It’s that time of year again! The 32 teams are ready, drawn into four groups to begin the process of determining who is the best soccer club in Europe (and in reality, the world). Today it’s time to examine Group B.
Group B: Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow, Lille, Trabzonspor
Inter Milan: The three-time winners of the European Cup, most recently in 2010, are the clear favorites in Group B, drawing perhaps the easiest group other than Man United. Inter qualifies as last years Serie A runner’s-up. Per usual they possess a deep roster and it starts all the way at the back. Julio Cesar is one of the world’s best keepers and he has an excellent defense in front of him. Javier Zanetti, Maicon, Lucio, Ivan Cordoba, and Walter Samuel provide the bedrock for a deep and talented back line. Wesley Sneijder is one of the world’s best center midfielders- if he stays in Milan. Rumors that Sneijder is on his way to Manchester United have persisted for two years. Sneijder would be a crushing blow to a side that lacks a clinical striker. For the time being the Dutchman joins with Thiago Motta, Dejan Stankovic, and Esteban Cambiasso in the middle. Diego Milito is Inter’s best forward and will likely be partnered by Giampaolo Pazzini.
Biggest strength: Rock solid defense, goalie, makes it hard to break Inter down.
Biggest weakness: Uncertainty in attack, especially with Sneijder’s possible departure.
CSKA Moscow: Russia’s 2nd place team from a year ago comes into the competition as the favorites to advance with Inter Milan to the round of 16. If nothing else, they have past history, they advanced to the quarter-finals back in 2009-2010. Like Inter, Moscow starts strong at the back. Russian national team keeper Igor Akinfeev captains the team from between the posts. Fellow compatriots Sergei Ignashevich and Kirill Nababkin form the foundation of the defense. If the back line is all Russian then the attack is all international. Chilean Mark Gonzalez is an excellent play-maker, Elvir “Ironman” Rahimic is still going strong at 35 as the holding midfielder for CSKA. Former Man United prospect Zoran Tosic can play on the wing or up top, he scored 9 goals between CSKA and a loan stint at Koln last year. Keisuke Honda, one of the stars for Japan in the 2010 World Cup, scored 13 goals last year for Moscow from his advanced midfield role. Seydou Doumbia, Vagner Love, and Tomas Necid provide solid options on the front line.
Biggest strength: Tons of depth, no glaring weakness in the squad.
Biggest weakness: No world-beating players, perhaps a tad thin on the wing.
Lille: Lille won their first Ligue 1 title since the mid-50′s and were rewarded with a difficult challenge at the group stage. That does not mean Lille is not capable of making it out over Inter or CSKA. Lille last made the Champions League in 2006-07, when it narrowly lost to Manchester United in the round of 16. The theme of this group seems to be good keepers and Mickael Landreau is certainly no exception. The 32 year old has 11 caps for the French national team. Benoit Pedretti has come over from rival Auxerre and made instant impact, 2 goals in his first game in Lille. He anchors a solid midfield that also features captain Rio Mavuba, winger Eden Hazard, and attacking midfielder Ludovic Obraniak. Moussa Sow features up front and the Senegalese-born striker had quite the debut season, 25 goals in 36 appearances. The jury is out on who partners him up front. David Rozehnal comes over permanently after a successful loan stint to anchor the defense along with Aurelien Chedjou.
Biggest strength: Moussa Sow and the holding midfielders.
Biggest weakness: Lack of true playmakers.
Trabzonspor: Outsiders in the true sense of the word, Trabzonspor actually was eliminated in the third qualifying stage, but was controversially awarded after Fenerbahce was suspended from participation due to an on-going investigation on match-fixing. Trabzonspor was awarded the spot over other clubs, because they were runners-up in Turkey and took Fenerbahce’s champions spot, along with the guaranteed spot in the group stage. Goals will be tough to come by, but former Herenveen starlet Paulo Henrique Carneiro Filho (say that 3 times fast) should lead the way. Filho scored 22 goals in the Belgian Pro League last year. Turks Giray Kacar and Serkan Balci combine with Poles Arkadiusz and Piotr Brozek to form a solid defense, anchored by Tolga Zengin in goal. South Americans Gustavo Colman and Alanzinho lead the midfield.
Biggest strength: Nothing-to-lose attitude, Filho could be a star.
Biggest weakness: No standout players, weakest goalie, by far, in the group.
Outlook: Inter Milan has themselves a little bit of an obstacle with a lengthy trip to see a quality CSKA Moscow squad, but should have little problem advancing from a group in which they are clearly the most talented squad. CSKA and Lille will have a spirited fight for the second spot, and whoever misses out should comfortably finish above Trabzonspor for the Europa League spot. Trabzonspor will likely have to settle for playing spoiler.
Prediction: 1. Inter Milan 2. CSKA Moscow 3. Lille 4. Trabzonspor