All together now: “THE CHAAAAAAMPIONS!”
The biggest sporting league of the year is upon us: The UEFA Champions League.
Today, the opening round of the UEFA Champions League Group Stage begins. This is as good as it gets in elite soccer competition – thirty-two of the best sides in Europe are slotted into eight groups of four teams apiece, with the top two advancing to the Round of Sixteen; the 3rd place team will drop down to the Round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League. Last year saw the first group-stage elimination of the reigning champions (all non-Chelsea fans may cackle with glee now), amazing comebacks by Barcelona (v. Milan), Borussia Dortmund (v. Malaga), and the epicness that was an all-German final at the hallowed ground of Wembley Stadium, with 45,000 Dortmund and Bayern fans causing the magnificent stadium to shake to the rafters.
This year promises to be another excellent year, with the arrival of many exciting players on the scene. The final will be contested at SL Benfica’s stunning Estadio Da Luz in May 2014, and we’ll be here the whole way to give you predictions, analysis, and snark on the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League.
The Stadium of the Light: The Venue for the 2014 Champions League Final in Lisbon, Portugal.
But first, some pre-game predictions for the Group Stage.
Group A: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad
As per UEFA tradition, Manchester United avoided the Group of Death, being dealt the Ukrainian Champions, plus the fourth place teams from Spain and Germany. Despite lacking a creative Central Midfielder (having failed to land Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas, Claudio Marchisio, or Ander Herrera during the transfer window), United look the favourites to progress from this group. Though David Moyes is a rookie manager when it comes to the Champions League, he’s got a strong squad with significant experience in multiple Champions League Finals – even if that typically meant getting absolutely hammered by Barcelona at Rome and Wembley, with Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick, and Ryan Giggs dominating the attacking third.
Second place in the group is an interesting proposition. Shakhtar have traditionally given teams trouble, ranging from Chelsea in the 2012-13 group – where they knocked them out on head-to-head record – to reaching the quarterfinals in 2010-11. They’re particularly strong at home – having dropped two games in the entire history of the Donbass Arena, and will be a team to watch out for. However, the loss of key midfielders in the summer (Fernandinho to Manchester City, Willian to Chelsea) means they could face a tougher fight than in past years. Bayer Leverkusen have been strong since 2011 – a 7-1 hammering by Barcelona in 2012 that saw Messi score five goals notwithstanding – and were the only team to beat Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga last year. Real Sociedad have been excellent for the last twelve months despite losing coach Montanier and defensive midfielder Asier Illaramendi (now Real Madrid). They’ve stolen points from Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, and Malaga in the past season. They could be trouble.
Game to Watch: Real Sociedad v. Manchester United
Players to Watch: Robin Van Persie (Man U), Antoine Griezmann (Real Sociedad)
Prediction: 1st: Manchester United, 2: Real Sociedad, 3rd: Bayer Leverkusen, 4th: Shakhtar Donetsk
Group B: Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagan
Poor, poor Copenhagen. Danish teams have been on the receiving end of some just brutal draws in the past year, with Norchelaand drawing Juventus, Shakhtar, and Chelsea last year (one point and nearly a billion goals conceded in six games). They will go out early and without much of a sound or challenge. Though Galatasaray are strong at home, they will surely struggle in Torino and Madrid, and will likely take third in the group.
It’s the battle for top spot that makes this group interesting. On paper, Real Madrid are the far stronger squad, boasting Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Alonso, Isco, and a strong defense that is good at everything but set-plays; the addition of Gareth Bale also makes their offense mind-bogglingly strong. However, Juventus have the advantage of a superb defense – having kept 44 clean sheets in the last two seasons with the formidable back line of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli, one of the strongest midfields in Europe, an offensive line bolstered by the additions of Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez, and a superbly organized and drilled system of play that has been instilled over two seasons and worked to perfection. Not to mention that Andrea Pirlo is probably the best set-piece taker of the last decade. The two clashes at the magnificent pair of Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and Juventus Stadium will be SUPERB games to watch.
