Champions League set to return September 16

After a summer of all sorts of drama, Europe’s best clubs are ready to battle it out

As club soccer slowly picks up speed all around Europe, Champions League is set to make its return to the center stage on Sept. 16 and 17 with the first round of group matches. This year’s group stages will showcase some new teams and some old teams who have managed to make long-awaited returns to the Champions League. There will also be the Bulgarian Ludogorets, who are completely new to the Champions League stage, looking to continue their fairy-tale run. So, as you tune into the upcoming matches, let’s take a look at the groups:

Group A: Malmö FF, Olympiacos, Atletico Madrid, Juventus

Group A will be an interesting group as Atletico Madrid and Juventus appear to be favorites, but Olympiacos will be a tough opponent. Atletico Madrid lost key players such as Diego Costa and got Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann to compensate for their loss in offensive power. Nevertheless, they had a hard time scoring goals in preseason friendlies. They still have the fighting spirit Diego Simeone has taught his players and with that resilience they are still an extremely strong candidate to reach the finals and make another run for the La Liga title.

Their recent win over Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu should be enough to frighten any opponent. Juventus have one of the best player pools in the tournament, but they ended up parting ways with their successful manager, Antonio Conte and signed Massimiliano Allegri. Allegri isn’t the best of managers and may face difficulties in the near future. If he starts to slip, Olympiacos can capitalize and advance to the round of 16 like they did last year.

Olympiacos’ successful Champions League run was no fluke. They have a smart transfer policy as they look to maximize what they get out of their players while not overpaying. So far it has been paying off, but they will be put to the test in this Champions’ League group. Though it may seem difficult, Olympiacos going through should not come off as a huge surprise to soccer fans.

The fourth team, Malmo, is a very young team who made it to the Champions League for the first time since the League rebranded in 1992-1993. They pulled a tremendous upset by beating Salzburg, who were surely the favorites in the playoff round. Whatever they do now will be extra and help the players gain experience for the years to come. They will try their shot at third place, but most likely finish fourth place.

Group B: Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets, Real Madrid

Last year’s winners, Real Madrid, have a relatively easy group. That being said, they have been having serious defensive difficulties in their league matches as they lost to Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid, making it a two game losing streak. James Rodriguez has failed to fit in with the team so far and Cristiano Ronaldo is just getting back from injury. Real Madrid may end up regret losing Angel Di Maria during the summer window. Nevertheless, Real Madrid are still extremely dangerous when they have the ball and they can easily see of Basel or Ludogorets.

The Liverpool matches will be the true test for the Madrid team. Liverpool made a return to Champions League following last year’s heartbreaking second place finish in the Premier League. They acquired some new talent, but lost Luis Suarez whose place won’t be easily filled. It has been apparent that the acclimation process for the new signings won’t be easy as Liverpool suffered a perhaps unfair 3-1 defeat at the hands of Manchester City and even more shockingly lost to Aston Villa 1-0 at home.

They will need to be wary of easy mistakes or else Basel can easily capitalize and overtake them. Basel did, after all, have a fairly good run in last year’s Europa League and have been getting some good results in Europe for the last couple of years. They will most likely finish third, but will pounce at any opportunity to finish second. Newcomers to the Champions League stage, Ludogorets will fail to be a true threat to any team. Then again, their resilience to get here as shown in their fairy tale-like matches against Steau Bucresti are enough to show that they will provide an extra excitement for soccer fans. Who knows, the fairytale may continue.

Group C: Zenit, Monaco, Leverkusen, Benfica

Group C shall see three in-form teams compete for the first two spots while Monaco continues to struggle with the loss of both James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. Bayer Leverkusen have been on fire in the Bundesliga and their attacking force is one to fear. Benfica are currently tied for first in the Portuguese League and Zenit is yet to lose a game in the Russian League while averaging three goals per game. It will be a close call between these three teams, but the form Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen are currently in tips them in favor to finish in the top places while Benfica may have to settle with third place.

