Category Archives: Champions League

New UEFA president open to move Champions League final stateside.

“What I know is that I’m a team player, a man of conviction, a passionate man and a man of his word. I am not a showman and I’m not a man of unrealistic promises.”

The words of the new president of UEFA Aleksander Čeferin. Indeed the Slovenian Football Association chief’s rise from relative obscurity to landing the most powerful role in European football in six months is a great story in itself.

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When the 49-year-old faced the world’s media following his 42-13 triumph over the far more experienced Dutch FA president, Michael van Praag, both he and the media knew the work he had ahead of him and the changes he would need to make.

At the time of his appointment, Čeferin vowed his first priority will be to review the controversial recent deal to give more Champions League revenue to the continent’s bigger clubs.

Today the new UEFA president has said that he would be open to having the Champions League final played outside of Europe.

“I think it might be an idea in future but we have to speak about it,” the Slovenian said. “To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan for example is almost the same or the same as if you go to New York. For the fans it’s no problem but we should see. It’s a European competition so let’s think about it.”

Personally I think the idea of that is as ridiculous as staging an All-Ireland final in Düsseldorf.

But Čeferin did also today say he was preparing the first open bidding process for the right to host the Champions League final. Up to now there is no public process for UEFA to award the the finals to football associations or cities. It all seems to be done in secret. Dodgy? Probably. For Wembley to be awarded it twice in three years under Platini’s tenure is something worth mentioning.

“The bidding process should be very clear because if you get the Champions League finals or Europa league finals as a political favour then it’s not OK,” he said. “With a clear bidding procedure I will protect also the administration and myself because whoever tries to call us, to push us, to ask us for such a favour we will have a clear answer, ‘Sorry there are clear rules we cannot do it.’”

I long for a Champions League final at the Aviva Stadium someday. Definitely not in Yankee Stadium.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League Final review: Glory for Real Madrid.

Pundits, fans and even players expected a fiesty affair for the 2016 Champions League final. And indeed whenever Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid face each other, it usually is.

The man who broke Atléti hearts two years ago in Lisbon, Sergio Ramos, opened the scoring on 14 minutes. Toni Kroos swung in a free-kick from out on the left side, which Gareth Bale flicked on. The Real Madrid defender, who was in a slightly offside position, got a touch to put the ball past Jan Oblak from close range.

Ramos joins an elite group of players that have scored in two Champions League finals. The others include Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Samuel Eto’o and Raul.

Atléti would often play the long ball from the midfield area up towards Torres or Griezmann, but nothing really troubled the Real Madrid back four.

Los Rojiblancos struggled to close down Real as they normally would. The passing appeared to be just too quick for Diego Simeone’s men. With Atléti losing possession and looking somewhat uninspired, they didn’t seem to have any luck on their side.

For the last several minutes of the first half, Atléti seemed to have more possession, which didn’t bother Real too much. Diego Simeone looked on from the sidelines in the first half appearing to be more frustrated than his usual animated self.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Atlético Madrid did win a penalty in the first minute of the second half following Pepe’s challenge on Fernando Torres who, up to that point, was fairly anonymous in the match. Antoine Griezmann stepped up and slammed the ball down the middle and off the crossbar.

The first twenty minutes of the second half was all Atlético. They seemed hungry and their positioning was far better, but they weren’t efficient enough with their accuracy and passing and no shots to goal truly bothered Real ‘keeper Keylor Navas.

Real Madrid had the chance to double their lead on 69 minutes following Luka Modric’s sublime ball to Karim Benzema out on the right side played the Frenchman on, but Oblak was flawless in preventing Los Blancos in claiming their second goal.

Then a stroke of luck.

Atléti brought it back level on 78 minutes with a goal from half-time substitute Yannick Carrasco. A nice cross from Juanfran into Real’s six yard box, was met by the Belgian who buried it from close range. Real’s defence seemed to be asleep and Navas had no chance. Simeone’s men deserved the goal for their performance in the second half.

With the score at 1-1 at 90 minutes, the game was forced into extra time. Real, by then, has used all three of their substitutes. Atlético had only used the one.

The first period of extra time was mostly dominated by Atlético, but Real had their fair share of chances. The tired legs on players from both sides became more obvious. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the latter had, in my opinion, been Los Blancos’ most creative player on the pitch, looked exceptionally tired going into the second 15 minutes.

Real Madrid were probably more dominant in the second period, but ultimately nothing came of it. And then we had the dreaded penalties. It was a game of nerves from here. Jan Oblak and Keylor Navas both have great reputations for saving penalties. Drama in Milan. Primera or Unidecima?

Given the pressure, each penalty from both sides went in with seemingly great ease. The Atléti’s fourth penalty from Juanfran hit the post. The who else but Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up and won the Champions League for Real Madrid. Unidecima it is.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man United weren’t poor as much as Phillip Cocu was prepared.

