by Jerrad Peters
John Gramlick and Gabriel Hanot didn’t know each other. In fact, Hanot was only born when Gramlick was at the peak of his career. Gramlick—a British expatriate living in the old Austro-Hungarian empire—was heavily involved with the Vienna Cricket and Football Club in the 1890s. Hanot, meanwhile, was the editor of two French football publications and manager of the French national team in the late 1940s. Their paths never crossed. Nonetheless, they shared an identical dream: the creation of a competitions that would bring together the best teams from throughout Europe.
In truth, it wasn’t a new idea. The growth of football and cricket in the late 19th century had produced several competitive leagues in a handful of countries. Each competition was purely domestic, however, as teams only played opponents from within their national divisions. This produced an obvious set of questions: Which team was actually the best in Europe? Was there a way to determine a continental champion?
Gramlick was the first to tinker with the notion and bring it into some semblance of its current form. Through his involvement with the Vienna Cricket and Football Club, he established the Challenge Cup in 1897. Open to teams from throughout the Habsburg Empire, the initial competition included just four sides: Vienna, Vienna Football Club 98, Rasenspielclub Training and First Vienna FC. Vienna—also known as Cricketers—thrashed FC 98 in the final, winning 7-0 in Vienna’s Prater Park. Eventually, the tournament included 12 teams from as far away as Budapest before disbanding in 1911.
The Mitropa Cup picked up where the Challenge Cup left off. Again, it was in Austria that the idea became reality. Hugh Meisl—a Jew born in Ostrava in what is now the Czech Republic—took Gramlick’s dream one step further. Instead of limiting the competition to his immediate region, Meisl’s Mitropa Cup embraced clubs from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Switzerland. Initially, the top two sides from each national league were entered in the tournament, but some leagues were permitted to send three teams beginning in 1937, 10 years after the Cup debuted. After a nine-year hiatus during and after World War II, the competition re-emerged as the Zentropa Cup and was contested until the breakup of the Soviet Union and establishment of the modern Champions League in 1992.
The Champions League, as we now call it, is a descendant of the old European Cup, which determined continental supremacy for 37 years after its inception in 1955. This is where Hanot comes into the story. While serving as the editor of the magazine L’Equipe, he visited England in 1953 and watched Wolverhampton Wanderers defeat Honved Budapest and Spartak Moscow at Molineux. After the victories, London’s Daily Mail boldly proclaimed Wolves the finest team in the world.
Hanot scoffed at this and wondered what the likes of Real Madrid and AC Milan would think of such an assumption. He didn’t have long to wait. After discussing his idea of a continent-wide competition with L’Equipe colleague Jacques Ferran, the two got down to work. Ferran drafted the rules and format of the tournament and Hanot took the documents to Vienna and presented it to a UEFA gathering. Less than two years later, Sporting Clube de Portugal lined up opposite FK Partizan of Yugoslavia in the first match of the European Cup. It was an occasion of considerable satisfaction for Hanot, but neither he nor Ferran, Meisl or Grmlick could ever have predicted just how enormous their dream would become.
Group A: Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Manchester City, Napoli
Group in a sentence: Manchester City may be making their first ever Champions League appearance, but saying their too fresh to contend in the Group of Death is to do them a great disservice, despite the quality of their opponents.
Breakdown: Bayern Munich are having fun with their football. Through five Bundesliga rounds they’ve recorded four wins, scored 16 goals and conceded just one. They’ve annihilated everything in sight so far this season, and enigmatic striker Mario Gomez is in the middle of a hot streak with eight goals already in the bag. Playmaker Franck Ribery looks to have finally started a season in the purple patch as well.
That Bayern are favourites in an especially difficult group is down not only to their early season form, but also to their continental reputation. They’ve won the European Cup four times, after all, and finished runners-up on four other occasions. They’ll also be hosting the Champions League final in May.
Manchester City have no such pedigree at this level. Not that it should matter. City are off to a spectacular start to their Premier League campaign, and if David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko can replicate their domestic performance in Europe, they’ll take some beating. The school of thought that says they’ll have to bide their time before enjoying Champions League success is quite simply a lot of rubbish. City could very well win this group, and it should surprise no one if they do.
Napoli and Villarreal are the unfortunate members of this bracket. Both are excellent sides, and Napoli have a realistic shot at winning a first Scudetto since the Diego Maradona era this season. They made an astute summer acquisition in coaxing midfielder Gokhan Inler from Udinese, and the loan acquisition of Goran Pandev will only enhance an already lethal attack that includes Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani. Villarreal can fill the net as well and possess one of Spain’s top striking duos in Guiseppe Rossi and Nilmar.
Advancing: Manchester City and Bayern Munich to Round of 16; Napoli to Europa League
Group B: Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow, Lille, Trabzonspor
Group in a sentence: Inter manager Gian Piero Gasperini is already under tremendous pressure, and the fact that both CSKA and Lille will push his side for progression won’t help his cause.
Breakdown: The knives are already out for Gian Piero Gasperini. Dealt a 4-2 opening day loss to Palermo, his Inter side will now look to pick up an important three points at home to Trabzonspor. If they don’t, the manager’s tenure at the San Siro could be even briefer than that of Rafael Benitez a year ago.
That said, this Nerazzurri side still has considerable strength. Wesley Sneider (who started on the bench against Palermo) is one of the premiere playmakers in world football, and both Giampaolo Pazzini and Diego Forlan can bang in the goals. It’s in defense that they’re suspect, and the usually reliable Julio Cesar gave up some howlers against Palermo as well.
