Just two months after the planet’s biggest stars gathered in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, the start of the new Champions League brings many of these household names back into the spotlight.
As Atletico Madrid proved last season in coming seconds away from lifting the trophy and denying cross-city rivals Real Madrid their decima, this competition is wide open. At least ten teams are equipped to reach the final in Berlin’s Olympiastadion – and many others are fighting to be part of that conversation.
As always, there has to be a Group of Death. On paper, Group E looks the likeliest candidate, with Manchester City once again receiving a rough draw alongside Bayern Munich, a revitalised Roma and CSKA Moscow. Manuel Pellegrini’s men are desperate to prove that they are among Europe’s elite and this is the perfect opportunity to press home that point. Bayern Munich, who were drawn with Manchester City at this stage last season too, are the favourites for top spot and many of their stars are riding the wave of momentum from Germany’s World Cup glory – but the Citizens are better equipped now to topple the Germans this time out. Roma have new life under Rudi Garcia and, having added Ashley Cole and Seydou Keita while retaining their other stars, a trip to the Italian capital will be a major examination for both Manchester City and Bayern Munich. A slow start will be fatal for any of these teams. As always, travelling to Moscow in the latter part of the year will bring climate challenges too, though CSKA are expected to finish bottom of this group.
Defending champions Real Madrid find themselves in Group B, where Liverpool will offer a stiff test but Basel and, in particular, Ludogorets Razgrad (the second Bulgarian team to reach the group stage) should put up little resistance. Real Madrid’s attacking prowess, through Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Karim Benzema, is arguably the best in the competition. However, they are still gelling and may not hit top gear until the end of the calendar year. Liverpool have made an erratic start to the new Premier League campaign and need more time to adjust to Luis Suarez’s departure, especially with Daniel Sturridge facing time on the sidelines due to a thigh injury. That could open the door a fraction for Basel, who beat Chelsea home and away last season.
Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, are in Group A with Juventus, Olympiacos and Malmo FF. Diego Simeone’s men have seemingly bounced back impressively from the heartache of Sergio Ramos’ late equaliser in the Champions League final. The Spanish champions, sparked by the outstanding Koke, have already beaten Real Madrid this season and remain dangerous despite Diego Costa’s departure. Juventus, with new boss Massimiliano Allegri, are contenders for top spot too, with Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Paul Pogba all capable of winning big games by themselves, but a talented Olympiacos side, who have grabbed Ibrahim Afellay from Barcelona, should not be written off.
The Spanish national team’s collapse was likely felt most painfully at Barcelona, where Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and company have become so accustomed to silverware. Perhaps failing to reach the Champions League final since 2011 provided the first hints at what was to come in Brazil. Still, the Catalans have Lionel Messi – which counts for a lot – and can expect more from Neymar in his second season in La Liga. Add to that the signing of Suarez and the buzz generated by new manager Luis Enrique and they should dominate Group F. PSG were mocked for their big money move for David Luiz, but this is a team capable of challenging Barcelona if Zlatan Ibrahimovic is at his inspirational best. Laurent Blanc’s men will also be eager to avenge elimination at the hands of Barcelona two years ago. Ajax are always easy on the eye but look overmatched here, especially after selling Daley Blind to Manchester United, while APOEL Nicosia could end up being fodder for the big guns.
Chelsea came close to reaching last season’s final and return with an improved cast. Jose Mourinho’s men have longer odds than Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona with the bookmakers, but the Blues are every inch genuine contenders. Costa gives Mourinho the firepower he so craved last term while Cesc Fabregas is the type of midfield playmaker that can unlock well-organised European defences. There are understandably some question marks about the Blues defence, but they should be top dogs in Group G despite the presence of Schalke and Sporting Lisbon. Maribor have a battle on their hands to record even a single point.
Group D is also worthy of attention, with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund set for two pulsating clashes. The Gunners should score enough goals to cruise through the group stage, but it is hard to believe that their defence can withstand sterner tests ahead. Meanwhile, Dortmund continue to thrill the purists despite Robert Lewandowski becoming the latest star to depart; Marco Reus is their key man. Galatasaray are dark horses to challenge for a place in the last 16, even after losing Didier Drogba this summer, and will rely on their intimidating home crowds to level the playing field. Anderlecht round out the group but are not expected to pose a threat.
Elsewhere, the outcome in Group C is anyone’s guess, with four evenly matched teams squaring off. Qualification for the knockout rounds should go down to the final set of fixtures. Well-organised Bayer Leverkusen and Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit are the likeliest to progress, but Benfica and Monaco, despite both losing key players over the past 12 months, are equipped to challenge.
And Group H is equally tough to call. FC Porto have the most pedigree on this stage, however Athletic Bilbao are a bright, emerging side while Shakhtar Donetsk are capable of staking a claim for a qualifying spot if their home form is good. All three teams should have little trouble handling BATE Borisov.
This promises to be another enthralling season of Champions League action. Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride!