Champions League 2014-15: Group C preview

Sports Mole takes a closer look at the four teams that make up Group C of this season's Champions League.

MONACO

Previous European Cup/CL best: Finalists: 2004

Manager - Leonardo Jardim: Aside from a five-year stint in charge of Portuguese minnows Camacha much earlier in his managerial career, Jardim has a track record of only lasting around a season at each of his clubs. Even so, the 40-year-old does have experience of managing some big teams, including Olympiacos and Sporting Lisbon. He took charge at the Stade Louis II from Claudio Ranieri during the summer, but it is safe to say that his spell did not get off to the best of starts, with both James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao moving on.

Key Player - Joao Moutinho

Monaco's Portuguese midfielder Joao Moutinho gestures during the French L1 football match between Bordeaux (FCGB) and Monaco (ASM) on August 17, 2014 © Getty Images

There were big rumours towards the end of the summer transfer window that Moutinho was keen to join Rodriguez and Falcao in jumping ship. The Portuguese midfielder stayed with his Ligue 1 employers, though, and is now the one source of genuine quality in the Monaco squad. Rather than sulk, the 28-year-old would be better off playing to his creative potential, which in turn would put himself in the shop window.

Sports Mole says: As mentioned earlier, the departures of the Colombian duo have left a gaping hole. To make matters worse, they have not been properly replaced, with Dimitar Berbatov the club's most senior centre-forward. Consequently, qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League looks a long shot, with finishing third and entering the Europa League arguably a more realistic target.

Did you know?: In 2003, Monaco defeated Deportivo La Courna 8-3 in the group stages, which remains a record for most goals scored in one game during the Champions League era.


BAYER LEVERKUSEN

Previous European Cup/CL best: Finalists: 2002

Manager - Roger Schmidt: Having proven his credentials during a two-year stint in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg, Schmidt returned to his native Germany during the summer when he was appointed as Leverkusen's replacement for Sami Hyypia. This will be the 47-year-old's first experience of the Champions League, either as a player or a manager, although he did coach Salzburg to the final 16 of the Europa League earlier this year.

Key Player - Stefan Kiessling

Leverkusen's striker Stefan Kiessling celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League Group A football match against Shakhtar Donetsk on October 23, 2013© Getty Images

Standing at 6'2", Kiessling is one of Europe's most clinical strikers in the air. That is not to say that he is not comfortable with the ball at his feet. The 30-year-old has started the new campaign in fine form as well, having scored three times during the qualifiers against Copenhagen, as well as finding the net in the Bundesliga in a clash with Borussia Dortmund.

Sports Mole says: Although they got through the group stages, Leverkusen's Champions League campaign last term is best remembered for the thrashings that they suffered at the hands of Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16. In total, Leverkusen shipped 16 goals in just eight encounters, but there have been signs this term that they are a tighter unit defensively. It would be considered a big disappointment if qualification, perhaps as group winners, is not achieved.

Did you know?: During the 2002 final, Leverkusen had more shots on and off target than Real Madrid, yet they still lost the game 2-1.


ZENIT ST PETERSBURG

Previous European Cup/CL best: Last 16: 2012, 2014

Manager - Andre Villas-Boas: The 36-year-old seems to have a knack of falling on his feet soon after he has departed a club. He left Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, but was swiftly back in employment with Zenit. Having won the Europa League during his one and only season with Porto, his move to Chelsea would not go as swimmingly. The Blues appeared to be heading out of the Champions League when they were thrashed by Napoli, which resulted in his sacking. To rub salt in the wound, his replacement, Roberto Di Matteo, guided the West Londoners to their first Champions League title.

Key Player - Hulk

Hulk celebrates after scoring 1-0 during the last 16 second-leg UEFA Champions League football match Borussia Dortmund vs Zenit St Petersburg on March 19, 2014© Getty Images

The Brazilian somewhat divides opinion, but there can be little doubting that he is Zenit's most likely source of goals. In last season's Champions League he averaged a goal every other game and this time around he found the net twice during the qualifying phase. At 28, Hulk should be reaching his prime years as a striker.

Sports Mole says: Zenit have never previously gone beyond the final 16 of the Champions League, but in this group they are bound to harbour ambitions of topping it, which could potentially land them a slightly easier tie in the first knockout round. Failure to advance would be deemed a disappointment for Villas-Boas, who will be hoping that his second experience of the Champions League is better than the first.

Did you know?: Zenit were the fourth Russian side to play in the Champions League after CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow.


BENFICA

Previous European Cup/CL best: Winners: 1961, 1962

Manager - Jorge Jesus: Benfica are the 11th team that Jesus has managed and he has been there since 2009, making it the longest stint that he has ever had with one club. It's been largely successful, with two league titles, as well as two appearances in the final of the Europa League. The Champions League has proved to be a much more difficult competition for Jesus and his side, though - a wrong that he will be hoping to right this time around.

Key Player - Nicolas Gaitan

Benfica's Argentinian midfielder Nicolas Gaitan controls the ball during the Portuguese league football match Rio Ave vs Benfica at the Arcos stadium in Vila do Conde on December 1, 2013© Getty Images

It seems that for the last five or six transfer windows, Gaitan has been linked with a move away from the Estadio da Luz, but he remains in place. The 26-year-old provides plenty of creativity to the midfield, while he has also been known to contribute the odd important goal - highlighted by his strike against rivals Sporting Lisbon at the end of August. Having not been capped by Argentina since 2011, positive Champions League performances may capture the attention of national team head coach Gerardo Martino.

Sports Mole says: Benfica have lost some very important players over the last few months, including Nemanja Matic, Rodrigo and Ezequiel Garay. Add to that the fact that the replacements have not been of the same quality and it could well be another disappointing Champions League campaign for the Eagles. Finishing third and entering the Europa League may be the best that can be hoped for.

Did you know?: No team has lost more European Cup or Champions League finals than Benfica, who have been defeated in five of their seven showpiece encounters.


Group C fixtures

Tuesday, September 16
Monaco vs. Leverkusen
Benfica vs. Zenit

Wednesday, October 1
Zenit vs. Monaco
Leverkusen vs. Benfica

Wednesday, October 22
Leverkusen vs. Zenit
Monaco vs. Benfica

Tuesday, November 4
Zenit vs. Leverkusen
Benfica vs. Monaco

Wednesday, November 26
Zenit vs. Benfica
Leverkusen vs. Monaco

Tuesday, December 9
Monaco vs. Zenit
Benfica vs. Leverkusen

Prediction: 1. Leverkusen 2. Zenit 3. Benfica 4. Monaco


Monaco's Dimitar Berbatov celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Sochaux during their Ligue 1 match on March 8, 2014
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2MonacoMonaco6501178915
3Saint-EtienneSt Etienne641174313
4Bordeaux6330106412
5Lyon6321117411
6Marseille6312910-110
7NantesNantes631234-110
8Nice63038629
9Caen63035419
10GuingampGuingamp630378-19
11Angers61417617
12Montpellier HSCMontpellier621345-17
13Toulouse6213812-47
14AmiensAmiens620449-56
15Rennes6123910-15
16Troyes612346-25
17Lille612347-35
18Dijon6114613-74
19StrasbourgStrasbourg6114411-74
20Metz6105312-93
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