Champions League is back! After 115 days of waiting for the kick-off to the 2013/14 campaign, we can finally look forward to visit that good-old pub on the way home from the office, grab a nice cold one and enjoy quality midweek soccer at its finest. This season, all roads lead to the Estadio da Luz stadium, home to Group C contenders, Benfica. As expected, we will enjoy the thrills, frills and razzmatazz of Europe’s elite battling it out for glory on the world’s biggest stage.
We are back with the usual eight groups, of which the four teams in each group will battle it out for the top two spots to qualify for the knockout stage whose draws will take place on December 13th. As all eight teams are shaped up, it promises to be quite a tournament, with some groups already dubbed as Group of Death, especially Group F having the ubiquitous Arsenal, last season’s Ligue 1 runners up Marseille, 2012/2013 Uefa Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund and Italian stalwarts Napoli with all teams in the group topping their respective domestic leagues as at the Sunday
However, we will be focusing on the first group, Group A with three-time Champions Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, who are returning back to Champions League action after a decade. Here is a quick look at how Group A may pan out this season:
The Barclays Premier League champions kick off their Champions League season with their new manager David Moyes. Having already been made to face a baptism of fire domestically by playing Chelsea, Liverpool (in the League with a League Cup tie ahead ) and Manchester City at the weekend all in the first five games in the season, Moyes will also now make his full Champions League debut at the group stage by hosting Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford, having previously tasted a little Champions League action back in 2005 qualifiers with Everton (they were eliminated by Villareal). With a rather disappointing performance during the transfer window, Manchester United will make do with just the one addition in former Everton player Marouane Fellaini to their ranks, a team which bowed out of last year’s tournament at the hands of Real Madrid at the Round of 16 in controversial circumstances. With Nani still serving a suspension due to the red card for the sending off in that match, David Moyes will have at his disposal the mercurial Robin van Persie and now-settled Wayne Rooney in his lineup who opened his account with a beautiful freekick against Crystal Palace.
Moyes, who is not exactly known for attacking flare, will likely approach his European debut season with caution, reverting to his comfort zone of playing compact midfield, and hard but effective man-marking. He will rely heavily on his wingers and fullbacks to bring their best to the fore, as Continental opponents from Germany and Spain are a far cry from his typical English style of play. However, he will be grateful to have a United side filled with veterans in Europe, with many of the current squad having featured in three Uefa finals in the last 6 seasons. He seems to be growing in confidence with his team, but it will be on him to ensure his inexperience in Europe doesn’t show in his tactical approach to the games ahead. The objective? Ball possession. If you don’t lose the ball, you have a strong chance of collecting three points each game. Keep the passes short and keep the midfield compact.
Players to watch: Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Marouane Fellaini
Having finished third in the Bundesliga last season and with four wins from five matches so far this term, Sami Hyypia’s side come into this season’s campaign riding high with confidence. The Finn, a Champions League winner himself, will know all about Manchester United having played at Liverpool for over a decade. We will expect that they would have learnt from the harsh experience at their last Champions League outing, when Barcelona inflicted on them a 10-2 demolition. Bayer Leverkusen have met Manchester United in the past, defeating United on away goals in the semi finals in 2002, only to go on and lose to eventual winners Real Madrid. In that same season, they eliminated three English clubs – Arsenal on head-to-head, Liverpool in the quarters and United in the semis, so they will be looking to earn points in England. With in-form Sidney Sam and Stefan Klessling expected on the starting lineup, expect them to push for an early goal and hit United on the break to build on their away goals tally. Players to watch: Lars Bender (doubtful), Stefan Klessling, Sidney Sam.
Current Ukrainian Premier League champions Shakhtar are by no means a pushover. Having finished top two domestically since 1996 season, Shakhtar have made a good representation of itself in Europe, making the Champions League 5 times, reaching the quarters once, and featuring in Uefa Cup/Europa over a dozen times and winning the final edition of the Uefa Cup in 2009. Currently struggling with form domestically, they will hope to have a fresh start to season’s campaign with an away performance to Basque side Real Sociedad in the Group’s other opening match. We will expect that game to be an open game with lots of scoring chances.
Players to watch: Luiz Adriano, Fred, Anton Kanibolotskyi, Alex Teixeira
The fourth team in the Group, and by no means the underdogs, are Basque outfit, Real Sociedad. Returning back to Champions League action since the 2003/2004 season, they will also be coming in full of confidence after a fourth place finish in last season Li Liga, after Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. They had a rather easy qualification tie with Lyon, which they went through with a brace from former Arsenal forward Carlos Vela. We should expect Sociedad to compete strongly for a Round of 16 berth as they will go all out for wins at home and steal draws away; Sociedad for me are the side to really be wary of in this group as they have a very good nucleaus of young talentnd a good team ethic even though they lost Illaramendi to Real Madrid in the Summer.
Players to watch: Carlos Vela, Antoine Griesmann, Xabi Prieto, Inigo Martinez
In summary, my predictions?
Manchester United 3 – 1 Bayer Leverkusen
Real Sociedad 2 – 2 Shakhtar Donetsk
Both matches kick off at 19:45 GMT.