Champions League Preview

Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo

Atletico Madrid

Last season’s runners up, Atletico were 1-0 up in the Champions League final before a 93rd minute Sergio Ramos header forced extra time. Their bitter rivals Real eventually ran out 4-1 winners and denied Atletico a famous double after winning the league a week earlier. It would have been one of the greatest football achievements in recent times, winning the Champions League on such a small budget compared to the hundreds of millions spent by Real.  But Atletico still managed to knock out AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea on their way to the final. During the transfer window Atletico Madrid have sold Diego Costa and Felipe Luis to Chelsea while goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has returned to Stamford Bridge after his loan spell. But the signings of Mario Mandžukić and Antoine Greizmann and retaining their spine of Diego Godin, Miranda, Raul Garcia and Koke as well as holding on to charismatic manager Diego Simeone will give Atletico fans hope. Atletico Madrid have defied odds before and are now a pot one seed, so they will be difficult opposition for Juventus, who will be their main competition in Group A.

Odds to Win: 20/1


Juventus

Juventus have had a stronghold on Italian football for the past three years but have failed to make a significant impact on the Champions League. They have won three Serie A titles in a row including an unbeaten season in 2012/13 and looked very comfortable in doing so. But last season Juventus didn’t qualify from the Champions Legaue group stage, only winning one game in a group containing Real Madrid, Galatasary and Copenhagen. Since then, Antonio Conte, who managed Juventus to their three consecutive Scudetto titles, has left Juventus to manage Italy and has been replaced by ex AC Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri, who was sacked in 2013 by Milan after poor results. Allegri inherits an aging squad which has been bolstered by the singings of Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid and Patrice Evra from Manchester United. Keeping midfielders Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba despite interest from Manchester United and PSG respectively will also be a bonus for Allegri.

Odds to Win: 20/1


Olympiakos

Dominant in Greece having won 15 of the last 17 Greek league titles. Were knocked at the second round stage by Manchester United after being 2-0 up after the first leg after qualifying from a group of  PSG, Benfica, and Anderlecht. Olympiakos may suffer from the loss of striker Kostas Mitroglou who scored  17 goals in 19 appearances for the Greek champions last season before moving to Fulham. Will struggle to beat Atletico or Juventus in order to qualify from the group.

Odds to Win: 500/1


Malmo

Overturned a 2-1 first leg deficit to beat Salzburg 3-0 in the second leg and 4-2 on aggregate to qualify for the Champions League group stage. Malmo are the reigning Swedish champions and are also currently leading the Swedish league 21 games into the season. They will most likely struggle in a tough Group A and will probably battle with Olympiakos for the 3rd place Europa League spot.

Odds to Win:1000/1

GROUP B Real Madrid, FC Basel, Liverpool and Ludogorets Razgrad

Real Madrid

Since winning their 10th Champions League, their much desired la decima, Real Madrid have invested over €100m in improving their first eleven. World cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos have been signed from Monaco and Bayern Munich respectively and now the Champions are, on paper, looking stronger than before. This is despite the sale of Angel Di Maria, who was Real’s stand out player in their 4-1 victory over rivals Atletico, for £60m to Manchester United. No team has won back to back Champions Leagues since 1990, Real Madrid are now even stronger and must be favourites to win a consecutive title.

Odds to win:7/2


Liverpool

Back in the Champions League after a five year absence after finishing 2nd in the Barclays Premier League last season. Luis Suarez has since joined Barcelona and manager Brendan Rodgers has added numbers to his sqaud in order to have sufficient players to be able to compete in the Champions League as well as the Premier League. Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and Mario Balotelli have all been signed this summer as well as defenders Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo . Liverpool have been handed a great opportunity to progress through the group having drawn both Basel and Ludogorets but Real Madrid will provide a stern test.

