The race for the grandest prize in European football, the UEFA Champions’ League gets underway this week. Here we take a quick look at all the 32 teams in the 8 groups as we try to figure out what to expect in the coming months of the tournament.
Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos Piraeus, Malmö FF
All the four teams in Group A are the reigning champions of their respective domestic leagues. Last season’s Champions’ League runners-up and reigning Spanish La Liga champions Atletico Madrid are the favourites to clinch this group despite the presence of Italian Serie A winners Juventus, who have a new manager in Masimilliano Allegri after Antonio Conte left the club to take over the Italian national side. The ‘Bianconeri’ welcomes Greek champions Olympiakos to Turin in their opening fixture while Atletico travel to Scandinavia to take on Swedish champions Malmö FF, undoubtedly the minnows of this group.
Group B: Real Madrid, Liverpool, FC Basel, Ludo Razgrad
Group B features Real Madrid and Liverpool, two giants of the competition with an astounding tally of 15 European Cups between them, even though the two clubs have had quite contrasting fortunes in recent years. After breaking a 12 year jinx to capture ‘la decima’ last season, Real Madrid will begin the competition as the defending champions while five-time winners Liverpool are making a return to Europe’s elite club competition after five years in the wilderness. Despite being the favourites to progress from this group, both these clubs will be extremely wary of Swiss champions FC Basel, a side which has in recent times carved out an uncanny reputation as ‘giant-killers’. Meanwhile Bulgarian club Ludo Razgrad would hope they do not get overawed by their opponents when their maiden Champions’ League campaign gets underway.
Group C: Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St. Petersburg, Monaco
This is perhaps the most evenly matched group in the UEFA Champions’ League this campaign. Both Bayer Leverkusen and Zenit St. Petersburg had progressed through to the knockout stages of the competition last season while Benfica could only manage to make it to the Europa League where it finished as the unlucky runners-up for the second consecutive time. On the other hand 2004 UEFA Champions’ League runners-up AS Monaco are making their return to the competition after a lengthy absence which even saw the club get relegated to Ligue 2. It is very difficult to predict how the table will look after six games but this group should certainly provide some fascinating matches for the viewers around the world.
Group D: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
For the second consecutive time, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund find themselves pitted together in the same group. Last season the two clubs qualified narrowly ahead of Napoli on goal difference to proceed into the last 16 from the group of death. This season however it is a much less competitive group and both these clubs will fancy their chances of easily making it through to the knockout stages although Turkish SuperLig champions Galatasaray may have a few surprises in store for them. Belgian champions Anderlecht will do extremely well if they manage to come third in this group and secure a spot in the last 32 of the Europa League.
Group E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, AS Roma, CSKA Moscow
Bayern Munich and Manchester City have been drawn together in the same group stages for the third time in four years. Although City was completely outclassed in the early exchanges, the English champions have been steadily closing the gap on the European giants in recent seasons and will be keen to continue their progress. On the other hand Bayern Munich will look to regain lost glory after their title defence came to a humiliating end at the hands of Real Madrid in the semi-finals. The presence of AS Roma amongst them makes Group E all the more intriguing. The Italian club is making a return to the Champions’ League after taking the Serie A by storm last season where they finished as the runners-up to Juventus. CSKA Moscow may feel they could have had a slightly easier draw but the Russian side is still capable of pulling out a few surprises which might upset the balance of this group.
Group F: FC Barcelona, Ajax Amsterdam, Paris St. Germain, Apoel Nicosia
This is a fairly straight-forward group with Barcelona and Paris St. Germain as the clear favourites to qualify for the round of 16. Barca has made a strong start to their league campaign under new manager Luis Enrique and will look to carry on their good domestic form onto Europe. On the other hand PSG has had a miserable start to their Ligue 1 season and Laurent Blanc will hope that his star-studded team makes a different impression in the Champions’ League. Meanwhile, Ajax will expect to at least finish ahead of Cyprian champions Apoel Nicosia and qualify for the Europa League.
Group G: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting Lisbon, NK Maribor
There is no question that Chelsea is the firm favourite to finish at the top of Group G. Last season the Blues made it to the last four but they were severely hampered by the lack of a predatory striker. But the arrival of Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid should definitely solve that problem. The Brazilian-born Spanish international has made a phenomenal start to life in England scoring 7 goals from his first four games. Bundesliga side Schalke 04 will be the best bet to join Chelsea into the last 16 from this group. Sporting Lisbon will hope to spoil the Germans’ party if they can but finishing ahead of Slovenian club NK Maribor and qualifying for the Europa League will be their minimum requirement.
Group H: FC Porto, Athletic Bilbao, Shakhtar Donetsk, BATE Borisov
This is another of those evenly matched groups without any clear favourites. In recent years, Porto and Shaktar have shown fantastic pedigree in European tournaments with both clubs being regular participants of the Champions’ League. Meanwhile Athletic Bilbao will be returning to Europe’s premier club competition after a decade long absence. Despite that the Basque club arguably has the best team which gives them an excellent chance of progressing into the knockout rounds since Belorussian champions BATE Borisov are not likely to give them too many headaches.