevin-Prince Boateng volley gave the Rossoneri a comfortable 4-0 lead going into the second leg. Arsene Wenger will need to go on an all out attack – or pray that an extremely sub-par Milan side turn up at the Emirates on March 6th. I can’t see Arsenal recovering from this, though football has it’s surprises.

Finally, a tense-scoring match at the Petrovsky Stadium, witnessed home side Zenit St Petersburg narrowly clinch victory against Benfica. Uruguayan Maxi Pereira opened the scoring on 20 minutes for the Portugese side, only for Roman Shirokov‘s equaliser seven minutes later for Zenit brought things level. Sergi Semak goal gave Zenit the lead on 71 minutes before Benfica’s equaliser came with three minutes from time from Oscar Cardozo. But, it was to be Zenit’s night as sixty seconds later, Shirokov gave the Russian outfit their much deserved with and the game finished 3-2. Phew!

Next week sees Chelsea take on CSKA Moscow away, Chelsea travel to Napoli, Basel host Bayern Munich and Inter Milan face Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome in the French port city. ‘Til then.

Champions League matchday 5 round-up

Man United fans love a good swipe at rival City fans. They love calling them a small club (usually to the tune of the Inspiral Carepts’ “This Is How It Feels“). And no doubt the United faithful would have been chanting this at the sky blue half of the city following Citeh’s 2-1 loss at Napoli if it wasn’t for United’s 2-2 home draw with Benfica – a game many, including Sir Alex, would have expected the red devils to win.

Now, in Group C, United, Basel or Benfica can top the group. Not exactly how Sir Alex pictured it, while in City’s Group A, the defeat (despite a brilliant contest) crushes the Blues’ chances of progessing through to the last 16.

Cavani crushed Man Citeh's hopes

Inter Milan have won Group B. They are guaranteed the top spot with Trabzonspor, CSKA Moscow and Joe Cole’s Lille all seeking the much sought after second spot to get through to the last 16. CSKA might be lucky if Inter field a weaker side. Though a weaker Inter side is still capable of doing damage.

Like Inter, Real Madrid have also won their group with a hugely impressive 100% record. Fans of any club must applaud the style in which José Mourinho’s men played in the group stages so far. Ajax will qualify for the last 16 if they do not lose to Madrid in the group’s final game in a fortnight. The Dutch side drew with Lyon on Tuesday who can still qualify if they defeat Dinamo Zagreb and Madrid beat Ajax.

If you watch Soccer AM, you will know of presenter Max Rushden’s new found love for Belgian side Genk. Being a devout Genk fan, he certainly would been devastated at the club’s 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Valencia (which included a hat-trick from the brilliant Roberto Soldado who will be a regular starter in the Spanish national team soon – mark my words).

Also in Group E, Chelsea suffered a late defeat at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen. This is not exactly good for Chelsea boss AVB, who will know too well of the Stamford Bridge boardroom’s habit for sacking managers – they even sacked his friend The Special One.

Arsenal are set for the last 16

Finally, in Group F, which has been won by Arsenal following Wednesday’s 2-1 win against Borussia Dortmund courtesy of two goals from Robin Van Persie. Cypriot side APOEL have been the surprise in Group G and could win the group if they defeat Zenit St Petersburg who themselves will be seeking to top the group as will Porto. And Barcelona have won Group H following a massive win at the San Siro on Wednesday night defeating AC Milan who have been guaranteed a place in the last 16.

Barça, Inter, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have a significant amount of pressure eased of them having won their respective groups. But the last group matchday, in a fortnight, will be nail biting stuff for the likes of Chelsea, Man City, Man United and Ajax who could all crash out. December 6th and 7th will be do-or-die time.

Two bicycle-kick beauties and a big blooper

I’ve witnessed some cracking goals and some dire misses in my time. What came to my attention recently was two goals from wonderful bicycle-kicks. Better than Wayne Rooney’s against City last season? I certainly think so.

The first is this goal from Swiss international striker Eren Derdiyok for Bayer Leverkusen agaisnt Wolsfburg. That technique should earn him sort of trophy. Or, at least, the German goal of the season.

[jwplayer mediaid=”1165″]

Secondly is Julio “The Beast” Baptista‘s match-winning bicycle kick for newly-rich Malaga against Getafe. I almost fell off the couch when I was watching this at home. I didn’t even know it was possible to fall off a couch from watching football.

[jwplayer mediaid=”1167″]

Lastly, and speaking of dire misses,  Galician-based CD Lugo faced RCD Alcala recently. During the game, Lugo’s Ivan somehow mis-controls the ball in front of an open goal and the Spanish third-tier game becomes viral on You Tube. Better luck next time, amigo.

[jwplayer mediaid=”1168″]

Champions League matchday 1 round-up (part 1)

Tuesday welcomed back the 57th season of the highest competition in European club football. Not only did Tuesday welcome it back – so do I.

We’ll start with Arsenal‘s away game to Borussia Dortmund. Before kick-off, many an Arsenal fan (and Arsene Wenger himself) may have have taken the 1-1 result against the German champions beforehand. It turned out to be a disappointment.

The Gunners took the lead on 42 minutes from Robin Van Persie but it was Dortmund’s substitute Ivan Perisic’s stunning volley from 20 yards that left Wojciech Szczesny with no chance, stunned the crowd at the Signal Iduna Park. Wenger can be happy though  – it proves that there is life after Cesc and Nasri. The new-look team is taking shape and getting better.

The other game in Group F witnessed Argentinan Lucho Gonzalez providing Marseille with the only goal of their game against Olympiacos in the Karaiskakis Stadium. This will make Didier Deschamps a happy man as the French side now top that group.

In Group E, Chelsea boss André Villas-Boas’ first taste of Champions League football saw a victory against Bayer Leverkusen at Stamford Bridge with the ball ending up in both nets in the first half. But both were disallowed. In the second half, defender David Luiz’s curled home nicely from an assist from currently-in-the-bad-books Fernando Torres. Then, in extra time of the second half, my very first ‘one to watch’, Juan Mata doubled Chelsea’s lead. This result puts the blues top of the group as Valencia travelled to Belgium to face Genk where it finished 0-0.

A goalscoring hero. And Fernando Torres.

One of the day’s more exciting fixtures was Italian champions AC Milan facing holders Barcelona. 3,000 Milanese supporters were in the Camp Nou on Tuesday – which is about 200% more than the usual away support in the Catalan capital. Their voices were heard as Alexandre Patro scored within 60 seconds. Barça’s response enormously attacking play. And despite scoring twice from Pedro and David Villa, Milan frustrated the Catalans with their deeply defensive style – and suddenly Thiago Silva’s equaliser in injury time. Barça’s nightmare finish is Massimilliano Allegri’s dream start.

Here is Tuesday’s results in full:

Apoel Nicosia 2-1 Zenit St Petersburg
Barcelona 2-2 AC Milan
Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arsenal
Chelsea 2-0 Bayer Leverkusen
FC Porto 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk
Genk 0-0 Valencia
Olympiakos 0-1 Marseille
Plzen 1-1 BATE Borisov

Part 2 on Wednesday. Oh, welcome back Champions League indeed.