As of this week, we’re halfway through the UEFA Champions League Group Stage. Some teams seem set to waltz through to the knockout stage, like ten time champions and current title holders Real Madrid. Other teams that may have been an obvious choice just a couple months ago seem to be floundering, while some minnows are making a legitimate claim to their spot in the top 16. Let’s take a look at this year’s competition, group by group.
Group A: The Champions Group
All 4 teams in this group were league champions in their respective countries. Juventus walked away with a third consecutive Italian title, Atletico managed to sneak the title away from giants Barcelona and Real Madrid while both Olympiakos and Malmo continued their dominance as the most successful clubs in Greece and Sweden respectively. From the outset, any safe gambler would have put their money on Juve and Atletico to stroll into the Round of 16. But halfway through the group stage, both teams have shown a chink in their armor, while Olympiakos have shown that they may end up being this years’ giant-slayers. After a home victory over Los Rojiblancos (Atletico), Olympiakos stuttered with an away defeat at Malmo. Finally in their third fixture at home, they tirelessly held off an offensive onslaught by Juventus to keep the clean sheet, and end up second in Group A with 6 pts. I’d say the standings will be as follows by the end of the Group Stage: Atletico with 13 pts, Juventus with 10 pts, Olympiakos with 9 pts (headed to the Europa League) and Malmo will finish with the 3 points that they’ve already managed. Look for Olympiakos to surprise, and one of Juventus or Madrid to be left in the Europa League.
Group B: A Storied History
Lead by 10 time champions and current title holder Real Madrid, Group B is one with a fairly storied history. Minnows Ludogorets, from Bulgaria, have been making history since returning in 2001. Liverpool is still one of the most storied clubs in English football and across the globe but are coming off a disappointing second place finish last season after flying out of the gates to the top of the table. Finally, FC Basel is one of the oldest clubs in Switzerland with 5 consecutive league titles under their belts.This group looks quite straightforward: Real Madrid will absolutely be advancing, and Liverpool should be able to make use of their home game against FC Basel and come away with a win – finishing in second place with nine points. Basel will head to the Europa, taking a draw from Real, losing to Liverpool and winning against Ludogorets. Unfortunately, Ludogorets will head home to Bulgaria empty handed.
Group C: The Wildcards
This group is probably the hardest to predict – Leverkusen and Monaco are leading the table, but struggling domestically. Meanwhile, FC Zenit and SL Benfica are dominant domestically and struggling here in the Champions League. That does seem to follow though, considering Germany and France have two of the best leagues in the world and Portugal and Russia are notorious “feeder leagues”. SL Benfica is a perennial contender for a spot in the elimination round and they are coming off a runner up finish in last years Europa League. Zenit have been competitive in the Champions League for most of the last decade. At this point, all four teams have a solid chance of advancing, considering top spot only has six points. That being said, Zenit and Benfica both have the benefit of having two home games left – something you can expect them to take advantage of. When the elimination rounds begin, look for Leverkusen to finish with ten points and Zenit to advance as well, tied on ten points. With Monaco struggling domestically after the sale of two of their top players (World Cup star James Rodriguez and Superstar striker Radamel Falcao), look for them to drop to fourth and expect Benfica to make it to the later stages of the Europa League.
Group D: Perennial Challengers
In this group, we find ourselves with Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasary SK and RSC Anderlecht. It would be a safe bet to assume these teams will at least make it to the group stage every year, and this year they were all smashed into one group. Arsenal and Dortmund faced off last year in the group stages, both squeezing their way out of the Group of Death. Dortmund is coming off a season where they finished as runners up domestically and Arsenal, a team with high expectations every year finished their usual fourth. This season is looking shockingly different – Dortmund sit near the relegation zone at fifteenth place but have still managed to lead the table in Group D. Galatasary is a team that loves to play giant slayer, with Juventus as their victims last year (Juve was pushed to the Europa League in 2013-14). Meanwhile, though they’d love to get more from this competition, Anderlecht are presumably content with the added revenue of qualifying for the CL Group stages. When the round of 16 begins, expect Dortmund to advance comfortably, while Arsenal will likely sneak by Galatasary on goal differential.
