Now that we have an opening draw, there are now 96 matches scheduled between 32 of the best clubs Europe has to offer. Several great rivalries will be renewed over the next few months, and a handful of Europe’s up-and-coming sides will also be tested by the continent’s perennial powers. As usual, most Americans couldn’t give a shit less.
That’s really a shame, because the Champions League has really become the world’s biggest sporting event. It’s part NCAA Basketball Tournament, part NFL Playoffs, and all about some rivalries that are older than America itself.
But I’m not here to win converts; I’m here to look at the eight groups of four teams each, and to take a look at who has the best shot to get out of the group stage.
Group A: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad
This group features one three-time winner, two domestic champions from the previous season and four teams that have all made it to the knockout round of the competition in the new millennium.
1) Manchester United
- How they qualified: English Premier League champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1968, 1999, 2008)
- Home stadium: Old Trafford / Manchester, England
- Manager David Moyes
- Preview: United has a new look this year, as David Moyes replaced the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson as manager. Man U remains as one of the royalty of European soccer; they still have a crushing level of talent even with the uncertain status of striker Wayne Rooney as far as his tenure with the Red Devils is concerned. This club has to be considered a favorite to advance deep into this tournament.
2) Shakhtar Donetsk
- How they qualified: Ukrainian Premier League champion,advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Quarterfinals (2011)
- Home stadium: Donbass Arena / Donetsk, Ukraine
- Manager: Mircea Lucescu
- Preview: Ever since legendary Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu took over at Donetsk in 2004, they have been consistently one of the best coached teams in any competition, European sides have found Donetsk to be a worthy adversary in many competitions, especially in their UEFA Cup win in 2009. Having said that, this is a tough draw for the Ukrainians, and they will have to play their best football to advance.
3) Bayer Leverkusen
- How they qualified: German Bundesliga third place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Finalist (2002)
- Home stadium: BayArena / Leverkusen, Germany
- Manager: Sami Hyypiä
- Preview: In its first three three Bundesliga matches, Leverkusen jumped out to an impressive 3-0 record with a goal differential of +5. In other words, they look interesting, but they have a history of being better suited as a bridesmaid in top level European competitions. They didn’t get out out of the Round of 32 of the Europa League last year, and this year finds them back in Europe’s premier club competition. Glory has always seemed to elude them, as they have been runner-up in the Bundesliga five times and in the Champions League once. Granted, the German League has really ascended in recent years to the top of the European food chain, but Leverkusen remains on my “believe when I see it” ilst.
4) Real Sociedad
- How they qualified: Spanish La Liga fourth place, defeated Olympique Lyonnais in playoff round
- Best finish: Round of 16 (2004)
- Home stadium: Anoeta / San Sebastián, Spain
- Mananger: Jagoba Arrasate
- Preview: As a member of the best league in Europe, Real Sociedad easily dispatched with solid French side Lyon 4-0 on aggregate in the playoff round. While that performance has some viewing Sociedad as having arrived on the major European stage, but there are still too many questions about the depth of a club that has only been in the top flight of Spanish soccer for the past three years.
Group B: Juventus, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagen
This group features three powerful and storied clubs along with a probably over-matched Danish champion Copenhagen set to struggle.
- How they qualified: Italian Serie A champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1985, 1996)
- Home stadium: Juventus Stadium / Turin, Italy
- Manager: Antonio Conte
- Preview: Juventus had a side that won Serie A, and to that they added a fearsome attack with Carlos Tévez and Fernando Llorente over the summer. With the legendary Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings in midfield, this is Juventus’ strongest squad in several years, which is considerable since they won the the top Italian league by a nine-point margin last year.
2) Real Madrid
- How they qualified: Spanish La Liga second place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002)
- Home stadium: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu / Madrid, Spain
- Manager: Carlo Ancelotti
- Preview: This is Real Madrid’s 17th consecutive season in the Champions League, where it will look for a record 10th title. New manager Carlo Ancelotti came to Real from French power Paris Saint-Germain, where he led a similarly star-studded squad to the Ligue 1 title last year. With such a transition, there are some who have shown concern over Real’s early weak performances in La Liga.
- How they qualified: Turkish Süper Lig champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Semifinals (1989)
- Home stadium: Türk Telekom Arena / Istanbul, Turkey
- Manager: Fatih Terim
- Preview: Somehow this club always remains relevant to European football despite the fact it plays in the relatively inferior Turkish league. Despite that, the club spent money to buy top-flight players such as Wesley Sneijder, Didier Drogba, and Emmanuel Eboué, which makes Galatasaray a side ready to snatch an advancement should with Juventus or Real Madrid show the slightest stumble.
