(Zlatan Ibrahimovic of PSG – Photo by Mike Lawrence)
The UEFA Champions League, the battle of the 32 best soccer teams in Europe, kicks off on Tuesday, September 15th. These games will have all the elite players that fans are used to seeing in the World Cup.
The tournament has five teams from Spain’s La Liga, four teams from the English Premier League, four teams from Germany’s Bundesliga, two teams from Italy’s Serie A, two teams from France’s League 1, two from Portugal, two from Russia, and a team each from the Netherlands, Greece, Belarus, Russia, Croatia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Sweden, and Israel.
Barcelona, led by Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez, beat Juventus in the Final to win last season’s championship. They also won the Champions League in 2006, when they beat Arsenal, and 2009 and 2011 over Manchester United.
Real Madrid outlasted Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Final in overtime, led by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Here is a look at the Group Stage, in which two of the four teams from each Group advance to the Round of 16:
Paris San-Germain (France)
Real Madrid (Spain)
Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)
Analysis: Real Madrid and PSG should roll through this group, as they are contenders to win the whole things. Real Madrid is led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and made it to last year’s semifinals. PSG, who is led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, tried getting Ronaldo in the transfer window, so they are ready to be considered one of the elites in Europe, if they aren’t already. Last season, PSG beat Chelsea to reach the quarterfinals, where they ran into Barcelona and lost 5-1 in the aggregate of the two games’ scores.
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
Manchester United (England)
CSKA Moscow (Russia)
VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)
Analysis: Manchester United is the best team in this group, as they make they return to the Champions League after a one-year absence. They missed it last season because of the disaster that was the 2013-14 season, the first after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Under Louis Van Gaal, they finished fourth in the English Premier League, so they had to play in the qualifiers in August and ran through Club Brugge of Belgium 7-1 in aggregate, with newcomer Memphis Depay scoring twice in the 3-1 win in the opening leg at Old Trafford, and Wayne Rooney scoring a hat trick in the 4-0 win in the second leg in Belgium.
The battle for the second spot should be between CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg. CSKA Moscow did not get out of the group stage last year, as they were in an extremely tough group with Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and AS Roma, and Bayern and Man City advanced. They finished second in the Russian Premier League last season.
CSKA Moscow beat Sporting Lisbon in the qualifying round in August by a 4-3 aggregate. Seydou Doumbia had three goals in the two games
Wolfsburg came in second to Bayern Munich in last year’s Bundesliga. Last week, they just sold 2014-15 German Footballer of the Year Kevin De Bruyne to Manchester City at the end of the summer transfer window. They are led by Andre Schurrle, joined Wolfsburg halfway through last season from Chelsea. Schurrle had 10 goals in 27 games last year between Wolfsburg, Chelsea, and the German National Team.
Atletico Madrid (Spain)
Analysis: Benfica and Atletico Madrid should move on with ease.
Atletico Madrid is slowly becoming a powerhouse in this tournament, and their goal should be to avoid their crosstown rival, Real Madrid. In 2014, Real Madrid beat Atletico in the Final, and eliminated them in the quarterfinals last season, with only one goal scored in the two games, and that was by Chicharito in the closing minutes of the second leg. Atletico has had a lot of success in Spain, as they won La Liga in 2014. Atletico also brought in Jackson Martinez, who had 32 goals for Porto last season. They are led by Fernando Torres and Felipe Luis.
Benfica was in the New York area on their preseason tour when they played the Red Bulls on July 26th, a game which was won 2-1 by the Red Bulls. The Portuguese champions are making their 11th appearance in the Champions League group stage.
On a historical note, Astana is the first team from Kazakhstan to ever play in the Champions League group stage. They got here by beating Apoel of Cyprus in the qualifying round.
Manchester City (England – parent club of NYC FC)
Sevilla FC (Spain)
Borussia Monchen-Gladbach (Germany)
Analysis: Juventus and Manchester City should move on, and they could go far in this tournament. Juventus was the runner-up last year, when they lost the Final to Barcelona 3-1. They lost Andrea Pirlo to NYC FC, as well as Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal. They may not be as strong as last year, but they still have Paul Pogba in the midfield, after rumors of him moving to Chelsea; Juan Cuadrado up front, and Gianluigi Buffon in net. They also brought in Sami Khedira from Real Madrid and Mario Mandzukic from Atletico Madrid.
Manchester City is off to an amazing start in the English Premier League, winning their first four games in their quest for a third EPL title in five years. The success they have had in England has not translated to Europe. In the past two seasons in the Champions League, they have lost in the Round of 16 to Barcelona, and they did not make it out of the Group Stage in 2013. The are led by goalie Joe Hart, defender Vincent Kompany, midfielder YaYa Toure, forward Sergio Aguero and newcomer Raheem Sterling, who they brought in from Liverpool in the offseason.
