by Jerrad Peters
Each year in the run-up to the UEFA Champions League group stage I write a little something about the Champions League hymn. I’ll allow myself the same tangent this year, and then we’ll get on to the prognostications.
I’ve always found the visual spectacle of football to be only part of what makes the sport’s experience so rich—sound being another major part of it. They really are grand occasions, those European nights, so it’s appropriate that the soundtrack be equally spectacular. Enter the maestro.
In 1727 George Frideric Handel was charged with composing the music for the coronation of King George II. The four hymns he wrote for the occasion—Zadok the Priest, The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing and Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened—became known as the Coronation Anthems.
Zadok the Priest has been performed during the anointing ceremony at each of the nine coronations since. The traditional text is derived from the anointing of King Solomon, as recorded in I Kings 1:38-40.
Zadok the priest
And Nathan the prophet
Anointed Solomon King
And all the people rejoiced and said:
“God save the King,
Long live the King,
May the King live forever!
The brilliant surging of the choice as it sings the chorus is never lost on even the most un-tuned ears. Rather, its climax is an impressive musical moment; its drama and tension have crowned sovereigns for the better part of two centuries.
Handel’s anthem was reborn 265 years later alongside the old European Cup competition. With UEFA having created the Champions League from the remnants of the old format in 1992, Tony Britten was commissioned to write a hymn to serve as the tournament’s official anthem. He settled on an arrangement of Zadok the Priest.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was hired for the recording, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields sang the chorus in each of UEFA’s three official languages: German, French and English. The lyrics, specifically composed for Britten’s version of the piece read as follows:
Ce sont les meilleurs équipes
Sie sind die allerbesten Mannschaften
The main event
Die Meister, Die Besten, Les Grandes Équipes, The Champions
Une grande réunion
Eine grosse sportliche Veranstaltung
The main event
Ils sont les meilleurs
Sie sind die besten
These are the champions
Die Meister, Die Besten, Les Grandes Équipes, The Champions
Group E: Chelsea, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Genk
Group in a sentence: Chelsea are the only side that can stop themselves from winning this group, which may just happen if they’re derailed by drama while their spritely opponents pick up steam and confidence.
Breakdown: Chelsea’s mandate each and every season is a straightforward one: win the English Premier League, and win the European Cup. Although after three domestic titles under owner Roman Abramovich’s watch, the order has probably been reversed.
Quarterfinalists last season, the Blues should have no trouble getting through this bracket. That said, the Fernando Torres saga (bad form; questionable statements in the press) could very well morph into a major distraction, and Didier Drogba rarely seems to play a full season anymore. Juan Mata and Raul Meirelles were good summer signings, but it’s hard at this point to see Chelsea making much of an impact beyond the Round of 16.
Their toughest opponent will be Bayer Leverkusen, who finished runners-up to Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga last season. Despite losing the versatile Arturo Vidal to Juventus after the Copa America, Leverkusen still have a very competitive side that includes captain Simon Rolfes, former Germany skipper Michael Ballack and Brazilian playmaker Renato Augusto in midfield and the high-octane trio of Eren Derdiyok, Stefan Kießling and Andre Schurrle up top. Only Dortmund and Bayern Munich scored more Bundesliga goals than Leverkusen last season.
Valencia and Genk round out the group. The Spanish side finished third in La Liga last term despite losing Davids Villa and Silva and have progressed to at least the Round of 16 in three of the past five seasons. Genk, the Belgian champions, are making their first group stage appearance since 2002-03. They managed to retain their three top scorers from last season (Jelle Vossen, Marvin Ogunjimi and Elyaniv Barda) and will pose no shortage of problems to the generally weak defenses in this bracket.
Advancing: Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen to Round of 16; Genk to Europa League
Group F: Arsenal, Marseille, Olympiacos, Borussia Dortmund
Group in a sentence: The questions surrounding Arsenal, stagnation at Marseille and a weak opponent in Olympiacos should gift this group to a very talented Borussia Dortmund side.
Breakdown: It’s hard to predict exactly what we’ll get from this Arsenal team. They brought in a handful of new players (Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun) after getting thumped 8-2 at Old Trafford and looked shaky at best against Swansea on Saturday.
Still, it’s hard not to see them in the Champions League knockout stages, if for no other reason than Marseille and Olympiacos should be easy points.
