The UEFA Champions League Group Stage is on the horizon once more, and as always, it throws up many questions before a ball has been kicked:
Can Chelsea do what no club has done previously, and retain the silverware?
Can Bayern Munich go one step further following heartbreak in their own backyard?
Will the beautiful football of Barcelona with Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Co. reign supreme once more?
Can Sir Alex Ferguson win yet another title for the Red Devil trophy cabinet?
Or can ‘The Special One’ Jose Mourinho win the trophy he is missing at Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo at his disposal?
None of these questions will be answered until May, however. For now, it is the top 32 sides from their respective leagues around Europe divided into eight groups of four.
The draw was made overnight in Monaco. Who will advance into the Round of 16 and beyond? From The Sideline provides the answer below.
Group A – FC Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Paris St-Germain, Dinamo Zagreb.
Group B – Arsenal, Schalke 04, Olympiakos, SC Montpellier.
Group C – AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga.
Group D – Real Madrid, Manchester City, AFC Ajax, Borussia Dortmund.
Group E – Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, FC Nordsjaelland.
Group F – Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov.
Group G – Barcelona, SL Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic.
Group H – Manchester United, SC Braga, Galatasaray, CFR 1907 Cluj.
In Group A, it is hard to look past Paris St-Germain and FC Porto for qualification. Despite being taken out of Pot 3, PSG could well top this group. Their summer signings have been incredible for the growth of Ligue 1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura have all made the move to the City of Love. With their manager, Carlo Ancelotti being no stranger to Champions League success, they have the makings of a side that could seriously threaten the more renowned sides in the latter stages. FC Porto will be tough at home as always, despite the loss of powerful forward Hulk, and barring any shock losses in Kiev or Zagreb, they will advance from 2nd place.
Group A Qualifiers: PSG and FC Porto
Group B shows me one side that I believe will definitely qualify; followed by three others whom will all fancy their chances very highly. Arsenal will be too strong for each of Schalke, Olympiakos and Montpellier at the Emirates Stadium and will find the point or two they need for top spot away from home without much difficulty. They will have to start finding the back of the net, though. French Champions Montpellier may also struggle for goals after seeing their leading scorer from last season Olivier Giroud make his way to Arsenal over the summer. Olympiakos will have to turn their home ground into a fortress if they are to win progression, because their away form record will not help. If Schalke can keep a hold of proven goal scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar into September they will be the 2nd placed qualifier. If not, they will be pulled into a three-way battle to progess with Arsenal.
Group B Qualifiers: Arsenal and Schalke
AC Milan will be content with Group C, which they have been drawn into. Each of Zenit, Anderlecht and Malaga shouldn’t offer too much resistance at the San Siro. And with the experience still very much apart of this Milan side then traveling should not present a problem either. It will be a battle for 2nd place between Zenit and Malaga. Zenit, I believe have the better squad on paper, especially with a $50 million pound for FC Porto forward Hulk recently completed. Malaga will be desperate to stay in the tournament to keep them supported financially. Some irresponsible spending following a Middle-Eastern takeover has seen Malaga having to offload some of their best talent. Lastly, despite boasting a squad with the likes of Olivier Deschacht, Lucas Biglia, Milan Jovanovic and Matias Suarez, I feel Anderlecht will still struggle for points in this group.
Group C Qualifiers: AC Milan and Zenit St Petersburg
Call it the ‘stand-out group’, the ‘glamour’ group or ‘the group of death’; all of those titles can be applied correctly to Group D. It is the group that contains four domestic champions, unlike any of the other seven groups. Adding to that, each game will be played in one of the world’s best stadiums, The Santiago Bernebau, The City of Manchester Stadium, Amsterdam Arena and Signal Iduna Park will all take centre stage. The group captures the concept of the ‘Champions League’ perfectly.
Above all else, though, Group D represents a tough task for the second successive year for Manchester City, who bowed out at this stage last season. This season however, I believe they will progress. Dortmund vs. City will be the games to watch in respect to group placing, and I think City will just edge it. Ajax will be no pushover at home, making for a crucial 6 games for each side.
Group D Qualifiers: Real Madrid and Manchester City
2011-12 holders Chelsea face a tough yet manageable task in Group E. They have strengthened following their first European triumph in Munich with the likes of stars Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Brazilian wonderkid Oscar. Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk will be hoping their home form can see them threaten the Champions from London and Serie A holders Juventus. While Danish champions FC Nordsjaelland will hope to pick up more than one freak upset on their own turf to put themselves on the European map in their first ever Group Stage entry. The games between Chelsea and Juventus will decide top spot in this one, although, if the result is two victories for the same side, then Shakhtar’s hopes of surprise progression will strengthen. Here’s the best action behind Group D.
Group E Qualifiers: Chelsea and Juventus
Bayern Munich should not have lost their home final against Chelsea, when will they get another opportunity that great? However they have just completed the signing of ever-talented Spanish midfielder Javi Martinez for a whopping $40 million Euros; perhaps there is hope yet. Their closest rival in Group F will be Valencia, a side on the up again following dire financial trouble saw them drop from the European focus somewhat for a few years. French qualifiers Lille will enter the Group Stage without their best player from the previous two seasons, Eden Hazard. Secondary winger Joe Cole has returned to Liverpool following his loan deal as well, although they have replaced him somewhat with Chelsea squad player Salomon Kalou. I don’t see them pushing Valencia for second place though, but they will account for Pot 4 side BATE Borisov comfortably.
Group F Qualifiers: Bayern Munich and Valencia
FC Barcelona will be eyeing 6 wins from as many starts in Group G. A change in manager appears to have not changed their tiki-taka style. Their managerial development from their youth sides to the top must be admired as much as their football. They will be the ones to beat in the latter stages once more, but who can? Chelsea rode their fair share of luck in their two semi-final legs in April. Another day may have seen a rampant Barcelona performance. Their games against Portuguese side Benfica will be very watchable, with expansive passing games on both sides. Benfica SHOULD finish in second place; they pushed Chelsea all the way in their quarterfinal last season but just fell short. I think they will be happy with another run to the same stage again while hoping for their luck to turn. Scottish winger Aidan McGeady will return to Glasgow for the first time as a Spartak Moscow player following his move from Celtic in 2009. If the Scottish side is getting beat, I’m unsure of the reception he will receive. These two sides will be battling it out for third spot in the Group and a Europa League entry.
Group G Qualifiers: FC Barcelona and SL Benfica
Manchester United will surely not drop out at the Group Stage this year. Their Group H is filled with tough away travel; however, they should romp home in each game played at Old Trafford. Romanian side CFR Cluj put in spirited home performance against Chelsea two years back and will be hoping to do so again versus top class opposition. Although I feel it will be a battle between Sporting Braga of Portugal, and Turkish side Galatasaray for the final Round of 16 place. Who will edge this tie? My guess is the impressively strengthened squad from Turkey, now with Felipe Melo (on loan from Juventus), Albert Riera, Emmanuel Eboue and Johan Elmander in their ranks.
Group H Qualifiers: Manchester United and Galatasaray
If these predictions hold true, the world will be in for a fantastic knockout stage come February.
The UEFA Champions League is here again, time to sit back, and enjoy.
Luke Sale is a first-year Sports Journalism student at La Trobe University. Get him touch with him on Twitter @lukesale1.