Now that we have an opening draw, there are now 96 matches scheduled between 32 of the best clubs Europe has to offer. Several great rivalries will be renewed over the next few months, and a handful of Europe’s up-and-coming sides will also be tested by the continent’s perennial powers. As usual, most Americans couldn’t give a shit less.
That’s really a shame, because the Champions League has really become the world’s biggest sporting event. It’s part NCAA Basketball Tournament, part NFL Playoffs, and all about some rivalries that are older than America itself.
But I’m not here to win converts; I’m here to look at the eight groups of four teams each, and to take a look at who has the best shot to get out of the group stage.
Group A: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad
This group features one three-time winner, two domestic champions from the previous season and four teams that have all made it to the knockout round of the competition in the new millennium.
1) Manchester United
- How they qualified: English Premier League champion, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Winner (1968, 1999, 2008)
- Home stadium: Old Trafford / Manchester, England
- Manager David Moyes
- Preview: United has a new look this year, as David Moyes replaced the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson as manager. Man U remains as one of the royalty of European soccer; they still have a crushing level of talent even with the uncertain status of striker Wayne Rooney as far as his tenure with the Red Devils is concerned. This club has to be considered a favorite to advance deep into this tournament.
2) Shakhtar Donetsk
- How they qualified: Ukrainian Premier League champion,advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Quarterfinals (2011)
- Home stadium: Donbass Arena / Donetsk, Ukraine
- Manager: Mircea Lucescu
- Preview: Ever since legendary Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu took over at Donetsk in 2004, they have been consistently one of the best coached teams in any competition, European sides have found Donetsk to be a worthy adversary in many competitions, especially in their UEFA Cup win in 2009. Having said that, this is a tough draw for the Ukrainians, and they will have to play their best football to advance.
3) Bayer Leverkusen
- How they qualified: German Bundesliga third place, advanced directly into group stage
- Best finish: Finalist (2002)
- Home stadium: BayArena / Leverkusen, Germany
- Manager: Sami Hyypiä
- Preview: In its first three three Bundesliga matches, Leverkusen jumped out to an impressive 3-0 record with a goal differential of +5. In other words, they look interesting, but they have a history of being better suited as a bridesmaid in top level European competitions. They didn’t get out out of the Round of 32 of the Europa League last year, and this year finds them back in Europe’s premier club competition. Glory has always seemed to elude them, as they have been runner-up in the Bundesliga five times and in the Champions League once. Granted, the German League has really ascended in recent years to the top of the European food chain, but Leverkusen remains on my “believe when I see it” ilst.
4) Real Sociedad
- How they qualified: Spanish La Liga fourth place, defeated Olympique Lyonnais in playoff round
- Best finish: Round of 16 (2004)
- Home stadium: Anoeta / San Sebastián, Spain
- Mananger: Jagoba Arrasate
- Preview: As a member of the best league in Europe, Real Sociedad easily dispatched with solid French side Lyon 4-0 on aggregate in the playoff round. While that performance has some viewing Sociedad as having arrived on the major European stage, but there are still too many questions about the depth of a club that has only been in the top flight of Spanish soccer for the past three years.