It’s fair to assume that most Manchester United fans would have predicted the Red Devils to beat PSV. And comfortably. Louis van Gaal had a plethora of talent at his disposal for the Champions League tie on Tuesday night, but in the end the legendary manager was outclassed by his compatriot Phillip Cocu.

Cocu was appointed manager of PSV in 2013 (yours truly was at his first home game in charge) following a short stint as an assistant to the Dutch national team.

Cocu himself was a lovely footballer. He had two stints as a player with PSV, but he was truly incredible for Barcelona. He played more games for the Catalans than any other foreigner until Messi overtook him in 2011. He has shared dressing rooms with Van Gaal, Mourinho, Luis Enrique, De Boer and Pep Guardiola – all of whom have gone on to become successful top-flight managers.

PSV have had some absolute greats turn out for them before their prime. Names like Ronaldo, Romario, Van Nistelrooy, Van Bommel and Robben all instantly spring to mind. They don’t import big names much. They often look to their youth academy.

Phillip Cocu isn’t animated in the same way José Mourinho is. But there’s no doubt there’s a superb footballing brain. That’s pretty obvious to see. Manchester United weren’t so poor the other as so much as PSV were prepared. That’s all down to Cocu.

No doubt within the next few years he’ll be linked with some big jobs. Barcelona spring to mind. As do the Dutch national team. PSV probably aren’t going to win the Champions League (though they once did – in 1988), but no doubt you will see some of their players and manager making bigger headlines in years to come.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Champions League matchday 4 review

The previous two nights had some spectacular moment of football, some ridiculous results and some memorable moments and yet another Andrea Pirlo piece of footballing masterclass. Let’s look back at the Champions League matchday four.

Arsenal felt sheer heartache having let a 3-0 advantage slip to draw 3-3 in the Emirates on Tuesday night thanks to Anderlecht‘s Aleksandar Mitrović. The Serbian international headed a last-minute equaliser to keep the Belgian side in the competition when it seemed the Gunners were cruising into the last 16 from Group D.

Borussia Dortmund may have lost their last five matches in the Bundesliga, but they maintained their 100% record in their group to qualify for the last 16 with a 4-1 victory against Galatasaray. Play was temporarily suspended in the Signal Iduna Park following some fireworks being thrown onto the pitch by some Galatasaray fans. The Turkish side are now likely left to battle it out with Anderlecht in Group D for a UEFA Europa League spot.

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Also on Tuesday, Juventus scored twice in as many minutes after the hour mark as they came back from 2-1 down to defeat Olympiacos by 3-2. Andrea Pirlo marked his 100th Champions League appearance with a trademark inch-perfect free-kick before Olympiacos’ Spanish defender Alberto Botia headed in the equaliser. Congolese midfielder Delvin N’Dinga put the Greeks ahead before an own goal from Roberto Gago and a winning goal from Paul Pogba means the two sides are level on six points in Group A.

Manchester City‘s Champions League woes deepened last night as CSKA Moscow‘s Ivorian star Seydou Doumbia struck twice to earn the Russian side a famous victory over their Group E rivals. It was a disastrous night for Manuel Pellegrini’s men who ended the game with nine men and at the bottom of the group – ten points behind leaders Bayern Munich and now with their qualification hopes all but dead. City host Pep Guardiola’s men on matchday five and still looking for their first win of the group.

Let’s look at the results in full:

(Group C)
Zenit 1-2 Bayer Leverkusen
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP) – Stadium: Stadion Petrovski, St Petersburg (RUS)
(Group C)
Benfica 1-0 Monaco
Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP) – Stadium: Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)
(Group D)
Arsenal 3-3 Anderlecht
Referee: Clément Turpin (FRA) – Stadium: Arsenal Stadium, London (ENG)
(Group D)
B.Dortmund 4-1 Galatasaray
Referee: Pavel Královec (CZE) – Stadium: BVB Stadion Dortmund, Dortmund (GER)
(Group A)
Malmö 0-2 Atlético Madrid
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (ENG) – Stadium: Malmö New Stadium, Malmo (SWE)
(Group A)
Juventus 3-2 Olympiacos
Referee: Martin Atkinson (ENG) – Stadium: Juventus Stadium, Turin (ITA)
(Group B)
FC Basel 4-0 Ludogorets
Referee: Stéphane Lannoy (FRA) – Stadium: St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)
(Group B)
Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN) – Stadium: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)
(Group E)
Man. City 1-2 CSKA Moscow
Referee: Tasos Sidiropoulos (GRE) – Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester (ENG)
(Group E)
Bayern Munich 2-0 Roma
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR) – Stadium: Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)
(Group F)
PSG 1-0 APOEL
Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR) – Stadium: Parc des Princes, Paris (FRA)
(Group F)
Ajax 0-2 Barcelona
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR) – Stadium: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (NED)
(Group G)
Sporting 4-2 Schalke
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (ITA) – Stadium: José Alvalade, Lisbon (POR)
(Group G)
Maribor 1-1 Chelsea
Referee: Daniele Orsato (ITA) – Stadium: Stadion Ljudski vrt, Maribor (SVN)
(Group H)
Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 BATE
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (GER) – Stadium: Arena Lviv, Lviv (UKR)
(Group H)
Athletic Bilbao 0-2 FC Porto
Referee: Felix Brych (GER) – Stadium: Estadio de San Mamés, Bilbao (ESP)

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League matchday three review (part 2)

Last night witnessed half the amount of goals scored on Tuesday night, but there was some interesting scorelines.

