The UEFA Champions League matches up elite teams from across the continent of Europe in a grueling competition that began in July and ends with the final on June 6th, 2015 in Berlin. Qualifying for the group stage of the competition ended yesterday with several unforeseen conclusions that saw Napoli crash out and minnows Ludogorets advance on penalties. The Champions League is soccer’s most dramatic competition and finishes like these are common when you match up the biggest and best clubs in the world. This year’s edition will be no different.
The group stage of the Champions League routinely sees major clubs falter under the pressure of the competition. Every year’s competition has at least one “Group of Death.” Last year it involved eventual winners, Real Madrid, who advanced from the group that included Turkish champions Galatasaray, Italian giants Juventus, and Danish champions Copenhagen. Incredibly, it was the Juventus that crashed out of the group, proving that even three-time consecutive Serie A winners can be beaten in the Champions League. This year’s group of death is Group E which involves Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, and AS Roma.
The group stage beings on September 16 and will feature six match days for each club. These teams will have to balance the midweek competition with their various domestic competitions. This delicate balancing act can have a devastating toll on squads that lack depth and familiarity with the league. More than a few surprises await fans watching these Tuesday and Wednesday clashes. Here are the matches that soccer fans must see if they are going to be consumed by the passion and drama that has become associated with the UEFA Champions League.
10 CSKA Moscow vs. Roma at Arena Khimki
This match will almost certainly have an impact on UEFA Europa League competition. However, if either team can manage a result against Manchester City, it could also have an impact on whether these teams can advance to the knockout stages. CSKA Moscow won last year’s Russian Premier League title thanks to an incredible goal scoring record by Seydou Doumbia. Roma’s emerging stars like Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman and veterans like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi will need to be at their best in order to oust the Muscovites. CSKA goalkeeper and Captain Igor Akinfeev should be ready for the challenge following a summer which saw him commit one of the worst blunders of the World Cup.
9 Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 at Veltins Arena
Chelsea have been granted a very straightforward draw that matches them against last year’s opponent Schalke 04. In last year’s competition, Jose Mourinho’s squad easily handled Schalke 3-0 in both of their group stage matches. Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas have been added to Chelsea’s already considerable firepower, while Schalke has acquired the talents of Sidney Sam among others. Despite falling twice to Chelsea in last year’s competition, Schalke did manage to qualify for the Round of 16. Jens Keller will field a squad of players who are accustomed to the rigors of Champions League play. Schalke striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a player that can challenge even the best back lines and it will be up to John Terry and Gary Cahill to shut him down.
8 AS Monaco vs. Bayer Leverkusen at BayArena
Bayer Leverkusen returns to the Champions League for the second consecutive season and are looking to improve on a Round of 16 appearance. Monaco have just sold their superstar James Rodriguez to Real Madrid for the impressive sum of €80 million. Captain Jeremy Toulalan leads a squad of experienced players such as Dimitar Berbatov, Radamel Falcao, and Ricardo Carvalho. The winner of this match could go on to win Group C, which is a wide open group that also includes Zenit St. Petersburg and Portuguese champions Benfica.
7 Roma vs. Manchester City at Stadio Olimpico
Manchester City have drawn several difficult away opponents which will involve travel to Russia and Italy. In their Italian journey, they will be matched up against a formidable Roma side. Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi lead a squad that challenged Juventus for last year’s Serie A title. The clash will also pit former Chelsea teammates Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole against each other. If either team can earn the crucial three points from this match, it will go a long way towards helping them achieve qualification for the knockout stages.
6 Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus at the Vicente Calderon Stadium
Atletico Madrid is coming off of a fantastic two year run where they won the UEFA Europa League and fell just short in last year’s Champions League final. They return to this year’s competition with a dramatically different squad, losing Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, Thibaut Courtois, and David Villa. Madrid added talented replacements in Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezeman, and Jan Oblak. Juventus have won three consecutive Serie A titles, but have struggled in the Champions League. Paul Pogba produced a breakout performance at the World Cup in Brazil, while Arturo Vidal has been absolutely phenomenal for Juve over the last couple seasons. Giorgio Chiellini leads one of the strongest back lines in all of Europe and will surely be tested against the home side Atleti.
5 Real Madrid vs. Liverpool at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium
Mario Balotelli vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard vs. Toni Kroos, and Daniel Sturridge vs. Gareth Bale are just some of the position matchups that fans will see during the clashes between Liverpool and Real Madrid. The Santiago Bernabeu is the perfect venue for such a clash of superstars. Liverpool’s back four will certainly be tested against one of the most potent attacking teams in the world. Liverpool will have to break down the dominating defense of Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, and Marcelo in order to secure a result. Whether or not Brendan Rodgers' team is ready for the intensity of an away day in Madrid remains to be seen.
4 Arsenal vs. Borussia Dortmund at Westfalonstadion
Arsenal fans will have a dreaded away day against Borussia Dortmund and their rabid fans assembled into the Yellow Wall. With striker Olivier Giroud injured until the end of the calendar year, Arsenal will have to rely on Yaya Sanogo or Joel Campbell to produce goals in the world’s most demanding competition. Dortmund have lost striker Robert Lewandowski, but have replaced him with Italian striker Ciro Immobile. Immobile will combine in a formidable attack led by Marco Reus and sturdy defense organized by Mats Hummels. Arsenal will need their young British talents like Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey to perform if they hope to earn a valuable result from this match. This will surely be a match for the football hipsters.
3 Bayern Munich vs. Manchester City at Allianz Arena
Manchester City has struggled in their previous appearances in the Champions League. Following their 2013-14 Premier League triumph, they will be eager to prove they belong on the world stage against one of the most dominant clubs in recent history. Bayern Munich boasts a squad full of German players riding high on their World Cup conquest. That German contingent is boosted by superstars like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, and new arrival Robert Lewandowski. Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure will surely have their hands full during this clash, which could determine whether or not City can finally advance out of the group stage.
2 Liverpool vs. Real Madrid at Anfield
Liverpool return to the Champions League after a four season absence from the competition. They have been drawn with last year’s champions Real Madrid, who will travel to Anfield, where the crowd will be in full effect. Liverpool will be without Luis Suarez, but have acquired Mario Balotelli in an effort to replace the Premier League’s top goal scorer last season. World Cup breakout star James Rodriguez will join one of the world’s most formidable attacks that includes Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and the playmaking talents of Toni Kroos. Many are not expecting Liverpool to be a contender in their first year returning to the Champions League, but the fortress of Anfield is a great equalizer.
1 Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou
Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to the Camp Nou against the club that sold him to AC Milan. His time with the club led to them winning a La Liga title, but in the Champions League they fell short of success. Despite winning domestic titles at all of his previous clubs, Zlatan is still in his quest for his first Champions League title. Lining up across from Zlatan will be one of the most potent attacking sides ever assembled with the attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and new signing Luis Suarez. PSG has invested €50 million on David Luiz to bolster their backline that fell against his former club Chelsea in last year’s quarterfinals.