Group E: Blues set to dominate

Posted by ESPN staff

Chelsea (By John Brewin)

Premier LeaguePA PhotosJose Mourinho is back at Chelsea and chasing his third Champions League trophy.

The team: Jose Mourinho and Chelsea are back together like star-crossed lovers. However, it is not as though they did not find joy without each other. Mourinho won the Champions League in 2010, and blue was the colour in 2012, too.

They suffered a series of near misses together in Mourinho's first spell in charge. In 2005 and 2007, Rafa Benitez and Liverpool twice denied them at the semifinal stage, and Barcelona destroyed them in between in the sand at Stamford Bridge.

Unfinished business, then, and Mourinho cannot do much worse than last season, when the holders were humiliated by not even making it out of the group stage. Benitez winning the Europa League in May has almost been forgotten already, such is the disregard for both that competition and the former interim manager.

Mourinho has returned to a squad which has a look of being incomplete and nowhere near the strength he enjoyed nine years ago. The spine of Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard remains, but the player most missed is Didier Drogba. Fernando Torres and Demba Ba have already been alerted that the manager does not fancy them much, and Romelu Lukaku was shipped out to Everton on loan. Wayne Rooney stayed at Manchester United, despite a summer of Jose first whispering sweet nothings and then eventually making the type of desperately public come-on usually seen in a school disco's closing hours.

Instead, Chelsea have turned to the rather battle-worn legs of Samuel Eto'o. He served Mourinho wonderfully at Inter, though not exclusively as a striker. In the run to the 2010 triumph, he selflessly gave himself over to roles as an auxiliary full-back or flank-midfielder. He still managed almost a one-in-two goal ratio at San Siro.

Now, Chelsea need a front man of pace and poise, rather more like the Barcelona version of Eto'o. Anzhi Makhachkala's appearances in the Europa League last season did little to suggest that he is the same player. At times, he looked disinterested, though perhaps Mourinho's motivational skills can revive him.

He will be playing in front of a midfield blessed with creative talent but perhaps not enough muscle. Kevin de Bruyne and Andre Schurrle have been added to Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata, though the Spaniard has so far been out of favour. Willian, too, was added to a ridiculous wealth of attacking midfield options.

Judging by his antics during the Super Cup last month, Mourinho has not calmed down his act or decided to bother learning the lessons of his fractious spell at Real Madrid. His unwavering drive for success places history as his aim. Should Chelsea win this competition, he will become the first coach to win the European Cup with three clubs. Are his second Chelsea team capable of that?

Star man -- Eden Hazard: Chelsea took him from the under the noses of just about every elite club in Europe in the summer of 2012. His first season was mixed, in that it contained glimpses of his undoubted ability but not the dominance he enjoyed in Ligue 1 with Lille. Perhaps that is because he has mostly played off the flank rather than centrally.

Injury ruled him out of the Europa League final last year, so he too has unfinished business. Mourinho clearly likes him as a player, and his position reminds of that Joe Cole used to play from for Chelsea. Hazard, though, is easily capable of outstripping Cole's achievements.

Verdict: Mourinho's team can expect to reach the last eight, perhaps the last four, but look a little short of the quality to go all the way to Lisbon. That would be no disgrace for a team obviously in transition, even if he is bound to take their exit hard -- and then make it hard for everyone else, too.

Schalke (By Stephan Uersfeld)

Kevin-Prince Boateng celebrates after completing the scoring in AC Milan's 3-0 win over PSV.
GettyImagesSchalke fans will be hoping to see Kevin-Prince Boateng aerial celebrations.

The team: In Europe, Schalke have been the most consistent German team behind Bayern Munich. The 2011 Champions League semifinalists have one European trophy to their name, winning the 1997 UEFA Cup under their “coach of the century,” Huub Stevens. The Dutchman's second stint at the Royal Blues was cut short last December and, to the surprise of many, Schalke general manager Horst Heldt promoted youth coach Jens Keller to the first team, and Keller saw his team qualify for the Champions League playoff on the last day of the season. Two close games against PAOK Salonika took the Royal Blues to the group stages.

Keller usually uses a 4-2-3-1 formation. On paper, the attacking lineup, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Julian Draxler, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Peru international Jefferson Farfan, is one of the strongest in the Bundesliga. However, the holding midfielders, Jermaine Jones, Roman Neustadter and Marco Hoger, lack creativity, while the back four and goalkeeper Timo Hildebrandt have yet to find much-needed stability. In their first four league games, Schalke conceded nine goals and have been poor at defending set pieces.

Star man -- Kevin-Prince Boateng: Kevin-Prince Boateng’s €12 million transfer from AC Milan to Schalke might have been the transfer coup of the German summer. The Berlin-born Ghana international immediately became the leader at the Royal Blues, taking the central role in attacking midfield. His power and stamina give youngster Julian Draxler, 19, some space.

