Tue, 15 Sep, 2015, 09:31
Does it feel like only yesterday that Barcelona glided to a fourth UEFA Champions League title in a decade on the fluttering wings of their trio of heavenly forwards, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez? Well, believe it or not, it's been more than three months. And it's come time to do the whole thing all over again.
So, with the action kicking off on Tuesday and Wednesday and running through the fall, winter and spring, allow FC Yahoo to get you up to speed on a fresh edition of the world's toughest club soccer competition.
Group A: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmo.
Group B: PSV, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Wolfsburg.
Group C: Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray, Astana.
Group D: Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Group E: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, BATE Borisov.
Group F: Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb.
Group G: Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Group H: Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Olympique Lyon, Gent.
A double round-robin – in which each team in every group faces each other twice, once at home and once away – will knock out half the contenders. The top two from each group advances to the round of 16. The third-place teams drop down to the knockout stages of the second-tier Europa League. Those who finish dead last go home.
In the knockout rounds – the round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals – home and away series chop the field in half until we have two finalists. In those matchups, away goals will count double if the aggregate score is tied. The May 28 final in Milan will be a single, winner-takes-all game.
Can Barcelona become the first back-to-back winners in the Champions League era?
Nobody has repeated as European champions since AC Milan did it in 1989 and 1990. Back then, it was still called the European Cup. And while 32 teams participated, just as now, they were all national champions, meaning the tournament was actually weaker. After all, the biggest soccer leagues could only send one team, their champions, while the likes of Malta, Northern Ireland and Luxemburg also got to send a delegate. Not only that, but it was a straight knockout tournament then, making the whole ordeal much less of a slog.
Anyway, Barca is well positioned to win the thing again. Although its two summer signings – Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal – won't be eligible to play until January because of a transfer ban, the offensive firepower of Messi, Neymar and Suarez will wear down any defense. Barcelona isn't as deep elsewhere as it once was, or as secure in possession, but this is still an all-time great team. History, however, portends that it takes more than that to win it.
Will a team from outside of Spain, Germany, Italy or England win it for the first time in 12 years? And will that team be Paris Saint-Germain?
There's a reason they call them the Big Four. La Liga, the Bundesliga, the Premier League and Serie A – in no particular order – are the biggest and richest leagues on the continent. And they've collectively claimed 12 straight European crowns. FC Porto, managed by a young Jose Mourinho, was the last team from a different league to win the Champions League in 2004. Before that, the last non-Big Four winner was Ajax in 1995.
That might change in the coming few seasons. PSG, flush with absurd amounts of Qatari cash, is trying to break this hegemony, stockpiling world-class players – Angel Di Maria, recently of Manchester United and Real Madrid, is the latest. A few years back, then-sporting director Leonardo said off the cuff that the Parisians were built to dominate Europe, not just France, and that very much remains true. PSG has been imperious domestically. Now can it finally improve on its quarterfinals berths of the last three seasons?
How good is Bayern Munich this year?
The Bavarians have come to so dominate Germany that it's become hard to assess how good they really are when they don't get to blow opponents to smithereens with their sheer firepower and depth. In Pep Guardiola's third and perhaps final season in charge, Bayern is a perfect 4-0-0 in the league but has already had to come back from deficits twice. Meanwhile, Franck Ribery hasn't played yet and Arjen Robben gets injured ever more regularly. Bastian Schweinsteiger has left for United.
Bayern being Bayern, it reloaded with Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa, both splendid signings. But we won't really know what Guardiola's men are good for until we get to the business end of this tournament.
Is Manchester United still competitive in Europe? And will all that English TV cash distort this competition?
United missed out on the Champions League last year for the first time since the 1995-96 season and hasn't been the same since Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired two summers ago. The Red Devils make their return this season, but many will wonder if they have the personnel to compete on two fronts.
Then again, United has once again been able to sink significant money into its squad – thanks, in part, to good work on the sell-side of the transfer market as well – adding depth and more talent to a team in need of it.
This, in fact, is true of all the English teams. Thanks to another round of television contracts signed, billions more dollars will flow into the Premier League over the coming years and the clubs have been investing that money into players. It hasn't had much of an effect yet as the English clubs haven't lived up to their historically high standards in continental competition lately. But perhaps this is the year they will.
Can Juventus replicate its run to the final and confirm that Italian soccer still matters? Or matters again?
When the Old Lady reached the final last year, it was seen as something of a fluke. The Italian league had decayed to the point where it was supposed to be irrelevant. Certainly, the Turin club was talented, but nobody gave it a shot in its semifinals with Real Madrid but it prevailed anyway.
This summer, a raft of key players left as new ones came in to take their place. Now it will be up to the back-to-back-to-back-to-back Italian champions to prove that they really have climbed back into the rarified atmosphere of Europe. And that, for that matter, that Italian soccer has as well, if it was ever really gone in the first place.
The 2013-14 losing finalists couldn't replicate their La Liga-winning form in their title defense last season. But Diego Simeone's team has been upgraded in several positions and could be better than ever.
There are holes all over this roster and with several key defections in recent years – Cesc Fabregas and Pedro in particular – there isn't much depth to speak of. But then, again, there's that trident, which might be the most talented attack in the history of the game.
The Bavarians know how to win in Europe, reaching three finals in the last six years. They also know how to restock the pantry with ever more talent, as they have yet again.
In spite of a disastrous start to the domestic campaign, Jose Mourinho's charges have so much experience and ability that anything short of a semifinal berth in Europe will be a disappointment to them.
Sure, Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal are gone. But Sami Khedira, Simone Zaza, Paul Dybala, Hernanes, Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic have taken their place. This team has the tools to do one game better than last year.
After three straight French league titles, there's only one thing left for Laurent Blanc's men to accomplish.
Perhaps the window is closing on this group, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric slowly creeping towards the end of their primes. But a record 11th European crown is hardly out of reach.
Those other English clubs
Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United should all be equipped to go on a deep run as well. It's just that lately, for whatever reason, they've had a habit of getting in their own way in Europe.
The other, other team in Germany has quietly assembled a fearsome arsenal of offensive weapons, which includes Max Kruse, Bas Dost and Andre Schurrle. And after Kevin de Bruyne was finally sold to City, Julian Draxler quickly arrived to replace him.
The back-to-back Europa League champion is a solid outfit, yet shouldn't have the horses to win this race. Then again, don't underestimate a team that has won two grueling continental competitions in a row.
Under its American ownership, the Romans continue to get a little better every year. With Edin Dzeko, Mohamed Salah and Wojciech Szczesny added to the fold, they might get over the hump.
The cash-splashing days are over for Olympique, but the club still has one of the world's best academies. With a team built around forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir and playmaker Clement Grenier, that youth program has turned out another threesome of young gems who could return the club to the European elite.
Here our picks to advance to the round of 16.
Group A: Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain.
Group B: Wolfsburg, Manchester United.
Group C: Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray.
Group D: Juventus, Sevilla.
Group E: Barcelona, Roma.
Group F: Bayern Munich, Arsenal.
Group G: Chelsea, Porto.
Group H: Lyon, Valencia.