Liverpool had previously never lost a European home tie by more than two goals, but the sheer brilliance of Real Madrid led to a 0-3 victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s men. The Reds were outplayed and outpaced by the current Champions League holders and despite hitting the woodwork just before the break, Brendan Rodgers’ men never really hinted at making a comeback.
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One can assume that Arsene Wenger slept easy last night having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to a couple of last minute goals to give Arsenal a 1-2 away win at Anderlecht. The Belgian side took the lead on 71 minutes thanks to a goal from Honduran World Cup winger Andy Najar. The Gunners looked destined for defeat until Kieran Gibbs’ 89th minute and Lukas Podolski’s 90th minute goals rescued Arsenal on Wenger’s 65th birthday.

 

The results of last night’s games in full:

22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group A)
Atlético Madrid 5-0 Malmö
Referee: Matej Jug (SVN) – Stadium: Estadio Vicente Calderón, Madrid (ESP)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group A)
Olympiacos 1-0 Juventus
Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB) – Stadium: Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, Piraeus (GRE)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group B)
Ludogorets 1-0 FC Basel
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (GER) – Stadium: Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, Sofia (BUL)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group B)
Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA) – Stadium: Anfield, Liverpool (ENG)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group C)
B. Leverkusen 2-0 Zenit
Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED) – Stadium: BayArena, Leverkusen (GER)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group C)
Monaco 0-0 Benfica
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL) – Stadium: Stade Louis II, Monaco (FRA)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group D)
Anderlecht 1-2 Arsenal
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP) – Stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels (BEL)
22 October 2014 – Group stage (Group D)
Galatasaray 0-4 B. Dortmund
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (ESP) – Stadium: Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi, Istanbul (TUR)

 

Matchday four is on November 4th and 5th.

 Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland

Champions League matchday three review (part 1)

Well there was a lot of goals last night, wasn’t there? In fact, there was 40, a record in the history of the Champions League for one match-night. Let’s have a look at them.

Chelsea were in fine form as they beat Maribor 6-0. Goals came from Remy, Drogba, Terry, Hazard as well as an own-goal from Maribor’s Slovenian defender Mitja Viler to complete the Blues’ record Champions League win.

Man City faced CSKA Moscow in the Russian capital and found themselved comfortably 2-0 up after 38 minutes thanks to goals from Sergio Agüero and James Milner, only to concede two second half goals, which means it’s all to play for on matchday four on November 5th.
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Roma played host to German champions Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola’s men weren’t in the mood for messing around as they found themselves 5-0 up at halftime only for the game to ultimately to end up 1-7 in an embarassing home defeat for the giallorossi. Roma, however, are still in 2nd place of Group E.

Tuesday night’s results in full:

21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group E)
CSKA Moskva 2-2 Man. City
Referee: István Vad (HUN) – Stadium: Arena Khimki, Khimki (RUS)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group E)
Roma 1-7 Bayern
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE) – Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, Rome (ITA)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group F)
APOEL 0-1 Paris
Referee: Ovidiu Haţegan (ROU) – Stadium: GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group F)
Barcelona 3-1 Ajax
Referee: William Collum (SCO) – Stadium: Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group G)
Schalke 4-3 Sporting
Referee: Sergei Karasev (RUS) – Stadium: Stadion Gelsenkirchen, Gelsenkirchen (GER)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group G)
Chelsea 6-0 Maribor
Referee: Danny Makkelie (NED) – Stadium: Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group H)
BATE 0-7 Shakhtar Donetsk
Referee: Ivan Bebek (CRO) – Stadium: Borisov Arena, Borisov (BLR)
21 October 2014 – Group stage (Group H)
Porto 2-1 Athletic
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN) – Stadium: Estádio do Dragão, Porto (POR)

Playing tonight is:

  • Atlético Madrid v Malmo
  • Olympiacos v Juventus
  • Ludogorets v FC Basel
  • Liverpool v Real Madrid
  • B. Leverkusen v Zenit St Petersburg
  • AS Monaco v Benfica
  • Anderlecht v Arsenal
  • Galatasaray v B. Dortmund

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League matchday two preview

Matchday two is upon us and there lies some tasty fixtures over the next two evenings.

The early fixture today is Bayern Munich travel to the Russian capital to face CSKA Moscow. The bookies will say that it’s a routine win for Pep Guardiola’s men, but anything is possible in Moscow – as many clubs found out before.

