Group F of the UEFA Champions League is led by Barcelona and PSG, who are favored to advance. Ajax and APOEL, however, are capable of springing an upset. All eyes will be watching the games between Barcelona and PSG, who played to two draws in the 2013 quarter finals, with Barca advancing on away goals.
Barcelona – Barcelona needs no introduction to the UEFA Champions League. They have been one of the most dominant clubs in recent years. The 2006, 2009, and 2011 winners have made deep runs into the tournament since the Messi era began. One of the all-time greatest players to ever play the game, Messi is a highly skilled tactician with an unbelievable ability to score goals at an extraordinary rate. Any team playing Barcelona will have to successfully defend against Messi if they hope to get past Barca. Andoni Zubizarreta, Technical Director of Barcelona, is more concerned about the club’s style of play instead of being group favorites. He states, “…we are more concerned about playing at the level people expect from (us).”
PSG – The French champions, due to imposed Financial Fair Play regulations, were forced to reduce their spending and had their squad size reduced from 25 to 22 players. Yet PSG is expected to move beyond the group stage. Two years ago, PSG lost to Barcelona in the quarterfinals. Despite playing to two draws, Barcelona advanced on away goals. While Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a proven goal scorer, it is on the defensive side of the ball that PSG has problems. Both David Luiz and Thiago Silva are fighting injuries and their availability for the season is a questions mark. Marquinhos, the 20-year-old Brazilian center back, may be the key player in this tournament. Laurent Blanc, PSG coach, says of this difficult group, “…we can cope with it.”
Ajax – Daley Blind, Dutch international, was recently transferred to Manchester United. In addition, Niki Zimling, a Danish international was loaned out to Mainz of the German Bundesliga for a year. Their transfers will leave a void in the team’s midfield. Coach Frank de Boer is aware of the formidable task that lies ahead for the team to reach the round of 16. Ajax is rich in Dutch and European football history, having won the UEFA Champions Leagues final in 1995. They have won the Eredivisie championship for four consecutive years and are looking to take one of the two top spots in Group F.
APOEL – With a rich history in Cyprus football, this is APOEL’s third entry into the group stage of the Champions League. Three years ago they reached the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Real Madrid. While they have been successful locally with 23 championships, playing on Europe’s big stage is a whole different matter. Barcelona and PSG are the group favorites; Ajax and APOEL appear to be competing for an Europa League spot. But their run in 2012 is a message that no team can be taken lightly. APOEL captain Constantinos Charalambides agrees, “This is a very tough draw for us.”
As a new UEFA Champions League is set to start, Barcelona is one of the favorites to win it all. Recent history has shown that the Spanish powerhouse has the talent to not only to win Group F, but also to win the entire tournament and hoist the “Old Big Ears” trophy in Berlin. PSG, Ajax and APOEL will have to be on the top of their game if they hope to derail the Barca express.
Commentary by Hans Benes