Didn’t we just watch Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in a stirring Champions League finale at the Allianz Arena?
Yes we did...but that was in fact 17 weeks ago. Time flies on the European football calendar.
And now that we’re into mid-September, it’s UEFA Champions League time. After a couple of rounds of the usual early qualifying action in August, we finally get down to the real “big-money” business of the group play, which commences on Tuesday and Wednesday.
As always, Champs League games will take place under the floodlights at midweek throughout the fall, late winter and spring before this season’s finale on next May 25 at London’s Wembley Stadium.
For a quick reminder, the group play format consists of eight different quartets competing in round-robin play in action progressing into early December. The top two finishers from each of the eight four-team groups advance on to the knockout phase, but not until after a winter break shuts down the competition until mid-February.
Third-place finishers in the group phase get a consolation prize and a ticket into the secondary Europa League competition once it reaches the round of 32. Losers from earlier Champs League qualifiers in the summer are also granted entrance into prior phases of the Europa League.
The Champs League shifts into head-to-head mode when knockout play commences in February, whittling down to a final two after the semifinal matches conclude on April 30 and May 1.
Group play in the autumn is often anti-climactic, although there are the occasional top-drawer matchups, and at least through the first four Matchdays there is some intrigue to the proceedings. Favored teams are not immune from locating the proverbial banana peels in group play. Just ask Manchester United, which was eliminated at that phase a year ago and didn’t even have a chance to compete in the knockout portion of the competition. As was eventual EPL winner Manchester City.
By Champs League group-play standards, however, we have an unlikely occurrence of a pair of extremely-juicy matchups on the Matchday One this Tuesday and Wednesday. Three of the defending champions of the top domestic leagues on the continent, plus the holders of this competition’s crown, will meet as the Champs League gets off to a roaring start for the group paly phase.
The first featured matchup will be Tuesday at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, where defending Liga winner Real Madrid hosts last year’s surprise EPL winner Man City. A check with European wagering outlets notes that Jose Mourinho’s defending Liga champs are posted at 4/7 on the win, with the take-back on Man City at a tempting 9/2. Draw prices are listed at an intriguing 3/1.
Kickoff time on Tuesday will be 2:45 p.m. (ET) with TV coverage in the states provided by FOX Soccer Channel.
We have some interest in the Real Madrid non-win prices because the Bernabeu crew has started rather slowly this season, with only four points out of a possible nine in the first three rounds of Liga play. Moreover, controversy, never far from Real Madrid even in good times, seems to have resurfaced as Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo has resurrected his old diva act and is reportedly unhappy about the “situation” at the Bernabeu. Which has provided endless columns of copy in sports dailies As and Marca as they wonder what might be causing Ronaldo’s recent mood swings.
Manager Mourinho has also gotten involved, with a public warning to his “galacticos” that selective efforts will not be tolerated. Champs League assignments will not be forthcoming to players who put forth less than 100 percent in Liga and other competitions.
Cristiano Ronaldo, however, remains a force after his staggering 40-goal haul a year ago, and familiar names such as striker Gonzalo Higuain, midfielder Xabi Alonso, defender Sergio Ramos and GK Iker Casillas are still in the frame. A new man to watch at the Bernabeu is attacking midfielder Luca Modric, the Croatian international who arrived in Madrid after a productive spell at Tottenham. Although, as mentioned, the parts have been greater than the sum in the early going at the Bernabeu.
Meanwhile, things have started a bit more encouragingly at Man City, with two wins and a draw in their first three EPL matches as the Sky Blues look to pick up where they left off last spring. Striker Carlos Tevez, who had a famous falling-out with manager Roberto Mancini last term, is back in good graces and has already scored three goals. Offseason reinforcements of note include promising young midfielder Jack Rodwell from via Everton and late transfer window addition Maicon, a decorated Brazilian defender via Inter Milan who could make his Sky Blue debut in this match.
Wednesday’s feature match takes place in London where last year’s Champs League winner Chelsea plays host to defending scudetto winner Juventus from Serie A. A check with European wagering outlets notes that Chelsea is being priced at even money on the winner with the take-back on Juve at 11/4. The draw is priced at 12/5 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff at Stamford Bridge.
As always, TV coverage in the states will be provided by FOX Soccer Channel.
It’s been all good for both of these sides in the early going this term, especially Chelsea, which has roared to wins in its first three EPL matches heading into last weekend. Adding some real bite to the Blues’ attack has been summer signee Eden Hazard, the young Belgian dynamo who ascended to star status at recent employer Lille when emerging as one of the most lethal scoring components in Ligue Un. The pocket-sized (5-foot-7) Hazard already has a goal and four assists in a dazzling debut in his new surroundings.
Familiar Chelsea faces such as Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres (already with a couple of goals in an encouraging kick-start to his 2012-13 campaign after emerging as the unlikely Golden Boot winner at Euro 2012) and GK Petr Cech are still in the fold. Defenders John Terry and Ashley Cole, however, have been nursing ankle injuries and might face late fitness tests before being deemed ready for action on Wednesday.
Juve is feeling good about things, too, after a quick break in Serie A with a pair of wins in its first two games have put it back atop the table, where it finished last season. Remaining on hand is goalie par excellence Gigi Buffon, who endured a bit of a bumpy Euro 2012 but was airtight between the sticks last season when allowing only 20 goals in the 38 domestic league matches, by far the best defensive record in Europe last term.
Juventus served notice that it means business as it tries to defend its scudetto with an emphatic recent 4-1 beatdown of capable Udinese. A brace scored by Sebastian Giovinco, a summer addition from Parma who returned to the fold after previously leaving the “Old Lady” two years earlier, suggests that Juve’s attack might have more bite this term.
Juve also added Aresnal striker Nicklas Bendtner on loan at the end of the summer transfer window, and Bendtner could make his debut at Stamford Bridge. Although aside from the veteran GK Buffon, Juve’s is a relatively young roster.
Juve has also not been without controversy since the end of last season as manager Antonio Conte was suspended for 10 months related to a match-fixing scandal. Assistant Massimo Carrera will be the interim coach for this season.
What would Serie A be without scandal, anyway?