Of all the groups in this year’s UEFA Champions League tournament, Group A is the only one to feature four domestic champions. The group includes last year’s finalist, Atletico Madrid, and a first-time entrant into the tournament, Malmo. As domestic champions, all four teams are capable of playing superior football.
Atletico Madrid was the champion of all Europe last year until minute 93, when Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos’ header turned their world upside down. Real scored three more goals in extra time in what became an excruciating loss for Atletico. Winning the Supercopa de España recently has given Atletico a bit of revenge. Adding Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez and Antoine Griezmann to the attack, and the return of Arda Turan from injury, should make the Colchoneros favorites to win this group. Another run for the “Old Big Ears” trophy is a real possibility.
Juventus will not make the same mistake they made last year when they failed to advance to the knockout stage. Giuseppe Marotta feels the Bianconeri have learned the lesson of taking opponents too lightly. Their loss to Galatasaray and a draw against Copenhagen cost them a place in the final 16. Keeping Chilean international midfielder Arturo Vidal from going to Manchester United can only help. Vidal’s physical play and persistent energy will be needed if the team hopes to overcome a strong Atletico team. As Marotta recently stated, “In the (UEFA) Champions League there is a considerable gap between ourselves and the big clubs.” Atletico is a big club.
Olympiacos will receive some additional firepower with the imminent return of striker Kostas Mitroglou, on loan from Fulham. Mitroglou scored three hat tricks in Greece’s World Cup preliminary matches to help them advance in the tournament. Olympiacos is the most successful club in Greek history and a regular entrant into Europe’s primary tournament. Last year they advanced out of the group stage, while the prior two seasons they were transferred to the Europa League after failing to advance. Olympiacos is a Greek powerhouse and is capable of giving Atletico and Juventus stern tests. The overall strength of Serie A and Spain’s Primera Division, however, will make it difficult for Olympiacos to advance to the knockout stage. Another Europa League transfer seems most likely.
Malmo achieved the “incredible” with a 4-2 aggregate playoff victory over Salzburg. It is the Swedish side’s first entry into the Champions League group stage. Trailing 2-1 in aggregate after the first leg, Markus Rosenberg scored twice to put the club through. It ended a 14-year Champions League drought for Swedish football. Rosenberg has been reinvigorated after two fruitless seasons at West Bromwich Albion. Malmo has won 17 Swedish national championships and 14 national cups in their history. Currently the reigning Swedish league champions, Malmo will be in Europe’s top competition for the first time. On such a large stage, they could find themselves overmatched. They will be successful by finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League.
The UEFA Champions League is the premier club tournament in the world. Of the 32 teams in the tournament, 16 will advance to the knockout stage while the eight third place finishers will transfer and compete for the Europa Cup. Regardless of their pedigree, all teams have to be at their best to advance. Atletico and Juventus are the Group A favorites, but they have to be wary of upset-minded Olympiacos and Malmo.
Commentary by Hans Benes