Barcelona will face a number of former players at PSG including Maxwell, Thiago Motta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even coach Laurent Blanc. The French side will be looking for their first win of the group following their 1-1 draw with Ajax on matchday one.

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José “still the special one” Mourinho is back in Portugal as his Chelsea boys take on Sporting Lisbon, whose long unbeaten European home record is put to the test by the Blues who have won their last six games against Portugese teams.

Man City will be looking to bounce back from their loss against Bayern Munich on matchday one, when they host an AS Roma side with a notoriously poor record on English soil. The Giallorossi opened their group stage campaign with a 5-1 win against CSKA Moscow.

Galatasaray travel to North London to face Arsenal tomorrow. The Gunners’ 2-0 loss at Borussia Dortmund on matchday one was their first defeat in fifteen matches in all competitions.

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Italian giants Juventus travel to the Spanish capital where they will face Atlético MadridBeaten at Olympiacos on matchday one, Diego Simeone will be looking for more out of his men on Wednesday night at the Vicente Calderón.

Liverpool travel to the Switzerland to take on FC Basel. The latter will be eager to bounce back from their 5-1 opening loss at Real Madrid, while Liverpool’s unconvincing 2-1 win over Ludogorets on matchday one will be fresh in the memory of Brendan Rodgers. 

 

The fixtures in full:

 

30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group E)
CSKA Moskva
17.00
FC Bayern
Referee: William Collum (SCO) – Stadium: Arena Khimki, Khimki (RUS)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group F)
PSG
19.45
FC Barcelona
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA) – Stadium: Parc des Princes, Paris (FRA)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group F)
APOEL
19.45
Ajax
Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB) – Stadium: GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group G)
Sporting
19.45
Chelsea
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (ESP) – Stadium: José Alvalade, Lisbon (POR)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group G)
Schalke
19.45
Maribor
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP) – Stadium: Stadion Gelsenkirchen, Gelsenkirchen (GER)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group H)
Shakhtar Donetsk
19.45
FC Porto
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR) – Stadium: Arena Lviv, Lviv (UKR)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group H)
BATE
19.45
Athletic Bilbao
Referee: Stéphane Lannoy (FRA) – Stadium: Borisov Arena, Borisov (BLR)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group E)
Man. City
19.45
Roma
Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED) – Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester (ENG)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group C)
Zenit
17.00
AS Monaco
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (ENG) – Stadium: Stadion Petrovski, St Petersburg (RUS)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group C)
Leverkusen
19.45
Benfica
Referee: Martin Atkinson (ENG) – Stadium: BayArena, Leverkusen (GER)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group D)
Arsenal
19.45
Galatasaray
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA) – Stadium: Arsenal Stadium, London (ENG)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group D)
Anderlecht
19.45
Bor Dortmund
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (ITA) – Stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels (BEL)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group A)
Malmö
19.45
Olympiacos
Referee: Sergei Karasev (RUS) – Stadium: Malmö New Stadium, Malmo (SWE)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group A)
Atlético
19.45
Juventus
Referee: Felix Brych (GER) – Stadium: Estadio Vicente Calderón, Madrid (ESP)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group B)
Basel
19.45
Liverpool
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE) – Stadium: St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group B)
Ludogorets
19.45
Real Madrid
Referee: Craig Thomson (SCO) – Stadium: Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, Sofia (BUL)

 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League preview

Normal service resumes as the Champions League is tonight upon us once more. Clear your schedule for the next two evenings and take in sixteen fixtures that should keep us all glued to our television sets. Let’s have a look at all of the fixtures in detail for matchday one:

Runners-up last season, Atlético Madrid embark on the new campaign as they travel to Piraeus to face Olympiacos. The Greek side will be a tough test for Diego Simeone’s men at the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis as Olympiacos last season won 16 out of 17 matches at home in the league last season.

Swedish champions Malmo travel to Turin to face Italian giants Juventus. It will be a tough test for Malmo who go into the fixture with some injury concerns while Juve’s Carlos Tevez will be out to prove a point. The Argentine has gone 14 matches without a goal in the competition since scoring in Man United’s 2-2 draw with FC Porto in April 2009.
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Liverpool are back in the Champions League after a five year absence. The Premier League runners-up welcome Ludogorets to Anfield – the first meeting between the Reds and a Bulgarian team since the 2005/06 campaign. Emre Can and Lazar Marković are both suspended for Liverpool on matchday one while Ludogorets are without goalkeepers Vladislav Stoyanov and Ivan Čvorović through suspension and injury respectively. 

Four months after they conquered ‘La Décima’ in Lisbon, Real Madrid will begin their title defence against FC Basel. The Swiss side travel to the Spanish capital with new coach Paulo Sousa, who has won six of his first eight Super League games. Los Blancos can boast some of the biggest names in world football, as well as new additions in James Rodriguez, Tony Kroos and Chicharito – all ready for tonight’s fixture.
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Monaco are back in Europe after an eight year absence as they tonight host Bayer Leverkusen. The Ligue 1 side replaced coach Claudio Ranieri with Leonardo Jardim in the summer and lost star players such as James Rodriguez, Eric Abidal and Falcao without getting any substantial replacements. Leverkusen are in fine form having won five out of five this season before last Friday’s 3-3 draw with Werder Bremen.

