If there is one group in the UEFA Champions League that lacks sparkle, it would be Group G. None of the glamor teams fell into this quartet. The most highly regarded side will be FC Porto. The Portuguese champions went through their regular season last year undefeated with 27 wins and three draws. They went on to win the Europa League final over their compatriots from Braga, but lost the Super Cup to Barcelona. Between those last two games their young manager Andre Villas-Boas left for Chelsea like his mentor Jose Mourinho did a number of years ago.
Porto will be joined by Shakhtar Donetsk of the Ukraine, Zenit St. Petersburg, and APOEL of Cyprus. Even after losing Villas-Boas and star striker Radamel Falcao, Porto will be expected to advance from this group. They still have Hulk and Varela up front who combined for 33 goals last season. Belgian midfielder Steven Defour joined from Standard Liege over the summer and will join a creative group that includes Fredy Guarin and Joao Moutinho.
The Ukraine would not normally be the first place a South American player thinks of when he contemplates finding a new club in a new country. However, Shakhtar Donetsk has been able to bring in quite a bit of overseas talent during the past few years. That has increased their profile and added variety to the normally stodgy football played in Eastern Europe. Like many clubs, they went to Brazil to bring in skilled players.
Nine Brazilians have joined the team, adding plenty of samba rhythm to midfield and attack. Eduardo, who is actually a Croatian international, came over from Arsenal and joined a forward line that already had Luiz Adriano and Dentinho. Midfielder Jadson has been catching the eye of clubs around Europe, too. Behind all that flair is a solid back line of international class defenders like Dmytro Chigrynskiy who returned after a disappointing season in Barcelona.
For a long time, St. Petersburg was considered the most cosmopolitan of Russia cities. Now, Zenit has embraced that past and used its financial resources to recapture that spirit. Their defense includes Portuguese international Bruno Alves, Frenchman Sebastien Puygrenier and recently acquired Italian international Domenico Criscito.
They also boast another Portuguese international in midfield maestro Danny. He provides a regular supply to Serbian forward Danko Lazovic and Russian marksman Alexander Kerzhakov, who scored a hat trick in their most recent league match. The result from that game, a 5-0 win, put Zenit on top of the Russian league three points ahead of CSKA Moscow.
Cyprus would not be the place that one associates with Champions League football. APOEL will probably be in over their heads, but they did well to avoid any of the really big powers. And, after handily eliminating Wisla Krakow in the qualifying round, the rest of the group will have to be wary of their trips to the island nation.
Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu expressed unusual caution speaking to UEFA.com, “We may have some problems with APOEL as well. No one should underestimate this club and treat them as clear underdogs. The club that loses points against APOEL will most probably miss out on going through.” That’s a tough assessment and shows how much mystery there is about this team. They have no big name internationals and are very tough at home as Zenit manager Luciano Spalletti pointed out to UEFA.com, “It’s hard to play in Cyprus, where the fans support their team with great desire. APOEL also have three very skillful players up front.” This relatively colorless group may turn out to be the most competitive up to the last match day.
****Sources: www.uefa.com, www.espn.com, www.apoelfc.com/cy