Albert Celades a lonely figure as Valencia players refuse to attend Chelsea press conference

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Embattled new Valencia boss Albert Celades cut a lonely figure as he discussed his side’s Champions League clash with Chelsea.

The Spanish side arrived at Stamford Bridge in a certain amount of disarray ahead of Tuesday night’s Group H opener against the Blues.

The players refused to attend the pre-match press conference in the wake of last week’s sacking of popular manager Marcelino, who led them to Copa del Rey success and secured Champions League qualification last season.

A 5-2 defeat in Celades’ first match in charge, against Barcelona at the weekend, presumably did not improve morale.

Celades, 43, duly took press conference duties alone on Monday evening, yet he insisted that no matter what the feelings are inside the camp, the team will be motivated to beat Chelsea.

He said: “Obviously it’s not an ideal situation but it’s the players’ decision, really. I don’t have much more to say about that. There isn’t anything I can do about it.

“I speak to the players every day. They took this decision but there is always dialogue. The reaction I’ve had has been very good and I’m sure it will continue to improve.

‎Marcelino was a popular figure in the Los Che dressing room.

‎Marcelino was a popular figure in the Los Che dressing room.

“The spirit is very good. (Tuesday) is the start of the best club competition in Europe and that is ample motivation for the players to give their best.

“They want to play, taste the atmosphere, and be in the starting XI. No-one wants to miss out and that, for me, is the most important thing.”

Marcelino claimed he was axed because he concentrated on winning the cup last season, rather than the league.

But Celades added: “There may be a lot of speculation or theories but I’m the one who makes decisions here and that’s the way it will be until I leave.

“I don’t know about the conversations the owner had with previous coaches.”

As for the task facing his team, with the Blues fresh from Saturday’s 5-2 win at Wolves, Celades said: “They are a great side with some fantastic individual players.

“It will be a big challenge but a fascinating one too. We’re sure they can cause us a lot of problems.

“We’re going to prepare for the game in the best way possible and try to get a result.”

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Champions League Group H preview: Ajax to finish on top, Chelsea to follow

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off next week.

The Group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams which will feature in the last-16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave a mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be thrilled about the Champions League right from match-day one.

We take a look at all the groups and make a prediction on the final standings. Here is Group H …

Ajax (Netherlands)

Dusan Tadic

Manager: Erik ten Hag

The neutrals’ darlings from last season are favourites to top what looks like a tricky Group F. A young Ajax side exceeded expectations and made it to the semi-final last season. The Dutch side became the first team to defeat Real Madrid in a knockout European tie in over three years before they dominated a strong Juventus side.

One of the few teams to have won a European treble, Ajax will give it another go after falling short by just two games last season. But unlike last season, the Dutch champions have been drawn in a group where the teams from pots three and four can produce an upset.

Ajax lost two of their best players Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong to Juventus and Barcelona respectively over the summer. Unlike last season, Ajax will have to carry the burden of expectation.

However, the Dutch champions prize their ability to replenish lost talent. They signed Quincy Promes, Edson Alvarez among other players who can go a long way to nullifying the departures.

Ajax have had to defeat PAOK and APOEL on their route to the group stages this season. Given the dynamics of the other teams in the group, Ten Hag’s men should secure the top spot.

Key player: Dusan Tadic

Chelsea (England)

tammy abraham

Manager: Frank Lampard

Chelsea qualified for the Champions League as the winners of the Europa League after they beat London rivals Arsenal in the final. They also finished third in the Premier League but the Europa League title earned them a pot one draw.

The London side has been forced to field a young squad this season due to their ongoing transfer ban. It’s too early to take a call on whether this has proved to be a blessing or a curse but their performance in the Champions League could provide us with an answer four months from now.

The defending Europa League champions who last won the Champions League in the 2011/12 season have seen the emergence of several young players such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount. The injured Callum Hudson-Odoi too can cause trouble to the opposition once he gets going. These players provide a reason to believe that Chelsea could go a long way in the tournament despite the lack of experience.

Although Ajax are favourites to top the group based on their performance in the competition from last season, Chelsea could claim that spot if they are in the right dynamics going into the key fixtures. The 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in the Premier League opener came as a massive setback but the Blues have recovered well to draw level on points with Spurs, United and Arsenal.

Chelsea must ensure they don’t drop points against Lille, stay unbeaten against Valencia and accumulate as many points as possible from Ajax.

Key player: Tammy Abraham

Valencia (Spain)

Dani Parejo celebrates his goal.

Manager: Albert Celades

After a disappointing start to their 2018/19 season, Valencia managed a spectacular comeback to finish in the top-four in La Liga and qualify for the Champions League. However, Marcelino, the manager who made it all happe,n was sacked last week and Valencia’s 5-2 defeat against Barcelona evidenced that Albert Celades has a lot of work to do.

Valencia qualified to the Champions League group stages five times in the last decade but made it to the knockouts just twice. They were knocked out in the last-16 by Schalke in the 2010/11 season and Paris Saint-Germain two seasons later.

Los Che roped in a proven La Liga striker Maxi Gomez and Barcelona shot-stopper Jasper Cillessen but had to let go of Santi Mina and Neto. Theh quality of players, though, is the least of their problems.

The management has been a mess, the dismissal of Marcelino was uncalled for and the appointment of Celades was rushed. Valencia could face the ripple effects of these acts in the Champions League. No coach would want his second game at a club to be an important Champions League clash just two days after being thumped by Barcelona.

