Could Valencia's midfield director cause Chelsea a headache?

Tactics guru Michael Cox – editor of – starts his regular Champions League preview by concentrating on three of this week's most intriguing European ties, using the Stats Zone app from FourFourTwo and Opta...

As with the opening matchday of this season’s Champions League, the ‘Group of Death’ – sporadically also referred to as ‘Group A’ – sees the most exciting matches.

Manchester City travel to Bayern Munich for what should be their toughest game of the group stage, while down in Italy, Napoli host Villarreal in a repeat of a clash from last year’s Europa League. That previous encounter finished 0-0, with Villarreal taking the tie with a 2-1 second leg win back at El Madrigal.

Whereas City - away from home for the first time in the Champions League, and early pace-setters Bayern would probably be content with a draw, Napoli and Villarreal need positive results, making it arguably the more appealing game on paper.

There is a strong contrast between the two sides’ attacking approach in their opening games of the tournament. Against City, Napoli only looked comfortable on the counter-attack, and when they were faced with a packed opposition defence, tended to hit wayward shots from distance.

Their goal was their only shot on target, and their only non-blocked shot from a central position in the area.

Villarreal were similarly one-dimensional, albeit in a completely different manner. Their sole approach against Bayern was to hit long balls over the top for Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar to run onto.

Two of the three chances they created came from long, straight balls - a surprise considering Villarreal base their play around short, neat passes.

It will be interesting to see whether this approach is at all successful against Napoli, who tend to defend very deep.

Over in St Petersburg, the early kick-off between Zenit and Porto should be an exciting game. In particular, Portuguese midfielder Danny gets the chance to impress against a club from his adopted country – he was born to Portuguese parents in Venezuela, but moved to Madeira when young and chose to represent Portugal. Having not played in the Liga Sagres since 2004, Portuguese fans will be keen to get a rare glimpse of him at club level.

Though able to play as a number ten, Danny now starts wide on the left and drifts into the middle of the pitch. Always on the move when receiving the ball, and typically looking for where to play the pass before the ball has even arrived, the comparison below shows his performance in the previous game against APOEL.

Although he barely ever picks up possession in the final third, he plays plenty of passes in that zone, indicating how dangerous he can be when travelling with the ball.

He’ll have to be watched carefully by Porto’s right-back, Jorge Fucile or Cristian Sapanaru, but also by Porto’s holding midfielder Fernando. Zenit are likely to play on the break, and Fernando can play very high up the pitch against conter-attacking sides, as his performance against Shakhtar showed.

Chelsea may have taken Valencia’s main playmaker from last season, Juan Mata, but they’ll find that Los Che have another clever midfield director in Argentina international Ever Banega.

As the ‘player influence’ diagram shows, he was by far Valencia’s most involved player against Genk, usually found around the centre circle. On the right, his dashboard shows his passing, as well as a few long-distance shots and the white triangles, symbolising how many free-kicks he won.

While Andre Villas-Boas wants his Chelsea side to press more than those of his predecessors, his team generally sat back against Leverkusen, preferring to win the ball in their own third rather than close down in midfield.

As seen below, few balls are won around the centre circle, which could give Banega too much time on the ball.

Stats Zone, the app from FourFourTwo powered by data from Opta, is available now at the iTunes App Store and now, as you've probably gathered, features data from every Champions League match from this season and 2010/11