Inter’s instability bodes well for Lille. The French champions have made a good start to their title defense and were able to offset the loss of Gervinho by picking up veteran forward Benoit Pedretti and signing Joe Cole on loan from Liverpool. Still, so much of manager Rudi Garcia’s attacking approach goes through Belgian maestro Edin Hazard. The 20-year-old playmaker scored 12 goals and added 10 assists last season and is coming off a brace against St. Etienne at the weekend. Any Inter stumble will mean more chance that Lille can win this group.
CSKA Moscow are currently level with Zenit St. Petersburg atop the Russian Premier League table. They have some impressive attacking options in Mark Gonzalez, Keisuke Honda and Tomas Necid and presently have the third-best defensive record in Russia as well. Trabzonspor round out the group. Runners-up to Fenerbahce last season, they were installed in the group stage after their league rivals were banned for match-fixing. Striker Burak Yilmaz paced the side with 19 goals last term, but Umut Bulut took his 13 tallies to Toulouse over the summer.
Advancing: Inter Milan and Lille to Round of 16; CSKA Moscow to Europa League
Group C: Manchester United, Benfica, Basel, Otelul Galati
Group in a sentence: Benfica and Basel will battle for progression as Manchester United should win this group at a stroll ant Otelul are in over their heads.
Breakdown: The lesson of Wembley was apparently learned. Quite apparently. After losing the 2010-11 Champions League final to Barcelona in England’s national football stadium, Manchester United are clearly using the defeat (they were flattered by the 3-1 scoreline) to refine the way they play the game. Wayne Rooney—who continued his evolution into a trequartista last season—is playing from a consistently deep position, and his teammates have taken his lead and are working extremely well off the ball.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and, until they were injured, Tom Cleverly and Danny Welbeck, have injected some youthful vigour into a squad that looked at times last season to be going stagnant, and no side in top flight football in more than 60 years has put up the sort of offensive numbers the Red Devils have so far in their Premier League campaign.
United should win this bracket without much difficulty, which leaves the two-horse race of Benfica and Basel to decide who will progress alongside the three-time European Cup winners. Benfica, who finished runners-up to Porto in the Portuguese lead last season, should be given the slight edge, and are looking to advance to the knockout round of this competition for the first time since 2005-06, when they were in a group with Manchester United and progressed at their expense.
Manager Jorge Jesus has a youthful group of players at his disposal, including 2011 FIFA Club World Cup silver medalists Miku and Nelson Oliveira. Neither will play Benfica’s first match against United, however, as Jesus will name a tried and tested—and effective and attacking—lineup, including the likes of Oscar Cardozo, Maxi Pereira and Pablo Aimar.
Basel, meanwhile, have one of the true young stars of the tournament in their ranks. Xherdan Shaqiri had a brilliant UEFA U-21 Championship in Denmark this summer and has carried that form over to his club. No doubt he’ll be using the Champions League as a springboard to a big-money move in 2012. Veteran striker and Swiss icon Alexander Frei leads the line up front.
Otelul Galati round out the group. They have never before progressed this far in Europe’s most prestigious club competition and won only their first Romanian title in 2010-11. Not a single won of their players scored 10 goals last season as they won the title on the back of a water-tight defense—a defense that will surely be tested by their three opponents in this bracket.
Advancing: Manchester United and Benfica to Round of 16; Basel to Europa League
Group D: Real Madrid, Lyon, Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb
Group in a sentence: Real Madrid never seem to make easy work of a Champions League group, and that won’t change this year with two contending opponents and a difficult match in Croatia on Wednesday.
Breakdown: Finally, after eight years of premature exits, Real Madrid advanced beyond the Round of 16 and all the way to the semifinals in 2010-11, where they were ultimately defeated by eventual champions Barcelona. No shame in that. Although you can bet the Meringues will be looking to go a step further this term. Everything they do, it seems, is measured against the accomplishments of their archrivals.
That being said, Jose Mourinho’s Madrid side is a very good one—one capable not only of pipping Barcelona in La Liga, but going further than them in Europe as well. Cristiano Ronaldo led La Liga in scoring last season with 30 goals in 34 matches and already has four in two outings this season. In all competitions, he has scored 91 times in 93 appearances. But he can’t carry the team by himself. Indeed, he’s not even the type of player to do that. Mourinho likes to play an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation that tends to beat up on lesser sides but gets bogged down against higher-quality opponents. Xabi Alonso is absolutely crucial to Madrid’s prospects, not only in covering a gaffe-prone defense but also moving play along with pace and precision.
Lyon always seem to progress to the knockout stages, and even went as far as the final four in 2009-10, where they lost to Bayern Munich. They’re just a point off the pace in Ligue 1 after five rounds and seem to be enjoying their football much more under Remi Garde than they did under Claude Puel. Defensive midfielder Gueida Fofana—who had a superb U-20 World Cup in August—was an astute buy, as was 23-year-old Burkina Faso defender Bakary Kone.
Ajax are coming off their first Eredivisie championship since 2003-04 and were able to maintain their title challenge even after losing Luis Suarez to Liverpool in January. In Christian Eriksen they have a top, young talent and Miralem Sulejmani already had four goals in five matches this season.
Dinamo Zagreb have won the last six Croatian titles but have never progressed beyond the third qualifying round in each of the past five seasons. They beefed up their defense by signing Josip Simunic from Hoffenheim over the summer, but even so it’s hard not to see them conceding a bagful of goals in a bracket heavy with them.
Advancing: Real Madrid and Lyon to Round of 16; Ajax to Europa League
The above preamble was adapted from Jerrad Peters’ book, We Call it Soccer, 2010 Studio Publications.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer
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