The spectacle that is the UEFA Champions League is extraordinary. An entire continent is left spellbound by a competition filled with the finest soccer teams in Europe, all competing for one prize. The Champions of Europe. This year’s competition looks as riveting as ever, with no clear-cut favourite on who will win the biggest prize in club football. With soaring television ratings, the fixtures are sure to be filled with passion and drama. This should also provide a thrilling prelude to this summer’s World Cup. Here is a look at each group and how they will fare in the Champions League.
Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad, Shakhtar Donetsk
This is a group that Manchester United should be able to top, but it won’t be as easy as it looks. The Red Devils have yet to find their form under new manager David Moyes. One thing that the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson stressed was how they performed in the Champions League, so it will be interesting to see how United will do under Moyes, who has zero experience in Europe’s top competition. Bayer Leverkusen are off to a strong start in the Bundesliga, winning three out of their first four matches. Real Sociedad have become the darlings of Spanish football and are surprise entrants in the Group Stage. Shakhtar Donetsk are a favourite with the hipster crowd, with their eyecatching, attacking style. United and Leverkusen go through to the knockout stage. Sociedad will squeak past Shakhtar for the Europa spot.
Juventus, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Copenhagen
This should be dominated by the Italian champions and the Spanish giants. Juventus had a wonderful campaign last season, winning their second straight Scudetto, and reaching the quarterfinals in the Champions League. Some observers have “The Old Lady” winning their third European title this season. Real Madrid have a new manager in Carlo Ancelotti but are still stuck with the same pressures that every Real Madrid team faces. Galatasaray and Copenhagen will battle for the Europa spot. Expect Juventus to win the group, with Real Madrid also advancing to the knockout stage. Galatasaray will go to the Europa League.
Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, Olympiacos, Anderlecht
With the money spent by Paris Saint-Germain in the offseason, they should win this group handily. Les Parisiens added the likes of Edinson Cavani, Lucas Digne and Marquinhos to an already star-laden roster that has the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Motta and Thiago Silva. PSG are looking for their first ever European title and are hoping this is the year they can achieve this lofty goal. Benfica were very disappointed in not getting past the Group Stage last season and are hoping for a reversal of fortune. Olympiacos and Anderlecht are tricky sides that could provide some difficulties for the favourites. PSG and Benfica go through. Olympiacos sneaks into Europa.
Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plizen
Bayern Munich are looking to become the first club to repeat as European champions, since AC Milan achieved the repeat in 1990. Die Roten are returning a very strong side that could well do that. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller will now have former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola running the show. Guardiola knows a thing or two about European football, winning the Champions League with The Blaugrana in 2009 and 2011. With Mario Gotze now joining Bayern on a transfer from Borussia Dortmund, Bayern are as dangerous as ever. Manchester City were a massive disappointment in last season’s European campaign, finishing last in Group D behind Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam. New manager Manuel Pellegrini will be asked to take the Sky Blues past the Group Stage for the first time in club history. CSKA Moscow will be a worthy foe for the favourites. Viktoria Plizen have experience, but not the talent. Bayern and City should go through. CSKA Moscow will play in Europa.
Chelsea, Schalke 04, FC Basel, Steaua Bucharest
Chelsea are the clear favourites in Group E. The Special One, Jose Mourinho returns to manage the Blues as Chelsea look for the same magic that helped them capture the 2012 Champions League crown. Schalke haven’t been at their best so far in the Bundesliga, but did put forth their best effort in a 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen, just before the International break. Die Konigblausen are a side no one should go to sleep on, as they can defeat anyone in the world, when they are at their best. Basel are a dangerous side, as Manchester United found out in the 2011-12 campaign, when the Swiss champions knocked out United in the group stage. Steaua Bucharest do have a history, winning the European crown in 1986. However, this is 2013 and the Romanian side aren’t up to par with the rest of Europe. Chelsea and Schalke go through. Basel will go to Europa.
Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Arsenal, Marseille
The group of death. A fascinating mix of clubs that represent the best of Europe. Dortmund are the hipster’s choice and should provide more excitement than the latest Arcade Fire album. Der BVB came within an eyelash of winning the Champions League last season, losing a heartbreaking finale to Bayern Munich. Jurgen Klopp’s side will continue to play an attractive brand of football and with Polish striker Robert Lewandowski scoring goals at a menacing rate, Dortmund will continue to be a force in European football. Napoli enjoyed a fine 2012-13 campaign, finishing second in Serie A. Despite losing Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain on a transfer, the Partenopei will still be a side to contend with, thanks to the likes of Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain, Spanish forward Jose Callejon and Czech Republic midfielder Marek Hamsik. Arsenal are a club that is under considerable pressure to win a trophy of any sort. Manager Arsene Wenger is feeling the heat from the Gunners supporters and anything less than a quarterfinal run in Europe could seal his fate. Marseille are a difficult opponent who won’t be afraid to play a physical style of football. Have a gut feeling Borussia Dortmund and Napoli go through to the knockout stage while Arsenal will be playing in the Europa League.
FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Austria Vienna
This will probably be the group that gets the least amount of attention. Porto are always a prickly side to deal with in Europe, and should be favourites coming out of Group G. The Portuguese champions are an experienced team that have been through the rigours of European football before. Atletico Madrid will be a fun side to watch, especially with the likes of David Villa and Diego Costa providing magic up front. Zenit Saint Petersburg are a veteran side but lack the skill to go through while Austria Vienna are also-rans. Porto and Atletico go through to the knockout stage. Zenit Saint Petersburg will to the Europa League.
Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam, Celtic
The most attractive group in the competition. All four clubs have won the European title before and all four clubs are rich with history and winning tradition. That being said, Barcelona are the clear favourites. The Blaugrana still have Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta to roll out on their team sheet. Add to that roster will be the young Brazilian sensation Neymar, who was dazzling in last summer’s Confederations Cup. Barcelona are a formidable club who are more than capable of winning their fifth European title. AC Milan are going through a difficult period. An uneven start to their Serie A campaign has been compounded with rumours of dissension in the locker room. There is no denying the skill level of I Rossoneri, with players such as Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Robinho. But can the players get their act together in time for the European campaign remains a question mark at the San Siro. Ajax have a very rich history, in this competition and are a club worthy of respect. While they won’t be favoured to escape the Group Stage, there are players to watch on the Dutch Champions. Danish forward Viktor Fischer and Dutch midfielder Siem de Jong are wonderful players that carry on the tradition set out by legends Johann Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp. Celtic are always a welcome addition to the Champions League and will never back down from a match. The Hoops surprised most experts by advancing past the Group Stage in last year’s competition, which included a thrilling 2-1 victory over Barcelona at Celtic Park. Celtic will be underdogs yet again, but they should never be discounted. Barcelona and AC Milan should go through while Ajax will sneak into Europa League.
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