No Italian team has ever won at the Weser Stadium, a fact that, until yesterday, made Werder Bremen a favorite ahead of today's match with Sampdoria. Then, Werder sold their best player.
Mesut Özil had one year left on his contract and had made it clear he was going to move. Though the €15 million the club got for him is far below what you'd expect for a player of his age and caliber, the market was deflated by the expiring contract and Özil's stated intent to join Real Madrid. Those were factors in a the simple equation for Werder: Is one year of Mesut Özil worth €15 million? They said no and allowed their playmaker to move-on.
While Özil was Werder's most important player, he certainly was not their only spot of quality. Claudio Pizarro had 16 goals in league last season. Aaron Hunt and Marko Marin have both seen time in the German national team. Captain Torsten Frings remains the anchor in midfield. Thomas Schaaf just needs one player, potentially Phillipe Bargfrede, to step into Özil's spot.
But for this match, Werder's bigger concern maybe at a defense that has to deal with Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini. The duo combined for 28 league goals last season, and against an already sketchy defense that will be without starting central defender Nando, Werder is unlikely to keep Sampdoria off the scoresheet.
Sampdoria, however, will be dealing with a critical absence of their own. Coach Luigi Delneri left for Juventus after last season. Domenico Di Carlo has been signed from Chievo, where he'd spent two seasons training the Flying Donkeys to punch above their weight. Today's match will be his debut with Samp.
Sampdoria is looking to make their first appearance in Champions League since finishing second in the competition (European Cup) in 1991-92.
Sporting Braga (Portugal) versus Sevilla (Spain)
A Spain-Portugal match-up would normally be marquee at this stage of the tournament, but combine the attention to Werder-Sampdoria with the absence of Sporting Lisbon and Porto and you have a great match-up being relatively overlooked.
Braga had one of the best organized defenses in European soccer last season, the key to their surprising title push. They host a Sevilla team who, coming off their Supercopa win over Barcelona, always trouble opponents with their wide play. Diego Perotti and Spanish international Jesus Navas creating opportunities for Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanouté will test a Braga defense that will be missing injured goalkeeper Quim.
Partizan (Serbia) versus Anderlecht (Belgium)
Anderlecht ran away with the Juliper league last season, complementing their strong Europa League run. Now the Purple and White looks to step into Belgian spoiler spot that's been occupied by Standard Liège over the last few seasons.
Most eyes from these parts will be focused on United States' midfielder Sacha Kljestan, but Partizan's focus should be on 17-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku, who is coming-off a season where he posted 15 goals in 25 matches as a 16-year-old.
Brazilian Cléo is Partizan's dangerman, who will also rely on Radosav Petrovic to be a threat from midfield.
Red Bull Salzburg (Austria) versus Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israel)
At the same stage last year, Salzburg was blown out of the tournament by then-reigning Israeli champion Maacabi Haifa. It's a result coach Huub Stevens hasn't forgotten, light-heartedly describing himself as terrified of this match-up. Though defending was Salzburg's failing last season (losing 5-1 in the playoff), this year their biggest task will be beating Vincent Enyeama, the Nigerian international who will be in goal for Hapoel. Eddie Gustafsson, captain and starting goalkeeper for Salzburg, is expected to miss the match with an injury.
FC Basel (Switzerland) versus Sheriff (Moldova)
Perhaps yesterday's display from Young Boys was an exhibit of Swiss strength? If so, Basel is a good bet to get past Sheriff, who have failed to qualify for group stage in each of their last nine attempts. This year, the Moldovans seem more confident, having pulled-off a mild upset in the last round, eliminating Dinamo Zagreb (leading to the firing of their coach). Sheriff's priority will be containing Alexander Frei and Marco Strellar, who helped lead Basel past Debreceni in the last stage.
Picks: Werder Bremen 2, Sampdoria 1; Sporting Braga 1, Sevilla 2; Partizan 2, Anderlecht 1; Red Bull Salzburg 1, Hapoel Tel Aviv 1; Basel 3, Sheriff 0;