Champions League Preview

Group A:

Manchester United

Shaktar Donetsk

Bayer Leverkusen

Real Sociedad

English teams had a poor showing in the Champions League last year. Manchester United are first glance favorites but the Red Devils have started slow in England. David Moyes will have to improve his squad or risk dropping early points in a talented group stage. Despite the loss of Illarramendi, Real Sociedad are a threatening club. They demolished Lyon in the qualifiers with stunning goals from Seferovic and Antoine Griezmann. Griezmann, the young Frenchman is a very under appreciated talent. He will be called up to the French national side after the World Cup. Bayer Leverkusen is another talented side who have jumped to a great start in Bundesliga. Expect Leverkusen to steal a game or two at home. Shaktar Donetsk enters their fourth straight Champions League where they have advanced in two out of the last three. Many teams find difficulty playing in Ukraine. This advantage will push Shaktar through the group stage.

Group Projections:

1. Shaktar Donetsk

2. Manchester United

3. Real Sociedad

4. Bayer Leverkusen

Group B:

Real Madrid

Galatasaray

Juventus

Copenhagen

This group has three teams who advanced to the quarterfinals last year (Real, Galatasaray, and Juvenus). Still reeling from the loss of Ozil, Real Madrid needs to balance their La Liga campaign with the Champions League. The offseason acquisition of Gareth Bale will provide a deadly attack which Isco will have to manage. Despite his youth, Isco has earned the starting job from manager Carlo Ancelotti. Juventus was active in the transfer market as well, acquiring striker Fernando Llorente from Atletico Bilbao and Carlos Tevez from Manchester City. This has had a wonderfully motivating effect on Arturo Vidal who has established himself early, as the team goalscorer. Galatasaray will have a rematch with Real Madrid who beat them handedly last year. Burak Yilmaz was the hero for Galatasaray last year as he held the golden boot for much of the season before finally losing it to Ronaldo. The last team of the group is FC Copenhagen who find themselves in the Champions League after winning their 10th Danish Super League. Despite advancing from the group stage in 2010-11, I can’t see Copenhagen winning many matches this campaign.

Group Projections:

1. Real Madrid

2. Juventus

3. Galatasaray

4. Copenhagen

Group C:

Benfica

Paris St. Germain

Olympiacos

Anderlecht

Should Benfica advance to the final, they will be playing at their home stadium, Estadio da Luz. Benfica failed to advance last year after receiving a tough draw against Celtic and Barcelona. After finishing third in their group, Benfica dropped to the Europa League where they lost in the final to Chelsea. Anything short of advancing from the group stage will be a disappointment for the Portuguese side.This is the only group not to feature a team from the top four leagues, but thats not to say the group is wide open. PSG are the favorites to win this group. The French League champions strengthen their side every transfer window and this summer they spent big on Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani. Cavani and Ibrahimovic form a powerful duo that will test any back line. PSG lost to Barcelona in the quarterfinals of last years knockout round, but they are even stronger this year. Given favorable draws, PSG could make the semi finals. Olympiacos return to the Champions League as Greek League Champions for the eighth time in nine years. They drew Arsenal and Shalke 04 in last year’s group stage and fell to third by one point to Arsenal. Olympiacos will challenge Benfica for the second place spot out of the group stage. Anderlecht enter their second straight Champions League campaign in a difficult group. They finished last after only managing to win one game in their group last year. The same fate is likely in store this year.

Group Projections:

1. PSG

2. Benfica

3. Olympiacos

4. Anderlecht

Group D:

Bayern Munich

Manchester City

CSKA Moscow

Viktoria Plzen

The defending champions and treble winners Bayern Munich start as the early favorites despite the departure of manager Jupp Heynckes. Heynckes’ retirement has brought Pep Guardiola to the helm. Guardiola, who won a treble of his own with Barcelona’s 2009 team, is one of few coaches capable of fulfilling such expectations. Bayern had two early signings during the transfer season in Mario Gotze, bought from competitive rivals Dortmund, and Thiago Alcantara, who Pep knows from his Barcelona days. Guardiola lost his first major match in the 2013 DFL Supercup to Borussia Dortmund, but managed to defeat rival Jose Mourinho in the UEFA Supercup. A series of early season injuries have plagued Bayern but they have the depth to open up their Champions League run with a statement win at home vs CSKA Moscow. Manchester City will need to make it out of their group this year. Placed into last year’s group of death, City failed to win a single game. This year, manager Manuel Pellegrini brings his European experience to the Sky Blue side. Pellegrini managed Malaga, who won their group and made a run into the quarterfinals of the tournament before Dortmund pulled back in a controversial win. City have dropped early points in the league with a loss to Cardiff and most recently a scoreless draw with Stoke. Road games in Moscow and Czech will be the difference for them. CSKA Moscow won their domestic league for the first time since 2006. Despite a league championship, CSKA failed to win their playoff round to qualify for the Europa League. They will need to look for leadership from remaining members of the 2011-12 squad that advanced from their Champions League group. Finally, Viktoria Plzen have been a dominant force in the Czech league over the last three years. They qualified after winning out from the second round of qualifiers. However, I can’t see Plzen finishing above fourth. Look for them to steal points and disrupt plans for City and Moscow.

