With the inclusion of Real Madrid, Group B of the UEFA Champions League reunites several familiar faces. With the exception of Ludogorets, all teams are highly experienced with the type of play required to advance in this high-profile tournament. Real Madrid and Liverpool must build up their team chemistry quickly to include their team’s many new faces. Basel’s technicians will be quick to take advantage of any misplays by the group’s two favorites, while Ludogorets will be left fighting for points.
Real Madrid – Last year’s bridesmaid until Sergio Ramos’ header rescued them within minutes of full-time. Three more goals in extra time and Real Madrid completed their heist of “Old Big Ears” from Atletico. Led by Europe’s Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, Real is one of the true powerhouses in European football. Adding Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the Mexican international, will give Real some additional firepower. Also coming to the Bernabeu are Colombian World Cup hero James Rodriguez, German international Toni Kroos and Costa Rican international goalkeeper Keylor Navas. However, losing stalwarts Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria may be difficult to overcome. Ronaldo had this to say about the transfers, “I have my very clear opinion…But if I was in charge, maybe I would not do things like that.”
Liverpool – The team returns to the Champions League for the first time since 2008. They did not play in any European competition last year. Manager Brendan Rodgers is excited to be back in the tournament again, especially with Real Madrid in the group. Although they lost Luis Suarez, Liverpool strengthened its roster over the summer. Among the new signings are Mario Balotelli, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Markovic. Rodgers is clearly looking to make an impact in both the UEFA Champions League and the English Premier League. With the acquisitions over the summer, he has the horses to do so.
Basel – Basel is no stranger to European competition, having participated every year since 1999 and advanced to the Champions League knockout stage in 2011. They have dominated their Swiss league and are one of Europe’s most technically proficient teams. Liverpool and Real cannot take them lightly. Luca Zuffi, their central midfielder said, “Real Madrid and Liverpool are two big clubs…We’ll give it our all in this group and see how far that gets us.” For Basel to make it to the round of 16 would not be surprising, but they would have to play extremely well. Their pedigree suggests that they are more than capable.
Ludogorets – The underdogs qualified for their spot in the UEFA Champions League with an improbable playoff win over Steaua Bucharest. Trailing 1-0 on aggregate with a minute to play, Farias Wanderson scored from 20 yards out to send the match into extra time. In extra time, the Ludogorets goaltender received a match-ending red card and defender Cosmin Moti entered the net. When the match went to penalty kicks, Moti scored one and saved two to send the Bulgarians through. Georgi Dermendzhiev, the Ludogorets coach, is happy with the draw and hopes they will earn points. His red-carded goalkeeper will have to be replaced until he is eligible to return. A few more Moti-like superhuman efforts just might get Ludogorets some points.
Group B of the UEFA Champions League will not be devoid of drama. How the two favorites will incorporate the incoming talent into their team system could be their Achilles’ heel, and a team like Basel will be quick to take advantage of any tactical breakdowns. The fight amongst the top three will be who gets relegated to the Europa League, and even a few more Monti heroics may not help the Bulgarians survive their foray into the Champions League.
Commentary by Hans Benes