Summer is over. That only means one thing: the Champions League is back. The big favorites this year, Barcelona and Chelsea, have quickly become bitter rivals in this competition. That rivalry is sure to intensify as they were drawn in 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-place teams advance to the third round of the UEFA Cup, and the eight fourth-place teams are eliminated. Here’s an overview of all the groups with predictions for who we expect each group to win.
Group A: Barcelona (-118), Chelsea (+125), Werder Bremen (15/1), Levski Sofia (250/1)
Perhaps the Chelsea-Barcelona rivalry is not so 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 looks remarkably choppy this year. His previously impenetrable defense seems a bit more lax. That will bode ill for the Blues. But unlike in recent years, with two Premier titles to his credit, this season José 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. About on par for the money, they are worth backing to win this pool.
Group B: Bayern Munich (+125), Inter Milan (+163), Sporting Lisbon (6/1), Spartak Moscow (40/1)
Inter are a great price here and well worth backing. They have added strength, quality and depth to their squad and, after the Calciopoli scandal, they were belatedly awarded last year’s Scudetto in Serie A. Sporting Lisbon are not easy to convince, but Inter can and must overcome them. However, there is one small concern. Bayern Munich is the type of team that can go up 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 have odds, it’s hard to look past Liverpool in this group. They are a well organized team and they lifted the CL trophy two years ago. Manager Rafa Benítez has experience in European competition and should guide his team through this group with ease. PSV is a shadow of the team it was last season. There’s a good chance they won’t finish in the top two of the Dutch league, let alone replicate their above-average form in the Champions League of recent years. Bordeaux and Galatasaray are second-rate clubs in this competition.
Group D: Valencia (-125), Roma (+150), Shakhtar Donetsk (20/1), Olympiacos (29/1)
It is difficult to understand why the Roma are the least advantaged in this group. They are the favorites to win this year’s diluted Italian league. Their team is much stronger this season both on paper and judging by the Serie A results so far. But the Romans face stiff Spanish competition in this group. Valencia has a disciplined and experienced Champions League team. They are deadly on the counter attack and stifle their opponents’ offense. This looks like a coin toss between Rome and Valencia, so we’ll take the Italians against it. Keep and eye on Olympiacos. 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 Kyiv (50/1)
The collapse of Juventus has not benefited any team more than Real Madrid. The Spanish giants chose a handful more Galacticos and one of the best coaches in the world, Fabio Capello. They are serious contenders for the La Liga and Champions League titles this year. But they will have to overcome their nemesis in this tournament: Lyon. Bookmakers underestimate the French team despite excelling in European competition. We will happily back them again to win this group and possibly everything.
Group F: Manchester United (-275), Benfica (+650), Celtic (13/1), FC Copenhagen (50/1)
Man Utd couldn’t have asked for a more favorable draw. But luck is what they will need to get beyond this stage. At this short price, it is not worth betting on the Red Devils to win the group. Copenhagen is a dangerous team, having knocked Ajax out of this competition. They are a huge price to win the group and are worth a small clearance. Benfica are solid as always in Portugal and have experience in the Champions League. They should claim second place.
Group G: Arsenal (-161), Hamburg (9/1), Porto (9/1), CSKA Moscow (10/1)
Arsenal were the surprise team in the Champions League last year, going all the way to the final and defying expectations in every game. This year, they seem to be overrated. The Gunners have yet to settle into their new Emirates Stadium. The squad looks noticeably awkward and will take longer to gel. In light of the above, it is worth looking at the others. CSKA are hugely priced at 1/10 and the 2005 UEFA Cup winners need to 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 navigate through this group with relative ease. They are capable of dismantling practically any team in the world and rivals like Lille, AEK and Anderlecht are not dangerous opponents. Lille are solid in France and could hold Milan to a draw in their first leg. As usual, the Greek team AEK will also be tough at home, but they are hopeless on their travels. Anderlecht does not deserve to be in this competition. Even at this low price, get Milan.