On August 28th in Monaco, the representatives of 32 teams from across Europe joined to witness the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League Draw. For those who don’t know, the Champions League pits the top teams from across Europe’s top leagues against each other in a season-long tournament. The 32 are divided in 4 pots of 8. The 8 highest ranked go into pot 1, the next 8 into pot 2 and so on. Groups of four are then pulled out of the pots at random, one from each pot, with no league having two teams in one group. Throughout the next couple of months these groups will play round-robin style games, each team playing every other twice, once at home and once away. The top two from each group advance to the head-to-head knockout rounds. Here is my take on which teams will make it through from groups A through D.
Group A: Atlético de Madrid (ESP), Juventus (ITA), Olympiacos (GRE), Malmö (SWE)
Featuring Atlético, the runner up from last year’s tournament, this group matches up more evenly than most. Those who followed last year’s tournament may remember Olympiacos beating David Moyes’s Manchester United 2-0. Although they eventually fell 3-2 on aggregate, the Greeks are by no means pushovers. Juventus, under the leadership of Massimiliano Allegri, will attempt to exit the group stage once again after failing to do so last year. Malmö, the pot 4 representatives, will struggle to gain a single point, but may get the chance to bond with Juventus over both having once had Zlatan Ibrahimovic grace their uniforms.
Prediction: Atlético 1st, Juventus 2nd
Group B: Real Madrid (ESP), Basel (SUI), Liverpool (ENG), Ludogorets (BUL)
After capturing ‘La Decima,’ as Madridistas call it, Real Madrid will be eager to repeat as champions. Despite the departures of Angel di María and Xabi Alonso, the additions of Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, among others, ensure Los Blancos will send out a world class squad that should easily make it out of the group. Basel, hailing from the certainly-not-a-soccer-power-but-halfway-decent country of Switzerland, could be poised to cause some ripples. As recently as the 2011-12 season, Basel were able to beat Bayern Munich at home, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. And Liverpool? They have added at least one more viewer by purchasing Mario Balotelli . I’ll be watching, waiting to see what Super Mario has to offer Europe. Should he channel the Mario who showed up at Euro 2012 vs. Germany, Liverpool is sure to advance, otherwise, their path becomes a little trickier. Ludogorets, despite getting this far due to the heroic play of center defender Cosmin Moti, faces an uphill climb out of this group.
Prediction: Real 1st, Liverpool 2nd
Group C: Benfica (POR), Zenit (RUS), Leverkusen (GER), Monaco (FRA)
Benfica can boast the best form of this tightly-matched group. They won all four Portuguese titles in the last year and have reached the Europa League final in back-to-back seasons. Their defense last year allowed the fewest goals of any European team, giving up only 18 all year. Traveling to Russia in winter will be no easy task for any of these teams, so look for Zenit to take advantage at home. Bayer Leverkusen are in top form right now, winning their first five Bundesliga matches, including one against Borussia Dortmund. They are certainly capable of beating all the other teams so if they can hold onto this form, there’s no reason for them not to advance. Monaco, on the other hand, should just be happy that the summer transfer window has closed. They saw their two highly-rated Colombians, James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, jump ship after only one season. The team has enough talent to gain some points but is overall not strong enough to make a real showing.
Predictions: Leverkusen 1st, Benfica 2nd
Group D: Arsenal (ENG), Borussia Dortmund (GER), Galatasaray (TUR), Anderlecht (BEL)
Arsenal have suffered the tremendous blow of losing striker Olivier Giroud for the next several months. Fortunately, they have strengthened up front with the additions of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. Arsene Wenger will surely have his men ready for top competition. Borussia Dortmund have brought back club favorite and Louis Van Gaal excess Shinji Kagawa to fortify an already well-balanced club. The loss of Robert Lewandowski will surely be felt, but look to Marco Reus to become the undisputed leader of this team. Now under the reins of former Italy boss Cesare Prandelli, Galatasaray will hope to have better luck than the last team he led in a group stage (See Italy World Cup performance). Anderlecht are surely the underdogs in this group and cannot be expected to make it out.
Predictions: Arsenal 1st, Dortmund 2nd