Group Projections:

1. Bayern Munich

2. Manchester City

3. CSKA Moscow

4. Viktoria Plzen

Group E:

Chelsea

Basel

Shalke 04

Steaua Bucuresti

Chelsea are clear favorites to win this group. Manager Jose Mourinho has two Champions League titles under his belt but none with this London side. Chelsea were champions of the Europa League last year after beating Benfica in the final. Along the way they beat Steaua Becuresti and Basel, who are also tenants of this group. Shalke 04 were winners of their group last year after besting Arsenal. Shalke is an intimidating ground to play at and they are capable of sweeping at home. Basel will hope to repeat their shocking success of the 2011-12 Champions League where they advanced ahead of Manchester United. I foresee Basel finishing 3rd and making a run in the Europa League. Steaua Bucuresti will struggle with Basel this season. Steaua could finish third ahead of Basel and compete in Europa League.

Group Projections:

1. Chelsea

2. Shalke 04

3. Basel

4. Steaua Bucuresti

Group F:

Arsenal

Dortmund

Napoli

Marseille

This brings us to the group of death. At the publishing of this article, Napoli and Dortmund are winning their respective leagues while Arsenal sits just one point off of first. While it is difficult to name a favorite, last years runners up Dortmund is most likely to win. Their fast counter attacking style will cause problems for Arsenal. Despite the loss of Gotze, Dortmund has one of the best lineups in Europe. Marco Reus is another year older, Dortmund held on to Lewandowski, and the CB pairing of Hummels and Subotic could be the best in Europe. The signing of Mesut Ozil for Arsenal shifted the power of the group. Ozil impressed in his opening game where he registered an assist to the red hot Olivier Giroud. Questions of depth still plague Arsenal but a returning Thomas Vermaelen and a maturing Aaron Ramsey will help the Gunners. One headline of this group is Gonzolo Higuain, who chose Napoli over Arsenal during the transfer window. Napoli sits atop Serie A despite the loss of superstar Edinson Cavani to PSG. CAM Marek Hamsik will have to shoulder some of the weight left to bear by Cavani’s departure. Finally, we come to Marseille. Marseille are the underdogs of the group which is testament to the strength of the group rather than Marseille’s weakness. Group F will have to manage French international Mathieu Valbuena’s creativity and vision. Whoever finishes third in this division should be contenders for the Europa League championship.

Group Projection:

1. Dortmund

2. Arsenal

3. Napoli

4. Marseille

Group G:

Porto

Atletico Madrid

Zenit St. Petersburg

Austria Wien

Atletico Madrid is the betting favorite to top this group. They impressed early against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup despite losing on aggregate. Atletico also sits atop La Liga at a perfect 4-0-0 with Barcelona. Diego Costa and David Villa are combining to fill the void left by Falcao’s transfer. Atletico should top this group over a weakened Porto. Porto lost midfielders James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho to Monaco. However, Porto still have plenty of talent in forward Jackson Martinez. Martinez will be relied upon to carry Porto through the group stage. Zenit St. Petersburg were drawn with Porto in 2011 where Zenit managed to win 3-1 and advance ahead of the Portuguese side. St. Petersburg is another difficult venue to win at. The Russians have surrendered just one loss in two years after an own goal gave Milan a win last year. Austria Wien will struggle in this group. They entered qualifying in the third round before upsetting Dinamo Zagreb to enter the group stage.

Group Projections:

1. Atletico Madrid

2. Zenit St. Petersburg

3. Porto

4. Austria Wien

Group H:

Barcelona

AC Milan

Ajax

Celtic

 

Barcelona are the obvious favorites to win this group. The Catalans have made six straight semi finals winning two titles. Barcelona will look to avenge their embarrassing 7-0 loss at the hands of Bayern Munich last season. Despite a disappointing loss last year, Barca remain one of the most dominant teams in Europe. They have jumped to an early lead in La Liga and signed Brazilian prodigy Neymar. An aging Xavi and lack of depth at CB could prove problematic for Barca. Expect Fabregas to continue to take a larger role on the team. This will be the third pair of games between AC Milan and Barcelona in three years. Milan was bested in the round of 16 by Barcelona last year despite winning 2-0 at the San Siro. Milan are my favorites to finish second in this group. Celtic was also drawn with Barcelona last year. Celtic pulled off the upset of the league last year when they beat Barcelona 2-1 at home. Celtic finished second ahead of Benfica. Finally, Ajax is placed difficult group for the second straight year. Last year, Ajax was drawn with fellow league champions from Spain, England, and Germany. The loss of Christian Eriksen to Tottenham Hotspur will be a loss in Ajax’s midfield. Expect them to put up a fight and finish third.

Group Projections:

1. Barcelona

2. Milan

3. Ajax

4. Celtic

Leading Goal Scorer:

Lionel Messi

Player of the Tournament:

Lionel Messi

European Power Rankings:

1. Bayern Munich

2. Barcelona

3. Dortmund

4. Real Madrid

5. Juventus

6. PSG

7. Chelsea

8. Arsenal

9. Napoli

10. Manchester United

If you put $5.00 straight bets on all of the Dojo’s group winner picks, you’ll win $46.63. Go ahead and have a case of beer on me. Your welcome. – Daniel “Smilin’ Wanderer” Dicce

 

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