A penalty kick of a group for Chelsea, challenges for both Manchester sides and a group of potential death for Arsenal... welcome to our group-by-group guide to this season’s Champions League proper.
Group A : United in concern
Let’s make no bones about this: Manchester United may be the top seeds here, but they have been handed a tricky enough opening section. Perfect timing for an already beleaguered David Moyes, who makes his group-stage bow on the back of an unimpressive start to the Premier League season and a transfer window he would probably rather forget. New man Marouane Fellaini brings about as much Champions League experience as his gaffer, and will surely have to curb his all-elbows approach in the face of European referees, but the whole squad will need to deliver if United are to navigate a group of possible pitfalls.
Deepest of those is the presence of Shakhtar Donetsk, whose last-16 departure to Borussia Dortmund last term belied the quality of the football they had played to get there. Creator-in-chief Henrikh Mkhitaryan has since been snapped up by their conquerors, while both Willian (Chelsea) and Fernandinho (Man City) have found their way to England – but the Ukrainian champions have restocked the shelves (see right) and look ready to give United the same headaches they caused Chelsea 12 months ago. A competitive Group A is completed by two less-heralded teams from the big-dog leagues of Europe. Liverpool fans will be lending their support to a Bayer Leverkusen side managed by Anfield legend Sami Hyypia and relying on the goals of last term’s surprise Bundesliga top scorer, Stefan Kiessling – but the Germans return to the Champions League without the threat of Andre Schurrle (now at Chelsea) and look short on star quality. That leaves Real Sociedad, back on Europe’s biggest stage for the first time in more than a decade. The Basques dumped Lyon out in the qualifying round, and new striker Haris Seferovic has begun his La Liga career in some style. Plenty for Moyes to ponder, then, but a home win over Leverkusen on Tuesday should give United the early momentum needed to secure a safe passage through. We’re stressing the ‘should’, though.
Group B : Baptism of fire
Your average Turkish football fan is no great respecter of reputation, so Real Madrid’s newest galactico (do they even use that phrase any more?) can expect a vocal welcome if and when he steps on to the Turk Telekom Arena pitch next Tuesday. Gareth Bale’s new employers are predictably firm favourites to top Group B, but they had no easy ride when faced with Galatasaray in the quarter finals of last year’s Champions League, and are no certainties to kick off their latest campaign with a win. Both Karim Benzema and new boy Isco have started the La Liga season in goalscoring form, however.
With a sulking Cristiano Ronaldo and a fit and firing Bale operating in behind whoever leads the line, Madrid should still proceed. That leaves the Turkish champions, who will again rely on the skills of playmaker Selcuk Inan and goals of Burak Yilmaz, to likely fight it out with Serie A holders Juventus for second spot. Antonio Conte has ensured his Old Lady returns a stronger attacking force than 12 months ago, with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente adding to the resident goal threat of Mirko Vucinic. With that in mind, Juve should get the better of Galatasaray and group outsiders FC Copenhagen, for whom the 87-yearold Olof Mellberg is unbelievably still playing.
Group C : French fancies
Lyon’s qualifying-round exit means France have only two representatives in this season's group stage, but in nouveau riche Paris Saint-Germain they boast genuine challengers. Carlo Ancelotti has swanned off to Madrid after guiding PSG to the last eight of last season’s Champions League, but the respected Laurent Blanc has come in to replace him and the spending has continued: a combined €50m on teenage defenders Lucas Digne and Marquinhos, and €63.3m on Uruguayan hitman Edinson Cavani (above), who joins Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi in a fearsome front line. Despite a slowish start to the French domestic season, it is inconceivable that PSG won’t qualify; they should top an uncompetitive looking Group C ahead of Benfica, who failed to make it out of a pool from which Celtic progressed last season but have since recruited one of Europe’s brightest attacking talents in the Serbian forward Lazar Markovic.
The section is completed by 40-times Greek
champions Olympiacos, who look set to become the latest club at which Javier Saviola flatters to deceive, and Anderlecht, who win the Belgian league nearly as often but almost never make any kind of mark on this particular competition. Expect more of the same this time around.
Group D : Third time lucky?
Can Manuel Pellegrini succeed where Roberto Mancini failed, in steering Manchester City through the Champions League group stages? The omens are good, and not just because his new men have received a more generous draw than in past years – the Chilean has pedigree, having guided Villarreal to the 2006 semi finals and Malaga to the quarters only last year. Fernandinho adds crucial Champions League nous to the City midfield, while Alvaro Negredo looks like adding the cutting edge so lacking in last season’s dismal European effort. Czech champs Viktoria Plzen return for a second crack at the Champions League and should prove the whipping boys, but 2010 quarter-finalists CSKA Moscow completed a double in Russia last season – with Sweden’s mighty Rasmus Elm and playmaker Alan Dzagoev at the heart of their midfield, this is the side that could most threaten City’s progression.