However, the Spanish side has all the quality to upset the two favourites. Valencia are unpredictable and a clear picture should arrive a few weeks into Celades’ tenure. But they only have an outside chance to make the top-two.

Key player: Dani Parejo

LOSC Lille (France)

Lille

Manager: Christophe Galtier

Unlikely entrants into the Champions League, Lille experienced a drastic reversal in fortune after they finished second in Ligue 1 after surviving relegation  the previous season. This meant that they were eligible for their first Champions League group stage appearance since the 2012/13 season.

The French side have made it past the group stage of the Champions League only once in their history. They finished above AEK Athens and Anderlecht to finish second behind AC Milan. But Manchester United knocked them out of the competition in the last-16 stage with a 2-0 aggregate win.

Lille must not be hugely optimistic about their chances of finishing in the top-two. Nicolas Pepe and Rafael Leao – two of their best players from last season – have left the club. In replacement, they signed Timothy Weah, Renato Sanches and other youngsters who could fill their boots.

Key player: Renato Sanches

Prediction:

1. Ajax

2. Chelsea

3. Valencia

4. Lille

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Champions League Group G preview: RB Leipzig in first, Lyon runners-up

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off next week.

The Group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams which will feature in the last-16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave a mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be thrilled about the Champions League right from match-day one.

We take a look at all the groups and make a prediction on the final standings. Here is Group G …

RB Leipzig

Timo Werner

Manager: Julian Nagelsmann

Founded in 2009, the Leipzig-based side sprang to prominence about eight years later. RB Leipzig first featured in a European tournament when they qualified for the group stage in the 2017/18 season. Drawn alongside Monaco, Besiktas and Porto, the German side finished third and qualify for the last-32 of the Europa League.

Leipzig surprised Napoli and Zenit Saint Petersburg before bowing out against Marseille in the quarter-final. This run remains their best-ever in a European competition.

Last season, Leipzig had to go through three rounds of qualifying ties before making it to the group stage of the Europa League. They did not make it to the knockouts but made the best of the situation by focusing on the Bundesliga and managing a top-three finish.

The fast-growing German club has now enjoyed a favourable draw and are tipped to finish on top. Leipzig roped in the likes of Ademola Lookman, Patrik Schick, Christopher Nkunku, Ethan Ampadu among others. But manager Julian Nagelsmann could prove to be their best signing of the summer.

The former Hoffenheim coach should be able to lead his side to a top-two finish. Anything less will be an underachievement.

Key player: Timo Werner

Lyon (France)

Memphis

Manager: Sylvinho

The French side will kick off their Champions League campaign with an aim to better their previous campaign when they were eliminated from the competition in the last-16 by a Lionel Messi-led Barcelona.

Lyon grabbed the headlines last season when they became the only team that English treble winners Manchester City did not beat. Sylvinho’s men will hope to replicate those results and finish in the top-two – a feat they are capable of.

Lyon’s impressive show from the group stage of the Champions League last season caused them to lose some of their key players to bigger clubs. Tanguy Ndomeble switched to the white side of north London, while Ferland Mendy and Nabil Fekir joined Real Madrid and Real Betis respectively.

Although the French side also recorded key arrivals in Thiago Mendes, Joachim Andersen and highly-rated Arsenal academy graduate Jeff Reine-Adelaide, it remains to be seen if the current crop of players can challenge the best of Europe.

Lyon are favourites for the runners-up spot but must be wary of an unpredictable Benfica and a challenging away trip to Russia.

Key player: Memphis Depay

Benfica (Portugal)

Alex Grimaldo

Manager: Bruno Lage

Benfica will fancy their chances of making it out of the group for the first time after two seasons, having been drawn in a relatively unpredictable group.

The successive European Cups in 1960 and 1961 have remained Benfica’s biggest achievements in Europe. Recently, they made it to the final of the Europa League in the 2012/13 and the 2013/14 season but lost to Chelsea and Sevilla, respectively.

In the Champions League, the Portuguese side has failed to breach the quarter-final after reaching the stage in the 2005/06, 2011/12 and 2015/16 seasons. They defeated fellow Group G side Zenit in the last-16 in the 2015/16 edition before being edged by Bayern Munich.

Joao Felix was Benfica’s breakout star last season. The forward fetched the club €126 million and has shone for Atletico Madrid so far. The Portuguese champions have not missed him much in the league, given they have accumulated 12 points of a possible 15 so far.

However, they could find a missing piece in the puzzle when they attempt to muscle out the best Europe has to offer.

Last season, Benfica finished behind Bayern and Ajax to qualify for the last-32 of the Europa League but they have a good chance of making the top-two this time.

Key player: Alex Grimaldo

Zenit Saint Petersburg

Zenit

Manager: Sergei Semak

The Russian champions have qualified for the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since the 2015/16 season when they were knocked out by Benfica in the last-16.

Zenit have been regular faces in the Europa League and peaked when they made the quarter-final in the 2014/15 season. They held the fort impressively against eventual champions Sevilla before bowing out to the smallest of margins.

The Russian giants have now been knocked out of the Europa League in the last-16 stage for two consecutive seasons. In the 2017/18 edition, RB Leipzig edged Zenit 3-2 on aggregate.

Despite being drawn from pot one, Zenit are least likely to finish in the top two. But inspired performances at home could propel them close to their objective and fetch them a berth in the last-32 of the Europa League.

Key player: Malcom

Prediction

1. RB Leipzig

2. Lyon

3. Benfica

4. Zenit

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