4) FC Copenahgen
- How they qualified: Danish Superliga champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Round of 16 (2011)
- Home stadium: Parken Stadium / Copenhagen, Denmark
- Mananger: Ståle Solbakken
- Preview: FC Copenhagen is really the “little brother” in this group. Here’s a club that has never dropped out of the top three in Denmark’s highest division since the 1999-2000 season, but they also have never won , Copenhagen has also never won a European competition and they have only advanced beyond the group stage on rare occasions.
Group C: Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, Anderlecht, Olympiakos
This is an evenly matched group featuring just one team from a “Big Four” nation, hence this may be the most wide-open group in the draw.
1) Paris Saint-Germain
- How they qualified: French Ligue 1 champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Quarterfinals (2013)
- Home stadium: Parc des Princes / Paris, France
- Manager: Laurent Blanc
- Preview: PSG has come into some money recently and has spent its way back to the top of the talent pool in Europe. As the club stabilizes after its most recent spending spree this summer, it heads into the Champions League with serious expectations of advancing deep into the competition. Another factor driving those expectations is the fact manager In Laurent Blanc holds a French domestic record for winning 11 matches in a row at Bordeaux.
- How they qualified: Portuguese Primeira Liga second place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1961, 1962)
- Home stadium: Estádio da Luz / Lisbon, Portugal
- Manager: Jorge Jesus
- Preview: As of late, Portugal has been like a European developmental league, meaning it grows a ton of talent who then signs elsewhere for big money. Having said that, look for Benfica to be heavily scouted by the buyers in the next transfer window during this tournament, as no less than nine nations are represented on the Benfica side.
- How they qualified: Belgian Pro League champion, directly into group stage
- Best finish: Semifinals (1982, 1986)
- Home stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium / Brussels, Belgium
- Manager: John van den Brom
- Preview: Anderlecht almost never gets much competition in its domestic league, which means they almost never do anything on European nights. They aren’t going to advance against the likes of Benfica and PSG, but they aren’t as flaky as Olympiakos.
- How they qualified: Greek Superleague champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Quarterfinals (1999)
- Home stadium: Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium / Athens, Greece
- Coach: Míchel
- Preview: As per my earlier comments, Olympiakos is at the same time Greeces’ most successful club, and is this tournaments most unpredictable. There’s something in the water in Greece (as evidenced by the national team’s weird performances in both Euro 2004 and 2008) that makes Greek sides capable of being both spectacular and horrible in the confines of the same match. That kind of inconsistency is a very limiting factor in the Champions League.
Group D: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzeň
This is another loaded with talent; three domestic champions, a super-club looking for the European success it failed to find last year,and a tiny club that traveled a long road to make it to the group stage.
1) Bayern Munich
- How they qualified: UEFA Champions League winner, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001, 2013)
- Home stadium: Allianz Arena / Munich, Germany
- Manager: Pep Guardiola
- Preview: There’s really no other way to look at this club than as one of the favorites to win the Champions League again. Bayern Munich’s biggest off-season change was hiring new manager Pep Guardiola, which means will this team instill a similar possession-based philosophy as he did at FC Barcelona or work with the grittier German style to create something completely different? Either way, this team has far too much talent to be anything other than a semi-finalist at the very least.
2) Manchester City
- How they qualified: English Premier League second place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Group stage (1969, 2011, 2012)
- Home stadium: City of Manchester Stadium / Manchester, England
- Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
- Preview: Man City just can’t be as dreadful again as they were in Europe last year, can they? You bet they can. It isn’t likely given this draw, but to be honest, there are several other groups in which I would never dream of putting Man city in the top two. There’s a ton of pressure on Pelligrini’s side to perform given what this club has spent in recent years to get to the top of the European food chain, and duplicating last year’s European efforts by flaming out of the Champions’ and the Europa League will likely result in a dismantling of this club.
3) CSKA Moscow
- How they qualified: Russian Premier League champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Quarterfinal (2010)
- Home stadium: Arena Khimki / Moscow, Russia
- Manager: Leonid Slutsky
- Preview: While CSKA is probably not the strongest Russian team at this point, CSKA still managed to win their domestic league over powerful sides like Zenit St. Petersburg and the surprising Anzhi Makhachkala. Either way, this club deserves to be in the Champions League. Like all things Russian, there is a distinct home advantage CSKA will enjoy playing matches in Moscow on the cusp of the Russian winter, but even given that the Muscovitews will need to play flawless football to entertain a chance of avoiding another trip to the Europa League.
