Champions League Group A Preview

To Win Group A
Man United 4/6
Shakhtar Donetsk 9/2
Leverkusen 5/1
Real Sociedad 6/1

Manchester United: Robin van Persie

The difference-maker in last season’s Premier League title race, Robin van Persie’s 26 goals and 15 assists fired Manchester United to the championship in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season following his £24 million move from rivals Arsenal.

Now with David Moyes at the helm, the masterful Dutchman will once again be United’s main striking threat in a group which looks particularly tricky and could have been a lot more forgiving.

Therefore, his combination of stealthy movement and devastating finishing will play a vital part, and Red Devils supporters will be hoping that he can add to his 21 Champions League goals (53 appearances).

With Danny Welbeck yet to fully convince as a regular scorer, Javier Hernandez seemingly a perennial substitute and the situations regarding Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney still somewhat uncertain—although with the transfer window now closed both will definitely be staying—the weight of expectation rests firmly on van Persie’s shoulders.

Shakhtar Donetsk: Douglas Costa

The Ukrainians were hugely impressive in last year’s group stage but have since lost a number of key attacking players, most notably Fernandinho, Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Thus now is surely the time for Douglas Costa to truly step up.

The uber-talented Brazilian, fleet of foot and capable of ghosting past defenders like they aren’t even there, has been with Shakhtar Donetsk since 2010, but has largely flattered to deceive while watching teammates enhance their reputations.

Operating as an inverted right-winger, the former Gremio man must now take control and lead Mircea Lucescu’s attack with his ability to break open tight affairs and to provide chances for strikers Luiz Adriano and Facundo Ferrerya.

With Shakhtar perhaps not as strong as last year and in a particularly tough group, the Miners need Costa to show his very best if they’re to stand any chance of navigating their way through the group stage.

Bayer Leverkusen: Stefan Kiessling

The top goalscorer in the 2012-13 Bundesliga with 25 goals it remains something of an oddity that the Bayer Leverkusen striker still cannot get a look in where Joachim Loew’s Germany are concerned.

Perhaps it’s because the 29-year-old isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing footballer—somewhat ungainly, all arms and elbows—but he’s proven extremely effective as a lone striker in the Werkself’s 4-3-2-1 formation over the last five years.

Comfortable shooting with either foot and also a major threat in the air—eight of his 25 league goals last season were headers—Kiessling is a major threat to opposing sides in the penalty area, but he also has good awareness and movement outside the box, which allows him to link well with others: He weighed in with 10 assists last season.

The present campaign, with Bayer under the sole stewardship of Sami Hyypia, has started exactly where last year’s finished, Kiessling scoring twice and making three assists in his opening four league matches.

He may have been exiled from the national XI—the last of his six caps came in 2010—but he remains a clear and present danger that Bayer’s rivals must keep an eye on.

Real Sociedad: Carlos Vela

Under Philippe Montanier Real Sociedad played some of Europe’s most outstanding football last season as they finished fourth in La Liga. Now, with Montanier having moved to Rennes and Jagoba Arrasate his replacement, the vibrant attacking Basque outfit have continued where they left off in 2012-13, beating Champions League regulars Lyon in the qualifying round 4-0 on aggregate.

A key part of the success of La Real last year came in the shape of Mexican forward Carlos Vela, the former Arsenal man who helped himself to 14 goals and 12 assists in 35 league games. He’s carried on that form this season, with two goals in his side’s opening three matches.

Stationed nominally on the right wing, Vela’s ability to dribble at pace, his intelligent movement and composed finishing have been harnessed tremendously over the last two years at the Anoeta, and he is now barely recognisable from the lightweight pushover who couldn’t quite cut it in the Premier League in his younger days.

Opponents will have to be careful to keep an eye on the 24-year-old forward, as well as his colleague, Antoine Griezmann, the young French forward with whom Vela has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership since his arrival at the Anoeta.