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Fortress Europa, The Champions League Is Back

Saturday 6th September 2014
The Champions League draw has been made in late August so Ian Reynolds has looked at each of the groups in turn and has provided a look at Groups A - C.

Now that all of the qualifiers have been played and the long winded draw that UEFA dignitaries seem to adore so much has been made we can now look ahead at what the group stage draw has in store for us this year.

Group A



Atlético Madrid

The current champions of Spain will enter this year's competition with the sour taste of defeat from last year's final still firmly in their mouths. Having lead last year's final right until the depth and then to loose in extra time to bitter rivals Real Madrid will do more than urk volatile manager Diego Simeone who will look to go one step further in this year's competition. Much has been made about the high profile departures from Atlético, with the likes of Diego Costa and Diego Luis leaving for pastures new under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. However, Simeone has managed to keep the crux of his squad from last season's title winning team together, whilst doing good business in the transfer window to replace those who did depart. To replace the talismanic Costa, Simeone has bought in Mario Mandzukic who, despite finding himself receiving restricted opportunities at Bayern Munich, is capable of scoring plenty of goals. Acquiring the likes of Jan Oblak to replace Thibaut Courtois in goal and the much sought after services of midfielder Antoine Griezmann has ensured that Atleitico remain strong and more than able to qualify from Group A.

Prediction- 1st

Juventus

Juventus will be desperate to have a better campaign in this year's competition after last season's disappointing third place finish in the Group Stage. The summer has been one of change for the old lady of Italian football with inspirational manager Antonio Conte departing to take charge of the Italian national side. The man charged with replacing Conte, a man who delivered three consecutive Scudetto's for Juventus, Massimiliano Allegri will hope to improve upon Juventus's disappointing Champions League showing last year. Allegri will be confident that his squad will have the fire power to get out of this group and will be looking for goals from Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, with another striking addition reportedly being bought in before the end of the transfer window. The ageing back line of Juventus may be able to be exploited with pace but Italian defensive know-how should see them able to progress.

Prediction-2nd

Olympiakos

Olympiakos managed to qualify for last season's knock-out stage from a difficult looking group that contained PSG, Benfica and Anderlecht. The Greek champions picked up some impressive results last time out and were narrowly beaten in the last sixteen by Manchester United. However, Olympiakos may find this year a little tougher after losing their focal point of attack ,Kostas Mitroglu, Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell and key man at the back Kostas Manolas. The most notable additions to arrive this summer are the experienced Eric Abidal and tricky Ibrahim Afellay, but I fear Atletico Madrid and Juventus will prove to strong for the Greek champions.

Prediction- 3rd

Malmo

Malmo progressed through the qualifiers against Salzburg Red Bulls after topping the Swedish championship last year. Malmo will know just how tough it is going to be for them to achieve any sort of shock and will be rank outsiders qualify from this group. They do have former Ajax, Weder Bremen and West Brom forward Markus Rosenberg leading the line, and the pressure will be on him to get the goals that will give Malmo any sort of chance of qualification. Malmo might not cause any threat to the qualifying positions, but during those freezing cold home games they may just find themselves having a say who comes out of this group on top.

Prediction-4th

Group B



Real Madrid

No team has retained the European Cup in its modern format and this is exactly what Carlo Ancelotti's Galacticos will be attempting to do. Madrid look typically strong and have once again shown their finacial prowess in the transfer market by spending 78million Euro's to acquire world cup winner Tony Kroos,  goalkeeper Keylor Navas and playmaker James Rodriguez. Although, Madrid will find themselves under increased pressure to perform in La Liga this year after bitter rivals Atletico claimed the domestic title last time around. However, any team that features Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Isco, Kroos, Rodriguez and Luka Modric should be capable of competing on numerous fronts and negotiate this group with relative ease. The highlight form this group, and no doubt one of the stand out fixtures of this season's group stage overall, will be Madrid's visit to Anfield to face Liverpool, a game that may well decide who finishes top of Group B.

Prediction- 1st

FC Basel

Basel arrive in this year's group stage as champions of Switzerland yet again. The Swiss champions will have felt unlucky not to have progressed to the knock-out stages last season after a third place finish in Group E after beating Chelsea home and away. However, Basel will be without Mohammed Salah whose impressive performances earned himself a move to Chelsea in the January transfer window. The Basel goal fret will come from the experienced Swiss international forward Marco Streller whose experience will be invaluable, along with former Inter Milan stalwart Walter Samuel who joined this summer. Basel will look to pick up maximum points against Ludogorets and cause an upset when Liverpool travel to Switzerland, they will no doubt try to use their unbeaten record against Liverpool in the 2002/2003's group stage, as motivation for this group of players that such a result is possible. Basel's home record will have to be almost impeccable for them to stand any chance of qualifying and will find it tough at Anfield and The Bernabeu, leaving it difficult for them to mount a serious challenge for the qualification places.

