Let’s get down to the important business ……….

August 31, 2012

So the Champions’ League 2012-13 is upon us. Here’s a bit of info and ill-informed thought on our oppo this time around.

Schalke 04

Stadium: Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen (61,000 capacity). Has a retractable roof.

Manager: Huub Stevens (Dutch, appointed in September 2011)

2011-12 performance: 3rd, but 17 points behind champions Dortmund. Lost 10 games and conceded 44 goals.

The players: Their most significant players are probably Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (“the best box player in the world at the moment” said his manager in April), Jefferson Farfan (good quality right winger) and Christoph Metzelder (experienced though slow defender). The loss of Raúl to Qatari football will be a big loss – he had two excellent years at Schalke, and worked very well with Huntelaar. But the dangerman remains Huntelaar, as confirmed by 48 goals scored in 47 games last season. Control him and we’ll be a long way to dealing with Schalke.

The fans: Club has 100,000 members. Recently departed Raúl said “In each game, how they [the Schalke fans] live for the club, it’s almost like a religion if you want to put it that way. This is really wonderful.” And having gone there in 2001 when we lost 3-1, I can confirm it is a great place to watch football, there is a real passion for football and for their club.

Olympiacos

Stadium: Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus (32,000 capacity).

Manager: Leonardo Jardim (Portuguese)

2011-12 performance: Olympiacos are the reigning champions and are Greece’s most successful club; they have won 14 of the last 16 league titles. (Being a fan of their bitter rivals, Panathinaikos, must be even more annoying than being a Spurs fan.) Last season, they conceded only 17 goals, so they may be pretty effective at the back.

The players: This is a team of veterans. There will be at least one familiar face, in the form of Roy Carroll. The loss of the Greek Super League’s leading scorer, Kevin Mirallas, to Everton will hit Olympiacos hard. But they will look to Rafik Djebbor and experienced Marko Pantelic to make up the difference. Ariel Ibagaza, David Fuster, and Djamel Abdoun will be the principal creative forces.

The fans: They will be intense, as we know all fans from south-eastern Europe are. Their rivalry with Panathinaikos is called the “derby of the eternal enemies”. The derby in February was abandoned due to rioting, which included throwing firebombs and resulted in multiple injuries being suffered by police officers.

Montpellier Hérault SC

Stadium: Stade de la Mosson (capacity 33,000)

Manager: René Girard (French)

2011-12 performance: For the first time, Montpellier were crowned French champions.

Given that they started the season simply wanting to avoid relegation and they were competing with PSG’s money and the experience of Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille and Lille, that is deeply impressive. They had only finished in the top three once before, more than 20 years ago. They’ve had some great players in the past, like Laurent Blanc, Eric Cantona and Carlos Valderrama, but winning the French title was a genuine shock. Their win was based on excellent home form (they won 16 out of 19 home games). Here’s what Girard said on seeing his players become champions: “It just goes to show that everyone can beat everyone and that money isn’t the be-all and end-all. We’re a club of mates, a club that brings young players through and gives them a chance. At the end of the day, it’s worked out well for us. We played some great football, with a well-balanced team and I’m overwhelmed.” Donchya love it?!

The players: The squad is based on youth, nurtured in-house and recruited from elsewhere – sound familiar? Losing Olivier Giroud to us will hurt, he was joint top scorer in Ligue 1 last year. But they have a bright young creative talent in the form of Younès Belhanda, and will be looking to him to weigh in with goals and assists. His manager has likened Belhanda to Robert Pirès. High praise indeed. They also have former Pompey striker, John Utaka. In defence, Henri Bedimo and (if we, Milan or someone else haven’t signed him) Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will provide a tough shield to get past.

The fans: After last season, they’ll be euphoric. Beyond that, I can’t say much, but coming from a university town in a pretty part of France, I’m sure they’ll be charming.

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So overall, we’d have to say the draw has been pretty kind to us this year. It won’t be completely straightforward (Olympiacos did beat us last year, for example). But this is a group we should feel we can cope with, and enjoy.

Written by 26may1989