In The Stands’ Rolly Pelovangu grabs a cold beer before looking ahead to another season of the UEFA Champions League – the pinnacle of club football.
We all know how the theme song goes as 22 players lineup prior to kick-off looking vacantly at the stands where some European football bureaucrat in a grey suit, and unashamedly associated with Michel Platini stands aloof.
The theme tune continues; ‘these are the Champions…the Champions…the Champions League teams blah blah blah’. Still, the magnetic pull of the charade never ceases to abate.
So no matter how much we bash it, we still want to watch Bayern Munich vs Napoli on a cold winters night, and cannot resist a peak of FC Porto vs Shakhtar Donetsk!
Welcome everybody, the Champions League is back and in preparation for another potentially blockbuster tournament we expertly run through all the teams in every group before analyzing each sides’ credentials.
Group A – Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Napoli, Villarreal
Group A of this season’s Champions League consists of the teams few wanted to draw but ultimately did draw.
Labelled the ‘Group of Death’, four-times winners Bayern Munich are the stand out side in the group although tournament virgins Manchester City have been in imperious form domestically and have been tipped to go far.
Napoli and Villarreal represent somewhat of an unknown quantity although the Spanish side have reached the last eight and the semi-finals the last two times they featured in the competition.
Group B – Inter Milan, Trabzonspor, LOSC Lille, CSKA Moscow
Italian champions Inter Milan will feel confident of progressing as the number one side in the group although trips to Trabzonspor (in at the expense of Fenerbahce) and CSKA Moscow will prove tricky.
French champions Lille play some neat football and if they can transfer their domestic form onto the continent could cause a surprise or two as they did in 2006 when they beat AC Milan 2-0 at the San Siro to book a place in the last 16.
Group C – Manchester United, Benfica, FC Basle, SC Otelul
In a straight forward group, Manchester United and Benfica will both navigate their way into the last 16 from Group C which will at least see the two legendary clubs clash again as memories of the 1968 final come flooding back.
United fans will also recall how they were dumped out of the tournament at this stage in 2006 after a crushing 2-1 defeat at the rumbustious Estadio de Luz.
With the first match pitting the two together, expect fireworks. As for FC Basle and SC Otelul, expect a damp squib from two very average sides.
Group D – Real Madrid, Olympique Lyon, Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb
Real Madrid aside, Group D of this year’s competition is amongst the most evenly matched with French powerhouses Olympique Lyon, Dutch champions Ajax and Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb all genuinely of the assumption that the runners-up spot is a true feasibility.
Disappointingly, nine-times winners Real Madrid have been paired up with bogey team Lyon for their bi-annual meeting although the key set of fixtures in this group will be the French sides double-header with Ajax which, at present, seems too tough to call.
Group E – Chelsea, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Genk
Dubbed the ‘group of losers’, Group E represents another year and another crack at the lifting the famous jug-eared trophy for three clubs who it seems are destined never to win it.
Chelsea covet the trophy more than anything but still look short of the quality of say, Barcelona and Manchester United, whilst Valencia had two finals and subsequently two cracks at European glory back in 2000 and 2001 but blew it.
A Ballack-inspired Bayer Leverkusen have got tongues wagging domestically although whether the beaten finalists in 2002 can replicate that form on the continent remains to be seen. Still, it is now-or-never for AVB’s Chelsea who should squeeze through and into the last 16.
Group F – Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Olympique Marseille, Olympiakos
Group F is an unpredictable group featuring two domestic champions (Borussia Dortmund and Olympiakos) and two sides who, but for their poor consistency, are capable of becoming champions (Arsenal and Marseille).
Navigating their way into Europe’s elite cup competition was an achievement on its own for Arsenal such are the problems besetting the club at the moment and French opponents Marseille have fared little better after a dreadful start to their new Ligue 1 campaign.
This leaves high-flying Borussia Dortmund and the fast-starting Olympiakos ready to take advantage of any slackness dogging their group rivals meaning Group F is very much the most ‘open’ of groups.
Arsenal’s trip to Dortmund will prove most telling as it pits a young team of champions against a young team of underachievers.
Group G – FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, APOEL Nicosia, Zenit St Petersburg
Another group consisting of evenly matched sides although the stand out pair includes 2004 winners FC Porto and Ukrainian quarter-finalists Shakhtar Donetsk.
Such a pity Europe could not witness what Andre Villas-Boas would have done with an FC Porto side who bagged the whole lot last season and were slowly resembling aside not bereft of confidence and ready to hit the high-time just as they did in 2004.
With the likes of Hulk, Darijo Srna, Willian and Fernandinho, the group features some exciting prospects and may even throw up some thrillers so be sure to keep an eye on this one.
Group H – Barcelona, AC Milan, BATE Borisov, Plzen
Holders Barcelona were drawn in Group H alongside Italian giants AC Milan in perhaps the most anticipated of clashes so far.
Pep Guardiola’s team of maestros look imperious although a 2-2 draw against Real Sociedad proves that they are not invincible.
The pair (who between them have won a combined total of 11 European Cups) will both progress into the last 16, the question is who will top the group and who will finish runners-up. The (potentially decisive) AC Milan vs Barcelona clash at the San Siro on Matchday 5 will be unmissable!
In The Stands’ Predictions:
Winners: Real Madrid.
Contenders: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The winner will come from one of these 6 teams.
Team Most Likely to Choke: Inter Milan & Arsenal.
Underdogs: Borussia Dortmund, FC Porto.
English Team To Go The Furthest: Manchester City.
Player of the Tournament: Cristiano Ronaldo.