Sunday, February 25, 2024

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UEFA Cup a load of this - Preview & Predictions!

Whilst most people, including the Champions League-centric media, are creaming themselves about the return of Europe's 'elite' competition next week, I'm far more excited about the return of the UEFA Cup over the next couple of days.  


I'm sure the fact that I have a vested interest in it as an Aston Villa fan plays a large part in that, but by and large I find the UEFA cup a more interesting and unpredictable tournament. The CL will generally provide you with the same familiar faces from Western Europe's top leagues, whereas the UEFA cup knock out stage provides a far more diverse range of teams representing countries from all over the continent.  


Now that the grind of the lame group stage phase is over, we have reached the exciting business end of the contest. Here is a preview and some predictions. 





Aston Villa vs CSKA Moscow 

After a wonderful 3 months in which Villa weren't beaten domestically and racked up 7 straight away league wins, the weekend saw them crash out of the FA Cup against fellow high flyers Everton. In what is viewed as a pivotal week in Aston Villa's season, a result against CSKA is not only important in terms of UEFA Cup progression, but because it will provide momentum going forth into the crucial weekend fixture against Chelsea. Much is made of other teams injury woes, but Villa were without Laursen, Cuellar, Reo-Coker, Barry & Heskey against the Toffee's and as highlighted by the second strings shoddy showings against Hamburg & MSK Zilina, our strength in depth is not on par with England's other top sides. 


CSKA won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and were the only team to have a 100% record in the group stages. However, the "Army Men" are in a period of transition. After finishing runners-up in the the Russian League when it finished in November, the most successful coach in CSKA's history, Valeri Gazzaev, departed. He has been replaced by Brazilian legend Zico, formerly coach of Japan & Fenerbahce and most recently the Uzbekistan side Bunyodkor, who you may have heard of last summer when they signed Rivaldo and made an outlandish attempt to lure Samuel Eto'o to Central Asia.  


In Villa's favour, they are in great form and should be at peak fitness as it's the middle of the campaign - a contrast to CSKA who haven't played a competitive game since their domestic season finished last year. However, CSKA have been there and done it in Europe and in Vagner Love, who has scored 8 UEFA Cup goals already including a hat-trick in the thrilling 4-3 away win at Nancy, they have a potent goal scorer at this level. I fancy Villa to take advantage of CSKA's rustiness and nick it home, but ultimately fall in Moscow. 


Prediction : CSKA Moscow 


Werder Bremen vs AC Milan 

Thomas Schaaf's Bremen are having a poor season by their standards. Things had all started so well and an incredible 5-2 victory away at Bayern Munich back in September gave the 'Green-Whites' high hopes. However, they were soon dumped out of the CL and now languish in 10th place in the Bundesliga with recent form seeing them pick up 2 defeats and a home draw to the bottom club Borussia Monchengladbach. Playmaker Diego, recently linked with a move to his pal Robinho's team Man City, is back after missing the last 3 games through suspension, which should give the Bundesliga runners-up a lift. 


Having all but conceded the Scudetto when they lost the derby match with Inter at the weekend, Milan may well look at this competition as their only chance of silverware. Of course, if paper talk is to be believed, it would be Carlo Ancelotti's last chance of a trophy as Milan coach, with Chelsea a touted destination. Tug of war object David Beckham could shake off a calf strain and feature in his first UEFA Cup match since 1995, but the mercurial Kaka may be missing from the first leg.  


Despite having Nesta & Gattuso amongst their long term absentees, Milan still boast a strong squad, which has been re-invigorated by the arrival and subsequent good form of old Goldenballs whilst Alexandre Pato is starting to fire on all cylinders and justify the 'wonderkid' tag that prompted the Rossineri to acquire him from Internacional. Milan are probably favourites to win the whole competition and I don't see an under-par Werder Bremen in bad form being able to stop them. 


Prediction : AC Milan 


Zenit St.Petersburg vs VfB Stuttgart 


The holders Zenit don't quite seem to be the proposition they were last season. After winning the Russian League in 2007, last year saw them finish a disappointing 5th and though their European adventures started brightly when they became the first Russian winners of the European Super Cup by beating Man Utd 2-1, their maiden voyage in CL waters would see elimination from the 'Group of Death' featuring Real madrid & Juventus. Andrei Arshavin has left for Arsenal and record signing Dani Alves, originally signed as a replacement when it was thought Arshavin would leave in the summer, has failed to fill his shoes, despite a bright start which saw him score a debut goal against Man Utd in the Super Cup. 