Borussia Dortmund are another story. Reigning German champions and one of the continent’s most fluid, attacking and entertaining squads, they, like Arsenal, are expecting to not only get out of this group, but make some noise in the subsequent rounds as well. Japan international Shinji Kagawa’s return to health has been a boon for the west German side, and fellow attackers Robert Lewandowski Mario Gotze and Kevin Großkreutz are each 23-years-old or younger. In other words, this team is only going to get better.
Marseille, meanwhile, will be hardpressed to replicate the Round of 16 campaign they put together last season. The addition of Alou Diarra was a good one, but so much of the rest of the squad has gone stagnant, and the Andre-Pierre Gignac ordeal at the transfer deadline set the tone for what has been a dreadful start to l’OM’s Ligue 1 season. Olympiacos lifted their 38th Greek title in May but will be in over their heads in this bracket.
Advancing: Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal to Round of 16; Marseille to Europa League
Group G: Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St. Petersburg, APOEL
Group in a sentence: No disrespect to APOEL, but this is a three-team group—and one Europa League champions Porto should edge over a pair of high-quality opponents.
Breakdown: What a year for Porto. The Portuguese giants added a league title, cup and Europa League championship to bursting trophy cabinet last season and inspired the expectation—a realistic one—that they just might be able to contend for the European Cup in 2011-12.
Of course, they’ll have to do without manager Andre Villas-Boas and leading scorer Falcao, who fled to Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, respetively. But Vitor Pereira is a capable replacement as coach, and playmaker Steven Defour and teenage striker Juan Iturbe will help pick up the offensive slack. The club also added talented Santos wing-backs Alex Sandro and Danilo for more than €22 million and will be anticipating the further development of Hulk and James Rodriguez.
Porto’s first Group G opponent will last year’s Cinderella story, Shakhtar Donetsk. The Ukrainian side went all the way to the quarterfinals in 2010-11, where they lost to eventual champions Barcelona. But their compelling football won a lot of admirers, and they have every reason to expect to be even better this season. Alan Patrick (Santos) and Dentinho (Sao Paulo) were added in the summer and bring Shakhtar’s Brazilian expatriate community to eight. In charge of them all is the brilliant Romanian tactician Mircea Lucescu.
Zenit St. Petersburg, too, have an accomplished manager at the helm in Luciano Spalletti. The former Roma boss delivered the club’s first title in three years in 2010 and added the Russian cup for good measure. He plays a 4-2-3-1 formation headed by Aleksandr Kerzhakov and conducted by Danny. Progression isn’t out of the realm of possibility for this outfit, although a repeat of their 2008 UEFA Cup triumph is more likely.
Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia are participating in their second consecutive Champions League group stage and, with 10 nations represented, are one of the most international sides in the competitions. The striking tandem of Esteban Solari and Ivan Trickovski scored a combined 22 league goals last season.
Advancing: Porto & Shakhtar Donestk to Round of 16; Zenit St. Petersburg to Europa League.
Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, BATE Borisov, Viktoria Plzen
Group in a sentence: Barcelona are the trendsetters in European football these days, but in AC Milan they’ll twice play an opponent who are closing in on their standard.
Breakdown: This one, as they say, sorts itself out. Barring unforeseen disaster, European Cup-holders Barcelona and seven-time champions AC Milan will advance from this group with ease, although in which order is yet to be determined.
Instinct, and recent history, would tend to put Barcelona atop the bracket. Since Pep Guardiola took the helm as manager, his flexible, possession-oriented 4-3-3 has dominated the sport at home and abroad, compiling three Spanish titles, the Copa del Rey, a pair of European Cups and a Club World Cup championship, not to mention a half-dozen minor trophies.
In Lionel Messi they possess the best player in the world; in Xavi Hernandez the second-best. Going forward they are a sight to behold, as Manchester United can attest. The Premier League champions spent most of the time watching their opponents move the ball during last season’s Champions League final at Wembley.
Milan, however, will provide a match. For the first time since 2004 they enter a campaign as reigning Italian champions—an honour they won with a rare combination of flair and physicality. The acquisition of Mark van Bommel last January was vital to their transformation from contenders to champions, and they’ll be looking to make the same conversion in the Champions League in the coming months.
With two high-profile opponents and a club they should beat, BATE Borisov actually did well in the group stage draw. Winners of the last four Belarusian titles, they will be hampered by the exit of 23-year-old striker and leading scorer Pavel Nyakhaychyk, who joined Dynamo Moscow in the summer transfer window. Czech Champions Plzen round out the group and are compiled entirely of players from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Advancing: Barcelona & AC Milan to Round of 16; BATE Borisov to Europa League
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer
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