Chelsea big favorite in Champions League group
The start of the season could not have gone any better for Chelsea — four straight Premier League wins, the emergence of a striker who can’t stop scoring and a spot into one of the easiest groups of the Champions League.
Chelsea, which won the Champions League in 2012, appears to be the English team most likely to go far in Europe’s top competition this season after being selected with Schalke, Sporting Lisbon and Slovenian club NK Maribor in Group G.
In the first round of matches, Chelsea hosts Schalke and Sporting travels to Maribor.
Here are some things to know about Wednesday’s games:
Chelsea beat Schalke 3-0 at home and away in the Champions League last season on its way to reaching the semifinals.
Imagine what Jose Mourinho’s team can do to the German side now that it has a top striker?
In Spain international Diego Costa, Chelsea has the form player in England with seven goals in his first four games in the Premier League. No other player has scored so many. Costa is also only the second player to score in each of his first four Premier League games.
“He is one of the best strikers at this moment in football,” Mourinho said. “He is a special player.”
The game against Schalke could also see Didier Drogba play in the Champions League for Chelsea for the first time since he scored the winning penalty in a shootout against Bayern Munich in the 2012 final.
To those who believe Chelsea is a shoo-in for the knockout stage, Mourinho says: “The group is more difficult than people think.”
Schalke coach Jens Keller again finds himself under scrutiny following his side’s poor start to the Bundesliga.
The 43-year-old Keller has had to live with the questioning of his ability since replacing Huub Stevens in December 2012, but one point from three Bundesliga games and the manner of his side’s loss to Borussia Moenchengladbach in Saturday’s 4-1 defeat has led to more criticism.
“If the opponent can score 10 goals, then we need to change something quickly. Otherwise it’s going to be a very difficult season,” Schalke striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar said.
Keller has blamed injuries for taking a toll on his side.
“You could see that it’s incredibly difficult to us to deal with so many absences. We had four players on the pitch that hadn’t played in months,” said Keller, who knows Chelsea will provide a stern test on Wednesday. “Chelsea are certainly not our level at the moment.”
Schalke manager Horst Heldt is trying, unsuccessfully, to steer talk away from the coach’s future.
“It’s no use whining and complaining. It’s the wrong way,” Heldt said. “We have to get a grip on the situation and stay calm. This applies to the players who are available to us. Everyone has to play their part, then we’ll get back on course.”
Schalke captain Benedikt Hoewedes has been ruled out with a hip injury.
Sporting Lisbon’s young and relatively inexperienced team is struggling to find its feet early in the season.
Four games into the Portuguese championship, Sporting is eighth in the table with six points from a possible 12 after three draws after letting victory slip from its grasp.
With coach Marcos Silva making his Champions League debut after taking charge at the end of last season, the Portuguese club needs to grow up quickly.
“I can’t deny that the team has been jittery,” Silva said. “The way to get over that is to get good results.”
Sporting’s recent away record in continental competition, losing all of its last 10 games on the road in the Europa League, is another psychological hurdle.
Maribor’s playoff victory over Celtic secured the Slovenian side a place in the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.
In 1999, Maribor finished last in its group with four points, losing all three home matches but beating Dynamo Kiev 1-0 away for its only victory.
Associated Press writer Ciaran Fahey in Berlin contributed to this report.