What did Valencia do to the scheduling gods to deserve this? First, they open their league season at Real Madrid. That’s rough, but OK – the fixture has to come sooner or later. Two weeks later, they were at Barcelona. A little weird, but OK. Got to roll with it. Now, they open Champions League at Bayern Munich? Not only could you not get a more difficult schedule, but you could only get it if you (a) were a Spanish team and (b) had qualified for Champions League.
And thus you have today’s headliner from Group F:
Bayern Munich vs. Valencia
Allianz Arena, Munich, 2:45 Eastern
Valencia has reason to be upbeat about this whole hardest schedule imaginable-thing. First, nobody’s expecting them to go into the Allianz and get three points. If they want to be boring/pragmatic and play for one, so be it, but they can also go in and play with naive abandon and not worry about giving away points they’re counting on to make the Round of 16. Second, Valencia acquitted themselves quite well at both the Bernabeu and Camp Nou: a draw and a loss, 1-2 aggregate score. If they can play that well in Munich, they can get a result without renting any buses.
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It seems unlikely Mauricio Pellegrino will play for a draw. The new Valencia coach is off to a fine start with his old team, even if it’s not reflected in his record. But Pellegrino has a personal stake in this one. The 40-year-old Argentine was a starter on the Valencia team that faced Bayern in the 2001 Champions League final. Oliver Kahn saved his spot kick in the shootout to give Bayern their last European Cup. In all likelihood, that result will have no bearing on Wednesday’s match, though if it did, Pellegrino wouldn’t be the first manager to let an old memory influence the present.
In addition to Pellegrino, Valenica’s made a series of changes to the team that failed to advance out of last year’s group phase. Euro 2012 star Joao Perreira and Lyon’s project-come-good Aly Cissokho are the team’s new fullbacks. Mexican international Andres Guardado and Argentina starter Fernando Gago have been brought into the midfield. Paraguay’s Nelson Haedo Valdez is starting with Roberto Soldado up top. Although Los Che are off to a strong start, the jury’s still out on how strong they will be.
Bayern returns the same core that made last year’s final with two notable additions. Former Wolfsburg striker Mario Mandzukic’s addition has proved prudent as Mario Gomez misses the beginning of the season, while Javi Martinez was brought in from Athletic Bilbao for a Bundesliga record $52.1 million. They may be the tweaks Bayern needs to go from German Cup runner up, second place in the Bundesliga, and Champions League finalist to a team that wins things.
Lille vs. BATE Borisov
Grand Stade, Lille, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Like Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, Lille got a rude welcome (or, re-welcome) to life in the Champions League last year. Surprise champions of France, LOSC looked surprisingly ill-equipped, failing to win home games against Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow and Trabzonspor en route to a last place finish. Even more than BVB (also last place finishers in their group), Lille served as evidence that domestic success, even in a big league, means little in Champions League.
Rudi Garcia and squad will look to build on last year’s experience, though they do so without leading scorer and two-time Ligue 1 player of the year Eden Hazard, who hass since moved to Chelsea. They’ve also lost Moussa Sow since the last time they appeared in the competition, the Senegalese attacker making a move to Turkey in January. Along with last summer’s loss of Gervinho to Arsenal, Garcia has lost the three attackers that won him France’s 2010-11 title.
Undoubtedly Garcia would want those players back, but with last year’s lessons in tow, Lille should be stronger this season. They may not be better (they’ve only won one of their first five in France), but they’ll be better equipped to navigate the tournament’s obstacles. With Salomon Kalou, Marvin Martin and the team’s new focal point, Dimitri Payet, they still have the talent to compete with Valencia for second place.
First up is BATE, the group’s weakest team. The Belarussians find themselves in group stage for the second straight season, having won two playoff rounds to claim their spot. Last year, the team went 0W 4L 2D while posting a -12 goal difference. Although BATE have added former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Aleksandr Hleb, the team is largely unchanged from the one that finished fourth in their group last tournament.