The UEFA Champions League group stage draw took place on Thursday and, as you would expect for the world’s elite club soccer tournament, yielded quite a few appetizing matchups. The draw was relatively even this year, suggesting that most all of the games, aired on the FOX Sports family of networks, should be competitive.
Some, however, are even more compelling than others. Mostly, these are rematches, like in Group E, which holds Bayern Munich, Manchester City and AS Roma, as well as CSKA Moscow.
The titanic battle expected to erupt between Bayern and City on Sept. 17 echoes the one from last year. Three-quarters of this group is the same as last season, when tiny Viktoria Plzen took the fourth spot, rather than Roma. Back then, City and Bayern split their head-to-head games and won all the rest, running away with the group. Curiously, they each beat the other away in fairly convincing fashion. This time around, those games should be even better.
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Both City and Bayern are deeper and more seasoned this time around than they were last year. City have added reinforcements in goal, defense and midfield by adding Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando, respectively. Bayern, meanwhile, brought on defender Mehdi Benatia and striker Robert Lewandowski while they are seemingly on the verge of signing midfielder Xabi Alonso. This could be an early clash between serious title contenders.
One of the other stacked groups is Group F, where Barcelona and Ajax were drawn together for a second year in a row to first meet on Oct. 21. They share a stylistic and player development philosophy and much history that always make for entertaining affairs. Even more intriguing will be Barca’s matchup with Paris Saint-Germain on Sept. 30. The nouveaux riches Parisians have stated publicly that they won’t stop pulling cash out of their deep pockets until they win this tournament. They haven’t been terribly far off the last two years, reaching the quarterfinals. In 2012-13, Barca only beat them at that stage on away goals, after the two legs finished in a 3-3 stalemate.
Now the Catalans are rebuilding, having lost a few stalwarts like goalkeeper Victor Valdes, defender Carles Puyol and midfielder Cesc Fabregas while adding Luis Suarez up front. The French, on the other hand, seem primed to begin their final assault on the European summit, loaded with talent and experience as they now are. They sport incredible resources at every position, having added defender David Luiz to a mix that already contained world-class forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who are all at the height of their powers — not to mention a stacked midfield. Could PSG finally overtake Barca?
In Group B, Real Madrid and Liverpool will put the reputations forged through their 15 combined Champions League titles — Real have a record 10 — on the line in a pair of epic games that begin on Oct. 22. The Reds are finally back into this tournament after a four-year absence and right away they will have to face the defending champions. Liverpool lost Suarez but seem a more balanced side this year while Real lost Alonso and Angel Di Maria but gained Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez to take their places in midfield. Straight away, Liverpool will find out if they have the mettle to perform in Europe as they did in 2004-05, when they won this tournament, and 2006-07, when they were runners-up.
In Group D, Arsenal were once again saddled with Borussia Dortmund, just as last year, and they kick things off on opening day, Sept. 16. These aesthetically appealing teams split their series in a pair of desperately close games the last time around. Each side is expected to be better now. Arsenal have added an important piece in forward Alexis Sanchez, whose goal put them into the tournament during the playoff with Besiktas. Dortmund may have lost Lewandowski but it is doubtful that they could be plagued by the biblical rash of injuries that afflicted them last year. Managers and master tacticians, Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp, will exchange their immense wits once more in this affair.
Atletico Madrid, last year’s losing finalists, will be out to prove that their last season was no fluke. They’ll hardly get a better chance to do so than against Juventus, whom they first meet on Oct. 1. These defending champions of Spain and Italy will fight each other hard. They are physical and well-organized teams, who will probably play intriguing games of tactical chess that promises to turn chippy at times.
Finally but not lastly, Group G will pit Chelsea against Schalke on Sept. 17. This will be the biggest test for the Londoners, who won the Champions League three years ago, before they presumably reach the knockout stages. They seem to be real title candidates this year. The Blues beat Schalke 3-0 twice last season, by the way, so the Germans will be out for revenge and with young German stars Julian Draxler and Max Meyer and new acquisition Sidney Sam in the mix, they have the talent to exact it.