It feels like it has been years since FC Barcelona lifted the trophy in Berlin to claim victory after beating Juventus 3-1 in the Champions League final of 2015. In reality, however, it has only been 106 days that we have been forced to waste away without Champions League soccer, required to sit through boring friendlies, domestic league matches (or worse, the Fox Soccer Daily show) in hopes of catching a glimpse of a worthwhile goal.
But good news for all of us! The Champions League is back! Back to grace us with excitement, joy, glory, frustration, anger, and sheer rage (depending on which team you support, of course). There are 32 teams fighting for the chance to lift the trophy at the San Siro in Milan (we can all enjoy the fact that neither AC Milan nor Inter Milan are included in the 32 teams), and we have the opportunity to watch it all play out.
What will happen this year?
As always, a lot will depend on domestic play: morale, fitness, and sanity of the coaches. In some leagues everything is normal – Bayern atop the Bundesliga, followed closely by Dortmund after the latter team’s mid-league crisis last year, Paris Saint-Germain leading Ligue 1, and Barçelona and Real Madrid fighting for the top spot in La Liga. In the Premier League all might seem normal, but there are a couple interesting stories. The current League champion Chelsea has had their worst start since 1988, leaving them at spot 10, right behind Norwich City. However, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Arsenal are near the top as usual (although though they continue to have trouble converting their success to international play). Juventus are also allowing themselves a slow start and are at spot 16 in Serie A. Also, many of these teams will be playing in their domestic league cups, which will affect their fitness and require giving bench players some time in order to rest tired legs. This juggling of priorities and starting lineups can wreak havoc on teams and definitely plays into performances in the Champions League.
It also makes the game exciting.
Sixteen games have been played already, the first round of the group stage is over, and not everything ran according to plan. Some upsets include Manchester United’s 1-2 loss to PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal’s 1-2 defeat at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb, along with Barcelona’s 1-1 draw against Roma despite having 70 percent of the possession. Otherwise things ran normally, with Real Madrid, PSG, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla coming out on top.
Here are some things that what we can expect from the rest of the group stage according to Champions League history and this year’s draw.
- Lots of goals from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: we’re already one game in and Ronaldo had three against Shakhtar Donetsk. The two will (just like in league play) be competing against each other for the top spot. Another player to watch out for is Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller, who is the top German scorer ever in Champions League history and had two against FC Olympiakos on Wednesday.
- A ton of penalty kick calls: as time goes on, the amount of penalties awarded by the referee has increased. In the Champions League season 1999/2000, for example, there were 28 penalties awarded, and in 2013/2014 there were 39. After only one game this season there have already been 10 penalty kicks given. Three of the ten were either saved or missed.
- No big shot for the small fish: because there is no real “group of death” this season. Some may argue otherwise, but the powerhouses are spread out in a way that makes it very hard for an underdog story, as endearing as we might find them. However, keeping the outcomes of the first game in mind, there is always a chance. Keep your eyes out for FC Astana, the first team from Kazakhstan to reach the Champions League, who only lost 0-2 to Benfica.
- Transfers to make a big difference: clubs were busy during the transfer window this year, with names like Mandžukić, Draxler, De Bruyne, and Schweinsteiger transferring from one big team to another and making up for the loss of others, such as Pirlo and Lampard, to retirement (or the MLS… is there a difference?). These transfers have already had a big impact, with Mandžukić scoring the first goal in Juventus’ 2-1 comeback over Manchester City, Draxler with the only goal in Wolfsburg’s win against CSKA Moskow, and Schweinsteiger and De Bruyne playing a part for Manchester United and Manchester City respectively.
With all of this new and exciting information, get ready for the rest of an awesome group stage of the Champions League!
Go make bets with your friends, watch the games at a restaurant, and enjoy sharing a laugh about the fact that Arsenal drew Bayern Munich again.