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Blues gear up as quest for European glory begins


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The 2014/15 Champions League season is about to underway this week on Tuesday with the teams aiming to achieve European success come next June in Berlin.

And one of the teams looking to that will be the 2012 European Champions Chelsea. But first, they will have to get past the challenges posed by FC Schalke 04, Sporting Lisbon and NK Maribor in the group stage following the draw made in Monaco last month. Here, we will look into each of the Blues' opponents and what will they bring to the table.

FC Schalke 04
Head-to-head record: P4 W3 D1 F8 A0
Last season's league finish: 3rd in Bundesliga
Last game result: Lost 4-1 to Borussia Monchengladbach

Schalke represent a familar opponent for Chelsea having just played each other twice in the group stage last season, with the Blues coming out on top 3-0 on both occasions. While it is well known that the Londoners have made an emphatic start to the season, their German counterparts, in contrast, have begun their campaign in horrendous fashion. The Royal Blues were knocked out by third-tier SG Dynamo Dresden in the DFB Pokal first round before suffering two further defeats - to Hannover and Gladbach - in their opening three Bundesliga matches. However, they did pick up an impressive draw against champions Bayern Munich in between those two defeats.

Injuries have not helped their cause with no less than six players currently on the treatment table - Leon Goretzka (MF), Jefferson Farfan (MF), Sead Kolasinac (DF), Fabian Giefer (GK), Jan Kirchhoff (DF) and Joel Matip (DF/MF). As if that was not enough, there have been constant rumours that the club has approached various managers to take over ever since Jens Keller took charge in 2012, most notably Thomas Tuchel. To make matters worse, before they were beaten Gladbach last Saturday, sporting director Horst Heldt was reluctant to discuss matters about extending Keller's contract with the club, leaving the club in further uncertainty.

Schalke typically play a 4-2-3-1 under Keller although he is not shy of moving to a 4-4-2 if he has to. As seen in last season's encounters, they are comfortable in pressing and passing the ball around the opposition, looking to creative players in Julian Draxler, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sidney Sam to provide the chances for Klaas Jan Huntelaar or sometimes Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to score the goals. That being said, they are not the most solid of teams and can be caught on the break due to their attacking nature; that was evident in the two 3-0 victories and even their 6-1 thrashing by Real Madrid in the last 16.

Sporting Lisbon
Head-to-head record: nil
Last season's league finish: 2nd in Primeira Liga
Last game result: Drew 1-1 with Belenenses

The Portuguese giants are back in the Champions League for the first time since 2008/09 season after breaking the duopoly of Benfica and Porto in Portugal. However, their then manager Leonardo Jardim is no longer in charge following his departure to AS Monaco and the Lions installed Marco Silva as his replacement during the summer. The 37-year-old is one of the brightest managers in the game having had three excellent seasons with Estoril prior to this job. He led the club to the top-flight in 2012 and followed that up with 5th and 4th place finishes in the last two seasons.

Sporting have begun the season somewhat unimpressively, however, after winning just one of their first four matches although the other three have been stalemates. The slow start is perhaps understandable as the players adjust to the new methods and style of play. Under Silva, the Lions are capable of operating in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 with then intention of playing attacking and possession based football. They like to press high up the pitch and exploit the flanks and their midfield trio of William Carvalho, Andre Martins and Adrien Silva is the engine that makes the side tick.

NK Maribor
Head-to-head record: nil
Last season's league finish: 1st in Slovenian PrvaLiga
Last game result: Beat NK Krka 2-0

If fans are familiar with Schalke and Sporting Lisbon, then the Slovenian champions will be the unknown quantity in the group. Maribor were formed in 1960 but are the most successful club in the country, having won the league title 12 times and 8 domestic cup competitions. This will be their first participation in the Champions League since the 1999/2000 season. Back then, they finished bottom of the group with 4 points but claimed a historic 1-0 away win against Dynamo Kiev and the goal was scored by current manager Ante Simundza.

Unlike the Royal Blues and Lions, Maribor have started the season decently with five wins and two defeats from seven matches but they trail league leaders Domzale by 9 points. The Slovenian side adopt a patient game plan in their 4-1-4-1 system that is based on drawing teams out and waiting for the right space to open up before striking the opposition. Key to their play Agim Ibraimi and Zeljko Filipovic, who are both the playmaker and creator of chances for their lone striker Tavares and also notably, what they lack in pace, they make up for it with good positioning and movement off the ball.

Group fixtures:
17 Sept Chelsea v Schalke
17 Sept Maribor v Sporting Lisbon

30 Sept Sporting Lisbon v Chelsea
30 Sept Schalke v Maribor

21 Oct Schalke v Sporting Lisbon
21 Oct Chelsea v Maribor

5 Nov Sporting Lison v Schalke
5 Nov Maribor v Chelsea

25 Nov Schalke v Chelsea
25 Nov Sporting Lisbon v Maribor

10 Dec Chelsea v Sporting Lisbon
10 Dec Maribor v Schalke

*All matches kick off at 7.45pm UK time

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