Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Your Champions League Primer: A European Football Frenzy!

The Champions League Draw. Click to enlarge.
By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

The Holy Grail of football tournaments returns today as 32 teams battle it out for a chance to hoist the 73.5cm tall trophy into the Milan sky.

This year's edition sees the return of English heavyweight Manchester United, along with five Spanish clubs, a tournament record for single country. Before previewing the groups, I have added a short explanation of how this particular tournament operates (It’s not rocket science people, though some make it out to be).

The 32 teams are drawn into eight groups of four. These four teams play each opponent in their group in a home and away match. After the six games have concluded, the two teams with the most points proceed to the knockout phase. A win is worth 3 points, a draw 1, and a loss 0. With 16 teams left, there's then another draw to determine which teams will matchup in the knockout stage.

These teams then play a home and away, incorporating the away goals rule (if the aggregate score of the two games is tied, then the team who scored more goals at their opponent's stadium advances). Eventually, only two teams are left standing in a winner takes all final that is typically held in the last two weeks of May. The group stage is played from September to December, with the knockout round beginning in February.

Any questions? Didn’t think so….

On to the Preview!

Group A
Overview: Group A delivers a mouth watering showdown between Real Madrid and PSG that is sure to provide some fireworks. Karim Benzema returns to his native France, while Ángel Di María faces his former club Real Madrid for the first time.

On a lighter note, Zlatan Ibrahimović will face his first professional, and hometown team of Malmö in a nostalgic affair for the Swede. In the end, look for Madrid and PSG to progress fairly easily. Both sides possess talent on the bench that alone would outclass the other two clubs.

Matchup to Watch: Real Madrid (ESP) vs. Paris St. Germain (FRA).

Players to Watch:
Cristiano Ronaldo (RMA), Ángel Di María (PSG), Alex Teixeira (SHK), Markus Rosenberg (MFF).

Prediction: Real Madrid (Group-winner), PSG (Runner-up).

Group B

 Overview: After what has seemed like an eternity, Manchester United return to the continent's most prestigious tournament. Whether they are poised to make a long run is a different issue altogether. Memphis Depay faces his old club, PSV, with the enviable task of trying to get a win somewhere the Red Devils have come up with none.

CSKA Moscow benefits from its geography, as most clubs tend to struggle to pick up points in Eastern Europe. Wolfsburg could surprise, but the loss of Kevin De Bruyne could prove too much to overcome.

Matchup to Watch: Manchester United (ENG) vs. PSV (NED).

Players to Watch: David De Gea (MUFC), Julian Draxler (VFL) , Luuk De Jong (PSV) , Seydou Doumbia (CSKA).

Prediction: Manchester United (Group-winner) , CSKA (Runner-up).

Group C
Overview: Atletico come in as favorites with the most complete roster, and the tactics that fit this competition like a glove. Galatasaray are an interesting case, with aging stars, but an experienced group. Any given night they could pull the upset on anyone, or go the other way and lose to the likes of Kazakh side Astana.

In the end, look for Champions League stalwart Benfica to qualify, despite a slow start under first year coach Rui Vitória.

Matchup to Watch: Atletico Madrid (ESP) vs. Benfica (POR).

Players to Watch: Antoine Griezmann (ATM) , Wesley Sneijder (GAL) , Jonas (SLB), Tanat Nusserbayev (AST).

Prediction: Atletico Madrid (Group-winner) , S.L Benfica (Runner-up).

Group D
Overview: Whether by luck, or UEFA’s sly attempt at some classical irony, Group D truly is the group of death. Off to a slow domestic start, with a roster possessing three new starters from last year's final, Juventus will look to run into form before it’s too late. Perennial underachievers Manchester City come into the competition in incredible form, sitting atop the Premier League with zero goals conceded.

This could finally be the year City advance to the quarterfinals, something they haven’t done since 2008-09. Winners of the last two Europa League titles, Sevilla hold the title as darkhorse of the tournament. In any other group that may have been possible, but this time the talent gap will be too much to overcome.

Matchup to Watch: Juventus (ITA) vs. Manchester City (ENG).

Players to Watch: Paul Pogba (JUV), David Silva (MFC), Fernando Llorente (SEV), Fabian Johnson (BMB).

Prediction: Juventus (Group-winner), Manchester City (Runner-up).