4) Viktoria Plzeň
- How they qualified: Czech Gambrinus Liga champion, defeated Željezničar Sarajevo in second qualifying round, Nõmme Kalju in third qualifying round, NK Maribor in playoff round
- Best finish: Group stage (2012)
- Home stadium: Doosan Arena / Plzeň, Czech Republic
- Coach: Pavel Vrba
- Preview: Plzeň is one of two “Little Engines That Could,” meaning they are one of two team in the group stage to progress all the way from the second qualifying round to the group stage. The little Czech club received a favorable draw throughout by never facing a club that started the competition later than it did. As a result, Plzeň is the smallest club in the entire competition, yet they are in the group stage for the second consecutive year.
Group E: Chelsea, FC Basel, Schalke, Steaua Bucharest
After Chelsea, this group is wide open.
- How they qualified: English Premier League third place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (2012)
- Home stadium: Stamford Bridge / London, England
- Manager: José Mourinho
- Preview: Everything old is new again at Stamford Bridge with the return of manager José Mourinho. Chelsea should win this group, as it is clearly the most talented club in it.
2) FC Basel
- How they qualified: Swiss Super League champion, defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv in third qualifying round, Ludogoretz Razgrad in playoff round
- Best finish: Quarterfinals (1974)
- Home stadium: St. Jakob-Park / Basel, Switzerland
- Manager: Murat Yakin
- Preview: Basel has a long history of advancing to the group stage and grabbing a couple of results. But they are also like the Portuguese teams, meaning they tend to develop talent later to be signed by other teams. That also means they have enough talent to advance to the knock-out round.
- How they qualified: German Bundesliga fourth place, defeated PAOK Thessaloniki in playoff round
- Best finish: Semifinals (2011)
- Home stadium: Veltins-Arena / Gelsenkirchen, Germany
- Manager: Jens Keller
- Preview: I just don’t buy Schalke. I think they are riding the coat-tails of a ascending Bundesliga. It took a miracle from Julian Draxler to get this club into the group stage, and that has been the modus operandi for this club under Jens Keller. This club could easily miss Europa as well if they don’t figure something out soon.
4) Steaua Bucharest
- How they qualified: Romanian Liga 1 champion, defeated FK Vardar in second qualifying round, Dinamo Tbilisi in third qualifying round, Legia Warsaw in playoff round
- Best finish: Winner (1986)
- Home stadium: Arena Națională / Bucharest, Romania
- Manager: Laurențiu Reghecampf
- Preview: After a five-year absence, the pride of Romanian football finds itself back in the group stage. That’s the good news. The bad news for Steaua is that while it was a long, hard road at a shot to recapture some of the glory of nearly 30 years ago, getting a result better than a fourth-place finish will be close to impossible. While this is not the strongest group, the fact is that a Romanian team has not played in the spring since the tournament was re-branded in 1992. It doesn’t help this team just sold arguably it’s best player, Vlad Chiricheș, to Tottenham Hotspur.
Group F: Borussia Dortmund, Marseille, Arsenal, Napoli
This is arguably the best group you could assemble without a single domestic champion in it. Despite that, this group still includes a Champions League finalist from last year and and three perennial domestic contenders.
1) Borussia Dortmund
- How they qualified: German Bundesliga second place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1997)
- Home stadium: Westfalenstadion / Dortmund, Germany
- Manager: Jürgen Klopp
- Preview: Last season, Jürgen Klopp led his team to an improbable all-German Champions League final by defeating Real Madrid 4-1 at home in the semifinal behind a four-goal game from Robert Lewandowski, who stayed with the club over the summer despite serious international interest.
- How they qualified: French Ligue 1 second place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1993)
- Home stadium: Stade Vélodrome / Marseille, France
- Manager: Élie Baup
- Preview: Although Marseille is used to living in PSG and Lyon’s shadow, it has at least managed to overcome the latter in terms of success in recent years. The locally owned club will likely never be able to match PSG for money, but it will always put up a fight, egged on by some of the most passionate fans in France.
- How they qualified: English Premier League fourth place, defeated Fenerbahçe in playoff round
- Best finish: Finalist (2006)
- Home stadium: Emirates Stadium / London, England
- Manager: Arsène Wenger
- Preview: Despite the dispatching of the-now banned Fenerbahçe in the play-off round, Arsenal has two problems. They did not address some needs during the most recent transfer window, and the talent they have (Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Girouda for example) are young and largely unproven on the continental stage.
