Group A...Is to Die For

At least we have the best strikers, right?

You know the group by now: Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Manchester City, Napoli.

Group A is the "group of death" in this year's UEFA Champions League, without a doubt. I'm not sure it's the hardest group ever, as Diego López maintains, but it's up there.

Here's a closer look at the teams, starting with the one we know and love:

Villarreal (Spain), pot 2:

  • League finish: La Liga, 4th place.
  • European competition: UEFA Europa League, semifinals.
  • Biggest strength: Strike pairing of Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar. Among Europe's best, without a doubt.
  • Biggest weakness: Defensive frailties. None of the club's center backs consistently impresses: Mateo Musacchio, Gonzalo Rodríguez, or Cristián Zapata. And the wing backs (save the injured Ángel López) are highly inexperienced.
  • X-factor: Wing play. Borja Valero is suspended for the first two group stage games, and Rubén Cani runs hot and cold. The young wing backs also tend to be cautious, but Joan Oriol is developing into a threat on the left. The 4-2-2-2 does not function without width.
Bayern Munich (Germany), pot 1:
  • League finish: 1. Bundesliga, 3rd place.
  • European competition: UEFA Champions League, round of 16.
  • Biggest strength: Wing play. Franck Ribéry and the ailing Arjen Robben (when is he not?) are absolutely lethal down the flanks, and Thomas Müller made a name for himself at the senior World Cup. At age 20. Give any of them time and space, and you are finished.
  • Biggest weakness: Defensive frailties. The Bundesliga is a decent league, but Bayern wasn't close to last season's champions Borussia Dortmund (a somewhat flattering 10 points behind). They outscored Dortmund 81-67, but they conceded 40 goals to Dortmund's stifling 22. Allowing just over a goal per game is not bad, but you can catch out attack-minded wing back Philipp Lahm and center back Daniel Van Buyten.
  • X-factor: Health. Without exaggerating, Ribéry and Robben could rival Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for sheer talent. But injuries (and attitude) have held them back. In the 2010 Champions League final against Inter Milan, Ribéry was suspended and Robben a bit hobbled. With this year's final at the Allianz Arena in Munich, they will be especially motivated to make a return trip.

Manchester City (England), pot 3:

  • League finish: Premier League, 3rd place.
  • European competition: UEFA Europa League, round of 16.
  • Other: FA Cup, champion.
  • Biggest strength: An embarrassment of riches, literally and figuratively. The club owns the rights to strikers Emmanuel Adebayor, Sergio Agüero, Mario Balotelli, Craig Bellamy, Edin Dzeko, Roque Santa Cruz, and Carlos Tévez. Obscene. Samir Nasri and David Silva supply class in the midfield, while Nigel de Jong and Yaya Touré are the hitmen. Man City's backups would qualify for the Europa League without trouble.
  • Biggest weakness: Yet again, defensive frailties. I like Micah Richards, but Aleksandar Kolarov has one talent, and it's not defending. (It's his thunderous left foot.) Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, and Pablo Zabaleta are average and red card risks in European competition. I have no doubt we will score in both legs; the question is keeping them out.
  • X-factor: Teamwork. Splashing lots of money on big-name players and a well-regarded manager (Roberto Mancini) is one thing. Turning that into consistent performances for 90 minutes on a maiden Champions League voyage is another. If there's one reason we finish ahead of Man City, this it it.

Napoli (Italy), pot 4:

  • League finish: Serie A, 3rd place.
  • European competition: UEFA Europa League, round of 32 (lost to Villarreal).
  • Biggest strength: A lethal attacking trident. Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik, and Ezequiel Lavezzi all return after a summer of uncertainty. Each brings his own unique skill set. When they are on, I would liken them to Karim Benzema, Ángel di María, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, that good.
  • Biggest weakness: Inexperience. Cavani and Walter Gargano won Copa América 2011 with Uruguay, but the Champions League is a bigger stage. Though the Napoli back four may be the group's best, it also lacks top-level seasoning. Manager Walter Mazzarri has his work cut out for him.
  • X-factor: Inferiority complex. Napoli knows that Bayern and Man City are stronger sides on paper, and Villarreal knocked them out of last season's Europa League. And unlike in Villarreal's case, Napoli has no recent history in Europe to fall back on. A poor showing in Manchester on matchday 1 may be foreboding.
All in all, it should be a fascinating group. Great news for football fans, edge-of-your-seat stuff for supporters of the four clubs. The action begins Wednesday, September 14th.
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