Odds to Win: 20/1


Ludogorets Razgrad

Arguably the fairy tale story of this seasons Champions League. Bulgarian club Ludogorets were only founded 13 years ago in 2001 but since they have grown into one of Bulgaria’s strongest clubs and have recently dominated the league, winning three championships in a row. Ludogorets competed in their first ever European competition when they qualified for the Europa League last year. They were drawn against PSV Eindhoven, Dinamo Zagreb and  Chornomonets Odesa and then defied all the odds by qualifying from the group unbeaten including home and away victories against PSV and Zagreb. The Bulgarian champions then knocked out Italian giants Lazio 4-3 on aggregate after pulling off a famous 1-0 away win in the Rome Olympic Stadium before Valencia eventually ended their run with a 7-0 aggregate win, but the defeat did not take the shine off of a memorable campaign. But that’s only the beginning of the tale. Ludogorets were on the edge of qualifying for the Champions League group stage going into their playoff match against Steaua Bucharest, but their dream looked over going into the final stages as Steaua led 1-0 on aggregate. However, a last minute equalizer forced extra time but with the tie going to penalties Ludogoretsgoalkeeper was sent off. Defender Cosmin Moti went in goal and saved two penalties as Ludogorets won 6-5 on penalties to qualify for their first ever Champions League, only 13 years after their formation. They are not expected to qualify from a tough group but a victory over Real Madrid or Liverpool would be their greatest achievement to date.

Odds to Win: 1000/1

GROUP C Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco

Benfica

Considering some of the clubs who were seeded in pot two, it is surprising that Benfica were once again seeded in pot one. The Portuguese champions have only managed to qualify from the group stage once in the past four seasons when they reached the quarter final in 2012 but have enjoyed success in the Europa League, reaching the final twice in the past two seasons. Last season, Benfica knocked out Tottenham and Juventus on their road to the Europa League final, but failed to beat Olympiakos in the Champions League as they once again failed to reach the knockout round. Benfica were stronger domestically however and won a domestic treble. But, as is often the case with Portuguese teams, Benfica lost a number of first team players in the transfer window. Lazar Markovic was sold to Liverpool, defender Ezequiel Garay was sold to Zenit St. Petersburg, young goalkeeper Jan Oblak was sold to Atletico Madrid as a replacement to Courtois and forward Rodrigo joined Valencia, all for a total fee of around  €80m. Although they are the top seed, Benfica might struggle to qualify from arguably the most open group of the competition.

Odds to Win: 66/1


Zenit St Petersburg

Having invested a lot of money on players in recent years, Zenit now have one of the strongest first teams in the competition. A number of internationals such as Brazilian Hulk, Belgians Axel Witsel and Nicolas Lombaerts, Argentinian Ezequiel Garay and Spaniard Javi Garcia as well as Russians Andrey Arshavin and Alexsandr Kerzhakov will feature for Zenit in the competition. After finishing 2nd in the Russian League last season,  Italian manager Luciano Spalletti was replaced by Andre Villas Boas, his first job since his post at Tottenham. Since, Zenit have  won their first 5 matches of the season. Notoriously a difficult team to face away from home, Zenit will be one of the team’s to watch under Villas Boas this season and will be favourites to qualify from Group C.

Odds to Win: 80/1


Bayer Leverkusen

Finished 4th in the Bundesliga last season and then qualified for the Champions League after a 7-2 aggregate win over Copenhagen.  Leverkusen were 2nd for large parts of the Bundesliga season until a disatourous run led to the sacking of Sami Hypia as Bayer stuttered to a 4th place finish.  They were eventually knocked out of the Champions League 6-1 on aggregate by PSG after qualifying from a group of Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad. Enjoyed a good start to the Bundesliga season with a 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund, and will push Benfica and Zenit hard as they attempt to qualify.

Odds to Win: 66/1


Monaco

Beaten finalists in 2004, Monaco have returned to the Champions League after a nine year absence largely thanks to the financial backing of their Russian billionaire owner. Monaco were a Ligue 2 team at the time of the takeover and since they have been promoted back to Ligue 1 and have qualified for the Champions League after finishing 2nd in Ligue 1 last season. Monaco spent big last summer spending over €150m on Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joau Moutinho but this summer they have sold rather than bought as Rodriguez joined Real Madrid. Rumours that Falcao is unhappy at Monaco won’t help settle the squad but if the Colombian striker stays with the French club then Monaco are capable of qualifying from this extremely open group.