Game to Watch: Juventus v. Real Madrid
Players to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gareth Bale (Madrid), Arturo Vidal (Juventus), Carlos Tevez (Juventus), Drogba (Galatasaray)
Prediction: 1st: Juventus, 2nd: Real Madrid, 3rd: Galatasaray, 4th: Copenhagen
Group C: Benfica, Paris St. Germain, Olympiakos, Anderlecht
If possible, avoid watching this group, because it’s going to be BOOOOOORING. Benfica were sitting pretty for a Lesser Treble on May 1, and by May 20th had dropped the League, Domestic Cup, and Europa League in the final games of the season. Jorge Jesus has contended with spats with players and a quiet transfer window. P$G have continued to strengthen – Marquinhos from AS Roma, Edinson Cavani from Napoli, but they lost coach Carlo Ancelotti to Real Madrid, and it took about two seconds for Laurent Blanc (former manager of the French National Team) and The Zlatan to start hating each other. Anderlecht have made a habit of always making the Champions League Group Stage, but then getting the shit kicked out of them by better teams. Betting on the outcome of this group is one of the safest things you could do. There are better games to watch, so don’t watch these ones.
Game to Watch: They’ll all suck. You really want me to-, fine. Benfica v. PSG, if only because Stadio da Luz is quite beautiful and gives us a glimpse of the finals venue.
Players to Watch: Edinson Cavani, The Zlatan, Oscar Cardozo, Javier Saviola
Prediction: 1st: PSG, 2nd: Benfica, 3rd: Olympiakos, 4th: Anderlecht
Group D: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Manchester City, Viktoria Plzen
Manchester City just cannot catch a break in the Champions League. In their debut season, they drew Bayern Munich, who were then at the beginning of Jupp Heynckes’ power-reign, and ended up finishing third in the group and being demoted to the Europa League. Last year, they drew one of the nastiest groups of death since 1999, with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and AFC Ajax all finishing ahead of them after a truly appalling season in Europe. Bayern will probably still top the group, even though adapting to Pep Guardiola’s style has had its wobbles in the past few weeks. They’ve added just too much strength on top of the pants-shittingly scary offense they already had – they didn’t really need Mario Goetze or Thiago Alcantara, but they’ve got them now. However, Manchester City have also strengthened well. Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas from Sevilla were both superb signings, while they also picked up Jovetic from Fiorentina and Fernadinho from Shakhtar Donetsk. CSKA Moscow and Plzen will both be difficult away trips – both in terms of distance and climate – but this is basically a wrapped group. I will be shocked, shocked, if Manchester City don’t manage to get to the Round of Sixteen this time around.
Game to Watch: Manchester City v. Bayern Munich
Players to Watch: Franck Ribery (Bayern), Jesus Navas (Manchester City), Thomas Muller (Bayern)
Prediction: 1st: Bayern, 2nd: City, 3rd: Plzen, 4th: Moscow
Group E: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Basel, Steaua Bucaresti
Jesus, have Chelsea been handed an easy group. Schalke 04 have suffered a dip in form since their Semifinal Appearance in 2010-11 and a 3rd-place finish in the 2011-12 Bundesliga, and while they held onto Van Huntelaar, they’ve also picked up Kevin Prince Boateng from AC Milan. They don’t have the squad balance or depth to compete with Chelsea, but should comfortably finish 2nd. Basel gave Manchester United trouble in 2011-12 – knocking them out of the Group Stage along with Benfica, so they’ll be a team to watch. Steaua Bucaresti are notable only for the balls-to-the-wall insanity that is their (currently in-prison) owner Gigi Becali – more on him in a few weeks’ time. There are better groups to watch on the back-half match-day. Do so.
Game to Watch: Schalke 04 v. Chelsea. If Chelsea drop big points, it’ll be here.
Players to Watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Prince Boateng (Schalke), Gigi Becali (Steaua, not technically a player but he’ll probably do something crazy from his prison cell)
Prediction: 1st: Chelsea, 2nd: Schalke 04, 3rd: Basel, 4th: Bucharest.
Group F: Arsenal, Marseilles, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli
The Champions League doesn’t have a proper Group of Death this year like in 2011-12, but this is as close as it gets. Arsenal have been dealt an absolutely BRUTAL draw, picking up last year’s finalists – who absolutely dominated Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Real Madrid en route to narrowly losing to Bayern Munich at Wembly, plus Napoli – by far the strongest team in Pot 4 and Serie Runners-Up in 2012-13. Marseilles lack the quality to compete with this level of teams, and will get absolutely gutted by all three both home and away. In 2011-12, Dortmund were drawn with Arsenal, with the London side hammering them and advancing as group winners, but the Rheinland side have improved immensely since then – Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhtaryen, Aubemayang, and Subotic have all come in since then. Napoli lost Cavani to PSG, but picked up Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol, and Pepe Reina, not to mention having in Rafa Benitez one of the truly gifted managers in European competitions, having picked up two Europa League titles, one Champions League title, and another UCL final in his long career at Valencia, Liverpool, Inter, and Chelsea. Until the last day of the Transfer Season, this looked like the year that Arsenal’s streak of making the Round of 16 would end. However, their deadline day was superb for nabbing Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid for fifty million euros. The German playmaker is one of the best attacking midfielders on earth, and it blows the battle for top and second in the group wide open.