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
AS Roma (Italy)
BATE Borisov (Belarus)
Analysis: Barcelona, who just won their fourth Champions League in ten years, should have no trouble winning this group.They have an explosive offense, led Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar and could definitely repeat as champions.
The battle will be over who is the second team to advance out of this group, between AS Roma and Bayer Leverkusen.
Roma did not get out of the Group Stage last year and made the Round of 16 the prior two years. They are led by veteran Francesco Totti up front, Gervinho, and Eden Dzeko who they brought in from Manchester City.
Bayer Leverkusen just made a big move last week, bringing in Javier Hernandez, known as Chicharito, from Manchester United. Chicharito had one of the biggest goals in the Champions League last year when he got the game-winner for Real Madrid against Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals. He was on loan from Manchester United, and returned to Manchester to start this season, and fell out of favor with Louis Van Gaal after a bad penalty kick miss in the Champions League playoff at Brugge two weeks ago. Bayer has been in the Champions League three of the past four years, and made it to the Round of 16 each time.
FC Bayern Munchen (Germany)
Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Analysis: Bayern Munich and Arsenal should move on, but watch out for Olympiacos to take the second spot away from Arsenal.
Bayern is a contender to win the tournament, which they last did in 2013, after losing the Final to Chelsea the year before. They made it to the semi-finals the past two seasons, losing to Real Madrid in 2014 and Barcelona last season. They have the best goalie in the world in Manuel Neuer, who also led the German national team to a World Cup championship in 2014. They boast a strong attack up front, with Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben, and Robert Lewandowski. They have an excellent midfield, with Xavi Alonso, Douglas Costa, and Franck Ribery.
Arsenal never does well in this tournament, with their only glory coming in 2006, when they reached the final and lost to Barcelona. They have not made it out of the Round of 16 for the past five seasons. Arsenal has been off to a tepid start in the English Premier League season, and suffered a big blow when striker Danny Welbeck was ruled out for six months after having knee surgery. They still have a good front line with Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud, and Theo Walcott. A big question, as always with Arsenal, is their back line with Mathieu Debuchy, Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs, and Laurent Koscielny.
Olympiacos has not made it out of the Group Stage three of the past four years, with the exception being 2013-14, when they made the Round of 16 and lost to Manchester United. They are led by Hernani, Alan Pulido, and Seba up front, with Roberto in net. Olympiacos has won the Greek league for the past five years in a row.
Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine)
Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)
Analysis: When Chelsea and Porto play, it will be a very special night for Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho, who led Porto to a Champions League title in 2004. Mourinho is in his second stint with Chelsea and also coached at Real Madrid and Inter Milan, where he won the Champions League in 2010.
Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, beating Bayern Munich in the Final in Munich. They did not make it out of the Group Stage in 2013, made it to the semis in 2014, and were upset by PSG in the Round of 16 last season. They won the English Premier League in 2014-15, as they led that wire-to-wire.
Chelsea is off to a slow start to the season in the English Premier League, with just four points in four games and turmoil caused by Mourinho dismissing team doctor Eva Carneiro. Chelsea is still the best team in this group, as they boast a strong attack with Diego Costa, Pedro Rodriguez, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Radamel Falcao, who they brought in from Manchester United. They had a big acquisition in August when they brought in midfielder Oscar from Barcelona. Their big issue is the defense, as captain John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic have gotten old in a hurry and they failed to bring in John Stones from Everton in the transfer window.
Porto made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season, where they lost to Bayern Munich. They brought in Iker Casillas, the very successful goaltender from Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. They are led by midfielder Yacine Brahini, who had 13 goals last season, and Vincent Aboubakar, who had eight goals, and Danilo, who had seven. They have to account for the losses of Jackson Martinez, who had 32 goals last season, and Ricardo Quaresma, who netted 10 goals. Martinez went to Atletico Madrid and Quaresma went to Turkish club Besiktas.
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
Olympique Lyonnais (France)
KAA Gent (Belgium)
Analysis: This is the weakest group, with none of them expected to contend for the championship. Valencia should win the group, with Zenit and Olympique battling for the second spot.
Valencia has not been in the Champions League since 2013. They finsihed fourth in La Liga last season to make the Champions League qualifying round, and they beat AS Monaco to reach the Group Stage. They are led by forward Paco Alcacer, who had 10 goals last season, and midfielder Dani Parejo, who had 12 goals.