The biggest club competition in football is back in all its big, branded glory this week, with 32 teams competing in eight groups over two and a half months – just to get down to the last 16. With the qualifiers, pre-qualifiers and preliminaries out of the way, the Champions League 2014/15 can now begin in earnest and there are a host of highly intriguing contests between now and December. Look no further than the titanic struggles facing the teams in Group E…
Atlético Madrid (Esp)
Overview: Group A looks a little uneven on the face of it, with Atlético, Champions of Spain and last year’s runners-up, and Italian Champions Juventus facing the minnows of Olympiacos and Malmo. But last season Olympiacos emerged from a group that included PSG, Benfica and Anderlecht and beat Manchester United 2-0 in the Round of 16 before being eliminated at Old Trafford.
Who’ll progress: Atlético Madrid and Juventus. Although they’ve lost Diego Costa and Filipe Luis to Chelsea, Atlético have spent some Dhs270 million on strikers Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann. Juventus have struggled to impress in Europe of late, but they should still have enough knowhow to get through.
Pub fact: Juventus have lost five Champions League finals – joint most with Benfica and Bayern Munich.
Key game: Juventus vs Atlético Madrid, December 9
Real Madrid (Esp)
Overview: The holders and clear favourites Real Madrid and the 500/1 tournament outsiders Ludogorets from Bulgaria are the first and fourth seeds in this group, and it would be a shock if they didn’t end up top and bottom respectively. This leaves the real competition between Liverpool and Basel for the second knockout place.
Who’ll progress: Real Madrid and Liverpool. Although Liverpool haven’t played a Champions League game since 2009, they’ll score goals for fun and should see off the Swiss over the two meetings. That said, we shouldn’t forget that Basel beat Chelsea home and away last season, so the runners-up spot could be decided on the final matchday at Anfield.
Pub fact: Real Madrid have never scored against Liverpool in a competitive game, with the current aggregate score after three ties being 6-0 to the English side.
Key game: Liverpool v Basel, December 9
Bayer Leverkusen (Ger)
Overview: This is a really open group that could still be undecided by December, when most of the other qualifiers will have been settled. Monaco are likely to struggle, however, after the sale of James Rodriguez to Madrid and the loan of Radamel Falcao to Man United. It could be any two from the other three who progress.
Who’ll progress: Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica. The Germans are currently top of the Bundesliga for the first time in five years while Europa League specialists Benfica should take second. It’s worth noting, though, that Andre Villas Boas has led Zenit to 16 wins in 19 games since taking charge, but this tournament will be a lot tougher than the Russian league.
Pub fact: Monaco’s Russian owner Dmitry Rybolovlev has just endured a world-record divorce settlement of Dhs14 billion. Maybe that’s why they’re not buying any players…
Key game: Benfica v Zenit, September 16
Borussia Dortmund (Ger)
Overview: This is a nightmare group for pundits, with four above-par teams all capable of beating each other. Anderlecht and Galatasaray already top their country’s leagues while Arsenal and Dortmund have plenty of European pedigree on which to draw.
Who’ll progress: Playing it safe, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal. Although they’ve lost Robert Lewandowski, the Germans have recruited sensibly – Adrián Ramos, Nuri Şahin, Shinji Kagawa – while Arsenal’s remodelled frontline of Sanchez and Welbeck should have the pace to thrive in this competition.
Pub fact: Arsenal and Leeds United are the only English clubs to have reached a European Cup Final without ever winning the trophy.
Key game: Galatasaray v Arsenal, December 9
Bayern Munich (Ger)
Manchester City (Eng)
CSKA Moscow (Rus)
Overview: If there is a group of death in this year’s competition, it is this one. Seedings and spending power have reduced the number of banana skins these days but no one would have wanted this draw. Every game in every round looks very tasty.
Who’ll progress: Munich and… go on then, Manchester City. Having added Xabi Alonso and Robert Lewandowski to their ranks Bayern look in outstanding shape, while second place will depend on whether City can finally find their European feet. Roma, who came second in Serie A last year, will be a genuine test to both the front-runners.
Pub fact: This is the third time in four years that Bayern Munich and Manchester City have been paired in the same group. They’ve never drawn.
Key game: Roma v Bayern Munich, October 9
Paris St-Germain (Fra)
Overview: Money changes everything. Not long ago the sight of Ajax in a group with Barcelona would have set the pulses racing, but thanks to Qatari cash it’s PSG who will top the bill with the Catalan giants.
Who’ll progress: Barcelona and PSG. There is simply too much quality in both camps, even accounting for a minor squad revolution at Barca, to struggle against either Ajax, recently shorn of Daley Blind, or Cypriot club Apoel, who have just added Jon Arne Riise to their squad. One feels it will be the briefest of returns to the Champions League for the former Liverpool player.
Pub fact: PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has now registered a goal in each minute of the 90 in his professional career.
Key game: PSG v Barcelona, September 30
Sporting Lisbon (Por)
Overview: Not much to get the neutral reaching for the remote here. This collection of national also-rans – the only reigning champions are Slovenia’s Maribor – is enlivened slightly by Chelsea’s former Porto boss Jose Mourinho coming up against one-time rivals Lisbon, but it’s strictly for partisans only.
Who’ll progress: Chelsea and Lisbon. Chelsea and their embarrassment of riches – Fabregas, Costa, Schurrle, Willian, Hazard, Oscar, etc – should win this at a canter. If they don’t, it will be because Mourinho decided to field his Under-19 side in some quixotic punishment for only beating Stoke 1-0. With Carvalho and Nani coming in, Lisbon ought to see off Schalke.
Pub fact: The 2012 Champions League Final was Chelsea left-back Ryan Bertrand’s first ever game in Europe, in any competition for any club. He ended up a winner, too.
Key game: Schalke v Lisbon, October 21
Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukr)
Athletic Bilbao (Esp)
Bate Borisov (Blr)
Overview: A group that says much about modern European football. Porto’s pedigree is challenged by two increasingly powerful teams from Eastern Europe and a side who finished fourth in the Spanish league. It’s a bloated bureaucrat’s dream, with half-empty stadia less important than TV market share. Some decent football might break out, though.
Who’ll progress: Porto and Bilbao. Despite failing to progress from last year’s group stages, Porto know their way around European competition, while Bilbao, even without Ander Herrera, should take advantage of any disruption caused to Shakhtar’s season due to the unrest in Ukraine.
Pub fact: Athletic Bilbao still maintain an official policy of signing players native to, or having been developed in, the Basque region of Spain and south-western France.
Key game: Shakhtar v Athletic Bilbao, November 2