Europe’s champion clubs have been battling it out for continental supremacy for 58 years now, the last 21 of them under the auspices of the UEFA Champions League.
The competition returns for its 22nd season this week, with German and Spanish clubs keen to repeat their domination of the 2012/13 campaign, while England’s representatives are intent on making up for their lack of success last time out.
Reigning champions Bayern Munich are aiming to become the first club to retain the Champions League title since its inception in 1992, while Real Madrid will resume their quest for la décima, their tenth European crown. Los Merengues’ last competition win came in 2002.
The six matchdays in the group phase will take place between 17 September and 11 December, with the top two teams in the eight sections progressing to the Round of 16, which will be held between 18 and 25 February 2014. The dates for the quarter-finals are 1-8 April, while the semi-finals will be staged at the end of the month, between 22 and 29 April. The final will be held at Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz on 24 May 2014.
Twenty-one of the clubs who appeared in last season’s competition are back again, including seven of the eight quarter-finalists, the only absentees being Malaga. This season’s sole debutants are Austria Vienna, while the remaining ten clubs have all graced the competition before.
Of them Olympique Marseille, the Champions League’s first winners in 1993, have made eight previous appearances, Bayer Leverkusen seven, CSKA Moscow and Steaua Bucharest six apiece, Basel four, Atletico Madrid three and Copenhagen two. Meanwhile, Real Sociedad, Napoli and Viktoria Plzen have just one previous campaign to their names.
While the squads of the participating teams have remained more or less the same, with the odd notable exception, the same cannot be said for the coaches. No fewer than 12 clubs have installed new men in the dugout over the close season, a good few of these changes taking place at the continent’s biggest outfits, including three of last season’s semi-finalists.
Batteries recharged after his one-year sabbatical, Pep Guardiola has a hard act to follow at Bayern Munich, who swept all before them under Jupp Heynckes last season. Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea, a club he has led to the semis twice, having failed to steer Real Madrid to a tenth continental crown. The man now entrusted with achieving that long-cherished goal is the vastly experienced Carlo Ancelotti, who has been replaced in the Paris Saint-Germain hotseat by Laurent Blanc.
Continuing the theme, Barcelona brought in Argentinian Gerardo Martino to succeed Tito Vilanova following his resignation for health reasons. And over at Manchester United the departing Sir Alex Ferguson handed the keys to Old Trafford to his compatriot David Moyes. Ferguson’s retirement leaves Arsene Wenger, still firmly ensconced at Arsenal, as the veteran of the pack.
The usual suspects are sure to feature large once again this season. For potential winners look no further than the big names from Germany and Spain, while the Premier League’s powerhouses can barely do worse than last year, when their two group-stage survivors fell in the Round of 16. Only two other teams look to have the resources to challenge the current status quo: Antonio Conte’s Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, with their galaxy of stars.
Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad, Shakhtar Donetsk
Set for their 19th Champions League campaign and their 18th in a row, the Manchester giants are the team most likely to advance, while there seems little to choose between the other candidates. All eyes will be on former Liverpool man Sami Hyypia, recently installed as Bayer coach.
Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagen
Top spot in this pool looks to be between Real Madrid, bolstered by their record signing Gareth Bale, and Juventus, who have their sights set on a fourth final appearance since 2003.
Benfica, Paris Saint-Germain, Anderlecht, Olympiakos
Knocked out by Barcelona last season despite not losing a single game, ambitious PSG have strengthened their already impressive squad in an attempt to break more new ground. Benfica and Anderlecht will resume hostilities, meanwhile, having met eight times before, with each side claiming three wins.
Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen
Though still assimilating the teachings of their new coach, Pep Guardiola, the Bavarians have the knack of coming good on the big occasion, while Manchester City can have reasonable expectations of finally advancing to the knockout phase. CSKA have caused a shock before, however, eliminating Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate in the second round in the 1992/93 season..
Chelsea, Basel, Schalke, Steaua Bucharest
Chelsea have a reputation for blowing hot and cold. Winners two years ago, they were knocked out in the group phase last season, an unexpected turn of events that played its part in Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Londoners will be expected to qualify with Schalke, who ousted PAOK in the play-offs and finished fourth in the Bundesliga last term, though Steaua Bucharest have pedigree as the 1986 winners and the Swiss champions have experience, with four group-stage appearances under their belt already.
Borussia Dortmund, Marseille, Arsenal, Napoli
Arsenal and Marseille met at this stage in 2011/12, with both progressing to the next round, though there is no guarantee of a repeat this time in what looks a very tight section. Runners-up last season, the Germans have lost none of their ambition, while Napoli are now in the hands of the experienced Rafael Benitez.
Porto, Atletico Madrid, Austria Vienna, Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Porto’s gift for reinventing themselves and the expertise they have acquired in 18 previous group-phase appearances makes them the team to beat here. Nevertheless, they are sure to meet stiff opposition from an intensely competitive Atletico and a Zenit side anxious to make a big impression in their third consecutive tilt at Champions League glory.
AC Milan, Barcelona, Ajax, Celtic
The toughest section of the lot, featuring four former winners. Barcelona and AC Milan have faced off at this stage several times before, though this will be the first time Barça and Ajax, the two clubs closest to the heart of Johan Cruyff, have met. And after their run to the last 16 in 2012/13, no one should rule out a repeat from Celtic.
6 - The number of clubs the much-travelled Carlo Ancelotti will now have coached in the Champions League, a competition record. Prior to taking the reins at Real Madrid, the seasoned Italian tactician appeared in the tournament with Parma, Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.
12 - The number of goals separating Lionel Messi from the competition’s leading all-time scorer Raul, who struck 71 times in the Champions League in his prolific career.
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