The final round of playoff games complete, the 2014-2015 UEFA Champions League season was officially introduced with the group draws in Monaco. There are still nine months to go before the final will be played in Olympia Stadium in Berlin. Europe’s finest teams will begin their quest on September 16 for the privilege of hoisting “Old Big Ears” on June 6, 2015.
Now that UEFA’s group draw has been completed, it is time to determine winners and losers, champions and also-rans. The Champions League provides the most difficult club competition on the planet with only the very best able to play pressure-filled matches while also competing in regular league play. It calls for teams that not only have talent, but depth as well.
In Group A Atletico Madrid is favored by oddsmakers to win, followed by Juventus, Olympiakos and Malmo. Atletico were finalists last season and were ahead till the 93rd minute when Real Madrid tied the game and stole their championship dream. Juventus is a perennial Serie A powerhouse and should make it to the knockout stage. Olympiakos have made great improvement with transfers like Eric Abidal, but appear to be overmatched against two powerful teams. Swedish champion Malmo will play hard, but it is unlikely they will finish any higher than last in the group.
In Group B , many people believe that defending UEFA champion Real Madrid will win this group easily, with only Liverpool given a chance to beat them. Just named European Player of the Year, Cristiano Rinaldo leads a powerful team that is filled with international stars. Liverpool lost their star striker Luis Suarez, but still have enough talent to move on to the knockout stage. Basel is a technically sound team that finds itself in a group with two powerhouse teams. Basel will be a tough opponent, but will do no better than third in this group. Ludogorets’ big achievement was to make it to this point with Cosmin Moti’s shootout heroics. Unfortunately for them, there will be none of that type of heroics to get them beyond the group stage.
In Group C , based on two consecutive Europa League finals, Benfica is favored in what promises to be one of the more equally matched groups. Zenit St. Petersburg just blew the league title in Russia and need Hulk and Witsel to perform well if they hope to advance. Bayer Leverkusen did not fare well in last year’s competition, but with new talent they have a chance to advance. The French League’s Monaco have subtracted more players than they added and will most likely bring up the rear in this group.
In Group D, the group will come down between Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. Arsenal have advanced beyond the group stage in 15 of 17 appearances, while Dortmund believes it still has the talent to make it to the finals in Berlin next year. The winner of this group will depend on their head-to-head play. Arsenal is a slight favorite. Galatasaray went straight into group play because of Fenerbahce’s suspension. While Turkey is always a difficult place to play for any opponent, Arsenal and Dortmund appear to be too strong. Despite having won three consecutive Belgian titles, Anderlecht will not provide much of a threat to the rest of the group.
In Group E, Bayern Munich will face a tougher task to make it out of this group, but the additions of Lewandowski and Xabi Alonso will make the Germans the group favorite again. Manchester City lost last year’s group to the Germans and should be runners-up again this year. The two top teams need to be wary of an AS Roma squad that is strong on the defense and midfield. Roma could produce an upset. While a trip to Russia is never easy, CSKA Moscow does not posses the talent to make an impact in this group.
In Group F, as long as Messi is present, Barcelona will win this group and move on. The French champions, PSG, do not have the players to beat Barcelona, but they are the second best team in this group. Ajax does not have the money to spend with the big clubs and may be destined for the Europa League. APOEL, the Cyprus club, will be hard pressed to make an impact in this group.
In Group G , most feel that this group is Chelsea’s to lose. The English powerhouse has been given a very favorable draw and should easily advance. Sporting and Schalke will battle it out for second place and the right to advance. This could be the most interesting competition in this group. Maribor is in the unenviable position of “must win” games for Sporting and Schalke. The Slovenians will bring up the rear.
In Group H, Athletic, Porto and Shakhtar will fight for the two available spots in the knockout stage. While they each have a chance to advance, the current unrest in the Ukraine could derail Shakhtar. Athletic and Porto are favored to advance in what should be a competitive group. BATE Borisov will bring up the rear, but could act as a spoiler for one of the top three clubs.
After analyzing the 2014 version of the UEFA Champions League draw, it is becoming apparent that the top-tier European clubs are getting stronger while the rest are in a fight to keep their best players intact. Bayern Munich and the three-headed Spanish monster are, again, favorite to win it all. With an opportunity to become the champion of Europe before its home crowd, Bayern Munich will raise UEFA’s “Old Big Ears” after all is said and done.
Commentary By Hans Benes