Also the champions of their country in 2007, Stuttgart, now managed by former Liverpool defender Markus Babbel, currently find themselves 7th in the Bundesliga. Domestically they are in good form, 3 wins & 2 draws from their last 5 games, 14 goals scored, with German International striker Mario Gomez (Spanish descent) netting in the last 3 and former Villa favourite Thomas Hitzlsperger, midfield dynamo and club captain converting in the last 2.  


Zenit have retained Russia's main hitman Pavel Pogrebynak up front and are still a force to be reckoned with. They have pedigree in beating German teams, dispatching Bayer Leverkusen & Bayern Munich in last years tournament. However, I have a sneaking feeling for the under-dogs and think that if they can keep it tight in the first leg against a side that won't be fully fit, then they will have the firepower to overcome the vodka gluggers back in the motherland. 


Prediction : VfB Stuttgart 


Thursday : 


FC Copenhagen vs Man City 

The Danes are currently second in their domestic league (the Superligaen) and coached by former Wimbledon flop Stale Solbakken. Definetly rank outsiders for the UEFA Cup, Copenhagen struggled in the group stage, scraping through in 3rd and only picking up 1 victory, away to Club Brugge. However, in their 2006-7 CL campaign, they did manage to beat Man Utd 1-0 at the Parken stadium. Former Chelsea man Jesper Gronkjaer provides a familiar face. 


Last saturday saw Man City slump to another away defeat, this time to hapless Portsmouth, who had just fired their manager. Mark Hughes must be sweating on the tenuous stability of his position, especially now that Phil Scolari is unexpectedly a free agent. A run in the UEFA Cup is certainly not beyond a City squad who are brimming with talent, but failing to gel thus far. Europe has provided a welcome respite, defeating Copenhagen's compatriots Midtjylland on penalties in the 1st round and racking up wins over Schalke 04 and FC Twente on their way to winning Group A. 


Copenhagen will be a team that Man City, given their current wealth, will be expected to beat. The key will be the first leg and again, the fact that City will face a team coming out of a winter break possibly playing a part. If City can avoid replicating their normally terrible away form against a team that hasn't won in its last 3 European home fixtures, then a powerhouse display at Eastlands should see them progress. 


Prediction : Man City 


Fiorentina vs Ajax 

It has been a crazy few years for the Viola. Having winked out of existence back in 2002, the re-formed team has risen like a pheonix from the flames back from the fourth tier of Italian football to the top flight, surviving possible relegation and a points deduction as part of the 2006 match season, to become regulars in Europe once more. Cesar Prandelli has proven to be a shrewd and effective manager and his team currently reside in 4th place in Serie A, the goals of Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino helping the side overcome the loss of Luca Toni. Fiorentina struggled in a tough CL group containing Bayern Munich & Lyon and thus ended up parachuting into the UEFA Cup last 32. 


The 1992 UEFA Cup winners find themselves some way off the pace in the Eredivisie, 12 points behind Louis Van Gaal's AZ and inexplicably 3 points behind Steve McClaren's (!) FC Twente. This hasn't been helped by a poor run of recent form, 3 defeats and a draw preceding their last outing, which was a 2-0 win in the 'Klassikier' against their underperforming rivals Feyenoord. Total football King Marco Van Basten will hope that the UEFA Cup will provide some surcease to his team's unravelling season. 


Ajax aren't what they used to be and the halycon days of the early/mid 90's seems a long way off. They've been pretty decent in Europe thus far, the picking up of an impressive win away in Hamburg the highlight with the sole blip being a defeat against (the mighty) Aston Villa. However, I can't see them getting past the Viola who should be able to comfortably outgun them. 


Prediction : Fiorentina 


Shakhtar Donetsk vs Tottenham 

The wealthy Ukranians, current champions of their country, are having a tough time of it this year and despite only losing twice, a plethora of draws has them way down in 5th, 12 points adrift of their arch-nemesis Dynamo Kiev. Before the winter break, their form had seen a resurgence with 5 straight wins and 4 consecutive clean sheets. A CL reject team, it is worth noting that they are the last side to have beaten the seemingly invincible Barcelona (albeit against a second string) triumphing 3-2 at the Nou Camp (they were also 1-0 at home to a full strength Barca side, before an 87th & 94th Messi brace rescued the Catalan giants.) The workmanlike Ukranian squad is sprinkled with a selection of talented Brazilians with Fernandinho, Jadson, Ilsinho & Willian all bagging CL goals this season. 


Meanwhile, I think that Tottenham have more pressing concerns in trying to prevent relegation from the Premier League. It is questionable how strong a team Harry Redknapp will field, but at least Spur's next fixture away at Hull isn't until the following monday. Tottenham are famously a cup team and twice UEFA Cup winners in 1972 & 84, but I don't think they'll view this tournament as much of a priority this season. 


The Ukraine is a tough place to visit, as the likes of Tottenham's north London neighbours Arsenal have found out in recent seasons. With domestic success looking unlikely, I believe Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu will go all out to progress in this tournament, especially given that 2 Russian teams have won it in the last 4 years. Lucescu will have to reverse a terrible record of 0 victories in 6 ties against English clubs from his time as a coach with Inter, Galatasaray & Besiktas, but I feel that he will and that the "Miners" will not have too much difficulty in eliminating Spurs. 


Prediction : Shakhtar Donetsk 



The Rest : 


Here is a run-down of the rest of the fixtures. The infomation underneath the teams is their current position within their domestic division, form guide (last 5 league games) and how they qualified into the UEFA cup last 32 : 


AaB Aalborg vs Deportivo La Coruna

6th, DWWWW, 3rd in CL Group E vs 8th, LLWDD, 2nd in UC Group H

Aalborg put in a respectable showing in the CL and finished above Celtic, but I can't see them beating a useful Deportivo team whose 2 recent losses were against Barcelona & Real Madrid.

Prediction : Deportivo La Coruna 


Bordeaux vs Galatasaray

5th, WWDLD, 3rd in CL Group A vs 3rd, WLWDL, 2nd in UC Group B

Both teams aren't in great form, but the Turks have been impressive in Europe thus far and boast the unlikely CL 2005 winning duo of Harry Kewell & Milan Baros.

Prediction : Galatasaray 


SC Braga vs Standard Liege

6th, LLWWL, 3rd in UC Group E vs 1st, WWWWW, 1st in UC Group C

The Belgians were very impressive in their early season encounters with Liverpool & Everton and seem to have maintained that form.

 Prediction : Standard Liege 


Dynamo Kiev vs Valencia

1st, WWLWW, 3rd in CL Group G vs 4th, LLWLD, 2nd in UC Group G

Valencia have been conceding a lot of goals of late and have been indifferent in Europe, so I'll plump for the shock.

Prediction : Dynamo Kiev 


NEC Nijmegen vs Hamburg SV

9th, DWLDD, 3rd in UC Group D vs 3rd, WWWLW, 1st in UC Group F

The Dutch minnows have struggled to score of late and shouldn't be able to handle Martin Jol's team, inspired by Croatian double act Petric & Olic.

Prediction : Hamburg 


 Olympiakos vs St Etienne

1st, WWWWW, 3rd in UC Group B vs 17th, LDDWL, 1st in Group G

Tough one to call. The Greeks look invincible domestically, but shaky on the continent, whereas Les Vertes have been solid abroad but rubbish in Ligue 1. A strong home win in the first leg to give 'Thrylos' the edge.

Prediction : Olympiakos 


Paris S-G vs VfL Wolfsburg

2nd, LWWWW, 3rd in UC Group A vs 6th, WLDWW, 1st in UC Group E

Another close one with both teams going well. PSG won't have Kezman available through suspension, whilst Wolfsburg have top scorer Grafite out injured. Die Wolfe to shade it.

Prediction : Wolfsburg 


Sampdoria vs FC Metalist Kharkiv

15th, LWDDD, 3rd in UC Group C vs 2nd, WWDWW, 1st in UC Group B

They keep getting harder! The Blucerchiati did defeat 2006 & 2007 UEFA Cup winners Sevilla to qualify from their group, but the Ukranian outsiders are certainly no pushovers having topped a group containing Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Hertha Berlin & Benfica undefeated and without conceding. Foolishly I'll hope the winter break hasn't wrecked Kharkiv's rythym and opt for another shock and an unlikely Ukranian triple alongside Kiev & Shakhtar.

Prediction : FC Metalist Kharkiv 


Lech Poznan vs Udinese

1st, DWWWW, 3rd in UC Group H vs 12th, LWDWD, 1st in UC Group D

I won't go for any more surprises and seeing as the Poles are slightly fortuitous to have progressed from the group stage with only 5 points, it's the Italians for me.

Prediction : Udinese 


Marseilles vs FC Twente

3rd, WWLWW, 3rd in CL Group D vs 2nd, WDWDW, 2nd in UC Group A

Remarkably Brolly Wally Steve Mac is doing a stirling job at FC Twente - and of course he did get Middlesbrough to the final in 2006. His team do not travel well though and have lost 3 from 3 on their travels in the UEFA Cup, including twice in France against Rennes & Paris S-G (although the last was a meaningless tie as they'd already qualified) so I'll go for l'OM to prevail following a decent sized win at the awesome Velodrome.

Prediction : Marseilles 


Agree/Disagree? What do you think? How will the English clubs fare? Who is your pick for UEFA Cup winner?

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