Group E: The Group of Death
Every year there is one group with four teams drawn that could all qualify for the elimination round. This year, Group E members have the distinct pleasure. With giants FC Bayern comfortably leading the way (as expected), the other three teams are going to have a tight race for the second and third place spots. AS Roma had a fantastic start to the season until they were derailed in a contentious battle with league leaders Juventus. They were recently traipsed 7-1 by Bayern, which has to be demoralizing. Meanwhile,Manchester City have been dominant in the league for the last few seasons but are sitting in third place right now. They have consistently struggled in the CL since retaking domestic relevance after their Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008. CSKA Moscow are the obvious outliers, but have proved difficult in past years for many teams to beat – their high-flying offensive style typically pressuring other teams defenders into making mistakes. At this point it is an open race for second and third, but a safe bet would be to place Man City in second, while Totti and the Romans will fall to third. CSKA will be left ruing the draw for one more year.
Group F: The Easy Bets
If I had to pick one group to bet on it would be this one. In spite of their recent struggles, Barcelona are always a near impossible team to beat – oftentimes other teams will go in hoping to sneak away with a draw. PSG, sitting in second place in the French Ligue 1 have become a force to be reckoned with in recent years, acquiring Brazilian star defenders Thiago Silva and David Luiz, as well as superstar strikers Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sitting comfortably in second place both in the CL and domestically, look for PSG to cruise to easy wins over feeder club Ajax and minnows APOEL. Barcelona should win all three fixtures, and move into first place by the end of the round, while APOEL will be clawing to catch Ajax and qualify for the Europa League.
Group G: New Money and a History of Excellence
Group G leaders Chelsea found themselves the beneficiary of a foreign takeover in the early 2000’s – Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea FC for roughly 150 million pounds. From that point forward, Chelsea has been a force to be feared with legends like (former player) Frank Lampard, Dider Drogba and John Terry all hailing from the ranks of the Blues. They won their first CL in 2012, but Abramovich wasn’t satisfied and encourged Jose “The Special One” Mourinho to revamp his roster to include young stars like Belgian Eden Hazard, Spaniards Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa (league leaders in assists and goals respectively) while maintaining some veterans in the back like Terry and Ivanovic. They’ll be advancing through, and look likely to be “buying” another title this year domestically as well. The other three teams haven’t been so flagrant in their abuses of FIFA’s Financial Fair Play system. Schalke is one of the most sucessful German clubs of all time, while Sporting Portugal is one of the three biggest clubs in Portugal. Maribor come from the tiny Slavic nation of Slovenia, but have are the uncontested most successful club in Slovenia. Unfortunately, in this group more than others, money will do the talking. Chelsea will waltz to an easy first place, followed by Schalke. Look for Sporting to claim third and end up head to head with rivals Lisbon in the Europa League.
Group H: Group of Death Jr.
While this group obviously isn’t the strongest group (we established that E walks away with that title), it is indeed the next closest to a group of death. All these teams fall in roughly the same skill category, and will all struggle for top spots in their group. Porto, the current leaders, are the most likely to succeed, following in their history of advancing through to the elimination rounds. Lead by top scorer Jackson Martinez, Porto are likely to finish first with 16 points and three more wins – taking advantage of their home pitch against second place team, Shakhtar Donetsk. Shaktar are known giant slayers, but with no giants in their group, watch for them to sit comfortably in second. Atletic Bilbao will move ahead of BATE Borisov, and stay competitive in the Europa League. BATE will be left out in the cold, and ultimately, none of these teams will compete for the Champions League title.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on the Champions League so far! If I had to make some predictions I’d say the following:
1. Bet on Galatasary and Roma: They’ll have good odds, and actually stand a solid chance of advancing.
2. The leading scorer of the group stage will be: Cristiano Ronaldo. Even though he’s 3 goals back of Adriano, I can only see him willing Real to victory by scoring more goals. He’s scored as many goals domestically as the rest of his club combined.
3. But if you want to gamble: Bet on Jackson Martinez. He’s a full time out and out goal scorer and he is good at what he does. Watch out for him to drive Porto to the Elimination rounds.
4. The disappointments will be: Juventus, Manchester City and Arsenal. All three teams have struggled in recent years in the CL and haven’t shown that much has changed so far.
If you’re not a huge fan, take some time out of your day on November 4th and 5th (around 12-4) and check out a Champions League game on Sportsnet or a livestream. These games tend to be much faster paced and much less conservative – much more exciting for a non-diehard fan.
CC banner image courtesy of albertosanfer on flickr