When Arsenal watched Higuain slip through their clutches to Napoli, they all thought “what’s the worst that could happen?” Now they know: being drawn against him in the toughest, most unpredictable group in the tournament. If you’re a neutral looking for superbly even, attack-oriented, and and entertaining-as-hell football contested by some of the greatest historical and current managers in the game, then this is undoubtedly the group to watch.
Game to Watch: Dortmund v. Arsenal
Player(s) to watch: Marik Hamsek (Napoli), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Marco Reus (Dortmund)
Prediction: 1st: Borussia Dortmund, 2nd: Napoli, 3rd: Arsenal, 4th: Marseilles
Group G: Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg, Austria Wien
Another interesting group that will be full of some absolutely superb matches. Atletico Madrid are by far the third strongest side in Spain. They beat Real Madrid in last year’s Copa del Rey final, completely destroyed Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, and recorded the highest individual finish outside the Big Two since Villarreal claimed 2nd in 2007-8. Diego Simeone is a tactically astute coach, and the additions of David Villa, Leo Baptistao, Toby Alderweireld, plus the growth of Diego Costa, more than make up for the departure of Radamel Falcao. Atletico are arguably one of the few sides in the ‘other La Liga’ that have improved over the summer. They’ll be difficult customers. Though Porto are fresh off their Lega win, they are working under a new coach and suffering from the departure of James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho to AS Monaco. Zenit continue to go through their amazing saga of infighting and implosion under Luciano Spaletti, with Hulk’s high wages attracting the ire of ultranationalist Russian players and fans, but they could pull the odd upset. Austria Wien will enjoy their rare foray into the Champions League, but are unlikely to make a lot of headway.
Game to Watch: Atletico Madrid v. Porto
Players to Watch: David Villa (Atletico Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico), Hulk (Zenit St. Petersburg),
Prediction: 1st: Atletico Madrid, 2nd: Porto, 3rd: Zenit, 4th: Austria Wien
Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, Celtic.
In a technical sense, this is the Group of Death: three domestic league champions (Barcelona, Ajax, and Celtic) plus perennial contenders AC Milan. Though Barca’s defense is as shambolic as it was this time last season, their offense has improved with the addition of Neymar, and their high-pressing tactics have returned under new coach Gerardo Martino, who has also made it a priority to reorganize the defense. The games will be difficult, but they’ll likely advance.
AC Milan struggled against Hellas Verona and PSV in the last two weeks, but are still an excellent side boasting a decent midfield and a strong forward pair of El Shaaraway and Super Mario Balotelli. Their defense is a bit of an issue, with Mexes aging and no one else quite knowing what they’re doing. For Ajax, everything depended on keeping Christian Eriksen. Now that they’ve lost him to Tottenham Hotspur, along with Belgian RCB/RB Toby Alderweireld to Atletico Madrid, they’re screwed.
If they aren’t screwed, then Celtic are. Neil Lennon’s reaction said it all: it’s a superbly glamorous tie for the Scottish champions – playing three teams that have a combined fifteen Champions League titles between them, but it’s going to be hard as shit for them to progress through AC Milan, FC Barcelona, and Ajax. They’ll turn Parkhead into a fortress, but I can’t see them picking up the away points to progress to at least Europa knockout rounds. Unfortunately for Celtic, it’s rather more dependent on the transfer fortunes of their rivals than anything they can do themselves. But as Barcelona learned at a Rod Stewart tear-infested night at Parkhead last year, underestimate them at your own peril.
Game to Watch: Celtic v. Barcelona
Players to Watch: Lionel Messi (Barca), Neymar (Barca), Mario Balotelli (AC Milan)
Predictions: 1st: FC Barcelona, 2nd: AC Milan, 3rd: Celtic, 4th: Ajax. Mario Balotelli will score all his penalties. No, he won’t celebrate. Il Postino doesn’t do that.