“These are the Chaaaaaaampions….”
Yep, it’s that time again. The Champions League beings properly on September 15th after qualification ended Wednesday, with 32 teams ready to fight it out for spots in the knockout stages. We’re here to look at the top 12 matchups in the group stage, which runs from September to December–eight four-team groups, home and away with each within your group. As always, there are your GROUPS OF DEATH and the ones less headline prone. Let’s start with a Group A meeting between Zlatan and his hometown team…
PSG at Malmo
This is clearly on the strength of PSG’s Swedish world class striker returning to his hometown and the club that he started at. Ibrahimovic left Malmo in 2001 and hasn’t looked back (professionally), playing at ix different league winning clubs between his exit from Malmo to the present. Malmo knocked out Celtic in qualifying, but they shouldn’t hold much fear to the other clubs in Group A in terms of advancement. But the narratives are there…
PSG vs. Real Madrid
Here’s the two heavyweights from Group A; Malmo’s a nice story, and trips to the Ukraine for meetings against Shakthar Donetsk might be a bit tricky, but at the very least the matchups between these two should be very interesting. PSG’s Spanish Boogeyman lately in the Champions League has been Barcelona; will they have any better luck against Real? Rafa Benitez has a lot to prove in his first season in Madrid, and it is basically the same team Carlo Ancelotti had last season.
Manchester United at PSV
Mere months after PSV sold its best player in Memphis Depay to United, the young Dutch attacker returns to Eindhoven in the worst way possible. PSV has a history of sening players onto United in the past 20 years (Depay, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy) and this screams of the same. More important to PSV in the long run?
PSV vs. CSKA Moscow vs. VfL Wolfsburg
Its a bit of cheating, I know–but if United is one team set to move from this group into the knockout stages–who’s the second? PSV won the Eredivisie last season, but will their team be strong enough on a European stage? Their El Tri duo of Hector Moreno and Andres Guardado will go a long way towards PSV“s succcess.
CSKA knocked out Sporting Lisbon, themselves a participant in the Champions League last season, by overcoming a 2-1 loss from the first leg and down 1-0 in the second. CSKA scored three in the second half on Wednesday to advance. Theyve got the ability to attack, and it’s no treat to play on turf in Moscow, especially at the weather grows colder. Winter is coming and all.
Lastly, you have Wolfsburg who enter the Champions League in the middle of selling their best player, Kevin de Bruyne. The reigning Bundesliga Player of the Year is set to move to Manchester City, and how Wolfsburg reload after that sale before the transfer window closes next week will go far in determining their chances. Striker Bas Dost is one of the most proficient in Europe, and it’s a very balanced team overall.
So who does the best in this three way battle should advance–and who can take points off United?
Atletico Madrid vs. Group C
For my two cents, Atletico has the easiest route to the group stage of any club overall. despite the relative shuffle of their playing roster over the summer? Lose Arda Turan, Mario Mandzukic, Miranda, et al? Sign Filipe Luis back from Chelsea to steel an already strong backline. Sign Yannick Ferreira Carrasco from Monaco, an extremely talented attacking winger. Sign Jackson Martinez as the focal point up top, with partner Antoine Griezmann in attack. Koke is still the metronome in midfield.
Manchester City vs. Juventus
Sevilla vs. Manchester City
Sevilla vs. Juventus
Yup, Group D is for death. The fourth in the quarter, Borussia Monchengladbach, got the “honor”/misfortune to be the team overlooked in the end because of talent elsewhere. And in the end, it’ll be three teams entering the Thunderdome, two teams exiting. Go ask your Dad/older brother what I’m referencing.
City has started the Premiership season really strong, with real balance in all parts of the game and De Bruyne is on his way apparently. City has hit the European wall in the past, and despite their overall talent this draw did them little good.
Juventus turned over their team after making the Final last season paired with a Scudetto league title; the talent level is still high, but the losses of Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal are bound to hurt. Mandzukic is in, as is Sami Khedira from Real Madrid, Juan Cuadrado from Chelsea, Alex Sandro from Porto and talented youngster Paulo Dybala. Who steps up and scores the goals in this lineup? The defense is still strong, Gianluigi Buffon remains one of Europe’s best keepers and Paul Pogba is likely to remain in black and white for one more season.
And then you have Sevilla, winners of the Europa League last season and part of the Game of the Season (albeit a month in) in a 5-4 loss to Barcelona in the Super Cup. It’s a balanced team that should be a hard beat for City and Juve, and Fernando Llorente comes in from Juve and should look for some revenge after a season mostly in the wilderness at the club in 2014-15. He and Ciro Immobile will look to replace the goals that Carlos Bacca took with him in his move to AC Milan.
Barcelona vs. themselves
Barca doesn’t have the overall weak group that Atletico has–Roma, Bayer Leverkusen and Bate Borisov are decent clubs–but the reigning champs are in control of their own fates in the group stage. But the team is under a transfer ban that does not allow them to field signings like the aforementioned Turan and Aleix Vidal until January. A relatively thin roster already has injuries suffered by Neymar and Dani Alves; there are little to no experienced second-string guys for Luis Enrique to call upon. Yes, Leo Messi and Luis Suarez solve a lot of problems in the end, but Enrique needs his first 11 and likely subs to stay healthy both domestically and in the Champions League.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich
Let’s face it; Arsenal should advance from Group F and get knocked out in the Round of 16. It’s their Champions League “thing”.
Jokes aside, Arsene Wenger and crew should advance despite having Bayern in their group–but those two matchups should be excellent matches for the neutral party to watch. Both can attack, both like the ball, and when in a groove can run it up. Trips to Greece (Olympiakos) and the Ukraine (Dynamo Kiev) will be tricky, no doubt, for both sides in this one. A worst case scenario for either is being on the losing end of a clean sweep and losses or draws on the road. against the other two.
Chelsea vs. Porto
Jose Mourinho won a Champions League title with Porto in 2004 before his first stint in London, and in his second time around with Chelsea he’ll have a nice narrative comeback in the group stage. The reigning Premier League title holders should make it through Group G relatively unscathed, but Porto, Dynamo Kiev and Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv all should offer stiff resistance, especially away from Stamford Bridge.
Lyon vs. Valencia
While a lot of Russian oil money jokes got made right after seeing Group H, the two most interesting teams are Lyon and Valencia in the end. Zenit has new Russian football rules that might see them jettison talented foreigners like Ezequiel Garay, Nicolas Lombaerts, Axel Witsel or even Brazil’s Hulk.
Lyon and Valencia may play in the shadows 0f Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG but have a lot of talent in their squads, especially young attackers. Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir are cogs for Lyon while a Chinese billionaire bought Valencia, who summarily dispatched Monaco in qualifying this week. Valencia has a very balanced and relatively deep squad to call upon. The matchups between these two should be pretty interesting and under the radar.