The transfer window has now come to a close in the top European leagues, meaning clubs have finalized the squads they hope will carry them through at least the first half of the season and crucially the group stage for the Champions League. It has been a summer of significant upheaval and expenditure at Europe’s big clubs as they seek to claim the trophy that Real Madrid held aloft in Lisbon in May.
The transfer window also continued to reinforce the concentration of talent in a narrowing selection of leagues and teams, arguably making the Champions League group stages more predictable. Still, some mouth-watering ties await and some surprises are still likely to be in store.
Here’s how the eight groups could shape up.
Group A (Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmö)
Last year’s runners up, Atlético Madrid, must start as favorites to win Group A. Diego Simeone has had to face losing key members of the team that got within minutes of winning the trophy in Lisbon, but has been given the money to replace them and arguably now has a stronger squad overall. Despite disappointing hugely with a group-stage exit last season and losing the coach who led them to three straight Serie A titles, Antonio Conte, Juventus should also ensure a spot in the top two. Olympiakos have lost some key members of the squad that were close to shocking Manchester United in the last 16 last season and may struggle to repeat that result. Swedish champions Malmö have achieved much just by getting to the group stage.
Betting odds to win group (via bovada.lv): Atlético 20/27, Juventus 27/20, Olympiakos 10/1, Malmö 50/1
Prediction: 1. Atlético Madrid, 2. Juventus, 3. Olympiakos, 4. Malmö
Group B (Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets)
After claiming their 10th European Cup, Real Madrid have spent big to add two of the stars of the World Cup, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, to try and become Europe’s dominant force. While the sales of two players who brought key balance to the team, Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, could come back to haunt them later on in the competition, it should not prevent them from progressing to the last 16 with something to spare. Despite only just returning to the Champions League after a five-year absence, a bolstered Liverpool squad will be expected to claim second spot. Still, the five times winners will have to be wary of the threat from a Basel side that has far more recent European experience. However, having lost manager Murat Yakin and a couple of key players, the Swiss champions may have to settle for a Europa League place, ahead of Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets.
Betting odds: Real Madrid 2/7, Liverpool 11/4, Basel, 18/1, Ludogorets 100/1
Predictions: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Liverpool, 3. Basel, 4. Ludogorets
Group C (Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco)
Perhaps the most open group of this year’s Champions League, all four teams will feel that they have a good chance to make it to the knockout phase. Europa League runners-up Benfica have lost some key personnel but their European nous could be enough to see them through. Leverkusen have had a god start to the Bundesliga season and, on the back of some good transfer business, could well secure second. At the start of the summer Monaco would have been seen as a major threat in the Champions League, but, having sold James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao as the massive investment from their Russia owner has tailed off, they may now struggle. Still, Monaco, like Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit, should not be written off.
Betting odds: Bayer Leverkusen 2/1, Monaco 9/4, Benfica 5/2, Zenit 9/1
Predictions: 1. Benfica, 2. Bayer Leverkusen, 3. Zenit, 4. Monaco
Group D (Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht)
Arsenal and Dortmund will improbably meet in the group phase for the third time in four seasons, and, just like a year ago, both should progress. While losing Robert Lewandowski, finalists in 2012-13 Dortmund have built a squad that should be capable of coping with the demands of both the Champions League and Bundesliga. Arsenal have remarkably made it out of the initial group phase in 14 consecutive seasons and that record is likely to be maintained. Under the impressive former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, Galatasaray are capable of upsetting both Dortmund and Arsenal, particularly at home, but may just be short of the required quality to usurp them for a place in the top two. Meanwhile, it would be a major surprise were Anderlecht not to prop up the group.
Betting odds: Borussia Dortmund 21/20, Arsenal 6/5, Galatasaray 6/1, Anderlecht 33/1
Predictions: 1. Borussia Dortmund, 2. Arsenal, 3. Galatasaray, 4. Anderlecht
Group E (Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Roma
This may well be the toughest group of all. For the third time in four seasons, Manchester City have been handed a meeting with mighty Bayern Munich. While both will be favored to progress, they will have to get past the fourth seed that no one wanted, Roma. Bayern’s incredible strength and experience marks them out as favorites, but there could be a real battle between a City side which is still looking to establish itself among Europe’s elite and a Roma team revitalized under Rudi Garcia. CSKA Moscow have very much drawn the short straw.
Betting odds: Bayern Munich 4/7, Manchester City 2/1, Roma 8/1, CSKA Moscow 25/1
Predictions: 1. Bayern Munich, 2. Manchester City, 3. Roma, 4. CSKA Moscow
Group F (Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Ajax, Apoel Nicosia)
After being the undoubted best team around for several seasons, this is very much a new era for Barcelona. It remains to be seen how the team adapts following the exits or diminishing roles of several of the men key to the club’s previous dominance, but there is more than enough quality to insure making the last 16 is not a problem. Another great name of European soccer, Ajax will once again have to combat a tough group as well as losing some of their best players to bigger leagues. Despite having their rampant spending limited by Financial Fair Play restrictions, PSG should beat the Dutch champions to second place. Cypriots Apoel will surely be halted from replicating their fairytale run to the quarterfinals three years ago.
Betting odds: Barcelona 2/5, PSG 2/1, Ajax 16/1, Apoel 100/1
Predictions: 1. Barcelona, 2. PSG, 3. Ajax, 4. Apoel
Group G (Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor)
Champions League winners in 2012, Chelsea should not face any serious drama emerging from Group G. José Mourinho’s side has been strengthened impressively over the summer and improving on last season’s semifinal exit is a realistic aim. With Slovenian champions Maribor surely the group’s whipping boys, the battle will be on between Schalke and Sporting to claim second. While the Portuguese outfit are not to be taken lightly, Schalke has both the greater quality and recent European experience.
Betting odds: Chelsea 1/4, Schalke 4/1, Sporting 8/1, Maribor 66/1
Predictions: 1. Chelsea, 2. Schalke, 3. Sporting, 4. Maribor
Group H (Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, Bate Borisov)
Another open group. After a disappointing campaign last term, 2004 winners Porto have again made big money selling off two of their prized assets, but have also reinvested strongly in their squad. They should make it out of their group this time, and be joined by Spain’s Athletic Club. After finishing fourth in La Liga, Athletic came through an unenviable playoff against Napoli to make it into the Champions League group phase for the first time in 16 years, and their young team may not stop there. Shakhtar still have the quality to be a danger, but will surely be hampered by the unrest in eastern Ukraine and having to play their home games in the western city of Lviv. Belarusians Bate are likely to struggle just to get a Europa League place.
Betting odds: Porto 27/20, Athletic Club 3/2, Shakhtar 3/1, Bate, 25/1
Predictions: 1. Porto, 2. Athletic Club, 3. Shakhtar, 4. Bate