Group E 
Overview: Group E provides one of the more intriguing groups of the tournament, with Barcelona attempting to become the first back-to-back winners since AC Milan in 1989-90.  Assuming the Catalans advance, the real fight will take place between Roma and Leverkusen for the runner-up. Nothing but qualification will satiate fans of the Giallorossi, but the German club possesses a serious threat with new star signing Chicharito Hernandez.

Matchup to Watch: Barcelona (ESP) vs. Roma (ITA). 

Players to Watch: Lionel Messi (BCN), Miralem Pjanić (ROM), Javier Hernández (BL04) , Alexander Hleb (BATE).

Prediction: Barcelona (Group-winner), Bayer Leverkusen (runner-Up).

Group F

Overview: Is this finally the Bavarians' year? With arguably Europe's most talented roster from top to bottom, Pep Guardiola has guided his team to back-to-back semifinals. Unfortunately, both occasions ended in spectacular defeats, with a total aggregate of 3-10.

After winning two cups managing Barcelona, Guardiola’s tenure will be deemed a failure if he comes up empty handed again. Arsenal on other hand, will be ecstatic just to reach the quarterfinals having failed to do so since the 2009-10 season. Both teams should advance, though Dinamo could pose some problems with an underrated attack.

Matchup to Watch: Bayern Munich (GER) vs. Arsenal (ENG).

Players to Watch: Robert Lewandowski (FCB), Alexis Sanchez (ARS), Esteban Cambiasso (OLY), El Arbi Hillel Soudani (DIN).

Prediction: Bayern Munich (Group-winner), Arsenal (Runner-up).

Group G
Overview: Two weeks ago it was a forgone conclusion that Chelsea would easily win their group. Since then, their season has been pushed to the brink of disaster. Armed with the group's most talented roster, Chelsea will hope their woeful domestic form doesn’t translate to Europe.

With his next game, Iker Casillas will tie Barcelona legend Xavi for the most Champions League appearances of all time. After 16 years in the Spanish Capital, Saint Iker leads Porto, carrying a chip on his shoulder the size of Florentino Perez’s bank account. Maccabi Tel-Aviv is the first Israeli side to qualify for the group stage since their rivals Hapoel made it back in 2010.

Matchup to Watch: Chelsea (ENG) vs. Porto (POR).

Players to Watch: Eden Hazard (CHE), Iker Casillas (FCP), Miguel Veloso (DYN), Eran Zahavi (MCB).

Prediction: Porto (Group-winner), Chelsea (Runner-up).

Group H
 Overview: Another Russian side appears, with Brazilian national side fixture Hulk to anchor the attack. Valencia returns to the group stage for the first time in four years boasting one of the continent's best home field advantages in Mestalla stadium.

Lyon will depend on the reigning Ligue 1 top scorer and wonderkid, Alexandre Lacazette to guide them through. One of the few toss up groups of the competition, getting off to a fast start will be imperative for progression to the knockout rounds. 

Matchup to Watch: Lyon (FRA) vs. Valencia (ESP)

Players to Watch: Alexandre Lacazette (OL), Hulk (FCZ), Alvaro Negredo (VAL), Nana Asare (Gent).

Prediction: FC Zenit (Group-winner) , Valencia (Runner-up).

Champions League Winner

The final will take place in the San Siro, the home of AC Milan and Inter Milan.
 Writer Note: Because the knockout rounds are determined by draw, a prediction for the final is pointless in the event those teams meet in a prior round. Having said that, I will only be predicting the winner.

Winner: Real Madrid


Anonymous said...

agree on your final winner prediction!

Anonymous said...

clearly there are some groups that are more challenging than others, where even the big guns can fall. Other line-ups allow for some of the favourite to cruise through to the next round.
Who is your pick for runner-up?
BTW - you have not commented on the fact that for the first time ever I believe, five teams from a single country are in the Champions League. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico madrid, Sevilla, Valencia CF.

Justin Sherman said...

First off, thank you so much for reading my work and taking the time to comment. I love my readers feedback and/or criticism haha.

Runner-up is a tough call to make just because we don't know who the knockout draw will group together. If they avoid each other before, I fancy Barcelona making it to yet another final against Madrid. Their depth does worry me, but Arda Turan should really be fresh and ready to go come January. Can you imagine a " Clasico" UCL final? Talk about HYPE. You can always make a case for Bayern, but my real dark horse is Porto (especially if Iker catches fire).

To your second point, I did mention the record five Spanish sides qualifying in the introduction. Thanks again for your feedback!