Odds to Win: 66/1

GROUP D Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray and Anderlecht

Arsenal

Beat Besiktas 1-0 on aggregate to qualify for their 16th Champions League appearance in as many years. However, the last time Arsenal reached the quarter final was in 2010 having been knocked out in the second round every year since. Arsenal are now starting to build a strong team and are now in the position to sign established players such as Mesut Ozil and recently Alexis Sanchez, who scored the winner against Besiktas. The injury of Olivier Giroud will be a worry if he is not replaced. Sanchez is not an out and out striker and Arsenal may suffer as a result. The gunners have been drawn against Dortmund for the 2nd year in a row and will face difficult away trips to the Westfalenstadion and to Galatasaray, where English clubs have a woeful record. However, with the quality of their team Arsenal should win their home matches and qualify from their group.

Odds to Win: 20/1


Borussia Dortmund

A popular team throughout Europe thanks to their back to back German league title successes over Bayern Munich in 2011 and 2012 as well as their run to the 2013 Champions League final where they finished runners up. Dortmund’s fast attacking football under Jurgen Klopp and their 4-3 aggregate Champions League semi final win over Real Madrid in 2013 gained them a lot of admirers. Since then however, Dortmund have lost a number of the first team players, with many of them transferring directly to rivals Bayern Munich. Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski both joined Bayern in consecutive summers. This summer Dortmund have signed strikers  Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile who scored 16 and 22 goals respectively last season. Dortmund also managed to keep German forward Marco Rues and defender Matts Hummels despite interest from other clubs and in front of over 80,000 passionate fans in the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund remain tough opponents and should be stronger than Galatasaray as they attempt to qualify from the group for the 3rd year in a row.

Odds to Win: 25/1


Galatasaray

Finished 2nd in the Turkish Super league to Fenerbache last season but enjoyed success in the Champions League as they qualified from a group containing Real Madrid and Juventus. Galatasaray qualified at Juventus’ expense but were then knocked out by Chelsea in the second round. Although Didier Drogba has returned to Chelsea after a two year spell in Istanbul , Wesley Sneijder and Burak Yilmaz, who was Galatasaray’s top scorer last season, remain and will be the side’s main threats last season. On paper, qualifying from a group containing Real Madrid and Juventus is a more arduous task than qualifying from a group containing Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, so the Turkish side, now managed by Roberto Mancini, will be quietly confident of progression.

Odds to Win: 200/1


Anderlecht

Current Belgian champions and Belgium’s most successful team. Anderlecht struggled in last season’s Champions League as they were the whipping boys of a group containing PSG, Benfica and Olympiakos. The Belgians only gained one point and their group this year is just as difficult. They will do well to improve upon last season’s point tally.

Odds to Win: 750/1

GROUP E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, AS Roma

Bayern Munich

Champions in 2013, many believed that after the arrival of two time Champions League winning manager Pep Guardiola Bayern would win again in 2014. Bayern not only maintained their winning squad but improved after the signings of Mario Gotze and Thiago but were eventually defeated 5-0 on aggregate by Real Madrid, which was certainly not Guardiola’s dream start as Bayern manager, despite his German league and cup double. But Bayern are still a strong European force and have recruited Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski, who scored 16 Champions League goals in the past two seasons, which is an upgrade on Mario Mandžukić. However, Bayern’s spine of Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery is not getting any younger and all players are now over 30 years old, but it is a squad that is rich with quality and with the managerial talents of Pep Guardiola, Bayern are still a force to be reckoned with and should qualify from the group of death.

Odds to Win: 4/1


Manchester City

This will be the current English champions 3rd season in the Champions League after having failed to qualify from their group in 2012 and losing 4-1 in the second round to Barcelona last season.  Surely now it is time for Manchester City to be genuine contenders. They boast one of the strongest squads in Europe  and have some of the best individual players such as Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany to name a few. City were impressive at times last season under Manuel Pellegrini, who won the league and the league cup in his first season, but were defeated far to easily by Barcelona in the round of 16. City’s transformation from mid table obscurity to champions has been impressive but now they must take they next step. Their place as one of England’s strongest teams has been secured now they must secure their place as one of Europe’s best and they have the squad, the manager and the financial backing to do so. Drawn with Bayern and CSKA again this season but the addition of Roma will make qualifying a challenge, but given their sqaud and resources City should qualify.

