Oct 7, 2008

Ranking the UEFA Cup groups by degree of difficulty

We did this for the Champions League groups and it was such a raging success that we're doing it again for the UEFA Cup! We know many of you don't particularly care about the UEFA Cup, least of all at this stage of the competition, but there are several quality teams in the draw this year, including three (3) from this week's Soccer Source Top 25 and several others that were in previous weeks' editions this season or received "honorable mention". So here we go, with the most difficult first:

1. Group A: Paris St. Germain, Racing Santander, Manchester City, Twente, Schalke 04
We all know about the newly-richest club in the world and we all saw them put up a very solid fight against the seventh-best club in the world last weekend. Man City will be favored to advance out of this group and they shouldn't have much trouble pulling it off. But some obstacles are pretty formidable. Schalke 04 would essentially be in the Champions League if they hadn't been drawn with Atletico Madrid in the qualifiers. They're fifth in a topsy-turvy Bundesliga, but with only one loss. Racing Santander, while mid-table in Spain, have faced a grueling schedule in the early going--and done quite well, tieing Sevilla and Barcelona on the first two matchdays (they also lost to Real Madrid and Villareal, which along with a less pardonable home loss to Mallorca explains why they are mid table at present). Paris St. Germain are obviously a storied name but the club's recent history has been an unmitigated disaster (the "club du capitale" as they're known in France were very nearly relegated). But PSG have a big budget and have shown signs of their former selves. They're no pushover. Twente is clearly the weakest team in the group and can not be expected to stand a chance. But when a mid-table Dutch side is the weakest link, you know you're dealing with a tough group.

2. Group C: Sampdoria, Stuttgart, Standard Liege, Sevilla, Partizan Belgrade
Sevilla are one of three unbeaten teams left in Spain and sit third in La Liga. Their biggest victory was obviously a 1-0 win over Atletico, since which time the Andalusian side has maintained their spot in the Top 25 (No. 12 at last reckoning). Stuttgart are showing signs of life in the Bundesliga and appear to more closely resemble the team that won the league two years ago than the one that struggled to finish sixth last season. Sampdoria are winless in Serie A and sit 17th of 20 clubs--but three of their six Serie A games came against Top 25 clubs and they only lost one of these (a 2-0 decision at Lazio). The others were ties against Inter on opening day (1-1 at home) and Juventus on Sept. 29 (0-0, also at home). Standard Liege (or Luttich as they're known to some) gave Liverpool fits in their Champions League qualifier and are currently tied for the lead in the Jupiler League. That leaves Partizan Belgrade, who once upon a time (circa 1990) were the best team in Europe (or was that Red Star? I can never keep them straight) and who have clearly fallen from those heights but not quite to the level of pushovers.

3. Group E: Portsmouth, AC Milan, Wolfsburg, Heerenveen, Braga
Poor Pompey have a tough group to deal with. AC Milan are starting to show signs of their former selves, having beaten crosstown rivals Inter to go with a few other quality results (notably a 4-1 victory over top-of-the-table Lazio). Wolfsburg are definitely solid, having beaten Hamburg SV (top team in the Bundesliga) 3-0 a few weeks ago and separately tied Schalke 2-2. Heerenveen appear to have picked up right where they left off last season (as in challenging for the Eredivisie title) despite losing Michael Bradley. They eliminated a solid Vitoria Setubal side to qualify for the group stage and just last weekend saw off Ajax by a 5-2 score in domestic competition. That leaves Braga as probably the weak man of the group. They sit 12th in the 16-team Liga Sagres and are only here because of incredibly weak qualifying opponents (Artmedia Petrzalka, whoever that is and Bosnia's Mostar).

4. Group B: Olympiakos, Benfica, Metalist Kharkiv, Hertha Berlin, Galatasaray
A very balanced group where it's virtually impossible to identify a favorite. Hertha Berlin are decent (eighth in the Bundesliga). Benfica beat a solid Napoli side to advance this far and are unbeaten in Portugal. Galatasaray very nearly qualified for the Champions League. Metalist are a Ukrainian side (in case you didn't know this, two Ukrainian clubs qualified for the Champions League where they're doing quite well thank you very much) where they currently sit third. Olympiakos are in first place in Greece and for all intents and purposes should be playing in the Champions League (like they did last year, when they advanced to the quarterfinals) except they were ousted by a Cyporiot team, Anorthosis Famagusta, who came out of nowhere. Throw their names in a hat. Any three teams can make it out of this group.

5. Group F: Hamburg SV, Ajax Amsterdam, Slavia Prague, Aston Villa, MSK Zilina
Villa sit fifth in the Premiership but were clearly outclassed by Chelsea last week. They previously played Liverpool to a scoreless tie but that was on the second matchday of the season. They'll be favored to advance though. So will Hamburg, currently the table toppers in Germany. Ajax are having a horrible time of it this season, despite spending large sums on transfers to start the season (remind you of anybody, Spurs fans? Though Ajax are at least mid-table, a position many of you would likely trade with in a second). Slavia currently top the table in the Czech Republic and also gave Fiorentina a decent time of it in their Champions League qualifier so figure them to have a chance to advance as well (maybe even a good chance). Zilina are a Slovakian club. We're sure Slovakia has a lot to recommend about it and there is no doubt their ice hockey players are first rate. But soccer? Don't expect Zilina to create too many problems for the other teams in this group.

6. Group G: Club Bruge, AS Saint-Etienne, Valencia, Copenhagen, Rosenborg
Valencia are clearly the cream of this group; a solid Top 25 club (top 10, even) who top the table in Spain and have not lost since going down to Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish SuperCopa. They'll have an easy time of it in this group. Saint Etienne were a great team in the 70s when they had Michel Platini, but have not done much (or anything) since his departure and sit 13th in a weak French league. Rosenborg have little resemblance to the club that featured in the Champions League earlier this decade. Copenhagen might be halfway decent but are clearly not going to strike fear in the hearts of many clubs. Club Bruge? They beat Standard Liege last week (see Group C)but otherwise appear very mediocre (as might be expected from a team that sits mid table in Belgium).

7. Group D: NED Nijmengen, Tottenham Hotspur, Spartak Moscow, Udinese, Dynamo Zagreb
Udinese sit second in Serie A and beat a decent Dortmund club to get here but they have not done well in their two major domestic tests, against Juventus and AC Milan (they lost both, though they were both road games). Spartak and Dynamo are halfway decent clubs. NED Nijmengen are not. Spurs are several levels below that. What, the Coca Cola Championship teams weren't available?

8. Group H: Deportivo La Coruna, Feyernoord Rotterdam, Lech Poznan, Nancy, CSKA Moscow
A very weak group. Deportivo are decent and even have a quality win (over Real Madrid on the second matchday of the Spanish Liga). That's nice and all, but it's also the best this group can do, which means the group sucks. Nancy had a string of nice results last season when they were newly-promoted, but have shown they are a completely different team this year and in fact may go right back from whence they came (15th place in Ligue Un, two points clear of the drop zone). CSKA Moscow are second in Russia, which is commendable but this makes them the second-best team in the group. Feyernoord sit 14th (not a typo) in Eredivisie where they have won only once in five games. What do we know about Poznan? Nothing, except that they play in Poland which is right up there with Major League Soccer. (After some very rudimentary research we can tell you they are in fifth place in the Polish Ekstraklasa. Their parents must be proud).

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