Group E: Chelsea, Schalke, Basel, Steau Bucresti
The obvious Group E favorite is Chelsea. For the past two seasons, Chelsea have managed to provide Roman Abramovich with European Cups. Still, e has managed to fire both managers who won the cups. Yet, Chelsea fans can’t be completely angry with Abramovich as he brought along Jose Mourinho for this year’s campaign. Mourinho has referred to himself as “the happy one” on his return, and fans are always happy to have a manager like Mourinho on the touchline. Mourinho is lucky as he has a talented pool of players to work with, and although the soccer his sides employ may not always be pretty, it’ll get the job done most of the time. Chelsea is lucky to have a relatively easier draw than some other first pot teams. Basel, Schalke and Steau Bucresti may deal some blows to Chelsea, but nothing so severe as to prevent Chelsea from advancing.
Schalke are the other favorites to advance onto the knockout stage. They managed to finish last year’s group (a group that included Arsenal) first. They have some sublime talent in the young Julien Draxler, and the scoring machine Huntelaar will surely shine for them. I do except them to live up to the expectations and advance onto the knockout stage. Whether or not they repeat last year’s feat of coming in first is another question. Mourinho is an expert when it comes to Champions Soccer, so Chelsea will be a harder opponent than last year’s Arsenal.
Basel had a great run last year in the Europa League, reaching the semifinals only to lose to Chelsea. However, this year’s Chelsea will have a new manager and will most probably employ a new strategy. Basel managed to score a couple of goals in their last two meetings with Chelsea and they might manage to pull the same off this year, but pulling off a victory, let alone advancing to the knockout phase, seems a bit far off. Basel might try to race with Schalke for the second place, but they will probably end up losing the race. It’s safe to suggest that Basel will likely settle for third place and look to further their European campaign in the Europa League.
Steau Bucresti are a good team, but not as good the rest of the teams in this group (surely there is a reason why Steau Bucresti was in the fourth pot of teams). Steau Bucresti’s ideal goal would be to try and qualify for the Europa League, but Basel will look to continue last year’s run, and so Steau Bucresti will have to try really hard. It seems like they will end up settling for fourth.
Group F: Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli
I feel sorry for Arsenal and especially Arsene Wenger. Wenger is one of my top five favorite managers and his career at Arsenal has been great, but in a league where there are at least four other teams that are on the same level, earning a championship is not so easy. When a team that is accustomed to winning goes eight years without a cup, there is pressure on the manager. Wenger’s side managed to pull off a great 1-0 win over rivals Tottenham that was special in the sense that Arsenal had spent nothing on summer transfers (their only acquisition was young star Yayo Sanogo), while Tottenham had spent an incredible amount of money.
While this performance may relieve the pressure for the moment, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger will once again be tested in the Champions League. Having landed in Group F does not help them one bit. They will be facing off against last year’s finalists Borussia Dortmund, who have made some key transfers (such as Aubemeyang and Mkhitaryan). Jurgen Klopp and Dortmund will prove to be a handful for Arsenal. If it were only Arsenal and Dortmund, everything could have been fine, but they also have Napoli in the group.
Napoli appointed Rafael Benitez as manager, which was a smart move. Benitez’s European soccer track record can help to shed some light onto what he can do with Napoli. They will be in it till the very end. Marseille seem to be the weakest link, but they are not to be written off. Marseille have always been on the European stage and they will give it their all. This is one of those groups whose every match will be tightly contested. My prediction is that Arsenal and Dortmund will manage to advance and Napoli will have to settle with third.
Group G: Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg, Austria Wien
Group G is an interesting mix of teams. The first three teams seem like a good match for each other, so it is entirely up for grabs in this group. Austria Wien might look to make the most of this group and try for third place, though it will not be easy. Austria Wien will pretty much stay in fourth, but as to who will assume the other positions, it is incredibly hard to guess.
Porto are a great soccer team with great tradition. They were unlucky to lose to Malaga in last year’s campaign, but they have consistently managed to make it out of the group stages. Although they constantly sell players, they manage to fill their spots with ease. Porto will put up a great fight in this group and although it is hard to tell, they will most probably manage to advance.
Atletico Madrid sold Falcao at the start of the transfer window and everyone was wondering how they would turn out. The two matches with Barcelona more than anything else have shown that Atletico Madrid can hold its own against the likes of Barcelona (tying in both games) and score despite the absence of Falcao. David Villa was a nice addition to the squad and alongside Diego Costa, he will string plenty of goals for the Red and White. Turkish winger Arda Turan has started out spectacularly for the season with great assists and even one goal to his name. Diego Simeone’s side is slowly emerging onto the Champions League stage. They are lucky to have fallen into Group G where there is no superstar team like PSG or Manchester United, but only teams closer to their ranks. This greatly increases their chances and in my own book, they are my number one favorites for this group.
Zenit has talent — that is something we are all certain of — but when it comes to playing and getting results, they failed to please last year (despite the 95 million Euros spent only on Hulk and Axel Witsel). They placed third in a group where Milan and Malaga managed to advance. Zenit were expected to advance last year, but they couldn’t perform up to expectations. This year they again find themselves in a group that is relatively easy compared to other groups, but it is quite possible that they might suffer defeat at the hands of Atletico Madrid and Porto. I believe that Zenit will fail to advance. But they certainly have the talent to advance, so it should not come as a shocker if Zenit really do happen to advance.
Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, Celtic
Barcelona and Milan seem to have landed in a more comfortable group. However, no one should write off Ajax and Celtic straight away. Ajax are one of my favorite sides in soccer because of the values they manifest. Their team is filled with young talents who are taught the “total football” tactic of soccer, resulting in beautiful soccer and great results. Ajax has always been a dominant force in the European stage, and they managed to finish ahead of Manchester City in last year’s group of death (Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund). Ajax may cause an upset and actually finish in second place in front of Milan.
Celtic are a whole other story. Their campaign almost came to a quick end at the ends of the Kazakh squad, Shaktar Kargandy, if it were not for a 90+2’ goal in the second leg. This shaky performance obviously casts question marks on the merit of Celtic, but last year they managed to pull off some incredible wins, including a 2-1 victory over Barcelona. Of course, the biggest difference between that Celtic and this year’s Celtic will be the absence of Victor Wanyama (traded to Southampton). Wanyama was the key player in Celtic’s victory over Barcelona with his one goal and his defensive performance. How Celtic will perform without Wanyama is a big question that will only have its answer in the upcoming matches. However, Celtic will not be able to pull of last year’s feats. While they may have a shot at third, I still predict fourth place for them.
Some groups are more straightforward than others, but we will have more than enough tightly-contested matches early on in this year’s campaign. Even if the matches are not tightly-contested, we will enjoy the sheer talent of players like Ribery, Messi, Neymar, Bale and Ronaldo. Don’t miss out on these matches!