While much of the summer has been spent basking in the quadrennially-available greatness that is the FIFA World Cup, the start of the club season means the return of an even higher level of tournament. The UEFA Champions League starts on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and the tournament guarantees high-level play across the board as the top clubs in Europe vie for continental bragging rights.
What will be interesting, though, is who is absent as much as who is present in this year’s Champions League. Last year’s finalists, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, will be back for another shot at the cup. But as the recent derby between the two teams from the Spanish capital attests, there is as much different with these two sides as there is familiar. Atletico, despite winning La Liga, has seen a slew of players depart for other clubs. Yet they look like the more coherent side of the two Madrid clubs heading into Champions League play. Drawn with Olympiakos, Juventus, and Malmo FF in Group A, Atletico will be favored to advance to the knockout stages for the second straight season.
Real, meanwhile, went on its usual spending spree this summer, netting World Cup heroes James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos, and Keylor Navas to add to an already-stacked roster. But this stacked deck comes at a price, as one of the catalysts for Real’s 2013-14 success was pushed out the door. Angel di Maria, last seen pulling up and coming out of Argentina’s quarterfinal clash with Belgium with a thigh injury, blossomed last season as one of the most versatile players at the Bernabeu. His pace moving forward fueled the comeback against their crosstown rivals, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 romp, and yet Real decided to go in a different direction this offseason. They look less coherent, the pieces ill-fitting in Carlo Ancelotti’s preferred system, though only Liverpool should potentially give them fits in Group B.
Di Maria’s move to Manchester United means that he will not make a single Champions League appearance this season. For the first time in 18 years, the Red Devils are not among the 32 teams battling for the ultimate prize in Europe after finishing seventh in the Premier League last season. The only intercontinental competition that will take place in Manchester this season comes thanks to Premier League champions Manchester City, who were drawn with German titans Bayern Munich as well as Roma and CSKA Moscow in a tough Group E that will finish with at least one strong side relegated to the Europa League.
England’s other two teams in the competition, Chelsea and Arsenal, landed decent draws that should prove navigable. The Blues have the far more favorable path of the two, drawn against Schalke 04, NK Maribor, and Sporting Lisbon in Group G. The Gunners will have to confront Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, and Anderlecht in Group D, and could suffer yet another early exit from the competition despite looking like one of Arsene Wenger’s most fluid sides of his tenure managing the club.
Group C looks like the most wide-open competition of the eight quartets. Zenit St. Petersburg, Benfica, AS Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen stack up well against one another, Zenit and Leverkusen advanced to the knockout stage last year, but their paths are much tougher this time around. With Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao gone, Monaco might find scoring tougher against these opponents, though they will remain a threat along with the Iberians.
Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain will expect to advance out of Group F ahead of APOEL Nicosia and Ajax Amsterdam, though the Dutch side is capable of springing a surprise. FC Porto and Athletic Bilbao will likewise look at BATE Borisov and Shakhtar Donetsk and see the opportunity to move on to the knockout stage in Group H.
Which means that everything will likely turn on its head over the next two days as the first matchday starts to winnow the contenders from the pretenders in this year’s field. Anticipate at least one surprise result, as teams adjust to new signings and World Cup fatigue and balancing European competition with domestic play.
Catching Up Around the Globe
The Champions League is the obvious focal point of this week, but 48 other clubs will begin their own quest for the second-tier Europa League on Thursday. In addition to offering opportunities for champions of smaller European leagues to have a chance at European glory, the successor to the UEFA Cup also allows more of the big-money clubs from the top domestic leagues another shot at hardware.
Tottenham Hotspur and Everton will be there from the EPL. Serie A sides Inter Milan, Fiorentina, Napoli, and Torino will all take part as well. The Bundesliga will send Borussia Monchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg into athletic battle, while La Liga is represented by Villareal and Sevilla. France can boast St. Etienne and Lille, the Netherlands contributes Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven to the mix, and they’ll be challenged by a slew of clubs from around the continent in a dozen four-team groups.
Some heavy hitters will take to the pitch on Thursday, and you can look for the matches on FOX Sports.
The MLS regular season is winding down as teams continue to jockey for playoff position. Every club has only six or seven matches remaining to get above the lucrative line separating the contenders for a championship from those headed to early holidays.
In the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Crew and Philadelphia Union are level on points with 37 apiece. Only the March 22 win by Columbus over the Union separates the two teams in the standings, though the two squads will conclude their season series with two matches against one another in the final three matches. Toronto FC is three points back but has a game in hand, and the Houston Dynamo also have a seventh game and lurk two points further behind. The four-horse race in the East should go down to the wire, with Columbus or Philadelphia likely knocking the other out of the postseason field.
The Western Conference is just as competitive, with Cascadia rivals Vancouver and Portland separated by a single point and set to meet each other this Saturday in British Columbia. The Colorado Rapids are a full five points behind Portland, San Jose is nine points off the playoff pace, and thus it looks as though the two Pacific Northwest teams will determine the fifth and final playoff spot in the West.
With the World Cup months into the past and San Lorenzo’s victory in the Copa Libertadores final in the books, South American countries turn toward their domestic seasons. From the Southern Cone to the Caribbean, most of the Spanish-speaking soccer continues to dominate the narrative as teams battle during the heart of the post-World Cup Apertura or Clausura (depending on the individual set-up of the calendar) for national bragging rights.
In Argentina, River Plate has taken advantage of the post-Riquelme disarray at rival Boca Juniors to vault to the top of the table. Nipping at their heels are Newell’s Old Boys and Independiente, with the field stretched out tightly below the trio. Universidad de Chile find themselves three points ahead of Colo Colo midway through the Chilean season.
Moving northward, the Brazilians — one of the few South American leagues to play a full double round-robin as one season rather than breaking up into Apertura and Clausura — find Cruzeiro riding a massive goal glut to move four points clear of Sao Paulo in the standings. And in Colombia, 2004 Copa Libertadores winner Once Caldas is pacing the field midway through their Clausura.
But there’s also the Copa Sudamericana, CONMEBOL’s answer to the Europa League, which affords the champion entry into the next season’s Copa Libertadores. Action continues this week for those clubs still in the hunt.
Matches of the Week
- Arsenal at Borussia Dortmund (Champions League, Tuesday/2:45pm Eastern)
- Manchester City at Bayern Munich (Champions League, Wednesday/2:45 pm Eastern)
- Rosario Central at Boca Juniors (Copa Sudamericana, Thursday/8:15pm Eastern)
- Juventus at AC Milan (Serie A, Saturday/2:45pm Eastern)
- Seattle Sounders at New York Red Bulls (MLS, Saturday/7:30pm Eastern)
- Chelsea at Manchester City (EPL, Sunday/11:00am Eastern)
- Fluminese at Flamengo (Brasileiro Serie A, Sunday/3:00pm Eastern)