Champions League Group B profile: Benfica may beat Napoli to top spot
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | September 4, 2016
Champions League Group B profile
With European football back on our screens this September, Coral experts give their Champions League Group B tips, as we examine all eight pools for the best punts and profile the teams, players and coaches.
Although there’s no Premier League interest in this group, it looks hotly competitive with Portuguese champions Benfica battling Turkish Super Lig giants Besiktas, Serie A mainstays Napoli and Ukrainian Premier League winners Dynamo Kiev.
While Napoli are 11/10 favourites to top the pool and 1/3 to progress from it, these prices may not take into account what they have lost.
Another curious subplot to this group is Benfica letting Brazilian talent Anderson Talisca join Besiktas on loan. Let’s look at all four teams in more detail…
How do you replace Gonzalo Higuain? Getting €90m from Juventus for the Argentina striker is great business for the Campania club, but the goal-burden being transferred to ex-Ajax marksman Arkadiusz Milik of Poland is definitely a gamble.
With Diego Maradona providing the glory days for the Stadio San Paolo side in the late 1980s, Napoli finishing as Serie A runners-up last term is the best they’ve managed since.
Walter Mazzarri and Rafa Benitez have both steered the Neapolitan team to Coppa Italia success in recent years, though a European trophy has eluded them since 1989. They did reach the Champions League knockout phase in 2012, however, and the Europa League semis during the campaign before last.
Maurizio Sarri is in his second season as Napoli boss, and his stock continues to rise, but it is this transfer window just gone that may be the making or breaking of him.
Over €50m has been invested in procuring Polish talent, with one-time Liverpool target Piotr Zielinski joining Milik in moving to Naples. The latter was profligate with chances at Euro 2016, and Serie A is a far stronger league than the Eredivisie.
Serbia centre back Nikola Maksimovic, linked to Chelsea towards the end of the summer, has been loaned in from Torino. He joins fellow Eastern Europeans such as eye-catching Albania international Elseid Hysaj, former Spurs player Vlad Chiriches and Croatia’s Ivan Strinic in defence.
While Higuain was cashed in on, Napoli resisted interest in French-born Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly and he remains at the San Paolo for now, as does Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik.
Sarri’s wide options remain largely the same; Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, yet the wildcard capture of Emanuele Giaccherini from Sunderland, who turned it on at the Euros like Hysaj, does add another dimension.
There might just be that little bit too much choice at Napoli, leaving Sarri with selection dilemmas.
Back-to-back European Cup winners in 1961 and 1962, Benfica are infamously said to be cursed having been runners-up in either Champions or Europa League on eight occasions since. Superstition or bad luck should not detract from betting on them in Group B, though.
Making the Champions League quarter-finals twice in the last five terms, the Eagles also retained their domestic crown under new coach Rui Vitoria following predecessor Jorge Jesus’ controversial cross-capital switch to Sporting Lisbon.
Raids for Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich) and Nicolas Gaitan (Atletico Madrid), who could curiously line up against one another in Champions League Group D, have deprived Benfica of some energy and creativity, but Portuguese clubs are well-versed in making do and moving on.
It is for that reason, plus the captures of Rafa Silva (another Euro 2016 winner like Sanches) from Braga and Peru winger Andre Carrillo on a free from Sporting, that the Eagles may be worthwhile backing to take on Napoli.
Benfica odds of 9/4 to top the pool in Champions League Group B betting must be respected, and their seasoned strikeforce have nothing to prove. Brazil frontman Jonas has been prolific in Portugal, and the same can be said of former Fulham flop Kostas Mitroglu.
Gaitan going should allow teenage talent Goncalo Guedes to flourish as the Eagles’ production line keeps on rolling. There’s also a great blend of youth and experience at the back with Julio Cesar in goal and skipper Luisao in front of him alongside Sweden’s promising Victor Lindelof.
Deep-lying midfield options are also solid with Serbia anchorman Ljubomir Fejsa and Andreas Samaris of Greece. Fellow Argentine Eduardo Salvio could also step out of Gaitan’s shadow on the flanks too.
If you’re not convinced the Benfica squad isn’t as impressive as the embarrassment of riches identified above in Naples, then there’s always taking the safer bet of the Eagles to qualify for the knockout phase at 8/11.
Like Napoli, Istanbul outfit Besiktas have a striker-shaped hole to plug up front following Mario Gomez deciding against a permanent transfer to Turkey.
Their answer to this problem has been to loan in players from Portugal, in the aforementioned Talisca from Benfica and Cameroon international Vincent Aboubakar from Porto.
Besiktas boss Senol Gunes has also recruited a rusty Gokhan Inler from Premier League champions Leicester City, though the Switzerland midfielder of Turkish heritage played a peripheral part in those fairy tale proceedings.
Sad as it is to admit, Besiktas have simply never been much of a force in Europe win a Champions League quarter-final in 1987 and reaching the same stage of the old UEFA Cup in 2003 as good as they’ve managed.
Creative couple Jose Ernesto Sosa (AC Milan) and Gokhan Tore (West Ham United) have moved on from the Turkish capital this summer, while other notable incomings include full backs Adriano Correia from Barcelona and Gokhan Gonul from bitter rivals Fenerbahce.
Portugal winger/forward Ricardo Quaresma is Besiktas’ maverick talent, but there just doesn’t look to be enough in their ranks to make a good fist of this group. That explains why the Turkish team are 8/1 outsiders to top the pool, and 7/4 to advance from it.
Like Benfica, Kiev are two-time European Cup winners in 1975 and 1986, but it’s the same familiar faces the eye is drawn to when you look down their squad list.
Club captain Oleksandr Shovkovskiy and deputy Oleg Gusyev are still kicking about, and Dynamo still depend on Andriy Yarmolenko for goals and guile.
Croatia’s Domagoj Vida in defence and disappointing Paraguay forward Derlis Gonzalez need to press their claims.
Manager Serhiy Rebrov played for Spurs and West Ham without ever really living up to his promise, and he was always the lesser strike partner to Andriy Shevchenko on international duty. He masterminded passage to the Champions League last 16 last term, but lost to Manchester City.
It all just looks rather stagnant at Kiev, and that is understandable given the far from stable political state of things in Ukraine. Dynamo are one team to avoid betting on in Champions League Group B, not looking worthy of an even-money price to progress from the pool and even less so of finishing top at 7/2.
Champions League Group B games
All matches are 19:45 UK time.
Tuesday, September 13th
Dynamo Kiev v Napoli
Benfica v Besiktas
Wednesday, September 28th
Besiktas v Dynamo Kiev
Napoli v Benfica
Wednesday, October 19th
Napoli v Besiktas
Dynamo Kiev v Benfica
Tuesday, November 1st
Besiktas v Napoli
Benfica v Dynamo Kiev
Wednesday, November 23rd
Napoli v Dynamo Kiev
Besiktas v Benfica
Tuesday, December 6th
Dynamo Kiev v Besiktas
Benfica v Napoli
You’ll find more Champions League content on Coral’s dedicated page.
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