C stands for ‘Could be anyone’s Group’ in this case with Bayer Leverkusen, Benfica, Monica and Zenit St Petersburg battling it out. The ‘to qualify’ odds range from 8/11 (Leverkusen) to 7/4 (Zenit) so this has to be about the value. Let’s look at the teams in order of favouritism according to the bookmakers.
2002 finalists Bayer Leverkusen currently top the fledgling Bundesliga table with two wins from two, including an opening round 2-0 win at Dortmund. They followed that up by scoring another four in their second game and their star striker Stefan Kiessling has already amassed nine goals in five matches! He needs to improve his two goals in the Champions League last season, to get his team to the top of this group. They have let Emre Can and Sidney Sam go, but brought in attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu from Hamburg and Josip Drmic from Nuremberg. They should have enough to do what Leverkusen have done each of the last five times they’ve been in the Champions League: make it out of the group.
Next up in the soccer odds markets we have Benfica, who have made a habit of getting dumped out of the top competition at the group stage, only to progress to the final of the Europa League (and then suffer the same old fate with that dreaded ‘curse’). In fact they have only made it out of the groups once in the last five attempts.
Nothing in their squad makes me think they’ll get out of the group this time and I don’t like their price to qualify (23/20) at all. Their away record is poor in the Champions League with only five wins in 31 games. There are nine draws in that run, but the mathematicians among you will have worked out that leaves 17 defeats. The goal machine Oscar Cardozo is no longer at the club and Liverpool bought winger Lazar Markovic. Goalkeeper Jan Oblak has been sold and central midfielder Andre Gomes has left too. They have bought a raft of new players, but judging by their early season form, it’s taking a while for them to bed in. They have won two of their three games (drawing the other with Sporting Lisbon) but they didn’t look fluent and the Portuguese top flight isn’t the strongest. I’m passing on Benfica as a soccer pick, and see them playing Europa League football again in 2015.
Next in the betting are Ligue Une side Monaco. It’s their first time in with the big boys since 2005/06 and proves spending money has its rewards! However things aren’t looking so good this season, they have won one of their four games in the French top division so far and of course they have lost James Rodriguez, Emmanuel Riviere and most recently Radamel Falcao. They scored 28 goals between them in Ligue Une and Falcao had already score twice before his move to England. There’s a lot of pressure on Dimitar Berbatov’s shoulders! Their defence looks good, but they won’t be able to score enough goals to get out of the group. I think they will finish bottom of the four in fact.
Zenit St Petersburg
Last, but by no means least in my book, are Zenit. Andre Villas Boas’ team have started the season very well. They have won all six games, scoring 18 and conceding just two! They got out of the group stage last year with just six points and will be looking to score their way to an improvement on that tally this season. Five of the 18 goals have come from Hulk and an injury on Sunday means he is out until October, so Rondon and Kerzakhov have some pressure on to maintain the goals. They have won both home qualifying games 3-0 this season and it is in St Petersburg where they must improve. Last season’s scrape out of the foursome contained three home draws and one away win. Traditionally they have been poor away and great at home, last season they beat Dortmund in Germany 2-1 in the Round of 16 and lost 4-2 in Russia! I like the fact they have strengthened defensively, with Javi Garcia bringing stability in midfielder and Benfica centre back Ezequiel Garay coming in too. Two home wins and a draw, with three points picked up on the road and the group is topped. Easy huh?
In summary I’m going for Zenit as my soccer pick to win the group at 4/1 and Bayer Leverkusen to finish second. The straight forecast is 14/1 and the dual forecast is 11/2.