On the surface, the UEFA Champions League Group G looks like a one-sided affair. Chelsea is seen as the overwhelming favorite to win the group with Sporting, Schalke, and Maribor fighting for second and third.
Chelsea – Jose Mourinho returns to Chelsea, searching for history. Having won the Champions League with Porto and Inter Milan, he seeks to become the first coach to win the title with three different clubs. Adding Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas during the transfer period has added a lot of talent and experience to a club that went all the way to the semi-final last year. As the initial draw was very kind to them, Chelsea should win this group and advance to the knockout stage.
Sporting CP – Landing in Group G, Sporting is back in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2008, when they progressed to the knockout stage. The club features three players who are instrumental to the Portuguese national team: Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Nani. Sporting were able to secure Carvalho after Arsenal and Manchester United showed interest in him. The return of Nani, on a one-year loan from Manchester United, could be instrumental in propelling the team to the next level. He provides experience and has attacking skills. Bruno de Carvalho, Sporting President, calls on the team to play with humility and respect and to display with national pride. Sporting and Schalke games should be competitive since a place in the final 16 will be at stake.
Schalke – Midfield may be a problem for Schalke, as both Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka are hampered with injury. Draxler missed Germany’s UEFA Euro 2016 match against Scotland with a hamstring injury, while Goretzka will be out another two months with a persistent thigh injury. Struggling with the injury for several months, the club doctors have decided on a low-impact rehab program. Without their two internationals, the Miners could struggle to escape to the round of 16. Schalke Sporting Director, Horst Heldt, feels that patience is required with Goretzka’s injury. He sees Chelsea and Sporting as the primary obstacles to advancing. Last year is still nagging at him and he feels a need to settle a score with Chelsea after losing to them twice.
Maribor – The Slovenians were heavy underdogs to Celtic in the qualifying round after the teams drew 1-1 in the first leg. But Marcos Tavares shattered Scottish hearts with a 75-minute goal. Tavares’ goal lifted Maribor to the group stage for only the second time after their initial entry in 1999. Ante Simundza, the coach of Maribor, feels that preparation against three different styles of play will be key for his team. He has no euphoric dreams as he realistically stated, “But how will we compete on the pitch, only time will tell.” Finishing third and gaining entry to the Europa League will mark a successful UEFA Champions League tournament for Maribor.
As a prohibitive favorite, Chelsea must be careful not to grow overconfident and to keep their game at a high level. They cannot afford any letdown heading into the knockout round. Jose Mourinho, however, is an experienced UEFA Champions League coach who will extract all he can from his team to finish atop of Group G. Sporting and Schalke will, most likely, battle for the second spot, with the loser heading to the Europa League.
Commentary by Hans Benes