Few things in life can make a grown man cry, and the UEFA Champions league anthem has proven over time to be one them. And who can blame those who succumb to tears. The emotions felt when you step onto the field for your favorite team under the bright lights in a packed stadium as the sonorous tune of the Champions league anthem plays out would be very difficult to put into words.
Real Madrid will undoubtedly be the name on everyone’s lips after they did the seemingly impossible and conquered Europe twice in a row for the first time since AC Milan did so in 1989 and 1990 editions winning the Duodecima 371 days after after winning their 11th title. This year they will be in Group H and kick off their campaign against minnows APOEL Nicosia who are in the group stages for the third time. They have made it out of the group stage and into the KO round once, reaching the Quarter Final before being knocked out by Real Madrid no less.
Also in Group H are dark horses Tottenham and Borrusisia Dortmund who square up at the new Wenbley stadium in GW 1. Tottenham need badly to shake off their Wembley blues if they are to make any headway in a quietly competitive group.
Last year’s beaten finalists Juventus face familiar foes Barcelona on their first match in Group D. The last time these clubs met was in the Quarter finals last year where Barcelona were humbled 3-0 at the Turin Stadium and failed to trouble the Italians in the return leg drawing 0-0 at the Camp Nou. Barca’s best player on the night, Neymar has since departed for PSG in a record shattering €222m deal. The Bianconeri also lost a key component of their defensive unit with Leonardo Bonucci joining fierce rivals AC Milan but have held on to their own brilliant Argentine Paulo Dybala who scored twice the last time these two met.
Also in Group D Sporting Lisbon travel to Greece to face Olympiakos in their opening fixture and will be hoping to avoid more opening day away heartache. They will be buoyed by their away form in the preliminary rounds of the Champions league having beaten FC SB 1-5 on to book their place in the group stage.
Champions league returnees Manchester United will be the headlining acts of Group A where they will face Benfica, CSKA Moscow and Basel. On the last occasion that they faced any of these teams, they went on to crash out of the completion at the group stage and avoiding a repeat of this scenario would be paramount in the mind of Jose Mourinho as he leads his team out onto the Old Trafford pitch to face Basel in their first game.
Top seeds and Portuguese Champions Benfica host CSKA Moscow and will be hoping to advance from the group stage for a third consecutive season having reached the QFs in 2015/2016 and the R16 in 2016/2017.
Champions league debutants Qarabag face the daunting trip to Stamford bridge to face English Champions Chelsea as their reward for being the first Azerbaijani team to qualify for the group stages of the UCL. Chelsea are the top seeded side in a group that also contains last season’s semi finalists Atletico Madrid who start their campaign away to a strong Roma outfit who will be without Egyptian speedster Mo’ Salah who joined Liverpool in the summer. They can however still call on heather services of Bosnian hitman Edin Dzeko as they look to upset some of Europe’s big boys. Chelsea’s Spanish forward Diego Costa will be denied a possible return to his former stomping ground after disciplinary issues saw him left out completely of Chelsea’s registered squad for the tournament.
PSG suffered a record breaking exit at the hands of Barcelona in the round of 16 stage last season after following up their shock 4-0 win over the Blaugrana with an even more improbable 6-1 loss. Thus becoming the first side to surrender a 4-0 first leg lead in a UCL knock out game. They responded in record breaking fashion as well signing the orchestrator of the famous remontada Neymar da Silvia Jr. from Barcelona for an earth shaking €222m and captured teenage sensation Mbappe on loan from Monaco to put themselves among the favorites to win this competition. They will face stern opposition in group B from German champions Bayern Munich who play their first fixture at home to Anderlecht. PSG’s first fixture is a trip to Celtic Park to face the Scottish champions against whom Neymar recorded 4 goals and 6 assists while he was a Barcelona player.
Napoli’s home and away humiliation of OGC Nice ensured that they became the first Italian side to successfully navigate the UCL play off round since AC Milan in the 2013/2014 season. They begin their campaign away to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, the same day Dutch Champions Feyenoord host the most expensively assembled team in the World, Manchester City. City fans don’t need to be reminded of their previous visit to Dutch champions which was in the 2012/2013 group stage when they failed to progress from the group stage finishing last. Echoes of the Ajax faithful’s cry of “you bought the wrong de Jong” in reference to City’s floundering Nigel de Jong and their superb Siem de Jong can not be so easily forgotten.
Bundesliga surprise package RB Leipzig start the first ever Champions league campaign of the club which was founded only in 2009. They play host to French champions Monaco who were out of the blue performers from last season. Cementing their French league title with a place in the UCL semi finals. But having lost a number of key players from last season, they have a new crop of fresh faces keen to impress while still having the likes of Radamel Falcao in their ranks. Also in Group G is a return for 3 time UCL winner Pepe to the club where he first gained popularity as Porto host Besiktas who have another ex Porto man in Ricardo Quaresma in their ranks.
In Group E Russian Champions Spartak Moscow travel to Slovenia to face NK Maribor on Wednesday. While Liverpool opens its famous a field gates to the Champions League after since the 2014/2015 season. Their visitors are Spanish outfit Sevilla who themselves will be hoping to mount a reasonable challenge for the title.
Real Madrid have already written their name in UCL folklore and now it remains to be seen if their name will be scribbled on the famous trophy with big ears for a third successive time, a feat not achieved since Bayern Munich did so in 1976 or if it will be another team’s turn to write their own impossible UCL story.
Article By: Ayoola Kelechi, @ayoola_kelechi