Zenit St Petersburg travel to Lisbon as they face Benfica in their opening match of the campaign. The Russian side have a good record against Portugese teams in the past 12 months having beaten FC Paços and FC Porto in the qualifying games and group stages respectively.
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It’s new coach Cesare Prandelli’s first Champions League match tonight since taking charge of Galatasaray as they face Anderlecht in Istanbul. The Belgian side will be seeking to get their first win on Turkish soil in their history while Galatasaray will be more than aware that they have not won any of their last four opening-night fixtures.

No strangers to one another, Borussia Dortmund welcome Arsenal in their opening fixture. Jurgen Klopp will be hoping to reverse the home defeat they suffered to the Gunners 12 months ago while Arsene Wenger will be without defender Mathieu Debuchy, but will be keeping a close eye on star-signing Alexis Sanchez, who has scored in each of his last three appearances, to cause considerable damage to the Germans.

Ashley Cole is set to play in the Champions League for a third club as Roma tonight face CSKA Moscow in the Stadio Olimpico. The Italian side are without star players Daniele de Rossi and Kevin Strootman while the Russians are beaming with confidence coming off the back of four consecutive wins – their best since 2002.
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Yet again Man City and Bayern Munich meet in the group stages – the third time in four years – but it still makes for a tasty fixture. The last time managers Pep Guardiola and Manuel Pellegrini met as coaches was during El Clásico in 2009/10 Spanish season. City are tonight without Pablo Zabaleta but can take comfort in the recent form of both Stevan Jovetić and Sergio Agüero.  

The only Irishman in the Champions League Cillian Sheridan and his APOEL team-mates travel to the Camp Nou to try topple giants Barcelona despite having never won away from home in the competition as Luis Enrique makes his European coaching debut with the Catalans.
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Zlatan Ibrahimović returns to face his former club Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena with his Paris Saint-Germain team-mates. The Parisians are six games unbeaten in 2014/15 yet have won just one of their last seven away games. Ajax however started their season with two league wins before a 3-1 home defeat to PSV Eindhoven on 24 August cost them their first defeat in 25 league matches dating back to last November.

Chelsea welcome Schalke to Stamford Bridge once more having last faced the Germans a year ago. The Blues, and new star signing Diego Costa, are both in flying form have won four out of four in the Premier League this season while Schalke have failed to win any of their first four competitive games of a new season for the first time since 1968.
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Slovenian side Maribor, regarded as minnows in the competition, play host to Sporting Lisbon for their first group stage campaign for 15 years. Sporting, under new coach Marco Silva, are in the group stage for the first time since 2008/09 but, as Maribor will be aware of, they have lost their last two opening-day fixtures in the competition.

FC Porto begin their 19th group stage campaign determined to put last year’s poor home results in the Champions League behind them and make ammends as they seek an opening-night win against BATE Borisov in what will be the Portugese side’s 200th European Cup fixture. BATE are no strangers to competition, but rarely make any impact and have lost their last three European away games.

Finally, tomorrow is Athletic Bilbao‘s first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 1998/99  as they face Shakhtar Donetsk in their brand new stadium at San Mamés. Despite political unrest in the Donestk region and forced to play their home games some 1,200 km away in Lviv, Shakhtar’s form is very good having won eight out of eight in all competitions in 2014/15, scoring 18 and conceding just once in the process.
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The fixture list in full:

16 September 2014
(Group A)
Olympiacos
19.45
Atlético
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR) – Stadium: Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, Piraeus (GRE)
(Group A)
Juventus
19.45
Malmö
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL) – Stadium: Juventus Stadium, Turin (ITA)
(Group B)
Liverpool
19.45
Ludogorets
Referee: Matej Jug (SVN) – Stadium: Anfield, Liverpool (ENG)
(Group B)
Real Madrid
19.45
Basel
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN) – Stadium: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)
(Group C)
Monaco
19.45
Leverkusen
(Group C)
Benfica
19.45
Zenit
Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen (NOR) – Stadium: Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)
(Group D)
Galatasaray
19.45
Anderlecht
Referee: István Vad (HUN) – Stadium: Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi, Istanbul (TUR)
(Group D)
Dortmund
19.45
Arsenal
Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR) – Stadium: BVB Stadion Dortmund, Dortmund (GER)
17 September 2014
(Group E)
Roma
19.45
CSKA Moskva
Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP) – Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, Rome (ITA)
(Group E)
Bayern
19.45
Man. City
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP) – Stadium: Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)
(Group F)
Barcelona
19.45
APOEL
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (GER) – Stadium: Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)
(Group F)
Ajax
19.45
Paris
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (GER) – Stadium: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (NED)
(Group G)
Chelsea
19.45
Schalke
Referee: Ivan Bebek (CRO) – Stadium: Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)
(Group G)
Maribor
19.45
Sporting
Referee: Clément Turpin (FRA) – Stadium: Stadion Ljudski vrt, Maribor (SVN)
(Group H)
Porto
19.45
BATE
Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED) – Stadium: Estádio do Dragão, Porto (POR)
(Group H)
Athletic
19.45
Shakhtar Donetsk
Referee: Tasos Sidiropoulos (GRE) – Stadium: Estadio de San Mamés, Bilbao (ESP)

