Now that Tuesday’s 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification games are complete and international players have headed home to their parent clubs, we turn our attention to the UEFA Champions League.
Today marks one week until the beginning of group stage play, with a whole host of Europe’s elites slated for action. Counting down to next Tuesday and Wednesday day one matches, we’ll bring you one group preview per day. Paying homage to the alphabet, we begin with Group A:
How did they qualify? Manchester United received automatic entry to the group stages by winning the English Premier League.
What’s their history in the competition? They’ve won the UEFA Champions Leauge, once called the European Cup, three times, in 1967-68, famously in 1998-99 as part of a historic treble and, most recently, in 2007-2008. Last season they crashed out
in the immediately after the group stage, losing controversially to Real Madrid at home in the second leg.
How far could they go? This is David Moyes’ maiden journey in the Champions League and how he choses to manage his squad as the club competes both at home and abroad will go a long way to determining success or coming up short.
The men from Manchester certainly have the on-paper quality to ease past this group, but Moyes’ inability to use the transfer window to add quality in the midfield apart from Marouane Fellaini could haunt the club in later stages of the competition.
How did they qualify? Shakhtar Donetsk finished first in the Ukranian Premier League.
What’s their history in the competition? The Miners reached the quarterfinals last year, a historic achievement. The club has experienced European glory, though, having won the UEFA Europa League in 2009. They have participated in the UCL every year since 2000.
How far could they go? Led by Croatian national team captain Darijo Srna, Brazlians Fred, Luiz Adriano and new-signing Bernard, Shakhtar could challenge Manchester United for top spot in this group, especially because they have made Donbass Arena a fortress through the years. We wouldn’t bet on them beating last year’s quarterfinal run, though.
How did they qualify? The Basque-based club finished fourth in La Liga and bested Lyon in a playoff to reach the group stage.
What’s their history in the competition? Real Sociedad reached the semifinals of the 1982-83 European Cup. The club hasn’t featured in the UCL since 2004.
How far could they go? Those who thought soccer prowess left Real Sociedad when midfielder Asier Illarramendi signed for Real Madrid were proven wrong in the matches against Lyon, who were dispatched 4-0 on aggregate. Carrying an “us against the world” attitude with them, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the club sneak into the Round of 16, but anything beyond that seems a long shot.
How did they qualify? The boys from BayArena finished third in the German Bundesliga last term, behind last year’s UCL finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, to gain automatic entry to the group stage.
What’s their history in the competition? Those who recall Zinedine Zidane’s corking game-winning volley in the 2001-02 UEFA Champions League final know that Bayer Leverkusen were the runners-up that season. That was the club’s best finish of 12 appearances in the competition.
How far could they go? If former Liverpool defensive stalwart Sami Hyypia coaches like he played in the Champions League, Leverkusen could be in line to shock some opponents. The loss of striker Andre Schurrle to Chelsea makes a deep run difficult to fathom.
The player to watch: Robin van Persie
Q: How did Sir Alex Ferguson manage to add the English Premier League’s top scorer to his roster last year, a proven player who is absolutely deadly in front of goal?
A: It was a Robin.
That’s right, Manchester United snared Robin van Persie from rivals Arsenal last summer for $38 million, an absolute steal in today’s market.
The Dutch dynamo, who netted a brace Tuesday to seal World Cup qualification for Holland, moved to Old Trafford in search of silverware and fired the Red Devils to first in the EPL last season with aplomb, smashing 26 goals. Now he’s setting his sights on European glory. Beware.
The player on the rise: Carlos Vela
Might he finally be realizing his potential? Despite not featuring in the Mexican side for two years, Carlos Vela is finding his best form with Real Sociedad. After Arsenal snapped him up as a teenager, Vela never really fully featured with the Gunners, flashing moments of brilliant finishing in occasional substitute appearances, but never locking down a regular place.
He’s getting the opportunity to spread his wings at Real Sociedad and, so far, he’s rewarding manager Jagoba Arrasate’s faith. After collecting 12 goals in 30 appearances on loan, Vela made the move permanent last year.
He began this season in stride, scoring and assisting in the team’s La Liga opener with Getafe. He went on to notch a brace in the Champions League playoff round to help the San Sebastian side down Lyon and advance to the final 32. If he continues his rise, Vela could make the difference in the group stage.
The upcoming games:
Group A gets things started at 2:45 ET on Tuesday as Manchester United hosts Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford and Shakhtar Donetsk heads to the Estadio Anoeta where Real Sociedad awaits a showdown.
The two teams likely to advance to the Round of 16:
Manchester United and Shaktar Donetsk
Did we get it right? Who do you think will make it out of Group A? Who are your players to watch?