Group quality in Champions League is a zero sum game. It’s like that in all tournaments. If you have a very strong group (like Group D, this year), either the rest of the groups become easier or one, maybe two groups become so easy that the winner’s less likely to be determined by quality than which team can get their act together in time to advance.
And that’s how we get Group C. It’s a collection of teams that have the talent to make the knockout rounds, but with issues surrounding each at the start of group stage, it’s hard to tell which pair is going to be alive come 2013.
Málaga vs. Zenit St. Petersburg
La Rosaleda, Malaga, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Continuing Tuesday’s theme of teams having never played each other, Zenit makes the 2,580 mile trip southwest to face Málaga, one of three clubs making their Champions League debut. Sitting second in Spain, Málaga no longer seem like the speed bump they were projecting after the sale of Santi Carzola. Instead, they’re exactly what they were last year: a team Manuel Pellegrini’s made tough to score on, even if they often seem in incapable of scoring more than one goal.
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Málaga’s Champions League debut introduces another possible problem, one we saw in Borussia Dortmund’s unexpected troubles in last year. The German champions finished last in their group, reminding us experience in Champions League (and balancing it against domestic concerns) might actually matter. The increased travel, lack of familiarity with opponents, fixture congestion and increased on-field demands are issues clubs often have to confront before they can master. Even clubs that bulk import players and coaches with Champions League experience face trouble. Like Dortmund, Manchester City failed to make last year’s Round of 16.
Zenit did qualify for the knockout rounds, though based on the new blood they’ve brought in, expectations may be higher. Brazilian goal scorer Hulk and Belgian midfielder Alex Witsel made high-priced moves to St. Petersburg earlier this month, right around the time Luciano Spalletti’s team was dropping out of first in the Russia’s Premier League. After a perfect 4-0-0 (W-L-D) start, Zenit’s gone 1-2-1, losing at home to Rubin Kazan and Terek Grozny.
Travelling with only three days rest and having never won in Spain, Zenit’s list of problems creates a matchup of a more talent but travel weary, out-of-form side against tournament neophytes who have the luxury of playing at home. Maybe this one is destined to draw.
AC Milan vs. Anderlecht
San Siro, Milan, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Until proven otherwise, Milan are Group C favorites. Unfortunately, the Rossoneri seem to be making their opponents’ case. They’ve already lost at home to Atalanta and Sampdoria, with only a Giampaolo Pazzini hat trick at Bologna keeping Max Allegri’s side from a completely disastrous start. After selling Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic this summer (and letting a number of veterans go), Milan was supposed to take a step back, but with an easy schedule to start their Serie A campaign, more was expected in the season’s first month.
If Milan lose to Anderlecht, the club will be in full crisis mode, particularly considering the Belgians’ history on the peninsula. The Jupiler League champions have made 14 trips to Italy and never won, and while the Italians’ struggles make this as good a time as ever to make history, Anderlecht has had their own problems in Belgium. Though they sit second in league, Anderlecht’s won only three of their seven league matches.
Unfortunately for the Belgian Champion (already without injured Argentine attacker Matías Suarez), Serbian Milan Jovanovic is suspended, leaving the Purple and Whites without two of their four main scoring options from last season. At the rate Milan’s scoring, that may not be an issue, but if Anderlecht’s going to make history instead of merely drawing, they’ll likely need Dieduonné Mbokani to maintain his form (seven all competition goals this season) or Guillaume Gillet (14 goals last year) to regain his scoring touch.