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The qualifying rounds for the Champions League group stage have finished and the 32 clubs who will participate in the group stage are set. Those 32 clubs have now been drawn into eight different four-team groups and will compete in the group stage starting in September 2015. Each club will play the three other clubs in their group twice, with the top two teams from each group progressing to the knockout stages. The group stage process will run from September to December with the matches during midweek, so as not to interfere with each club’s domestic league schedule. Here is how the draw played out:
Pars Saint Germain, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmo
This group contains two heavyweights of the modern game, PSG and Madrid. Real are only a year and a half removed from their “La Décima” victory in 2014, in which they won their 10th European Cup/Champions League title, the most of any club. Madrid are the favorites in the group, but with the often-criticized Rafa Benitez being appointed manager, it will be interesting to see how they fare.
PSG have, in recent years, been trying to enter into the conversation of elite clubs, but have stuttered in the knockout stages of the Champions League, while dominating domestically in France. Last season, they took a huge step forward in the round of 16, beating Chelsea, even with the disadvantage of Zlatan Ibrahimovic being suspended for the second leg after receiving a harsh red card in the first leg. They will look to build on that momentum and try to make a deeper run this season, being helped by the addition of Angel Di Maria, the former Madrid star.
Shakhtar Donetsk are a constant in the Champions League group stage and are often a very pesky out for some of the bigger clubs. They usually hover around second and third place in their group, but this year, with the loss of their star, Douglas Costa, who left to Bayern this summer, along with the difficulty of their group, advancing to the knockout stage looks unlikely. Malmo is a Swedish side that will no doubt be the minnows of this group. They are a small club that simply does not have the resources to challenge these bigger clubs, but anything can happen in sports, and they may just have a few moments of brilliance.
PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg
Manchester United, oddly enough, had to qualify for the group stage by beating Belgium’s Club Brugge. They swept aside the Belgians by an aggregate score of 7-1, and had incredible performances from Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney in each respective leg. A year removed from Champions League participation, this is a big year for the Red Devils, and while they are the team to beat in this group, it will not be an easy task to progress through this round.
CSKA and Wolfsburg are both clubs that have a chance to make some waves in the Champions League, and have both had past success in the competition. The Russian side often progresses, but have had trouble making it past the round of 16. The German side have been steadily improving and building a very quality squad over recent years, finishing second in last season’s Bundesliga. However, if they lose their star, Kevin De Brunye, to Manchester City, as is rumored and looks more than likely, it will be tough sledding in a very difficult group.
Last season in the Eredivisie, the Dutch domestic league, PSV, put an end to Ajax’s four-year run as champions. They will look to carry that momentum into the group stages of this year’s Champions League, but are in a group that may be the most balanced and top-to-bottom talented of all the groups.
Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray and Astana
Atletico Madrid always seem to have a lot of roster turnover, but are able to sustain success through the leadership of their very colorful manager, Diego Simeone. They probably have the most talent in the group and have the best recent track record of success in the Champions League, but that will not guarantee their progression.
Benfica and Galatasaray will be the main threats to Atletico and have both had recent progressions to the group stages. The Portuguese and Turkish sides both have the ability to progress to the knockout stages and their matches against each other will go a long way in deciding their fate. Astana are the capital club of Kazakhstan and had a very impressive campaign to become the first Kazakhstani club to qualify for the group stage, but it will be tough for them to get any farther, due to them being the smallest club of the group.
Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla and Monchengladbach
This is a very interesting group and could be labeled the “group of death,” because all four clubs represent powerful domestic leagues. Manchester City has been on a tear in England and will look to take that form into the Champions League. Their recent success in England has not really translated to European play, and they have failed to really beat a big club in the knockout stages. The way they have looked so far this year, it seems like a real possibility that this could change and they could finally make a run to the semifinals or the final.
Juventus lost in the final to Barcelona in last season of the Champions League and have been won the last four Serie A titles. Over the summer, they lost a lot of talent from their squad and may still lose their star, Paul Pogba, who is rumored to be headed to Chelsea, and that will definitely affect their European success this year. They will still compete well this season, but may not have a squad capable of replicating last year’s success.
