Lisbon giants Benfica and Sporting begin their Champions League campaign on Tuesday night.
Benfica welcome CSKA to the Portuguese capital. Football commentator John Bradley, who specialises in Russian football, gives PortuGOAL the lowdown on the Moscow outfit.
The Lions are in Athens to take on Greek champions Olympiacos. What can Jorge Jesus’s team expect? Greek football expert Themis Kesaris tells us.
Current form. How have Olympiacos looked so far this season?
Olympiacos has had an excellent start. It was absolutely necessary for them to get to the group stage of the Champions League, something they failed to do last year. They overcome Partizan and Riejka and managed to qualify undefeated. They won the first two games in the Superleague, at home vs AEL and away vs Lamia, but they dropped their first points of the campaign on Saturday. They led 1-0 away at Xanthi, had many chances for a 2nd or a 3rd goal, but Xanthi equalized before half-time and it ended 1-1. Not a catastrophic result, but Olympiacos failed to win there for the first time since 2012.
Ones to watch - Who are Olympiacos’s star players?
Fortounis is the captain and the main star of the team, playing as a No10, behind the striker. Odjidja-Ofoe is a very important acquisition, the Belgian came from Legia Warsaw in the summer, he is a focal point to Olympiacos’s build-up play, starting in the centre of midfield. Along with Fortounis and Ofoe, Mehdi Carcela is the third pole of creativity. The Belgian came in from Granada and was the 7th best dribbler of La Liga in 2016-17, averaging 3.1 successful dribbles per 90’.
Olympiacos also bought Bjorn Engels on deadline day. The 22 year-old Belgian centre-back came from Club Bruge for 7.1 million euros, becoming the most expensive transfer since the summer of 2010, when Vangelis Marinakis bought the club.
Strong points/weak points – what must Sporting beware of and what can they exploit?
With Besnik Hasi at the helm, Olympiacos try to play fast, counter-attacking football. It’s obvious from the first game of the season, Hasi is building a team that doesn’t favour long possession spells or patient build-up play, but a team that thrives in the offensive transition. Defenders or defensive midfielders look to play the ball at Ofoe or Fortounis and they immediately turn and look to attack: they can run up the field with the ball at their feet or play it long to the forwards.
The problem starts when Olympiacos has to face a team that defends low, with very little space behind the last line of defence. Last year the champions often struggled versus teams with a very low defensive block and things haven’t improved so far. You only need to take a look at the highlights video of Xanthi-Olympiacos. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6065fu A first half full of slick passing and dangerous counter-attacks, followed by a second half with far too many crosses and very few chances.
Finally, Oly have their defensive issues too. Jukovic is injured, Botia is doubtful, so Romao moves to the centre of defenve (he usually plays as a DM) with Engels as his partner. The Belgian was “forced” to start at Xanthi and looked a little rusty in his first outing in the red and white shirt. More importantly, the Croatian left back Milic was left out from the Champions League squad and Koutris is the only available left-back: a 22-year-old keen to attack and cross, but he gets caught out of position far too often.
Formation and playing style – what system do Olympiacos usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
It’s almost always a 4-2-3-1, sometimes a 4-3-3. Don’t be surprised if you see Olympiacos giving the ball to Sporting for large spells of the game. They’ll feel more comfortable behind the ball, waiting at the half-way line, looking to press the middle block and counter-attack. I prefer not to call them attacking or defensive. They’re a team that always has to attack in the games in the Greek League, but prefer to defend and counter-attack in European games. This is how they’ve managed to beat Atletico and Juventus at home or get away wins versus Arsenal and Anderlecht.
What was the local press reaction to the draw?
The most difficult of all time, that’s the headline. Barcelona and Juventus are considered one of the best duos over to come from Pots 1 and 2, while Sporting are considered one of the strongest teams to get from Pot 4. With a smaller team, Olympiacos could say “ok, almost impossible to get past Barça and Juve, but 3rd spot is ours”.