Prediction-3rd

Liverpool

Liverpool will no doubt be happy to be in this extremely qualifiable group after avoiding some trickier variations that were possible due to the low seeding given to them in the draw. Brendan Rodgers side return to the Champions League after a five season absence and will be hoping to carry last season's excellent domestic form into Europe. Having lost Suarez to Barcelona in the summer the jury is still out as to exactly how much the reds are going to miss the controversial Uruguayan, but the addition of Balotelli should remove some of the pressure to provide goals away from Daniel Sturridge. Early signs suggest that the weak point in this Liverpool side is yet again the defence despite additions being bought in the summer. For Liverpool to have a successful campaign i would suggest that they are going to have to produce some of the formidable fast paced counter-attacking football that made them so entertaining to watch last season. As much as this style of trying to outscore the opposition to paper over defensive fragilities may send some Liverpool fans prematurely grey, it should provide some excellent viewing for the neutral. Liverpool should achieve maximum points against Ludogorets and whilst Basel may prove tough opposition Liverpool should have the strength to gain the points they need to qualify. Liverpool have never been defeated by Real Madrid, a record that will surely not still stand at the culmination of this group, will it?

Prediction-2nd

Ludogorets 

Everyone loves an underdog story, but it is going to be almost impossible for the Hungarian champions to negotiate their way out of this group. I fear Ludogorets may have used all the miracles that football can provide in the qualifying game to reach this stage after Cosmin Moti performed hollywood levels of heroics to see them through. I'm sure Ludogorets fans and players will relish the chance to play the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool but they should be beaten comfortably by both.

Prediction-4th

Group C



Benfica

Benfica were yet again victim to the European hoodoo that former coach Bela Guttman placed on them 52 years ago. Benfica reached last season's Europa League final after dropping out of the Champions League group stage with a third place finish in Group C. Benfica lost that final, the Portuguese giants eighth successive European final defeat. Whether it be a curse, or more simply bad defending, that was responsible for last season's Europa League final defeat Benfica will be looking to avoid both this year.

The Portuguese Champions find themselves in possibly the most open group of this years draw and will be confident of their chances to progress. However, Benfica have lost some key players during the summer and with replacements such as Bebe from Manchester United, their squad looks a little underwhelming. Benfica may find themselves scrapping for the third place finish in order to qualify for the Europa League yet again.

Prediction-3rd

Zenit St Petersburg

Andre Villas Boas latest project, Zenit, will be looking to qualify from the group stage for the second consecutive season. The days of spending £60 million in a transfer window may have past for the Russian side but they still boast a team consisting of Hulk, Ezequiel Garay, Andrei Arsharvin, Alexander Kerzhakov and Axel Witsel. The quality throughout the squad cannot be ignored but we have seen Villas Boas fail to get the most out of talented groups of players before. However i believe that this squad should be strong enough to qualify from this group and reach the last sixteen yet again.

Prediction-2nd

Bayern Leverkusen

Bayern Leverkusen arrive in this group stage having successfully negotiated a qualifying tie against FC Copenhagen with an impressive 7-2 aggregate win. Leverkusen are another team that will be wanting to improve upon the last sixteen place achieved last year. During the closed season Leverkusen managed to retain the services of the impressive Lars Bender, who will no doubt be a key figure if Bayern Leverkusen are going to progress in this year's competition. Leverkusen will be happy to find themselves in a group consisting of Zenit, Monaco and Benfica and will fancy their chances of progressing to the latter stages. Leverkusen have the potential to take maximum points, combined with some good away results this might just be enough to see the German side top the group.

Prediction-1st

AS Monaco

The affluent club from the Principality of Monaco who ply their domestic trade in the French top flight have had a relatively quiet transfer window in comparison to the previous few seasons. No marquee signings have come into Leonardo Jardim's side, who replaced Claudio Ranieri during the summer, and it could be a blessing in disguise. So many new arrivals at once propelled the club back into Europe but they looked far from a cohesive unit and perhaps the addition of a few solid squad players is exactly what Monaco needed (or perhaps that's all the financial fair play spreadsheets would allow). Monaco have lost the talented James Rodriguez to Real Madrid, but the key man they need to hold onto is want-away striker Radamel Falcao. Falcao is the focol point of this side and his all round play make him one of the hottest properties in world football. Falcao is currently on the brink of following James Rodriguez to Real Madrid, and without him Monaco will struggle. The team from the Principality's return to the big table of European football might not be an enjoyable experience this time around.

Prediction-4th (Falcao depending)
Ian Reynolds
29 year old Tranmere Rovers fan, Serie A connoisseur and all round football nerd. Any feed back regarding any piece submitted by myself, positive or negative, is greatly appreciated. I talk about football on Twitter, a lot. Follow me @Ian_Reynolds87

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