Group D: Arsenal, Galatasaray, Anderlecht, Borussia Dortmund

Group D will prove to be a tough group and it may come down to the last matches before anything is certain. Galatasaray managed to finish second in last year’s group ahead of Juventus (a group that also contained Real Madrid). In comparison, this group is perhaps a more suitable group for Galatasaray, so they will definitely have a fighting chance. However, over the summer they parted ways with Roberto Mancini and brought in Cesare Prandelli and the team is still trying to settle into his playing style.

This may be a big handicap for them. As for Arsenal, they barely made it to group stages as Turkish side Besiktas almost eliminated them. An Arsenal side who had scored 29 goals in the previous 6 playoff match-ups only slotted one in the two games against Besiktas and Besiktas were perhaps the better side in both matches. It is apparent that Arsenal is lacking real power and with an injured Olivier Giroud. Their striker options include Yaya Sanogo and Danny Welbeck, who are not the most lethal of strikers.

Then again, players like Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey are important players who can be the difference in Arsenal’s matches. As for Borussia Dortmund, they didn’t get off to the best of starts, but it looks like they are slowly returning to their winning form. They added Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile to replace Robert Lewandowski in the striker position and also got back fan favorite Shinji Kagawa.

If they can muster up the goals, they are tipped for first place in the group. Second place will probably be a close race between Arsenal and Galatasaray with Arsenal in a slightly more advantageous position. Anderlecht is the obvious weak link and will most probably fail in making any impact.

Group E: Manchester City, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Bayern Munich

Group E is one of the tougher groups. Manchester City and Bayern Munich will be pitted against each other once again in the group stages, and the two seem to be the favorites. However, Roma, who has made a return to Champions League football, can be big threat to both teams.

Roma’s newly built team has started to bear fruit, and they will try their best overcome Manchester City and Bayern Munich. Even if they fail to do so, the matches amongst the three sides will be a joy to watch. Although CSKA Moscow will try to push their shot for at least third place, they will probably be overpowered by their opponents.

Group F: Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, APOEL, Ajax

This group is fairly straight forward. What will be exciting for this group is the battle between Luis Enrique’s new look Barcelona and French giants Paris Saint-Germain. It is hard to tell which of the two teams will have the edge in the match-up as it is early on in the season, but with an attacking force of Luis Suarez (once he makes his return), Neymar and Messi does seem to tip the balance towards Barcelona.

However, if Paris Saint-Germain manages to control the midfield with players like Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi, then they may be the favored side. As for Ajax, ever since money has become a bigger factor in soccer they have slowly slipped from the Champions League stage as they now are only available to make it to the group stages and barely past that. It seems this time, they will be tipped to finish third ahead of APOEL earning them a spot at the Europa League.

Group G: Sporting Lisbon, Chelsea, Schalke, Maribor

If no surprises occur, Chelsea will easily see past their opponents to finish the group first. The way they are playing and scoring right now is incredible. Diego Costa has reached 7 goals in just four games already and Chelsea are looking extremely threatening in the final third.

Perhaps their defensive play needs some work on as they’ve let up 3 goals in a 6-3 win against Everton and two goals to Swansea in a 4-2 win, but they will surely dominate this group off of sheer offensive power. It seems as if Schalke and Sporting Lisbon will battle it out for second place as Maribor will have to suffice with fourth.

Schalke is off to a shaky start in the Bundesliga with only 1 point in three matches as of September 13. It will be interesting to see how they will comeback from such an early deficit and will it reflect on to Champions League play. Sporting Lisbon have also been unable to get the start they want with just 6 points in 4 matches, so it seems as if there will be very little to separate the two sides and it may depend on whoever is more clinical on the day of the match.

Group H: Shaktar Donetsk, Porto, BATE, Athletic Bilbao

The skill levels of teams in this group are evenly matched. BATE is the weakest link, but the other three teams will be evenly matched as they will take each other head on for the first two spots in the group. Athletic Bilbao lacks the experience that Shaktar and Porto have, but their newly renovated stadium is an incredible positive force for them and possibly a nightmare for any visiting team.

They eliminated a strong Napoli side to get to the group stages and they will surely make the most of it. I favor Bilbao ahead of both Shaktar and Porto. Shaktar Donetsk is always a difficult team, but with the uncertainty of the situation in Ukraine, one can never be certain in what mindset the players will be playing in. Thus, Porto may be a step ahead of the Donetsk-based team.