UEFA Champions League Tuesday Preview, Predictions: Last Three Champions Kick-Off Group Play

UEFA’s two continental tournaments return this week, with group stage starting for both the Champions and Europa Leagues. First up is Champions League, with Groups A through D playing Tuesday. Amongst the teams headlining those groups are the last three champions: Internazionale (Group A), Barcelona (Group D), and Manchester United (Group C).

The Champions

Inter Milan starts their title defense in the Netherlands, with new coach Rafa Benitez facing Dutch champions Twente and new coach Michel Preud’homme. Having scored nine goals against one allowed in five matches, Twente’s off to a strong start in the Netherlands, while Inter rebounded from opening match disappointment to record the first win of the Benitez era this weekend. They’ll hope to carry that momentum into Tuesday’s match, where they are expected to be without Thiago Motta, Dejan Stankovic and Maicon.

Barcelona is coming off a shock loss to Hércules on Saturday, a match that saw all of Xavi Hernández, Dani Alves, Carlos Puyol and Pedro held-out of the starting lineup. They will face Panathinaikos at the Nou Camp, with the Greek champions in the middle of a mixed start to their Super League season. A Djibril Cissé penalty kick earned Pana a 1-0, Saturday win at Aris, two weeks after opening their season with a draw to Xanthi. Having only lost once at home in Champions League last season, Barcelona is expected to bounce back against Panathinaikos.

Manchester United will be looking for a bounce back of their own after Saturday’s collapse at Everton. They'll host Scottish champions Rangers in what is expected to be a lop-sided affair. Wayne Rooney, held-out of this weekend’s match, is expected to return, as is Rio Ferdinand, who has been out since before the World Cup with a knee injury suffered in South Africa.

More Uneven Matches

Along with the match at Old Trafford, games at the Stade Gerland and the Estadio da Luz are expected to be straight-forward affairs.

Semifinalists last year, Lyon is off to a slow Ligue 1 start, sitting 16th in France after five matches, having won only once. Lyon will be without the likes of Aly Cissohko, Cris, César Delgado and Ederson and are still working to incorporate the Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand. Even with their slow start, they are miles ahead of Schalke, who have lost all three of their Bundesliga matches and sit 17th in their 18-team league. In the middle of a stylistic change that sees them shifting from a one striker, defensive style to a three attacker, open approach, Schalke is not ready to win in Lyon.

Hapoel Tel Aviv is in a similar situation, traveling to Lisbon to face Benfica. Israeli teams have not fared well in this competition, with last year’s entry (Maccabi Haifa) failing to record a point in group play. Hapoel will have Nigerian World Cup star Vincent Enyeama in goal to try and slow down Oscar Cardozo, Javier Saviola, and Pablo Aimar, but with the possible exception of goal, they should be out-classed at every position. The Portuguese champions should have little trouble with the Israelis.

Road Challenges

Rubin Kazan jumped onto many radars with last year’s win at the Nou Camp, but they have since lost arguably their three best players: Alejandro Dominguez, Alexander Bukharov and Sergei Semak. The only reinforcement they’ve brought in is former Wolfsburg, Newcastle and Inter Milan attacker Obafemi Martins, part of the reason Rubin find themselves six points back of Zenit in Russian. Still, they should be favored, if only slightly, over Copenhagen on Tuesday, even with the match taking place in Denmark.

Valencia, even on points atop Spain’s Primera, travel to Bursaspor, a club coming off their first Turkish title. Bursa is perfect through four matches in league, with 20-year-old attacker Sercan Yildrim continuing to raise his profile, having scored twice already. It will be a difficult assignment for Valenica, last year’s third place finisher in Spain, with midfielder Ever Banega out. One point for Los Che would be a good result.

And finally, what many consider the match of the day sees the full Champions League debut for Tottenham Hotspur, who will be without Jermain Defoe, Michael Dawson and Huerelho Gomes. Luka Modric is also a doubt, though Thomas Schaaf and Werder Bremen also have injury concerns. Coming off a 0-0 drawn at Bayern Munich, Werder will be without both central defenders - Per Mertesacker and Naldo. They will also be without Claudio PIzarro, one of their most important attackers. All these absences led Schaaf to play uncharacteristically conservative in Munich, and if a similar approach prevails on Tuesday, we could be in for a dull draw.

Picks

Group Home Road Pick
A Twente Internazionale 1-1
A Werder Bremen Tottenham Hotspur 2-1, Werder
B Olympique Lyon Schalke 04 2-0, Lyon
B Benfica Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-0, Benfica
C Manchester United Rangers 2-0, United
C Bursaspor Valencia 2-2
D Barcelona Panathinaikos 3-0, Barcelona
D Copenhagen Rubin Kazan 1-1
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