The Kings of European football are back. The Group Stage of the Champions League will start in a few days time and some mouth-watering matchups await. Since all their respective leagues are ongoing, the Champions League will be an opportunity for these teams to start fresh and forget their results domestically. Defending champions Chelsea, who are currently leading the English Premiership with their new system of attacking football, will have an uphill battle to retain their title. The challenge of Juventus on their first game will determine how ready they are this early in the football season. Here are the games coming up:
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Porto
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Dynamo Kyiv
The two big teams in this group have easier games on this opening night. Two-time Champion Porto will have to watch out for complacency because Dinamo Zagreb let-in the most goals in this competition’s history last year by conceding 22 goals in their Group Stage matches. Even with the departure of Hulk, they still have top quality players like Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez to lead their attack.
PSG on the other hand will be relishing their opportunity to play in this competition again after an eight-year absence. Finally picking up their form in Ligue 1 and having Thiago Silva healthy again will make it a daunting task for Dynamo to take on. When all their components are clicking together, PSG can be a dark horse to win this competition.
Montpellier vs. Arsenal
Olympiacos vs. Shalke
French defending champions Montpellier has a tricky contest when they meet Arsenal. New Arsenal signing Oliver Giroud will face his old team on his first game in the Champions League. He led Montpellier to the French Championship last season with 21 league goals to his credit. He’s hoping that the shaky start he’s been experiencing in Arsenal will end soon. Filling in Robin Van Persie’s shoes is a big task to handle. With fellow new signings Lucas Podolski and Santi Cazorla having already adapted to Arsenal’s system, once Giroud does as well, Montpellier will find it difficult to beat them.
When Spanish legend Raul led Schalke to the semifinals in 2010-2011, it was the last time that Schalke tasted experience in the knock-out stages. Hoping to emulate that feat will be a challenge with Olympiacos standing in their way. They have the experience to beat Schalke, having played in this competition fourteen times previously compared to Schalke’s five. The recent addition of Ibrahim Affelay and the entrance of wonder-kid Lewis Holtby will give Klaas Jan Huntelaar help up front to defeat Olympiacos.
Malaga vs. Zenit
Milan vs. Anderlecht
With both teams spending big in the transfer market, Zenit will come out on top in this first game. Zenit bought last minute additions Hulk from Porto and Alex Witsel from Benfica for $131,000,000.00, which strengthened their already formidable midfield options. Malaga will be playing in this competition for the first time but Coach Manuel Pellegrini has already experienced the Champions league with Roma. He can count new signing Javier Saviola and on-loan Roque Santa Cruz to spearhead their offense. I believe Zenit will be able to overcome Malaga with their experience here the past few seasons
The two favorites to qualify from this group will meet for their first games. Milan has been poor domestically, lying in tenth place. Their rebuilding process will take them a while to return to form but they will still have the firepower to beat Anderlecht. Injuries to Robinho and Alexandre Pato though will weaken their forward lineup.
Dortmund vs. Ajax
Real Madrid vs. Manchester City
German Champions Dortmund is ready to make their mark in this competition and their campaign will start against Dutch Champions Ajax. Although Ajax is a former winner of this tournament, they have failed to qualify for the round of sixteen since the 2005-2006 season. With both teams having young but established stars in their ranks, both coaches know that they have to win this one before they go up against Manchester City and Real Madrid. Even with their relative inexperience, Dortmund will end up winning this game.
The match between Real Madrid and Manchester City will be the most anticipated one, not only in this group, but for the whole match day. Spanish Champs and nine-time Champions League winners real Madrid wants to win their tenth trophy and they certainly have the tools to do so. Languishing in tenth place in the Spanish League now, Jose Mourinho will have to rally his team so he can add this trophy to the two previous ones he won with Porto and Inter. Coach Roberto Mancini has built a complete team for this competition, with two players vying for each position in the starting eleven. He will need them all his players to work together as a team to beat Real Madrid. Adding more players in the summer will always prove to be beneficial for a team but the team chemistry will need a while to happen. Their two wins and two draws in the English Premiership is the proof that they still need time to learn the system as a team.
