The Champions League returns for another season on Tuesday night with defending title-holders Barcelona favourites to reclaim their crown following last May’s triumph at Wembley. Expect stiff challenges from the usual suspects such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Chelsea while outsiders such as Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Manchester City are likely to feature prominently in the latter stages.
Matchday 1 begins this week where domestic form is temporarily cast aside as the tricky task of qualifying from the group stages takes centre-stage.
Tuesday 13 September
Chelsea begins another quest to claim the one trophy that has eluded the billions of club owner Roman Abramovich with a tough home assignment against Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen. Michael Ballack returns to his old stomping ground as part of a Leverkusen side expected to challenge Bayern Munich for domestic honours this year and currently lying in 4th place. Chelsea have enjoyed a fitful start to their Premier League campaign under new manager Andre Villas-Boas but with Juan Mata in their side the London club are more than capable of topping this group. Also on Matchday 1 Belgian side Genk host Valencia but should find the going tough against an experience Spanish side. The Belgians are 10th in the Jupiler league at present after six rounds of games so anything other than an away win would constitute a major surprise.
Group E prediction: 1st Chelsea, 2nd Bayer Leverkusen, 3rd Valencia and 4th Genk
One of the most appealing Matchday 1 fixtures of the new Champions League campaign takes place in Germany on Tuesday evening when Borrusia Dortmund host Arsenal. Much is expected of the reigning Bundesliga Champions who ran away with the title last season playing an attractive brand of football synonymous with their Premier League opponents. A shock 2-1 defeat to Hertha Berlin at the weekend sees Borussia surprisingly languishing down in 11th place but that’s nothing compared to difficulties experienced by Arsene Wenger in recent weeks. Arsenal gained their first EPL win at the expense of a plucky Swansea at the weekend but had to rely on a goalkeeping error from Michael Vorm to eke out a 1-0 victory. Tuesday night’s encounter should provide a cracking matchup for the football purists. OIympiacos are at home to Marseille in the other Group F opening week fixture with the Ligue 1 side only one place off the relegation places following their 1-0 home defeat to Rennes. An upset home win could be on the cards.
Group F prediction: 1st Arsenal, 2nd Borrusia Dortmund, 3rd Marseille and 4th OIympiacos.
On paper Group G appears one of the most open of all the initial Champions League groups with three sides battling it out for the two knockout phase berths. FC Porto hosts Shaktar Donetsk while Apoel Tel Aviv has home advantage for the visit of Zenit St. Petersburg. Porto begin life after the departure of manager Villas-Boas to Chelsea looking to build on their Europa League success of 2011 although will need to be wary of a Shaktar side that has won three of their last five European away ties. Russian Champions Zenit St. Petersburg will be favourites to win their opening group game but are certain to face the stiffest of tests from an Apoel side unbeaten in their previous seven home ties.
Group G prediction: 1st Porto, 2nd Shaktar Donetsk, 3rd Zenit St. Petersburg and 4th Apoel Tel Aviv.
No doubting the glamour tie of the Matchday 1 takes place in the Camp Nou on Tuesday evening where Barcelona begin the defence of their title with a tough home fixture against AC Milan. The Italians kicked off their domestic Serie A campaign with a disappointing 2-2 draw at home to Lazio on Friday night with Cassano and Ibrahimovic on target having been 2-0 down early on. A ‘makeshift’ Barcelona outfit threw away a two-goal lead before eventually drawing 2-2 away to Real Sociedad at the weekend but Guardiola took the opportunity to rest the likes of Messi and Puyol ahead of Tuesday night’s showdown. The two Group H minnows clash in Prague on the same evening when Champions League debutantes Plezn have home advantage for the visit of Belarus side BATE.
Group H prediction: 1st Barcelona, 2nd AC Milan, 3rd BATE and 4th Plezn.
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