UEFA Champions League’s group stage begins on Tuesday an eight-match slate, Groups A through D in action during the first day of the full competition. With special focus on matches in Manchester, Munich, and Istanbul, here’s a preview of the day’s action:
ANOTHER EARLY TEST FOR MOYES
Manchester United (England) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m., Manchester (Old Trafford), England
David Moyes’s first year at Manchester United is destined to be defined by his predecessor, but given the Red Devils are about to embark on their first European campaign in 28 years without Alex Ferguson, you can understand why this ever-present storyline, already in danger of being driven aground, has resurfaced. After one, failed attempt to get into the competition with Everton (falling to Villarreal in 2005 third-round qualifying), his appointment with United has given him a pass into the show. It’s only natural to wonder if he’s up for it.
With only four competitive games managing United (five if you count the Community Shield), it’s far too early to judge Moyes. That’s the obligatory caveat, one that’s interjected into the conversation about the former Toffees boss. With its reproaching tone, the reminder’s would have believe any evaluation of Moyes is verboten. But with Manchester United looking more passable than dominant through the season’s first month, it’s worth considering whether the team is slowly starting to emulate his Everton squad’s conservatism.
Consider these remarks from Rio Ferdinand, on the adaptation United players are undertaking with their new manager:
“Obviously, [Moyes] is here now and he has implemented his ideas and told us what he wants to see from us, and it’s up to us to take those ideas and put them out on the pitch … That’s what we’re trying to do and in the first few games we’ve had some good performances, individually and as as a team. It’s about continuing that and building on that.”
It’s a fairly innocuous, almost obligatory quote from one of United’s key veterans, but if you take it at face value, it implies the Red Devils have not only been happy with their 2-1-1 start but are performing according to plan. That’s a concerning prospect, considering the team’s underlying form.
That’s why tonight’s visit from Bayer Leverkusen should spark concern. Leverkusen have never won in England (including two previous visits to Old Trafford) but have a squad with more talents than the normal Premier League fan would expect. They’re not one of Germany’s big two, so they shouldn’t have a player like Stefan Kießling (the thinking holds). The now former Germany international (elective retirement) leads the Bundesliga in scoring in 2013 (17 goals).
Sidney Sam and Son Heung-Min, wide players in Sami Hyypiä’s attacking three, are capable of beating even the best defenders, but those aren’t the type of talents a typical English league follower will associate with the name Leverkusen. They round out an attack that can score against anybody, making the midfield battle all the more important. But with Manchester United rarely able to win that battle recently against quality European sides, Bayer may have a chance.
If the Red Devils play to their potential, they should beat Leverkusen, comfortably if not easily. But they haven’t played to their potential under Moyes yet, and with the approach that’s starting to be instilled, they may leave the door open for Kießling, Sam, or Son to steal a point. That’s why this game is such a test for Moyes.
LET THE DEFENSE BEGIN
Bayern Munich (Germany) vs. CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m., Munich (Allianz Arena), Germany
No team has retained the European Cup since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1989-90. Twice Pep Guardiola has had a chance, his Barcelona teams that won Champions League in 2008-09 and 2010-11 favored to retain their title the following years. Each season, they fell short, eliminated in the semifinals by the eventual champions (Inter Milan in 2009-10; Chelsea in 2011-12).
A new challenge gives Bayern Munich’s boss a chance at new history, though early returns have been mixed. Bayern’s been dominant in league, allowing only two goals while taking 13 points from five games, but they’re not clicking to the extent they did last season. In both the UEFA and German Super Cups, they’ve shown there’s work to do if they’re to remain champions of Europe.
That work continues on Tuesday against a CSKA team who, while talented, are obvious underdogs. Unbeaten in eight in Russia, Leonid Slutski’s team is in form, a four-match winning streak accompanying Nigerian international Ahmed Musa (five goals in eight games), Japanese attacker Keisuke Honda (15 goals over the last two seasons), and emerging Swedish midfield linchpin Pontus Wernbloom to the Allianz.
Unfortunately, Russian international Alan Dzagoev will not be available in attack, and the aging, slow central defense pairing of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezoutski are likely to have trouble when wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben cut in augment Mario Mandzukic.
