Wolfsburg, Zenit and Benfica going strong in Champions League
Posted on 02nd November 2015
With all 32 teams in the tournament having already played three times, the Champions League group stage enters its second half this week. All of Europe’s major sides are in action – from Barcelona to Bayern Munich, Manchester United to Real Madrid – but it is some of the continent’s second-tier outfits who could be most worth watching.
Indeed, Wolfsburg, Zenit St Petersburg and Porto are among the teams sitting pretty at the top of their respective groups at the midway point, with all three sides attempting to either qualify with two matches to spare or take a big step in that direction this midweek.
A win for Wolfsburg against PSV Eindhoven would be their third of the campaign and put them at least four points clear of third place. Group B’s German representatives lost key players in Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic in the summer, but have recovered well both domestically and in the Champions League.
Marquee signing Julian Draxler has been vital for last season’s Bundesliga runners-up, with Ricardo Rodriguez, Daniel Caliguiri, Max Kruse, Naldo and Luiz Gustavo also impressing. While a trip to the Netherlands to face PSV will not be easy, Wolfsburg will be confident of their chances of picking up another three points on Tuesday.
Zenit St Petersburg will also be eyeing another triumph when they travel to Lyon. Three wins from three means Andre Villas-Boas’ charges are the only team in this year’s edition of Europe’s foremost continental club competition with maximum points; overcoming Lyon would guarantee their spot in the round of 16, though a point would be enough if Valencia defeat Gent.
Zenit have had a mixed bag when it comes to getting out of their group in recent years: the Russians advanced in 2011/12 and 2013/14 but were knocked out at the first hurdle in 2012/13 and last term. With Villas-Boas already having announced he will step aside at the end of the current campaign, the former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur boss will be desperate to lead Zenit into their first ever quarter-final – something that, theoretically, would be more achievable were they to finish top of Group H.
Benfica made the last eight as recently as 2011/12, when they were eliminated by eventual winners Chelsea. A positive start – Rui Vitoria’s men were beaten by Galatasaray last time out but had previously defeated Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon and won at home to Astana – in this season’s tournament has lifted the 34-time Portuguese champions to the summit of Group C.
Nico Gaitan has been one of the standout performers in the competition so far, with the winger netting three goals in Benfica’s first three encounters. The Primeira Liga side take on Galatasaray at the Estadio da Luz on Tuesday knowing that a victory would all but secure their passage into the knockout round.
While the quality of football on display in the latter stages is arguably higher than anything else in history, the Champions League has become rather predictable over the last few years: Chelsea are the only side to have broken the Bayern Munich-Barcelona-Real Madrid oligopoly since 2010, and even that success had a fair amount of good fortune to it.
The group stage of the current campaign has been enjoyable so far, though, with the likes of Wolfsburg, Zenit and Benfica impressing in the first three matches. No member of the trio will win the tournament – indeed, it would be a huge shock if they even made it to the last four – but they have plenty to be pleased about in their showings up to now.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.