Summer is over. That only means one thing: the Champions League is back. This year’s joint favourites, Barcelona and Chelsea, have fast become bitter rivals in this competition. That rivalry is certain to intensify since they were drawn into the same group at this early stage of the tournament. The format is as follows: 32 teams contest the group stage, divided into eight groups of four. The group winners and runners-up advance to the knockout stages, the eight third-placed teams move into the UEFA Cup third round, and the eight fourth-placed teams are eliminated. Here is an overview of all the groups with predictions on who we expect to win each group.
Group A: Barcelona (-118), Chelsea (+125), Werder Bremen (15/1), Levski Sofia (250/1)
Maybe the Chelsea-Barcelona rivalry won’t be quite as intense at this early stage. Both teams will advance from this group and there is a good chance they will meet again at a later stage of this competition. Chelsea look noticeably shakier this year. Their previously impenetrable defence looks slightly more lax. That will bode ill for the Blues. But unlike the past few years, with two Premiership titles under their belt, this season Jose Mourinho’s explicit goal is to win the Champions League. Still, we have to side with Barcelona here. They are goal scoring machines and should demolish Bremen and Levski, and they are more than capable of scoring against Chelsea. At close to even money, they are worth backing to win this group.
Group B: Bayern Munich (+125), Inter Milan (+163), Sporting Lisbon (6/1), Spartak Moscow (40/1)
Inter is a big price here and are worth backing. They have added strength, quality and depth to their squad and after the Calciopoli scandal were belated awarded last year’s Scudetto in Serie A. Sporting Lisbon are no pushovers, but Inter can and should get past them. There is one slight worry though. Bayern Munich is the sort of team that can run up the score against weak opponents like Spartak Moscow. If Bayern and Inter are level on points, Bayern could well win this group on goal difference.
Group C: Liverpool (-161), PSV Eindhoven (+450), Bordeaux (5/1), Galatasaray (10/1)
Although they are odds-on, it’s hard to look past Liverpool in this group. They are a well-organized side and lifted the CL trophy two years ago. Manger Rafa Benitez is experienced at European competition and should navigate his team through this group with ease. PSV are a shadow of the team they were last season. There is a good chance they won’t finish in the top two of the Dutch league, let alone replicate their above average Champions League form of recent years. Bordeaux and Galatasaray are second-rate clubs in this competition.
Group D: Valencia (-125), Roma (+150), Shakhtar Donetsk (20/1), Olympiakos (29/1)
It’s hard to understand why Roma are underdogs in this group. They are favoured to win this year’s diluted Italian league. Their squad is a lot stronger this season both on paper and judging by their Serie A results so far. But the Romans face tough Spanish competition in this group. Valencia have a disciplined and experienced Champions League side. They are deadly on the counterattack and stifle the offence of their opponents. This looks like a coin flip between Roma and Valencia, so we’ll take the Italians at odds-against. Keep and eye on Olympiakos. They won’t win this group, but, like many Greek teams, they can be dangerous in their home games.
Group E: Lyon (-125), Real Madrid (+163), Steaua Bucharest (10/1), Dynamo Kiev (50/1)
The collapse of Juventus has benefited no team more than Real Madrid. The Spanish giants picked up a handful more Galacticos and one of the world’s top managers, Fabio Capello. They are serious contenders for both the La Liga and Champions League titles this year. But they will have to get past their nemesis in this tournament: Lyon. The French side are perennially underestimated by the bookmakers despite excelling in European competition. We’ll happily back them again to win this group and possibly the whole thing.
Group F: Manchester United (-275), Benfica (+650), Celtic (13/1), FC Copenhagen (50/1)
Man Utd couldn’t have asked for a more favourable draw. But luck is what they’ll need to get any further than this stage. At this short price, it’s not worth betting on the Red Devils to win the group. Copenhagen are a dangerous team, having knocked Ajax out of this competition. They are a huge price to win the group and are worth a small punt. Benfica are solid as ever in Portugal and experienced in the Champions League. They should claim second spot.
Group G: Arsenal (-161), Hamburg (9/1), Porto (9/1), CSKA Moscow (10/1)
Arsenal were the surprise team of the Champions League last year, going all the way to the final and defying expectations with each match. This year, they seem to be overestimated. The Gunners have not yet settled into their new Emirates Stadium. The squad look noticeably uncomfortable and will take more time to jell. In light of the above, it’s worth looking at the others. CSKA are a huge price at 10/1 and the 2005 UEFA Cup champions must be backed to win this group. Russia is an intimidating place for visiting teams and the Muscovites are more than capable of claiming results from their travels.
Group H: AC Milan (-333), Lille (6/1), AEK Athens (25/1), Anderlecht (33/1)
Milan should cruise through this group with relative ease. They are capable of dismantling virtually any team in the world and opponents like Lille, AEK and Anderlecht are hardly dangerous challengers. Lille are solid in France and might hold Milan to a draw in their home leg. As usual, Greek side AEK will be tough at home too, but they are hopeless on their travels. Anderlecht don’t deserve to be in this competition. Even at this short price, take Milan.