- How they qualified: Serie A second place, advance directly into group stage
- Best finish: Second Round (1991)
- Home stadium: Stadio San Paolo / Naples, Italy
- Coach: Rafael Benítez
- reveiw: Here’s a team that may very well be going from the best finish last year for a team to not even make Europa after the group stage. Rafael Benítez took over as Napoli manager after winning the Europa League with Chelsea last season, but this team doesn’t have the talent Chelsea has. And while Napoli has shown a willingness to spend in the transfer market, they somewhat missed the mark by doing so with Gonzalo Higuaín and Pepe Reina (on loan from Liverpool). Nobody really expects much from this Napoli side in this competition, but they might just hurt some team that overlooks them.
Group G: Atletico Madrid, Zenit St Petersburg, FC Porto, Austria Wien
FC Porto has the history of winning this tournament, every other team in this group has been here before, and Atletcio and Zenit can each go a long way here.
1) Atlético Madrid
- How they qualified: Spanish La Liga third place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Finalist (1974)
- Home stadium: Estadio Vicente Calderón / Madrid, Spain
- Manager: Diego Simeone
- Preview: Atletico just slugged it out with FC Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup and didn’t look to be out their weight class. The team combines a technical ability and tactical awareness typical of the classic Spanish approach with the physical play generally more characteristic of the English and the Germans.
2) Zenit St. Petersburg
- How they qualified: Russian Premier League second place, defeated FC Nordsjælland in third qualifying round, Paços de Ferreira in playoff round
- Best finish: Round of 16 (2012)
- Home stadium: Petrovsky Stadium / St. Petersburg, Russia
- Manager: Luciano Spalletti
- Preview: Fact number one: Zenit always finds its way into Europe. Fact number two: Zenit picked the bones of Anzhi Makhachkala after their collapse. Those lead to fact number three: Zenit has loaded up for a full frontal assault on the Russian Premier League and the Champions League. They will tough to beat, and while not an overwhelming favorite for Europe, they are nowhere near a longshot either.
3) FC Porto
- How they qualified: Portuguese Primeira Liga champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1987, 2004)
- Home stadium: Estádio do Dragão / Porto, Portugal
- Manager: Paulo Fonseca
- Preview: FC Porto’s heyday came with José Mourinho’s coming-out party in Europe when he led them to the won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in back-to-back years ant the beginning of the new millennium. While the glory days are waned at Porto, they still can prove a challenge on the European stage.
4) Austria Wien
- How they qualified: Austrian Bundesliga champion, defeated FH in third qualifying round, Dinamo Zagreb in playoff round
- Best finish: Semifinals (1979)
- Home stadium: Franz Horr Stadium / Vienna, Austria
- Coach: Thomas Parits
- Manager: The weakest team in this group, Vienna survived a late scare in the playoff round to defeat Dinamo Zagreb and make it into the group stage. Don’t expect too much out of the Austrian champion, far removed from its European glory days.
Group H: FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Celtic, Ajax,
Group H of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League has more European Cup wins than every other group combined. This is as close as it gets to a Group of Death in this edition of the competition.
1) FC Barcelona
- How they qualified: Spanish La Liga champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1992, 2006, 2009, 2011)
- Home stadium: Camp Nou / Barcelona, Spain
- Manager: Gerardo Martino
- Preview: Even with a new manager and a squad of aging players, FC Barcelona is still the best club in Europe, although the gap between them and the contenders is not a great as it once was.
2) AC Milan
- How they qualified: Italian Serie A third place, defeated PSV Eindhoven in playoff round
- Best finish: Winner (1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007)
- Home stadium: San Siro / Milan, Italy
- Manager: Massimiliano Allegri
- Preview: Only twice in the last 14 years has AC Milan failed to reach the Champions League, and in only two of those appearance have the Italians failed to advance to the knock-out rounds. That isn’t going to change, if for no other reason than Milan’s attack is still one of the best in Europe.
- How they qualified: Scottish Premier League champion, defeated Cliftonville in second qualifying round, Elfsborg in third qualifying round, Shakhter Karagandy in playoff round
- Best finish: Winner (1967)
- Home stadium: Celtic Park / Glasgow, Scotland
- Manager: Neil Lennon
- Preview: Celtic always provides a great home atmosphere in Europe, and this year, I think that may be enough. They aren’t going to win this group, and they know that. This campaign will be all about getting the Scots back into Europa.
- How they qualified: Dutch Eredivisie champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1971, 1972, 1973, 1995)
- Home stadium: Amsterdam ArenA / Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Manager: Frank de Boer
- Preview: Sadly for the Dutch, their days of European dominance are gone. The Eredivisie champion now often gets a tough draw in Europe, if for no other reason than the style of play they used to rise to the top of the European heap has now been adopted and taken to the next level by possession-based teams all over the continent,