Group D is the undisputed “Group of Death.” It is comprised of the champions of England, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands — Real Madrid, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax.
While the draw also served up some interesting results, it’s clear that (aside from Group D) the perrenial elites have straightforward paths to the knockout rounds. Premier League giants Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, no strangers to the round of 16, are the favorites to win Groups B, E and H respectively.
AC Milan has shed its stable of aging stars, but it should still progress out of Group C.
Bayern Munich has strengthened over the summer, and it should ease out of Group F.
FC Barcelona landed in Group G with Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Celtic FC. If the three latter teams combined into one, it still would not give Barca a serious game. Expect newly minted Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova to cruise through the group in his first Champions League test.
Anyone seeking fuel for the brush fires of conspiracy theories only need to look at Group A. Free-spending Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) landed in a group with formidable FC Porto, Croatians Dinamo Zagreb and Ukranians Dynamo Kiev. The Parisians stockpiled in preparation for landing on the beaches of Group D, but they were drawn into a group that shouldn’t offer up too much resistance (French pronounciation).
Let’s get to the predictions:
Expect PSG and Porto (assuming it doesn’t sell Joao Moutinho and Hulk before Friday’s transfer deadline) to advance out of Group A. Dynamo Kiev should finish third and fall into the UEFA Europa League.
Arsenal should win Group B with ease. It may even be able to do so without scoring goals. Schalke FC should finish second and Olympiacos taking third. The Arsenal-Montpellier matchups should be interesting, as the Gunners signed top scorer Olivier Giroud from the defending French champion.
Group C looks like the most even-strength group. On paper, AC Milan has its weakest team in a generation, but it should be able to top a group with Malaga, Anderlecht and Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg. Anderlecht and American hero Sacha Kljestan are newcomers to this level of competition, while Malaga is crawling through crisis toward potential oblivion. Expect Milan to win and Zenit to finish second. Malaga should fall into the Europa League where it can do some damage, but Anderlecht will sneak into third if Malaga’s owner can’t be located before the chilly weather hits Europe.
What can we say about Group D that hasn’t already been said about the Iditerod. Real Madrid is my favorite to win the competition, but it won’t be easy for Jose Mourinho‘s team. It faces City and Dortmund, who also expect to be playing in the knockout rounds. If Ajax had been able to keep Vurnon Anita and captain Jen Vertonghen for another season, the Dutch champion would be overmatched in this group. But Anita was sold to Newcastle and Vertonghen to Tottenham, turning Ajax from cleanser to cannon fodder. Real Madrid wins the group, City finishes second and Dortmund third.
Group E pits Chelsea, Shaktar Donetsk, Juventus and Nordsjælland in some interesting encounters. Circle the dates of the Chelsea-Juventus games on your calendar. They should be some of the best games of the group stage. Shaktar has impressed in recent years, appearing in the group stage in four of the last five seasons and making a run to the quarterfinals in 2011. If it can keep its Brazilians Willian, Fernandino and Douglas Costa from Tottenham’s clutches, it will push Juventus and Chelsea at the top of the group. Nordsjælland has former Revolution defender (and Rhode Island native) Michael Parkhurst on the team, making its games worth checking out. Reconstructed Chelsea is the defending champion, so it should win the group. Juventus won’t have manager Antonio Conte on the sidelines, but it will still push the Blues to the limit. Shaktar should finish third.
Bayern Munich strengthened all areas of its team as it looks to reconquer Germany and Europe. It came agonizingly close to lifting the trophy last season, and it should be at least a semifinalist this time around. Expect Bayern to stroll to the top of the group. Valencia should finish second because, well, it always does. Lille has lost too many good players in recent years — Eden Hazard, Gervinho, Joe Cole and others — to expect it to do much of anything at this level. Salamon Kalou should power Lille into the Europa League, but that’s about it.
Barcelona will own Group G for the reasons we noted above. Celtic is happy to be back in the big time, but it can only hope for a third-place finish. Spartak Moscow should fight Benfica for second, but expect last season’s quarterfinalists Benfica to outlast the Russian challenge.
Group H is Manchester United’s to lose. The Red Devils failed to reach the knockout rounds last season. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson bought Japanese star Shinji Kagawa and England’s Player of the Year Robin van Persie to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Braga, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj will fight it out for second in a group where the venues are more interesting than the matchups themselves.
So there you have it. The Champions League group stage kicks off on Sept. 18 and ends on Dec. 5 when you can tell me to stop making predictions.