Thursday’s Champions League draw means Europe’s top club competition is mere weeks away from kicking into high gear with the start of the group phase.
It has also brought upon us the usual wave of mouthwatering ties, fancied clubs sweating bullets over a tough tie and sides usually expected to drop into the Europa League now licking their lips at a relatively-straightforward crack at reaching the last-16.
Here’s our pick of the best games to take place on the continent between now and December, and a rundown of who loved the draw and who absolutely hated it:
THE DRAW'S BIG WINNERS
Chelsea: The 2012 winners are already carrying themselves with an air of confidence that could sweep away small items of furniture, having recruited swiftly and wisely in the transfer window and looking fluid and formidable in their opening two Premier League games. Drawing Schalke, Sporting Lisbon and Maribor will not dent their swagger one bit. It will take an unmitigated disaster for them not to reach the knockouts.
FC Porto: Ten years ago, Jose Mourinho arrived at the big time by guiding Porto to an unlikely Champions League victory. Though the Portuguese side frequently sell their best players, they continue to recruit well to keep the cycle moving and a group containing fellow big-sellers Shakhtar, minnows BATE Borisov and talented but green Athletic Bilbao should keep them prominent in that shop window.
Real Madrid: Though the Liverpool games will be fascinating, the defending champions could have been tested far more in the first half of the competition. They have more strength in depth than the returning Reds and should overwhelm Basel and Ludogorets. It’s not arrogant to state Real will likely finish top of the group even if they rotate heavily.
THE DRAW'S BIG LOSERS
Manchester City: The whole ‘lacking European experience’ excuse is beyond stale, but the chiefs at City will surely be wondering when it will finally be their turn to get a snug draw for the opening stages. Bayern Munich and Roma provide serious competition for those two spots in the knockout phase and CSKA Moscow could easily rock the boat. Perhaps familiarity will help them – both Bayern and CSKA were in their group last season – but then, it could help their opponents instead.
Ajax: Champions in 1995, Ajax are almost always a side who possess the tools to go on a serious run in Europe but, due to their frequent selling of key players, need a favourable draw to do so. Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain is not a favourable draw. Once again, they’ll be left to wonder ‘what if?’
Everyone in Group C: A ‘group of death’ depends on your interpretation of the term. Is the ‘group of death’ the group which contains the most sides considered capable of reaching the knockout stages? Or, should it be when a group is filled with four sides almost completely evenly-matched? Benfica, Zenit, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco could all take advantage of the lack of ‘big-hitters’ in their draw. However to do so they’ll have to fend off three other teams all capable of doing the same. By far the most competitive, if not the most glamourous, group of this season’s tournament.
FIVE TIES YOU CANNOT MISS:
Atletico Madrid v Juventus, October 1: Two sides more than capable of going all the way and who should both advance to the last-16 – and yet, two sides who will want to make a statement at the expense of the other when they collide. The Spanish and Italian champions have a number of departures to deal with but finishing top of their group will go a long way towards establishing themselves as among the favourites.
Ludogorets v Real Madrid, October 1: Yeah, Liverpool v Real Madrid should rock, but Group B also contains the ultimate David v Goliath battle between the only ‘Decima’ winners in football history, armed to the teeth with the world’s most expensive footballers, against the Bulgarian heroes who somehow made it through thanks to the heroics of a player standing in as goalkeeper. It’s a shame the more eye-catching Bernabeu leg between the two comes on match day six, which’ll surely be a dead rubber.
Bayern Munich v Manchester City, September 17: What better way to begin the first week of the tournament than with these two star-studded and very familiar bedfellows? City infamously missed out on a chance to replace Bayern as group winners last season when manager Manuel Pellegrini made a mathematical error over goal difference. This time, nobody will blindly assume Bayern will cruise to victory.
PSG v Barcelona, September 30: Another clash of the titans will see Zlatan Ibrahimovic face his former employers. With Ajax hoping to prey on a big gun mis-firing, neither side will want to drop points in both games against the other.
Porto v Athletic Bilbao, October 21: This season’s designated ‘hipster fixture’ could also go some way, on match day three, towards deciding who will qualify from a relatively-open group. The football should also be very attractive from two sides who love to express themselves.
Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter @liamhappe
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