Draxler, who can play in central midfield and on the left, has a €45 million release clause in his contract and was linked with a switch to most of the European giants over the summer, but opted to stay until the World Cup. Until then, Boateng and Draxler are set to shine on the European stage.

Verdict: Last season, Schalke topped their Champions League group and were on the verge of becoming the third German force in Europe. But a disappointing last-16 encounter with Galatasary saw them exit the competition. The Royal Blues are hard to predict -- one bad result in their first group game against underdogs Steaua Bucharest could turn their Champions League dream into a nightmare. Stephan Uersfeld

Financially shaky, Schalke need the Champions League money. If the team can handle the pressure, they could stay in the competition into April or May. If, however, winter depression kicks in early, they could also exit Europe altogether.

FC Basel (By Kevin Palmer)

Marco Streller celebrates after putting Switzerland 2-1 up
GettyImages / FrabriceCoffriniBasle will look to veteran Swiss attacker Marco Streller.

The team: Basel have proved themselves to be something of a surprise package in Europe. In 2002-03, under coach Christian Gross, they finished runners-up to Valencia in the first group phase, pipping Liverpool to the final qualifying spot. In 2011-12, they reached the knockout rounds, finishing second behind Benfica, and eliminated Manchester United. Last season, they showed their credentials again with a run to the Europa League semifinals, beating Tottenham en route.

Crowned Swiss champions 16 times, they have won the title for the past four years and, with club legend Murat Yakin now in charge on the touchline, have high hopes of upsetting the odds in the group. Yakin promotes a high-energy game, making use of speedy operators on the flanks to push opponents onto the back foot.

"We've been drawn against two very attractive teams in Chelsea and Schalke, and I had been hoping to get an English side from pot one and a German side from pot two," Yakin said. "Chelsea are a top team in England, and it will be interesting playing against a side managed by Jose Mourinho."

One high-profile follower who will be urging them on will be tennis ace Roger Federer, who hails from Basel and is a huge supporter of his local team.

Star man -– Marco Streller: This experienced Switzerland international striker may by past his very best at the age of 32, but is captain and chief goal getter. If Basel are to thrive in the Champions League, Streller needs to bring his scoring boots with him.

"We all appreciated what success in Europe can bring to this club with the performances we gave in the Europa League last season, and that has given us inspiration to try and do something more in the Champions League," he said.

Another name to look out for is Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, who frightened Tottenham into submission with a thrilling performance in the Europa League quarterfinals. Boasting pace, invention and drive, Salah is on the shopping list of many a top European club and, if he turns on the style against some big-name opponents in the Champions League, the 21-year-old may well find himself being tempted by offers from other clubs next summer. However, he courted controversy last year when he criticised Israel in the media and refused to shake the hands of Maccabi Tel Aviv players.

Verdict: Basel are masters of upsetting the odds, especially on home soil, so expect them to deliver some eye-catching results. Manchester United are among the big names who have fallen to a shock defeat at their St Jakob-Park stadium.

Steaua Bucuresti (By Kevin Palmer)

Alexandru Chipciu Steaua Bucuresti celeb
GettyImagesSteaua Bucuresti came through UCL qualifying to reach Group E.

The team: Steaua made history by beating Barcelona on penalties in the 1986 European Cup final in Seville, with their triumph hailed as the finest moment in their history. They nearly went all the way again three years after their only European Cup success, losing 4-0 to AC Milan in the final.

Romania's powerhouse ended a seven-year wait for their 24th domestic title last season, and are setting their sights on success in the Champions League, with coach Laurentiu Reghecampf enjoying a rapid rise to the top.

A former Romania international, Reghecampf started coaching only in 2010 and is relishing the chance to lock horns with the likes of Mourinho in a competitive Group E lineup which he believes offers chances for his side to make progress.

"It is a group in which we have a chance to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages," said the coach, who has used a 4-4-2 formation and a 3-4-3 attacking option on different occasions in the past 12 months. He tends to pick a team that suits his opponents rather than rigidly sticking to one game plan.

"We know that the two matches against Chelsea will be difficult, but we had chances to upset them in the Europa League matches we had last season and now is a chance to put that right. We have our chance to qualify for the knockout stage, and we will have to take advantage of it."

After overcoming FK Vardar, Dinamo Tbilisi and Legia Warsaw to reach the Champions League group stages, Steaua do not want to allow that hard work to count for nothing.

Star man -- Federico Piovaccari: An Italian striker who had hit the ground running in the Champions League this season, his goals were crucial in guiding Steaua in the group stages. Piovaccari, on loan from Sampdoria, is eager to confirm that he can make it at the highest level at the age of 29 after a career that has seen him turn out for 11 different clubs.

"We have a striker who wants to prove he can make his mark on a big stage and that desire should serve us well with Piovaccari," Reghecampf said. "He has given us an example of what he can do, and hopefully there is more to come."

Verdict: A battle with FC Basel beckons for a place in the Europa League, and Steaua are likely to finish bottom of Group E unless they can pick up some unexpected results in front of their passionate home support.

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