The next blog will be coming to you directly from Italy, as I head to Milan to see what a big game in the San Siro is like as AC Milan take on Juventus – historically two of Serie A’s and Europe’s most famous and successful teams.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Champions League draw produces some tasty ties

The draw for the group stages of the Champions League took place yesterday afternoon.

Liverpool will be making their return to the competition with a glamour tie against current holders Real Madrid and will also face Swiss side FC Basel as well Ludogorets following their fairytale entry to the competition for the first time.

Brendan-Rodgers-Liverpool -v-Manchester-City

Arsenal have no easy task as they face Borussia Dortmund, Turkish side Galatasaray and Belgian champions Anderlecht.

Man City will face the task of trying to topple Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side. Manuel Pellegrini’s men also face CSKA Moscow which is never an easy tie and finally Roma, featuring Ashley Cole & co., will complete a difficult group for City.

Cillian Sheridan, currently the only Irish player competing in the competition, and his APOEL side have been dealt an incredibly tough group featuring Barcelona, PSG and Ajax. It’s big news as Zlatan will return the Camp Nou, but Sheridan will try to give the Parisians, Catalans and Amsterdammers a run for their money.

But for neutrals, Group C has some tasty fixtures, as Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco all battle it out. There is not one easy tie for any club in that group and it’s one that I’ll be personally be keeping an close eye on.

The draw in full:

Group A
Atlético Madrid, Juventus, Olympiacos, Malmo

Group B
Real Madrid, FC Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets

Group C
Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Monaco

Group D
Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht

Group E
FC Bayern Munich, Man City, CSKA Moscow, AS Roma

Group F
C FBarcelona, PSG, Ajax, Apoel Nicosia

Group G
Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting, Maribor

Group H
FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League quarter-finals preview.

It’s April already and now we are down to just eight teams in Europe’s premier club competition. We’ll immediately turn our attention to tonight’s massive game at Old Trafford.

It’s difficult to remember the last time Manchester United hosted a game with so much pressure on the players and, especially, the manager.  David Moyes’ tactics will be put to the test at the highest level tonight and the players themselves must be up for it.United face German powerhouse club Bayern Munich led by one of the most decorared and sought-after managers in world football, Pep Guardiola.

fcbayern

“The media and public opinion is that Manchester are not in good shape and that we’re going through to the semis,” said star player Arjen Robben. “But I don’t like that at all.”

The Bavarians, of course, are not often accused of underestimating opponents. If they were, they would not have wrapped up another Bundesliga title – this one without losing a game and also in record time.

Over two legs, it wouldn’t be exactly miraculous for United to make it through. They’re still Manchester United, despite their league form. But my gut feeling is that Guardiola’s men will be simply too strong for them.

Barcelona will tonight host fellow La Liga side Atlético Madrid. The two sides met in January and played out a goalless draw. They’ll meet next month also in the final game of the season in Spain. Tonight, one can’t help but feel, will be more tense.

Atlético go into the fixture after conceding four goals in the competition, fewer than any other quarter-finalist. But with star striker Diego Costa doubtful for the game in the Camp Nou, they’ll need to score goals to topple the mighty Barça.

fcbatlm

The Catalans last week suffered the news of Victor Valdes’ injury means he will likely miss the rest of the season (and his Barça career seems to have come to an end too). Eccentric substitute Pinto, who is now 38, will be faced with the task of keeping out La Liga leaders Atleti.

Barcelona will need the winning spirit they brought to the recent Clásico in Madrid. Without it, Atlético could be too powerful this time. But Barça have geniuses like Messi and Iniesta. It’ll be tight – but over two legs I reckon Barcelona will squeeze through to the semis.

PSG will tomorrow host the other English side in the competition, Chelsea, at the Parc des Princes. It will be a heated fixture with José “(Still) The Special One” Mourinho will be urging his men to bounce back after his team’s surprise defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend.

“Are PSG a good team? Yes. Do they possess some of the best players in the world? Yes again,” Jose said, cautious of the Parisians. “We are at a stage of the competition where the big teams can win but also lose. There aren’t any more weak sides at this stage. There are some who are better than others, but anything can happen.”

Zlatan-Ibrahimovic-PSG

Paris St-Germain have built an incredibly strong team, led by the undeniably brilliant Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has scored 41 goals in his last 36 appearances for both club and country. But there’s other names Chelsea will have to be wary of such as Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi or Lucas Moura all possess the skills to give The Special One a real Parisian nightmare.