Sevilla and Monchengladbach will have a tough time progressing against the two giants of the European game in their group. The Spanish and German sides will likely get some points off of the two bigger clubs and could challenge for a spot worthy of progression, but it seems unlikely.
Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma and Bate
Reigning champions Barcelona may have gotten the kindest draw of all the elite clubs. That is not to say the other clubs in their group will not challenge them, but it would be hard to see any of these other clubs in the group beating them if progression to the knockout stages was on the line. This year they look to be the first club to repeat as European Cup/Champions League winners since Milan did it in the late ’80s, before the competition was even known as the Champions League.
Leverkusen and Roma will likely be the clubs challenging for second place in this group. Their ties against each other will be the most interesting of the group as far as determining who, other than Barcelona, progresses to the knockout stages. FC Bate are the lone Belarusian participant in the group stage and are another club that has very little chance of progression, being the smallest club in their group.
Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb
This is most definitely the German giants, Bayern Munich’s, group to lose. They have been one of the most dominant teams in the Champions League in recent years, and even won it in 2013. They have had very little trouble winning their group in the process. For them, the challenge is getting over the hump from the semifinals to the final under manager Pep Guardiola, as they have suffered embarrassing semifinal defeats at the hands of Barcelona and Real Madrid the last two seasons.
Arsenal is a club who constantly seem to look as if they are not going to progress to the knockout stage, but eventually do on the last day. Seemingly, they are the second best club in this group, however, they are a club that is known to play down to the level of their competition. They are not likely to challenge Bayern to win the group, but they need to watch out for the other two clubs to make sure they have the points to progress and are not left out of the knockout round.
Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb are two teams that could challenge Arsenal for second place, but have very little chance of challenging Bayern. The Greek and Croatian sides will have their chances to progress, especially if Arsenal is not careful.
Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv and Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Chelsea have not had a great start to this campaign domestically, but classically have not had trouble progressing to the knockout stages and will likely do so this year as the strongest club in this group. Last year was a down year for the Blues in the Champions League, as they were knocked out in the round of 16 by PSG. Since Jose Mourinho’s return to the London club, he has not yet had them in the type of form they need to win the Champions League, although he has had great success domestically. As a two-time winner of this competition, Mourinho would love to add a third at Chelsea since it is the one trophy he has yet to bring back to Stamford Bridge.
Porto will be Chelsea’s main competition for winning the group, and they have troubled the Blues before both in the group stages and the knockout rounds. The Portuguese are often a club hovering around the quarterfinals but failing to really get any further, that is, since winning the Champions League in 2004 with Mourinho at the helm. The Chelsea Porto matches will be the most exciting in the group and will likely be the deciding factors in who wins and who takes second.
Dynamo Kyiv and Maccabi Tel-Aviv will be the forgotten clubs of this group, but both have a chance to challenge the two bigger clubs for points. Kyiv, the Ukranian champions, have often been a pesky side for some of the bigger clubs in the Champions League and will look to continue that trend. Tel-Aviv are the Israeli champions, but are yet another club that simply does not have the resources to compete with the likes of Chelsea or Porto. For them, this Champions League campaign will be more about getting their players European experience and testing themselves against top-level competition.
Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Lyon and Gent
This is the lone group without a real traditional power. Valencia were for a long time, but recently they have not been a force in the Champions League. This means that this may be the group that is most up for grabs. Zenit has perhaps the strongest quad, but it is not far superior to any member of this group, and they will need to play their best in each of the six group games in order to win.
Valencia and Lyon are both in a similar position right now; they are not as powerful as they once were, both in their countries and in Europe, and they have been in and out of the Champions League recently. Both clubs would love a return to the height they once were, but do not really have the squads to achieve that. These two will likely be competing for second place and will have their chance to progress in the knockout stages, but will need a kind draw to make it very far. Gent are the Belgian representatives and champions, but are another club with little chance of progression.
Commentary by Max Petkevicius
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Photo Courtesy of Daniel’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License