That’s because the final team in Group D is Bayern Munich. The Germans deservedly won a fifth Big Ears last season, and have strengthened since the arrival of Pep Guardiola. Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara have come in for a combined €62m, with Mario Gomez the only notable departee. Evolution rather than revolution, then – and that spells danger for the rest of Europe.
Group E : Blue routine
He may have tasted Champions League glory with Porto and Inter, but the one great regret of Jose Mourinho’s managerial career is his failure to lift the big jug in his first spell at Chelsea. He will be thankful for a second chance, then, and grateful too that his old-new boys have been drawn in such an easy group. Conceding 10 goals in four games against Juventus and Shakhtar was behind the club’s group-stage exit last season, but Mourinho has already returned a greater defensive edge and will look forward to incorporating proven Champions League performers Samuel Eto’o and Willian alongside the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar (above), who starred with five group-stage goals last term.
If the Blues are to experience any discomfort, it is most likely to come from Schalke. The German club reached the round of 16 last season, topping a group containing Arsenal along the way, and the signings of midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng and striker Adam Szalai give them attacking options over and above the reliable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Perennial Swiss champions Basel were no match for Chelsea in last season’s Europa League semis, and look too reliant on the goals of veteran striker Marco Streller. And that leaves Steaua Bucharest – Romanian Liga I winners for the first time in seven years, but with only one Champions League win in 18 group-stage games going back three campaigns and seven seasons. Their 1986 European Cup win feels a very long time ago.
Group F : Gunner be tricky...
No actual league champions here, but it has come to pass that Arsenal find themselves in an absolute beast of a section containing last season’s runnersup and a side that beat them to one of the major signings of the summer. No one beat them to Mesut Ozil, however, and it is the German upon whom fans are pinning their hopes ahead of a 425th crack at the Champions League. They won’t win it, because they never do – but if Ozil can settle quickly, and the Arsenal that won in Munich last season turn up enough, they should progress. The 2013 runners-up Borussia Dortmund start favourites, however. Mario Gotze has left for Bayern, but Armenian wizard Henrikh Mkhitaryan looks a worthy replacement, and the hugely likeable Jurgen Klopp has held on to star striker Robert Lewandowski while signing another forward in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Dortmund have won four from four in the league, and look good. Napoli, now managed by Rafa Benitez, will also provide a stern test. Just over half of the €64m earned by the sale of Edinson Cavani to PSG has gone on former Arsenal target Gonzalo Higuain, although it is Slovakian playmaker Marek Hamsik who has starred in his side’s early-season table-topping form in Italy. The group is completed by Marseille, quarter-finalists two years ago but now in the shade of moneybags PSG in France. If they are to compete here, they will need much-maligned forward Andre-Pierre Gignac to be at his lumbering best.
Group G : Iberian whirl
A low-key group that looks set to be fought out between Atletico Madrid and Porto, even if both sides have lost important individuals to Monaco over the summer. Atletico are desperate to turn two recent Europa League titles into Champions League progress; as such, manager Diego Simeone reacted swiftly to the departure of €60m forward Radamel Falcao, signing proven quality in the shape of David Villa (above) and real potential in the 21-year-old Brazilian Leo Baptistao. Porto are two-time European Cup winners, but new boss Paulo Fonseca inherits a squad shorn of its midfield heartbeat in the departed duo of Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez.
The arrival of the feted young Colombian Juan Quintero will help fill that gap, while goal machine Jackson Martinez is certainly one to keep an eye on. It would be dangerous for either side to underestimate the threat of Russian league runners-up Zenit St Petersburg, who can now call upon the wildly fluctuating form of the returning Andrey Arshavin to complement the wildly fluctuating fitness of Hulk. No one should be too worried about group outsiders Austria Vienna, however – if they are to achieve anything in their first crack at the Champions League group stage, star forward Philipp Hosiner is going to have to do something very special indeed.
Group H : Champions league
A section comprised of four clubs that have won the European Cup or Champions League, but the reality is that only one of them has any realistic chance of winning the trophy this time around. That is of course Barcelona, who retain the world’s greatest player in Lionel Messi (five goals in three La Liga games this season) and the tiki-taka style that has so enthralled European football fans in recent years. It is too early to assess the still nascent reign of manager Gerardo Martino, and indeed the potential impact of Brazilian wunderkind Neymar, but both will have time to adapt through a group stage that is unlikely to challenge the Catalan giants.
Seven-time winners AC Milan are simply not the force of old, and have made a slow start to the Serie A season, but they still look second best in the group – and with resident lunatic Mario Balotelli in the side they should at least prove worth watching. Frank de Boer has performed wonders at Ajax, winning the Eredivisie for the past three seasons, and in 19-year-old Danish winger Viktor Fischer he has at his disposal one of Europe’s brightest prospects. And that leaves Celtic, who scraped in by the skin of their teeth and return with a weaker squad than they had when heroically making the knockout phase in last season’s competition. They should have no chance here, but we wouldn’t
want to be the ones to tell Neil Lennon that.