With the first three sets of matches done, the contenders and pretenders are beginning to sort themselves out in this year’s UEFA Champions League.
In Group A, there is a tight three-club race to advance. Sitting at the top of the group is last year’s runner up Atletico Madrid. Atletico are without Diego Costa, but have fared well with Costa’s replacement Mario Mandzukic, who has scored twice in the tournament thus far. Atletico is looking for a return trip to the Finals, but Greek club Olympiacos remains a force in the group. After being eliminated in the knockout round last year, the Greeks are out for blood and gathered crucial home wins against Atletico and Juventus. Prominent Italian club Juventus find themselves in the same point as last year as they fight for a ticket to the knockout round. And although not likely to advance, Swedish club Malmo could play spoiler in the group as well.
Real Madrid won it all in last year’s Champions League Final and they have continued their winning ways with an unbeaten streak in Group B. Christiano Ronaldo has been a goalscoring monster and Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have evolved into top-class playmakers. Sitting behind Real Madrid is Liverpool, who have been disappointing thus far. The Reds suffered a thrashing from Real Madrid and also lost against group minnows FC Basel of Switzerland.
The most surprising aspect of the group has been the success of group underdogs Ludogarets Razgard of Belgium. Founded in 2001, Ludogarets barely snuck into the group stage but have been playing well so far.
In Group C, every club has a chance to advance into the knockout round. Before the tournament began, AS Monaco were pinned as dark horses in their return to the Champions League after a decade long absence. However, with their superstars Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez sold, the club is now fighting just to advance. Standing in their way are German club Bayer Leverkusen and Zenit St. Petersburg of Russia. Both have had moderate success in the group but neither have pulled away to secure the group. Sitting at the bottom of the group is Portugal powerhouse Benfica who has been disappointing this tournament to say the least.
In last year’s Champions League, Borussia Dortmund of Germany and Arsenal of England were matched together in the same group. Now, the two clubs find themselves together again in Group D and have cemented themselves on top. Dortmund won the group last year and are looking to secure a top seed over Arsenal once more, despite struggling in the Bundesliga in the past month.
Also struggling is Arsenal, but they have Theo Walcott returning from longstanding injury and Alexis Sanchez had finally begun to find his place on the pitch. Hoping to play spoiler in the group are Belgian champions Anderlecht and Turkish champions Galatasaray, both of which have squads capable to upset.
In Group E, German champions Bayern Munich are joined by English champions Manchester City, Russian champions CSKA Moscow, and Italian runner-ups AS Roma. Munich is looking to secure the top seed of the group with a team that some consider to be the best in Europe. Behind them is a tough battle for the second spot between Man City and Roma. After a 1-1 draw between them earlier, the bout between the two will likely be decided when they meet in Italy on the last matchday in December.
Unfortunately for group minnows Ajax Amsterdam and Apoel Nicosia, Group F has nearly been secured. FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain sit on top of the group and the two have been competing for the top spot in the group. PSG won the first matchup between the two in Paris and did so without their superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovich.
However, FC Barcelona striker Luis Suarez back from his suspension and he should provide a boost to a squad that has had to have been carried by Lionel Messi. The two meet again on the last matchday in December.
In Group G, it has be a battle of which european club powerhouse will prevail. On top are England powerhouses Chelsea, “the blues” and close behind them are German contenders Schalke 04, “the royal blues”.
Chelsea has proved to be superior for the most part without losing a game in their first set of matches. Schalke also didn’t suffer a loss in their first set of matches and their youthful players are beginning to develop into stars right before our eyes. From the outside looking in are NK Maribor of Slovenia and Sporting Lisbon, who has been another disappointing Portuguese squad alongside Benfica.
In Group H, everyone has a shot at advancing but the expectations beyond the group stage are minimal at best. Likely to solely represent Portugal in the knockout stage is FC Porto who look to secure the top seed in the group. Behind Porto sits a rather underrated club in Shakhtar Donetsk of the Ukraine.
Shakhtar features top-level players in the Brazilians Fred and Bernard, as well as Croatian veteran Darijo Srna. They could become a team to watch for once the knockout round begins.
Marcus Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com