Old Foes Meet Again – UEFA Champions League Group D Preview

It wouldn’t be a group stage competition if Real Madrid and Olympique Lyon didn’t renew their acquaintances yet again. The two teams landed in Group D of the UEFA Champions League and Real will be eager to set things right. They have not beaten Lyon away in this competition and have gone so far as to lose at home to the French giants. Real Madrid director of club relations Emilio Butragueno, no stranger to European competition, was circumspect on the UEFA web site, “We’ve played Lyon [many times] over the past seven years and it is always a tricky place for us to go; we’ve never won there. They are a side with a very solid defense and are mature and competitive.”

Manager Jose Mourinho has continued to add to his stable of stars. Cristian Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, Karim Benzema, Sami Khedira, Mezut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, and Marcelo are just some of the big name players still referred to both positively and negatively as “Galacticos”. This team certainly has the talent to make a deep run in the competition. The group stage should be no more than a warm-up, excluding their potential for a hiccup in France.

Lyon won the French title seven years in a row at one point. Last season, they finished third. They will most likely be in direct competition with Ajax of Amsterdam for the second spot in the group. Michel Bastos, Lisandro Lopez and Bafetemi Gomis will have to lead the team. The trio is at the heart of the Lyon attack. With French international Hugo Lloris in goal, they have another young star in the making. He has been monitored by a number of clubs and was among the goalkeepers Manchester United watched prior to settling on David de Gea.

Defense may be the weak spot for Lyon. Cris, the aging Brazilian, is long in the tooth, so others have had to step in. Aly Cissohko is the subject of transfer rumors that won’t die down, with England his most likely destination. That leaves young players like Timothee Kolodzieczak, Dejan Lovren, and Babary Kone in the firing line.

As a selling club, Ajax must continue to develop talent. They have been doing that for decades and even the departure of Uruguayan star Luis Suarez did not prevent them from claiming the Dutch title last year. Goalkeeper Martin Stekelenberg may be more difficult to replace though. They have started this year in terrific form with three wins and a draw from four games and a plus ten goal difference to top the Eredivisie.

Once again it is young players leading Ajax. Miralem Sulejmani, a twenty-two year old Serbian international, leads them with three league goals. There is plenty of domestic talent, too. Defenders Vurnon Anita and Gregory Van Der Wiel are already full Dutch internationals after coming through the system. Manager Frank de Boer, also a former Dutch international, remained modest in his expectations for the group stage, telling the UEFA web site, “Getting through the group stage would be nice, but it is always a case of wait and see. We have to start in a positive frame of mind. We can make life difficult for any team. It will be tough, but there is no need to panic.”

Dinamo Zagreb would also be considered a selling club. They will even run up against one of their former players in Dejan Lovren when they meet Lyon during group play. The Croatian champions could be forgiven if they are a bit giddy about advancing to the group stage. They haven’t been this far in twelve years. Coach Krunoslav Jurcic told UEFA.com “I don’t want to make any predictions; let’s enjoy this moment for a bit and later we can start to collect information about our opponents and assess our chances.”

Dinamo will certainly start as the favorites to finish last, but with rousing home support, they could take points from Lyon and Ajax whose young players might whither in the midst of the intense atmosphere. That could give them a chance to slip into the Europa League place. They certainly won’t catch Real Madrid and will struggle to take points on the road.

******Sources: www.uefa.com, www.espn.com

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