Odds to Win: 12/1


CSKA Moscow

Won the Russian League by a point last season after finishing ahead of Zenit but were very disappointing in the Champions League. Drawn against Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Viktoria Plzen, CSKA only managed to gain three points after a solitary 3-2 home win against Plzen. Keisuke Honda and Vagner Love were both sold last year although Seydou Doumbia, who scored 20 goals for CSKA last season, remains. CSKA will struggle to win any matches this year as they have been drawn in another difficult group.

Odds to Win: 750/1


AS Roma

After finishing 2nd in Serie A last season, Roma return to the Champions League for the first time since 2009. Coach Rudi Garcia arrived last summer and transformed the fortunes of the club as Roma won their first 10 matches of the season, a Serie A record. The injury of Dutchman Kevin Strootman effected Roma as Juventus eventually caught them up and won the league. Alongside Strootman in midfield is Italian Daniele De Rossi and Bosnian Miralem Pjanic, who supports attackers Mattia Destro, a revitalised Gervinho and club legend Francesco Totti. Roma were the team from pot four that everyone wanted to avoid and will be a stern challenge for both Bayern Munich and Manchester City. They will be the underdogs to qualify from the group, so home form and picking up maximum points against CSKA will be crucial if Roma are to preogress.

Odds to Win: 50/1

GROUP F Barcelona, PSG, Ajax and Apoel Nicosia

Barcelona

After a rare trophy less campaign last season, Barca have made some big changes. The catalan were runners up in both the league and the cup and were knocked out of the Champions Legaue by Atletico Madrid in the quarter finals. Gerado Martino has been replaced by ex player and Barcelona B manager Luis Enrique and the club took advantage of their postponed transfer ban by singing Luis Suarez , who can’t play until the 25th October, Ivan Rakitić and goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Steigen. They will also hope that Neymar will have a better second season at the Nou Camp. The forward did not live up to expectations in his first season but after his four World Cup goals and form Barca will expect Neymar to play like he does for his country alongside what appears to be a devastating front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez.  However, the departure of club legend Carlos Puyol and Barcelona’s failure to sign an established centre back means that despite their attacking threat they will be vulnerable in defence. A problem which has cost the club in previous campaigns. Should still be too strong for PSG and should qualify as group winners.

Odds to Win: 6/1


Paris Saint Germain

Just like Manchester City, it is now time for PSG to be genuine contenders. Since their takeover from the Qatar Sports Investment in 2011, PSG have dominated Ligue 1 comfortably winning consectutive titles in 2013 and 2014 but have been left frustrated in Europe. Beaten quarter finalists two years in a row after defeats to Barcelona in 2013 and Chelsea in 2014. Considering the money PSG have spent on players, such as the €50m transfer of David Luiz this summer, the French champions need to make the next step if they are to confirm their place as one of Europe’s elite in order to justify Qatar’s investment. Might struggle to beat Barcelona but should be too strong for Ajax and Apoel Nicosia.

Odds to Win: 12/1


Ajax

Ajax are famous for Johan Cruyff, their four European Cup wins and their academy,  but will struggle to qualify from this group. They have won the league every season since Frank de Boer’s appointment as manager in 2010 but they have also failed to qualify from the group stage, finishing 3rd 4 seasons in a row. After being drawn with Barcelona and PSG it seems likely that Ajax will finish 3rd once again and will enter the Europa League knockout round for the 5th year in a row.

Odds to Win: 250/1


Apoel Nicosia

The Cypriot champions are back in the competition for the first time since their quarter final defeat against Real Madrid in 2012. Apoel’s achievement of reaching the quarter finals was one of the stories of the tournament as they qualified from the group ahead of Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto before knocking out Lyon. Considering Apoel are from Cyprus, one of the weakest leagues in Europe, it would be a miracle if Apoel were to qualify from Group F.

Odds to Win: 1000/1

GROUP G Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor

Chelsea

Chelsea will always be a strong Champions League team under Jose Mourinho. As well as the creativity and skill of their attackers they also have the defensive organisation and resilience which is crucial for grinding out results and earning clean sheets making them difficult opponents in group or knockout fixtures. Mourinho thrives in the Champions League. He has won the competition twice before, with Porto and Inter Milan, and has reached the semi finals four years in a row with Real Madrid and Chelsea. After playing down Chelsea’s chances of winning the league and Champions League last year Mourinho is now claiming that his team are ready to win and the signing of striker Diego Costa will help Chelsea do what they struggled to do last season; score goals. The Spaniard scored 8 goals in 9 Champions League appearances last season for Atletico Madrid and his goals will be crucial if Mourinho is to once again reach and then get past the semi final stage. In comparison to the other English teams in the competition, Chelsea have been very fortunate with their draw and should comfortably qualify.