Fitness concern for Bayern: The hamstrung team that took on Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup hasn’t gotten much healthier. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s ankle keeps him iffy. Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez, and Mario Götze are all out. Natural fullback Philipp Lahm could get another start in defensive midfield.
WELCOME BACK, SAINT IKER
Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. Real Madrid (Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m., Istanbul (Türk Telekom Arena), Turkey
Coming off a performance that saved his team embarrassment at El Madrigal (though Real Madrid still drew at newly-promoted Villarreal), goalkeeper Diego López has been rewarded with a trip to the bench. Merengues head coach Carlo Ancelotti will go with Iker Casillas in Champions League, valuing the captain’s experience in one of Europe’s most intimidating venues. Going forward, it looks like López will play in league, with Casillas taking Champions League (and potentially, Copa del Rey).
The decision has slightly overshadowed what should be an enticing rematch. Last spring, in the second leg of the teams’ Champions League quarterfinal, Galatasaray beat Real Madrid, 3-2. Unfortunately for Fatih Terim’s side, they were still eliminated from the tournament, having lost the first leg 3-0 at the Bernabéu.
The result emboldens the Turkish champions, and with the talent in their squad, Gala have the potential to upset the still consolidating Blancos. Didier Drogba will face his former Chelsea boss Ancelotti for the first time since the Italian left Stamford Bridge, while Wesley Sneijder gets another chance to inspire envy in his former club. With Terim calling on the crowd to help push the team, Real Madrid face a surprisingly difficult Champions League opener.
Stumbling into Europe: Real Madrid suffered their first blemish on Saturday, but they’ve yet to truly click this season, part of the reason why they’re now chasing Barcelona and Atlético Madrid in Spain. In Turkey, Galatasaray have drawn their last three games and sit seventh after four rounds.
All games kickoff at 2:45 Eastern.
- Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs. Manchester City (England), Štruncovy Sady Stadium, Plzen – City will choose a full team despite the weekend’s upcoming Manchester Derby, according to Manuel Pellegrini. A must win attitude reflects the uncertainties the Sky Blues carry after two disappointing Champions League campaigns. Plzen, last in Champions League in 2011, possess a quiet optimism despite the probable absence of defender Marián Čišovský, who scored five goals in qualifying.
- FC Copenhagen (Denmark) vs. Juventus (Italy), Parken, Copenhagen – Ståle Solbakken, in his first year back at Copenhagen (who he led from 2006 to 2011), can capture his first win of the season against Juventus, the defending Danish champions struggling in the Superliga (sitting 10th out of 12). Even in the best of forms, a result would be a big ask of the hosts, facing one of the teams with legitimate hopes of claiming this year’s title.
- Olympiakos (Greece) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France), Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus – Laurent Blanc is emphasizing patience on the road, an approach that could result in undo conservatism for a team coming off their season’s strongest performance (2-0 win at Bordeaux). They’ll need to retain that form against a team off to a perfect start in league, with striker Kostas Mitroglou posting a weekend hat-trick.
- Real Sociedad (Spain) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Anoeta, San Sebastian – Skakhtar survived last year’s tough draw, finishing second in a group that included Juventus and Chelsea. This year, however, they ride a disappointing start into another tough group, their two points in their last three games their worst spell since April 2011. Real Sociedad are also misfiring, going 1-1-2 through four rounds in Spain, but coming off their playoff win over Lyon, La Real embark on their first Champions League game in 10 years.
- Benfica (Portugal) vs. Anderlecht (Belgium), Estádio do Sport, Lisbon – Jorge Jesus views Anderlecht and Olympiakos as on the same level as Benfica, putting pressure on the Eagles to hold serve at home. Coming off a strong weekend performance against Paços de Ferreira, last year’s Europa League runners-up appear ready to defend their ground, even if they will be without Nicolas Gaitan, Rúben Amorim, and Eduardo Salvio. Anderlecht, having already lost twice in Belgium, will hope Matias Suarez can continue a hot start that’s seen him score six goals in the season’s first seven games.