Group C of the UEFA Champions League began as an evenly matched table with an opportunity for any team to advance. That was until Monaco lost two major players to transfers. What was once a competitive group across the board now appears to have been narrowed to a three-team race.
Benfica – Director Nuno Gomes sees this as a very balanced group but a trip to Russia would be a difficult undertaking. Despite failing to make the group stage the last two years, the Portuguese champions are a tournament top seed. Benfica has talented players in Nicolas Gaitan and Enzo Perez. The addition of Joel Campbell on a transfer from Arsenal would have added a world-class striker to the mix. The deal fell apart because of a financial disagreement. Benfica will benefit from Hulk being absent in their first match with Zenit because of injury. Adding Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar will give the club a world-class netminder for the coming season.
Zenit St Petersburg – The club is still in shock after losing the Russian league title at the end of last season. It forced them into the playoff round where they cruised past Belgians Standard Liege by a 4-0 aggregate. Zenit will rely on the strong play of Hulk, whose current thigh injury will keep him sidelined for the first two matches, and Axel Witsel to see them through. A trip to Russia is always hard on a team, so a strong record at home will make Andre Villas-Boas’ job a lot easier. The Zenit coach feels that this is an evenly matched group and that his team has the required tools and desire to compete and advance. A transfer to the Europa League as the group’s third place finisher would be a disappointment.
Bayer Leverkusen – Manager Roger Schmidt has his team off to a fast start this season. New additions Hakan Calhanoglu, Josip Drmic and Kyriakos Papadopoulos are being counted on to improve the club’s play. With a dominating 4-0 playoff game against FC Kobnhavn to reach the group stage, Bayer is ready to make a run for the UEFA Champions League knockout stage. Simon Rolfes’ injury will make that run more difficult. The captain and starting midfielder is expected to miss two months with an ankle injury that will require surgery. The current Bundesliga leaders will be a contender in Group C and appear ready to make a strong run to win the group.
Monaco – The team is returning to Europe’s top competition after nearly 10 years away. Runners-up in France’s Ligue 1, Monaco is off to a slow start. Leonardo Jardim has brought a new philosophy to the team that has not yet been fully mastered. Lucas Ocampos, the young midfielder, is confident that the new system will bear fruit soon.
Having lost World Cup Gold Boot winner James Rodriguez to Real Madrid has to hurt. James’ creativity and ability to score from tight quarters is a rare gift. However, the additional loss of forward Radamel Falcao on a loan to Manchester United on the transfer day deadline may be too much to overcome. For now, it appears that Monaco has some major obstacles to hurdle before success in the Champions League can be achieved.
What began as an evenly distributed Group C has apparently become less competitive with Monaco’s loss of Falcao on the transfer deadline. Having already lost Rodriguez, Monaco fans are up in arms over the perceived dismantling of the team. For the other teams in this group of the UEFA Champions League, the path to the knockout stage has, seemingly, become a bit easier.
Commentary by Hans Benes