So the draw for the UEFA Cup group stage has recently been confirmed, and tournament favourites Bayern Munich have landed one of the more challenging tests – however, will be fairly confident of securing the points to get them through in the top 3. The strongest group on paper is arguably C, with Villareal and AEK both with recent Champions League experience, and Fiorentina experiencing something of a renaissance in Serie A. So it’s prediction time I guess – do you agree with me though?
Four out of the five teams in group A have a realistic shout of going through. AZ Alkmaar are obvious favourites, due to their UEFA Cup pedigree – semi finalists just 2 years ago. The Dutch side have proved difficult to beat in Europe and Louis Van Gaal will be confident of progression. Zenit St. Petersburg have been sharp improvers over the last couple of seasons though, and will pose a daunting task to overcome on their own patch. I’m sure many UEFA Cup enthusiasts will remember the mud-bath of a game against Sevilla in 2005, which was convincingly won by the Spaniards. Everton and Nurnberg will also be in the mix for qualification. David Moyes’ side were fairly uncomfortable against Metalist Kharkiv in the first round, riding their luck at times, but should improve. Nurnberg are unfancied due to their poor Bundesliga form. Larissa make up the numbers.
As to who’ll top this one is hard to call. Between Lokomotiv Moscow, Panathinaikos and Atletico Madrid there’s not much to choose. Panathinaikos and in particular, Lokomotiv, are not the best of travellers and that should point to advantage Madrid. I would still back the Greeks though, on the basis of their long European experience. Perhaps they have been relegated to 3rd best in Greece now, but should still have the know-how to guarantee qualification. Atletico have plenty of exciting players, Simao, Maniche, Reyes, Forlan and Antonio Lopez to name but a few – It’s whether the combination is able to gel though. Copenhagen have already proved their credentials in getting a result out of Man Utd last season; they could prove a surprise force. Aberdeen have done well in an encouraging European campaign in general for Scottish football, but know its an uphill struggle from here on in.
2. Atletico Madrid
3. Lokomotiv Moscow
As mentioned previously, this is a strong selection of teams. Villareal have started brightly in the domestic form of the game, and their tough defense and neat possession football should serve them well. Fiorentina are slowly emerging as a formidable force in Serie A once again – though this could possibly prove to be more of a hindrance if they begin to value the domestic campaign over the UEFA Cup as many Italian sides do. AEK have Champions League experience, though preference goes to Mlada Boleslav to grab the remaining qualifying spot. They have proved a dark-horse in UEFA cup matches of the past and have proved to difficult to break down. Elfsborg have no chance.
3. Mlada Boleslav
Even though Basel are the top seeds, Hamburg are the force to be reckoned with here. Van der Vaart and Jarolim are the creative heartbeat of a side who has forgotten all about the traumatic experience of last season. Basel still retain some quality though, and will be treated with respect. Rennes and Dinamo Zagreb will battle for the remaining spot – the French side did well to finish 4th in the 2006/7 season but may upstaged by the Croatian side boasting former Aston Villa ‘legend’ Bosko Balaban.
3. Dinamo Zagreb
This could be a tight contest – all five teams have at least a glimmer of a chance of qualifying. Leverkusen will be the favourites, and after a sluggish start to the domestic campaign initially struggling for goals, have warmed to the task. Theofanis Gekas will be a forward to be feared. Spartak Moscow were slightly unlucky to be dumped out of the Champions League at the hands of Celtic – though are handed a massive advantage at home with their synthetic pitch. Toulouse may have got a little bit of a hammering by Liverpool recently, but in truth are a solid outfit and have some athletic players. I fancy the French side over Sparta Prague. Zurich also have an outside chance – though its an outside bet at best.
2. Spartak Moscow
All eyes will be on the Bavarian giants, particularly given their scintilating start to the domestic season. Hitzfeld will be looking to get 2 early wins, to allow squad rotation for the final games in what could be a long season for his players. Bolton may be down the bottom of the Premiership at present, but will be all the better for their recent European experience and the UEFA cup could be a platform for Sammy Lee’s men to express themselves away from the intense pressure of the drop zone in England. Braga have been useful outfit in the UEFA Cup these last few years, and although most will say Red Star Belgrade are favourites, I’m sticking my neck out for Braga to pip them to 3rd.
1. Bayern Munich
I really fancy Tottenham to dominate this group that’s not as tough as it could have been. Jol may be under fire at the minute – so will be looking at a cup run in Europe to ease the pressure. Anderlecht are top seeds due to their Champions League experience (perenial whipping boys more like), but such is the paucity of quality in Belgian football at the moment I don’t even expect them to qualify. Hapoel Tel Aviv will be looking to bag 6 points on their own ground at least, while Getafe are an improving side in Spain and have expressed no fear in facing Spurs. Aalborg secured their place with a surprise win over Sampdoria – surely that’s as far as it goes for the Dane’s though?
2. Hapoel Tel Aviv
Bordeaux and Galatasaray are clear favourites over the remaining group of also-rans. Galatasaray’s fearsome home reputation may put them favourites, though there is little to choose between the French and the Turkish outfit. Austrian Vienna, Panionios and Helsingborgs are possibly not the strongest of tests – out of the three I’d tentatively pick the Greek side for 3rd place.
Let us know your predictions in the comments below.