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Nordsjaelland
Chelsea vs. Juventus
With Danish champions Nordsjaelland joining this competition for the first time, chances are slim for them to go through to the next round. This is Shakhtar’s eighth time playing for the Champions League. Based on that, Shakhtar will have to rely on their experience to defeat their opponents.
The other big game in match day one is defending champions Chelsea going up against Italian champions Juventus. Chelsea’s record against Italian teams has been outstanding while Juventus has not fared well in English soil. With both teams topping their respective leagues now, momentum will not be a factor. The only setback for Juventus is that their Coach Antonio Conte is suspended for ten months for match-fixing. Juventus technical director Massimo Carrera has taken charge this season, and his inexperience in big games may cost his team this match, or even the whole competition. Belgian sensation Eden Hazard has been tearing up the English Premiership now and has clearly adapted to Coach Di Matteo’s system of play. I see Chelsea winning this match, although a draw is possible.
LOSC Lille vs. BATE
Bayern Munich vs. Valencia
Five-time Belarusian Champions BATE will have their hands full with former French champions Lille. Lille has been almost unbeatable at home in European Competitions, losing only once in 12 home games. Dimitri Payet and Salomon Kalou will be the ones to watch for the BATE defenders. Lille will win this match.
Another big game in this match day pits Bayern Munich and Valencia. The 2001 Champions League final saw these two teams battle each other all the way to penalty kicks, where Bayern prevailed. The Bavarians record against Spanish competition has been excellent, while Valencia’s record against German opponents has been dismal. Picking up key players in the summer, Valencia is looking to improve on their Round of Sixteen finishes the past few years. Reaching the finals last year and keeping all their key players together, Bayern Munich will be able to handle Valencia.
Barcelona vs. Spartak Moskva
Celtic vs. Benfica
Barcelona will be welcoming the start of this competition as they embark on their journey back to Champions League glory. Newly appointed Coach Tito Vilanova has an impressive home record to continue in European competition. Barcelona has not lost at home for 16 games dating back to October 2009. Their home record against Russian teams is superior to Spartak’s record against Spanish opponents. Currently leading the Spanish league, Barca has hit the ground running with four straight wins and Spartak will not be able to stop them.
Celtic is back in the Champions League and will be relishing the opportunity to go against Benfica. They have met in previous occasions and have posted similar results, thus showing that their teams are competitive and almost balanced. Benfica though has been playing the past few seasons and reached the quarterfinals last year. This is one of the most important games for these teams because with Barcelona going for the top spot in this group, this match may determine who will qualify with Barcelona. I believe Celtic can prevail over Benfica.
Manchester United vs. Galatasaray
Braga vs. CFR Cluj
After a four year absence, Galatasaray is back in the Champions League with Manchester United waiting for them in the first game. Going out in the Group Stage last year, did leave a bitter taste in Sir Alex Ferguson’s mouth. He will be determined to erase those memories with a win. Galatasaray will have to be at their best in this game. With Braga fighting for that coveted spot to advance, a draw with Manchester United will greatly help their cause. I believe Manchester United is too hungry for that trophy to be denied. I predict them to win this match
Braga, second runners-up in the Portuguese League will not have an easy game against Cluj. Cluj has Portuguese and Brazilian players in their lineup, even former Braga players. Runners-up in last year’s Europa League, Braga will want to continue their gradual progression in this competition. They did not have a good start in last year’s Group Stage, losing their first two games. They will have to avoid that to qualify for the next round. I predict Braga to win this.
Here we go! In a matter of days, we will be witnessing the best football players on the planet playing in our TV sets. So get those nap times after dinner and set your alarm clocks at 2:30 a.m.
Do not forget to watch the games live on Balls SkyCable Channel 34. The featured match for the first night is Real Madrid vs. Manchester City on September 19, 2012 LIVE at 2:30 a.m. Also catch the Paris Saint-Germain vs. Dinamo Kiev at 4:30 a.m. The featured match for September 20, 2012 is Chelsea vs. Juventus LIVE at 2:30 a.m. Stay up for the Barcelona vs. Spartak Moscow match at 4;30 a.m.
“The smell of freshly-cut grass and the whiff of the chalk before a big game…and then it starts to rain. You. Are. Home.”