All football fans look forward to the start of the Champions League group stage, it signals the real start of the competition with the big boys entering the frame.
Every year there’s a shock side, a surprise exit and a few unexpected results and this year will be no different. And if you’ve already got an idea of who you fancy to lift the trophy in May, take a look at the latest odds available with Coral who will give you a free £20 bet, if you bet £5 today.
Last year few could have predicted Atletico Madrid would reach the final while the Italian champions Juventus failed to get out of their group. FC Basel, meanwhile, stunned Chelsea beating the Blues 2-1 at Stamford and 1-0 in Switzerland. Arsenal were also fortunate to qualify from their group, only reaching the last-16 on goal difference at the expense of Rafa Benitez’s Napoli.
This year will be notable for the absence of three former champions with both Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan are all missing. Liverpool are back, however, with the 2005 Champions League winners playing in Europe’s premier competition for the first time since 2009. The Reds have a special relationship with the competition, winning the European Cup five times and Brendan Rodgers have spent heavily to replace Luis Suarez.
French duo Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco will be both looking to show their power this year, meanwhile, with the big spenders both setting their sights on the trophy. PSG have the flamboyant Zlatan Ibrahimovich up front along with £50million summer signing David Luiz in defence alongside his international teammate Thiago Silva.
Monaco, however, have lost World Cup star James Rodriguez to reigning champions Real Madrid. The Whites, who also added Bayern Munich’s World Cup winner Toni Kroos to their squad this summer, appear even stronger this year as they bid to retain the trophy.
And their biggest rivals Barcelona will be hoping for a better year under new coach Luis Enrique after enduring their first trophy-less season in six years last season. Much like Spain at the World Cup, Barcelona have been a side in decline since Pep Guardiola’s exit but have added Liverpool striker Suarez to their ranks this year.
The Catalan club could only reach the quater-finals of the competition last year but they will be more than confident of getting through their group even with Suarez missing a large portion of the stage.
The arrival of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa at Chelsea, meanwhile, could see Chelsea improve on their semi-final appearance last year. It has been well documented that the Blues lacked an out-and-out goalscorer last year and the arrival of Costa from Atletico Madrid along with the return of Didier Drogba should see the club ease through the group stage.
Atletico have seen their La Liga winning side dismantled this summer, losing a host of key players but they have added Croatian striker Mario Mandzuckic to their attack.
Real, Atletico and Manchester United were the only three sides who made it through the group stage last year with an unbeaten record and both, of course, the two Spanish sides went on to reach the final. Diego Simeone’s men will struggle to repeat that feat this year but should have no trouble getting out of the group stage once again.