Usually, I think Chelsea would run through this stage of the competition with relative ease. But PSG are increibly tough opponents and, if I’m honest, I can see Laurent Blanc’s men causing damage to get through to the semi-finals.

Finally, Real Madrid go into the quarter-finals for a fourth successive season with the difficult task of taking on Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. They meet tomorrow in the Bernebéu.

Klopp will have worries with suspensions as both Sven Bender and Sebastian Kehl are both a booking away from a ban while star striker Robert Lewandowski is suspended for tomorrow’s fixture.

borussia dortmund 4

Madrid go into the tie booming with confidence after they are one of two teams – along with city rivals Atlético Madrid – still unbeaten and are tournament top scorers with 29 goals. Madrid have even scored in a record 33 UEFA Champions League games in a row.

But they cannot underestimate the Germans. Die Schwarzgelben may not be enjoying a season quite like FC Bayern, but currently 2nd in the Bundesliga, they’ve scored 62 goals this season. Players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jakub Błaszczykowski will be out to cause serious problems.

Overall, I think Real Madrid will be too strong and will clinch the result to get through to the last four.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League matchday 6 preview

The final bunch of group fixtures are among us. Some teams have already qualified. Some will be battling for second place. Some could finish third and enter the Europa League. Some, like Celtic, will already be destined to finish last and subsequently eliminated from all European competitions.

Yes, it’s bad news for Neil Lennon’s men. They travel to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona – a club they’ve met in this competition plenty of times over the years. While the Catalans will be looking to guarantee their place at Group H‘s top spot, Celtic have nothing to lose and will be trying to boost their confidence with a difficult win. The only Scottish side to win at the Camp Nou were Dundee United in the ’86/87 UEFA Cup quarter-finals against a Terry Venables-led Barça side.

The much sought after second place is between Ajax and AC Milan. They meet at the San Siro tomorrow night and it’ll be tight. Ajax came close to beating Milan in Amsterdam on matchday 2. Stefano Denswil’s 90th minute lead was met with Mario Balotelli equalising penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time.

celticbarcelona20122013

FC Porto visit Group G winners Atlético Madrid needing a dramatic change of fortune if they are to avoid an early exit from the competition. The Spaniards have been running away with the group thus far while Zenit St. Petersburg visit Austria Wien seeking a victory to guarantee qualification for the knockout stage for only the second time. In the previous fixture, Luciano Spalletti’s men could only manage a 0-0 draw at home against the Austrians.

Rafa Benitez’s Napoli and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal meet with both qualifying places still to be decided in Group F. Separated by just three points, they are both firmly in the qualifying equation as the group reaches its conclusion, although Borussia Dortmund‘s fixture at Marseille will also be closely followed by supporters in Naples. In the reverse fixtures back in October, Dortmund thrashed the French side by 3-0 while a Mesut Ozil-inspired Arsenal side comfortably beat Napoli by 2-0.

FC Basel and Schalke meet in Gelsenkirchen with Group E‘s second place on the line, while the Swiss side are looking to overtake Chelsea who are currently in first place. Jose “The Special One” Mourinho’s men host Steaua Bucharest and will be seeking a repeat of their 3-0 win in the reverse fixture to ensure they progress as Group E winners. Should Chelsea lose they will finish second while a draw would leave them top so long as FC Basel fail to beat Schalke.

Bayern Munich are looking to seal their first place position in Group D when they host a Man City side who need a massive win in Bavaria to leapfrog the reigning champions though both teams are already through. With this in mind, the third spot is up for grabs and Viktoria Plzeň host Russian opposition for the first time in CSKA Moscow and both will be seeking for a Europa League spot. The Czech side are still to earn a single point and a big win against CSKA would be needed.

Pep Guardiola conducts first training session at Bayern Munich - video

Benfica take on Group C winners Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon knowing their qualification is out of their hands. The Portuguese side are currently in third place, level with Olympiacos on seven points, but behind on goal difference. The Greeks will go through if they defeat bottom side Anderlecht at home. Benfica must better whatever result Olympiacos manage in Athens to qualify. Back in October, PSG bettered Benfica by 3-0 while Olimpiacos achieved the same scoreline against Anderlecht.

A draw is all Juventus need to earn the second place in Group B. They travel to Istanbul to face Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray and while only a win will allow the home team to overtake their opponents, a draw would be enough for the Italian side. Meanwhile Real Madrid have assured themselves of finishing as group winners and will now be looking to complete their fixtures with a flourish at eliminated FC Copenhagen. The Danish side are in last place but can qualify for the Europa League with victory. Though a draw would also secure third place should Galatasaray lose at home to Juve.

Finally, Man United will be looking to seal first place in Group A when they host a Shakhtar Donetsk side needing a victory to guarantee they will join their opponents in the last sixteen. While Bayer Leverkusen will be looking to spoil it for the Ukrainians if possible, they travel to face Real Sociedad. The Spaniards have only earned one point in the competition and victory for Man United and Leverkusen will ensure their progression at the cost of Shakhtar.