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Olympiacos come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
The mood would’ve been perfect had Olympiacos won at Xanthi. The result was frustrating, causing concerns about the team’s quality in finishing and the defensive gaps. Olympiacos are almost always confident at home in Europe, believing that can beat anybody, but I think they know it won’t be easy.
How are the Portuguese players André Martins and Diogo Figueiras doing? Are they regulars in the team?
Martins is out of the Champions League squad list. He didn’t even make the bench at Xanthi, he’s Hasi’s last option in midfield. Figueiras shares the right-back spot with Omar Elabdellaoui. Don’t be surprised to see Figueiras starting at left back vs Sporting, with Koutris at the bench.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
It’s hard to tell. It’s the most difficult game of the group stage for Olympiacos. Sporting are not better than Barcelona or Juventus, but this is the game that Oly have to win, if they want to claim the 3rd place. First goal will be crucial. Oly will defend deep if they have the lead and will struggle to defend high up the pitch if they trail.
Our thanks to Themis. Follow him on Twitter @Kessaris_.
How did CSKA get here? Give us a quick guide to their path to the group stage of the Champions League.
CSKA relinquished their hold on the Russian title last season, surprisingly, to their city rivals Spartak. They managed to edge out Zenit for second place to once again qualify for the UCL. They entered at the 3rd qualifying round and have been impressive in advancing to the group stage. In round 3 they were comfortable winners against AEK Athens, winning home and away and keeping clean sheets as well. They found the play off against Young Boys much tougher, but once they were handed a 91st minute 1-0 away win thanks to one of the most embarrassing own goals you will see, they were able to advance with a little more ease in the home leg.
Current form. How have CSKA looked form-wise in recent weeks?
They’ve lost 3 times this season, all of them at home in their new Arena CSKA. It hasn’t quite been the fortress they hoped. Even with a wafer-thin squad, CSKA will be one of the better teams in Russia but find themselves a long way off the pace being set at the early stage by unbeaten Zenit.
Ones to watch - Who are CSKA’s star players?
Aleksandr Golovin is the most talented Russian player of this generation. Only 21, he is the heartbeat of this CSKA side and is already indispensable to the national team. Comfortable in a variety of positions, his best work comes as an attack minded central midfielder.
They still have Alan Dzagoev, who’s good days aren’t quite as frequent as they once were, while teenage striker Fyodor Chalov looks to have a bright future.
Strong points/weak points – what must Benfica beware of and what can they exploit?
Beware of Golovin’s late runs into the penalty area and the set piece delivery of Bibras Natcho. They can be a threat from set pieces with Pontus Wernbloom, Sergei ignashevich and the Berezutski twins (yes, they’re all still there!!) all capable.
Weaknesses: slow and cumbersome at the back. They can also look very robotic and can be easy to break down. A very thin squad means there are very few options below the starting XI.
Formation and playing style – what system do CSKA usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Under former coach Leonid Slutskiy the formation was the same every game... a rigid 4-2-3-1. Since being replaced by Viktor Goncharenko (who once beat Bayern Munich with BATE Borisov) the formation has been a 3-5-2. The two wing backs play very high and they do like to play positively if they can.
What are the local press saying about the tie? Do they expect CSKA to progress from the group?
Absolutely not. The days when CSKA and Zenit were expected to progress from the groups have gone. The best they can hope for is 3rd... and that would be a bonus if they could. These are tough times for CSKA, who I imagine will be the only team in the Champions League not affected by transfer bans to fail to strengthen their squad this summer.
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think CSKA come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
Igor Akinfeev’s first UCL clean sheets in 10 years have given everyone a little boost, but they know that Benfica represent a far bigger challenge than they have faced so far and while Goncharenko and the squad will speak of confidence of getting a result, I am sure they would be thrilled with a point.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
A comfortable Benfica win. 2-0.
Our thanks to John. Follow him on Twitter @jbradleymedia.