Odds to Win: 13/2


Schalke 04

Finished 3rd in the German Bundesliga last season. Schalke have become a solid Champions League team in recent years having made a memorable run to the semi finals in 2011, beating Real Madrid along the way, and have qualified from the group stages two years in a row only to be knocked out by Galatasary in 2013 and Real Madrid in 2014. Although Schalke have proved that they are a solid European team, they aren’t at the same level as Europe’s elite, far from it. They were beaten 9-2 on aggregate by Real Madrid and finished 26 points behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga last season. Will struggle to challenge Chelsea for top spot but should beat Sporting Lisbon to qualify.

Odds to Win: 100/1


Sporting Lisbon

Finished 2nd in the Portuguese league last season to automatically qualify for the Champions League after not competing in any European competition last year. During the transfer window Sporting sold Argentina World Cup defender Marcos Rojo to Manchester United but also received Portuguese winger Nani on loan. Nani played for Sporting before his move to Manchester United and missed a penalty on his second debut for Sporting. The side look likely to finish 3rd and drop into the Europa League as they do not look strong enough to finish ahead of Schalke.

Odds to Win: 500/1


Maribor

Qualified after a 2-1 aggregate win over Celtic. The Slovenian champions had failed to reach the group stage after play off defeats in 2013 and 2012 but have now won to qualify for the first time since 1999. One of the weakest teams in the competition and will do well to win any of their six group games.

Odds to Win: 1000/1

GROUP H Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilboa, BATE Borisov

Porto

Impressively defeated LOSC Lille in the qualifying round 3-0 on aggregate. Struggled last season as they finished 3rd in the league, 13 points behind Benfica who also knocked them out of both Portuguese cups. Porto also were knocked out of the Champions League group stage as the finished 3rd in a relatively open group of Atletico Madrid, Zenit St Petersburg and Austria Wein. During the transfer window Porto sold defender Eliaquim Mangala to Manchester City for £30m but managed to hold onto striker Jackson Martinez who scored 29 goals in all competitions last season. Retaining the Colombian is almost as good as a new signing but Porto have also signed Christian Tello from Barcelona, who was once tipped for greatness, and World Cup stars Algerian midfielder Yacine Brahimi and Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi. Once again drawn in an open group, Porto will look to avoid last season’s mistakes and qualify, thus justifying their pot one seeding.

Odds to Win: 50/1


Shakhtar Donetsk

Notoriously a difficult team to be drawn against, especially at home in the Donbass Arena, which was recently hit by two explosions as a result of the Ukraine – Russia conflict. The Ukrainian champions have been Champions League regulars since 2005 and have won 5 Ukrainian championships in a row. Their team is almost half Ukrainian and, strangely, half Brazilian including internationals Bernard and Wellington meaning that they have plenty of steel in defence and flair in attack. Shakhtar will believe that they are good enough to not only qualify, but top this open group.

Odds to Win: 150/1


Athletic Bilbao

Finished 4th in La Liga last season and qualified after beating Napoli  4-2 on aggregate. Seeded in pot three, Bilboa were fortunate to be drawn against Porto and Shakhtar and should be confident of qualifying from the group in their first season in the Champions League since 1998. Midfielder Ander Herrera has joined Manchester United for £30m but the money hasn’t been reinvested in the sqaud. Nevertheless Bilboa should still be good enough to compete with Porto and Shakhtar

Odds to Win: 50/1


BATE Borisov

BATE are the dominant club in Belarus and have won the league every year since 2002. Negotiated three rounds and then defeated Slovan Bartislava 4-1 on aggregate to qualify. Last competed in the Champions League in 2012 when they were drawn against Bayern Munich, Valencia and Lille. BATE recorded famous 3-1 wins away at Lille and at home to eventual champions Bayern Munich. However, BATE are still not as strong as their competition and the Belarus side will struggle to pick up points this year.

Odds to Win: 500/1

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