The European Champions League group stage begins for the 26th time in September and as usual pits some of Europe’s biggest clubs against each other in some tantilising and mouth-watering early group fixtures as well as some opportunities for the big guns to run up the score against some teams that are just happy to be there.
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Holders Real Madrid begin their defence in Group G where Roma will be their main rivals, welcoming the Italians to the Bernabau and the imposing white wall of noise. CSKA Moscow will be no pushovers in the group but will be hard pressed to overcome to two giants although they can get their campaign off to the best possible start by dispatching Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic making their debut in the competition.
All-time leading Champions League goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo will appear in the unfamiliar black and white stripes of Juventus for the first time in the competition when they travel to Valencia in Group H. All eyes will be on Old Trafford on October 23rd when Ronaldo returns to the Theatre of Dreams for the first time with his current side and United must be at their best to qualify from this group although starting against Young Boys Berne will give them the chance to lay down a marker on their aspirations to progress through to the knock-out stages.
It’s hard to pick a “Group of Death” in this competition because some groups look particularly loaded with devastating talent. Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Atletico Madrid and Club Brugge face off in Group A while you would be hard pressed to find a bigger draw then Group B with Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur in it. Even Group C has the famous European name of Red Star Belgrade along modern powerhouses Paris Saint Germain, Napoli and Liverpool.
Manchester City look to have a relatively easy path thorough to the knock out stages with Lyon, Shakhtar Donetsk and Hoffenheim standing in their way and the always dangerous and imposing Bayern Munich should advance too although they have some tricky looking encounters to navigate with Benfica, Ajax and AEK Athens.
As usual the competition progresses in home and away group matches throughout the autumn until December when the top two teams in each group qualify for the two-legged knock out stages. The teams finishing third get the dubious consolation prize of a parachute into the Europa League while the teams finishing bottom of the group just get to console themselves with the appearance money they have earned from qualifying.
The teams don’t have to worry about controversial VAR decisions this season although this is slated to be brought in by UEFA for next season and it’s hard to pick which two teams will be contesting the final at Atletico Madrid’s home stadium – the Wanda Metropolitano – on June 1st.
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