Champions League Preview: Group D
Perhaps the most evenly split of the eight groups, Group D doesn’t feature any European giants, but rather regulars who fail to make it into the later stages of the competition. This could be the chance for all four teams to have a memorable run, with little to separate one another. Gregor Kerr previews Group D in the UEFA Champions League.
The most fancied of the four, the Portuguese champions have found progression to the round of 16 a regular occurrence of late, three times in the last five years. With the parity in quality they will expect the same result this year.
As so often is the case with Dragões, high profile players left over the summer for handsome fees. The promising Diego Dalot left for Manchester United, while Ricardo Pereria isn’t too far away, now residing in Leicester.
Their strong core of players such as Hector Herrera, Vincent Aboubakar and Yacine Brahimi should be enough to carry them through, but keep an eye out for the youthful Riechedly Bazoer and Jorge, both arriving on loan in the summer.
Their season has started as expected domestically, with a loss to Vitoria de Guimaraes preventing a 100% record after four games.
To the surprise of many Lokomotiv were placed in Pot 1 for the group stage draw, thanks to winning the Russian Premier League the previous season, of a tightly packed group, they by far have the least European pedigree. Years of mid-table obscurity were consigned to the past with their first league title win since 2004, under familiar manager Yuri Semin.
Their last experience in the group stages came back in 2003-04, making it successfully out of a group containing Arsenal’s Invincibles team, though Monaco stopped them from progressing any further than the first knockout round. Semin, in one of his four spells at the club, was the man in the dugout that season,
Striker Fedor Smolov arrived as a source of goals recently from Krasnodar, though they are still to arrive with one in five games. A hopeful partnership with Manuel Fernandes, also a regular in Portugal’s World Cup campaign, is yet to sparkle and a lack of goals appears likely.
Moscow, in 9th place, are already ten points off the pace of league leaders Zenit, and as their schedule becomes more packed, you can anticipate that gap to grow. They can of course take inspiration from their national team, who upset the odds recently. On the realistic side of things, they face a huge challenge.
Unlike their Portuguese opposition, the start to Die Knappen’s Bundesliga season has been nothing short of disastrous. Three losses in as many games has been compounded by a clear lack of discipline, having been reduced to ten men on two of those occasions.
Had such a strong core of players not left in the summer then the results may have been tipped in the opposite direction. Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka and Thilo Kehler all departed and most concerning, the first two left without a fee, meaning summer replacements would have to be on the cheap, and it has appeared that way.
Their finest campaign in the Champions League came at the start of the decade, when despite a poor league campaign, they reached the semi-finals, under the watch of two different managers during the season. Under Felix Magath they negotiated past a tricky Valencia side, before Ralf Ragnick stepped in to defeat Inter Milan in the quarter final.
Manchester United in the semi-final proved a step too far, and a 5-1 aggregate defeat followed.
Gala rank amongst the most feared of away trips, the ferocity of the home crowd and the pressure put on visiting teams ensure that matches should be tight.
But for all of their external qualities they do have talent in the team, particularly in the attacking department. At 6’3 Eren Derdiyok is a useful target-man and could be the required foil for the more diminutive Henry Onyekuru, the young Nigerian forward on loan from Everton.
Manager Faith Terim is undergoing his fourth spell in charge of the Super Lig champions, with the first being the most fruitful between 1996 and 2000, with four league titles sandwiched in those years.
In that time he mastered Gala to their first, and only ever European title, defeating Arsenal in the 2000 UEFA Cup final, with the UEFA Super Cup following soon.
Last season Terim won his seventh league crown with the club, finishing three points ahead of Fenerbahce to claim their first title in three years, and this season has started just as promising.