With a slightly changed cast and no end of intriguing subplots, the Champions League is back for a new season. And, as Europe’s elite begin to flex their muscles, there is comfort for the rest of the pack in Chelsea’s heroic run last year, in which they outlasted superior Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides. The Blues face an uphill battle to defend the trophy, a feat that has never been accomplished in the Champions League era and the usual suspects – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, both Manchester clubs – lie in wait.
Now the group stage is set to begin. The road to the final at Wembley on 25th May is likely to be challenging for all involved – but, without question, some teams face sterner tests than others in the group stage and must clear this first hurdle before looking too far ahead.
As always, there is a “Group of Death” and, for the second year in a row, the draw was cruel to Manchester City. Group D jumps off the page as the toughest. A year ago, Manchester City were pushed aside by Bayern Munich and Napoli. This season, they must contend with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. This group is one not to be missed – any competition that features a showdown between Real Madrid and Manchester City in the opening set of group games is going to suck in the fans from day one. Carlos Tevez, once a Real Madrid transfer target, and Yaya Toure, formerly of Barcelona, will go toe-to-toe with former Manchester United talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho in two games that might just be a preview of the final.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany summed it up perfectly. "Looks like we’re not going to get any easy games again this year, but it is certainly a good group for the fans. I’m looking forward already!" Midfielder Samir Nasri added "What a group Real Madrid, Ajax and Dortmund, so excited to play those big games."
Many eyes will be on Paris Saint-Germain in Group A after the French giants splashed the cash yet again this summer. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have been handed a straightforward draw with Dynamo Kyiv, FC Porto and Dinamo Zagreb the opponents and new PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing each of the trio’s defences. Porto look the toughest test for the French side, schooled as they are in the art of Champions League football.
Another big spending side line up in Group A, where Zenit St. Petersburg’s double purchase of Hulk and Axel Witsel has surprisingly made them favourites to top a group including AC Milan, Malaga and Anderlecht. For Milan, who lost Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic to PSG, the Round of 16 has been set as the club’s agreed target for this edition, a substantial downgrade on previous expectations.
Other seasoned campaigners, in the shape of Arsenal, a side who have suffered also big name departures over the summer, losing Robin van Persie and Alex Song, should feel confident of topping their group. Dispatching Montpellier, Schalke and Olympiacos is well within the Gunners’ capabilities – though complacency must not creep in for Arsene Wenger’s men.
Barcelona, champions of Europe in 2009 and 2011, return without former boss Josep Guardiola, who stepped down and was replaced by Tito Vilanova. It remains to be seen how this impacts the fluidity of their play, but the Catalans are rightly installed as tournament favourites, with Real Madrid next in line. Lionel Messi, the favourite to finish as top goalscorer, and company find themselves in Group G, facing Celtic, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. Entertaining football is guaranteed.
Group E, meanwhile, could supply a few surprises. European champions Chelsea and Serie A champions Juventus have the big game pedigree and should put on two gripping showdowns – but Shakhtar Donetsk and debutants FC Nordsjaelland will be out to spoil the party. Meanwhile, Manchester United will have few complaints about the draw, which placed Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in Group H alongside CFR Cluj, Galatasaray and Braga. That means some tricky away fixtures for the Red Devils – particularly an intimidating trip to Turkey – but it would be a huge surprise if they do not finish in pole position, given the attacking firepower provided by Wayne Rooney and new signing Van Persie, who has already made a big impact at Old Trafford.
A revamped Bayern Munich, complete with new faces Javi Martinez, Xherdan Shaqiri, Mario Mandzukic and Dante, will fancy their chances of topping Group F, which will also include an intriguing repeat of the 2001 Champions League final, when the Germans faced Valencia. Lille and BATE Borisov provide the 2012 finalists’ other opposition. Of course though, nothing is guaranteed at this level and there are no pushovers. This is the stage for new talents to blossom and reputations to be made. Come May, there are destined to be three or four new household names across Europe.
For all the glamour of the World Cup, the passion of the Premier League and the flair of La Liga, the Champions League has retained a special place in the hearts of fans across the globe. From the hair-raising music that escorts the players onto the pitch to the prospect of the seeing the best talents in the game join together, the competition lives up to its billing year after year. Expect 2012/13 to be another unforgettable campaign.
Best bets for the 2012/13 Champions League? Read our tips here.