UEFA held the draw for the group stage of the Champions League on Thursday, and the results leave soccer enthusiasts salivating at the matchups that the coming months will bring.
Traditional powers like Barcelona and Bayern Munich take their rightful places among the favorites to advance to the knockout rounds, while the upstarts and nouveau-riche of European soccer hope this season’s tournament will help them ascend to those lofty heights.
The first round of games will take place on Sept. 17 and 18. The sixth and final round will be on Dec. 10 and 11. Let’s take a look at the eight groups and make a few predictions as to what might transpire.
Group A: Manchester United, Shakthar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad
This will be David Moyes‘ maiden group-stage voyage, and the new Manchester United manager should easily navigate his way to the top of the group.
Ukrainian champion Shakthar has become a regular attendee at the Champions League party, but it will have trouble progressing from this group. Attacking stars Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan made big-money moves to other clubs this summer, as did midfield lynchpin Fernandinho. Talented young Brazilians have replaced the trio, but it may be too soon for them to propel Shakthar to the knockout rounds.
Leverkusen and Sociedad will challenge Shakthar for second place, and there is no prohibitive favorite in that race.
GROUP B: Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray and F.C. Copenhagen
This group should produce some enjoyable games, as Real Madrid, Juventus and Galatasaray boast some of world soccer’s brightest stars of the past, present and future. Predicting the top two is difficult, but we expect Real Madrid and Juventus to occupy those spots (not necessarily in that order) when the final whistle blows.
Galatasaray reached the quarterfinal of last season’s tournament. It will be much more difficult for the Turkish champion to repeat the feat this year. Yet, their presence makes this group a lot of fun.
Copenhagen looks overmatched, but the reigning Danish champion should enjoy trips to a few of the game’s iconic venues. Their fans will certainly flock to the Parken Stadium to see their team face the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo and Didier Drogba.
Group C: Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, Olympiacos, Anderlecht
French champion PSG reached the quarterfinal round last season, and it expects to go even further after luring Edinson Cavani to Paris.
While this group is PSG’s to lose, Benfica could emerge as a surprise winner. The Portuguese giant managed to keep hold of its top players from last season’s team, which excruciatingly finished second in the Primeira Liga, Portuguese Cup and UEFA Europa League. It will look to make things right this season.
Olympiacos and Anderlecht, champions of Greece and Belgium, respectively, could surprise Benfica, but it’s more likely that they will fight it out for third and a place in the Europa League knockout rounds.
Group D: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzeň
Reigning European champion Bayern Munich should breeze to the top of the group. In fact, new manager Pep Guardiola could probably win this group with his second unit — such is Bayern’s strength and depth.
Manchester City has its best chance of reaching the Round of 16, having failed to advance in the previous two campaigns. The Premier League runner-up hired Manuel Pellegrini to lead it to the promised land. The Chilean manager should have little trouble taking City out of the group stage.
CSKA could push City for second, but it’s more likely that the Russians will finish third and launch an assault on the Europa League title after the new year.
Viktoria Plzeň will be star-struck and probably finish bottom of the group.
Group E: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Basel, Steaua Bucuresti
The draw smiled on Chelsea, as the Blues managed to avoid Europe’s heavyweights in their quest to return to the Champions League knockout rounds. Schalke, Basel and Steaua will test them, but Jose Mourinho‘s young Chelsea team should ultimately prevail.
Schalke should also progress, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Basel sneaks past the Germans. The Swiss champion reached the Round of 16 in 2011-12 and the Europa League semifinal last season. Its team has become accustomed to big occasions.
This might be Steaua’s best chance of reaching the last 16, considering the weakness of this group. But we simply don’t know much about the Romanian champion.
Group F: Arsenal, Olympique Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli
Group F wears the “Group of Death” tag, but we should really call it the “Group of Fun.” All four teams are strong and have genuine hopes of progressing out of the group.
Borussia Dortmund finished second in the Champions League last season, and the German club is looking to return to the final this season. Dortmund is the favorite to advance, but Arsenal, Napoli and Marseille will offer stiff resistance.
The Gunners have reached the knockout rounds every season since 2003-04, and Arsene Wenger‘s men should continue that streak.
New manager Rafa Benitez will lead Napoli on its European adventure. The outcome will depend on how quickly he can stamp his imprint on the team. The former Chelsea boss doesn’t have much time, but he does have Gonzalo Higuain — one of Arsenal’s primary transfer targets — to lead the attack.
Olympique Marseille finished second in Ligue 1 last season, but it will be hard-pressed to compete at home and abroad with such a small squad.
Group G: FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg, Austria Wien
Atletico Madrid has grown into one of Europe’s fiercest units under Diego Simeone. The Spanish Cup winner should win this group and join Europe’s top clubs in the knockout rounds.
Porto reached the Champions League quarterfinal last season, so the Portuguese squad is no stranger to the competition. However, James Rodridguez and Joao Moutinho departed for Monaco, and new head coach Paulo Fonseca must make do with the group of remaining players.
Zenit could cause chaos in the group if it wins its home games. The flight to Russia is a long one for the Western European clubs, and Zenit must seize on the opportunities it creates. If it takes maximum points at home, it can progress with a win or two draws on the road.
Austria Wien is coming along for the ride, which should end with a fourth-place finish in December.
Group H: Barcelona, Ajax, Celtic FC, AC Milan
Group H is rich in tradition, glamour and history, but it lacks the quality most associate with these clubs.
Barcelona is miles ahead of its opponents and should top the group without much fuss.
The fight for second place will be interesting, as Milan, Ajax and Celtic will see this as a golden opportunity to reach the knockout rounds.
Milan will see itself as the favorite (to finish second), given its status as a traditional power. But the Rossineri haven’t reached the semifinals since 2006-07 (they lifted the European Cup that season) and the current squad reflects Italian soccer’s age of austerity, Mario Balotelli aside.
Ajax performed well in last season’s “Group of Death.” If the Dutch champion can hold onto its best players before the transfer window closes, it will be well positioned to reach the last 16 for the first time since 2005-06.
Celtic reached the Round of 16 last season, but it would be a surprise if the Scottish champion repeated the feat this term.
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Photo via Facebook/UEFA Champions League