 

What are your predictions? Tell Rob Smith on Twitter: (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Champions League matchday 5 preview

We’ll start with Group H and the big one here is that Celtic entertain AC Milan. Needless to say, it is a massive game for the Bhoys. A must-win game and a victory against the Rossoneri could see Neil Lennon’s lads move up into second place. This of course depends on the goings on in Amsterdam where Ajax take on the might of group leaders Barcelona.

Atlético Madrid are having an incredible season. With just one loss in La Liga this year, and a 100% record in Group G of their current Champions League campaign, they travel to Russia to face Zenit St Petersburg full of confidence. Meanwhile FC Porto, a point behind the second place, host Austria Wien in the Estádio do Dragão.

Arsene Wenger is looking to secure his Arsenal side a place in the last 16 with a game to spare should they claim three points tonight in their tie against Marseille at the Emirates. While the French side have yet to get a single point, The Gunners are on top of Group F by goal difference ahead of Napoli. The Italians face last year’s finalists Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park.

“The pressure is on Basel,” said Chelsea gaffer José “The Special One” Mourinho. He’s not wrong – the Swiss side lie in 3rd place in Group E and just a point behind Schalke. Basel coach Murat Yakin is keen for his side to deliver a victory against group leaders Chelsea and set up a last-day showdown with the Germans. Schalke travel to Bucharest to face FC Steaua.

Man United can claim their spot in the final 16 with a win tomorrow against Bayer Leverkusen. David Moyes’ men ran out 4-2 winners of the same fixture at Old Trafford in September. But former-Liverpool captain Sami Hyppia, now manager of Leverkusen, could take a huge step towards the next round if they defeat the Red Devils. Also in Group A, Shakhtar Donetsk host Real Sociedad. The Ukrainians have their eye on the group’s runners up spot as they are just two points behind the Germans while Sociedad have only claimed a single point in the campaign so far.

Man-of-the-moment Cristiano Ronaldo is doubtful for tomorrow’s clash between Real Madrid and Galatasaray. With Madrid leading Group B six points ahead the Turkish side, Real boss Carlo Ancelotti is unlikely to risk the Portuguese star. Juventus, currently bottom of the group, face FC Copenhagen who are a point ahead of the Italians. Antonio Conte’s men, yet to win a game in this year’s Champions League, drew 1-1 in the previous fixture in Denmark.

All PSG need is a draw to guarantee their spot in the competition’s final 16. The French outfit face 2nd placed Olympiacos at the Parc des Princes. A victory for Zlatan & co. would be news welcomed by Benfica as they need a win against Anderlecht tomorrow to keep them in with a shout for the runners-up spot in Group C and a place in the next round.

Finally, Bayern Munich travel to the Russian capital to face CSKA Moscow as their place in the final 16 has already been guaranteed. Pep Guardiola’s mean have yet to lose this season since their German SuperCup defeat to rivals Borussia Dortmund back in the summer. Also already guaranteed their place in the next round, Man City host Czech side FC Viktoria Plzeň. Manuel Pellegrini’s men go into the fixture on the back of a 6-0 thrashing of Tottenham last weekend.

 

Predictions? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and be sure to check the blog out on Facebook.

 

Champions league gameweek 4 round-up

The fourth fixtures of the Champions League group stage is complete. Let’s look back at the previous 48 hours of footballing action:

In Group A, there was no goals in San Sebastian for Man United as they faced Real Sociedad. Dominating the headlines immediately after the final whistle of that fixture was that of Ashley Young’s theatrics and Marouane Fellaini’s sending off the final minute. “A missed opportunity” was how manager David Moyes described the game. The draw was enough to keep United on top of the group as there was another goalless encounter in the Donbass Arena between Shakhtar Donestsk and Bayer Leverkusen.

European giants Juventus and Real Madrid played out a 2-2 draw in Turin which still sees Juve bottom of Group B. Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti was pleased by his side’s second half performance, in which Ronaldo and Bale both scored. Juve must go for it now for their remaining fixtures if they wish to progress. In the group’s other game, Copenhagen earned a surprise 1-0 victory against Turkish giants Galatasaray. The win sees both sides locked on four points each with the Turks ahead on goal difference.

In Group C, Anderlecht earned their first point of the group with a 1-1 draw against league leaders PSG in Paris. The Belgians took the lead on 68 minutes with an equalizer almost immediately from, you guessed it, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Meanwhile Olimpiacos beat Benfica 1-0 in Piraeus which boosts them up into 2nd place in the group.

Bayern Munich could only manage a 1-0 win against Group D minnows Viktoria Plzeň thanks to a Mario Mandžukić 25 minutes before the end. The win still places the cup holders on top of Group D with Man City in 2nd place following their impressive 5-2 win against CSKA Moscow at the Etihad Stadium.

A Samuel Eto’o double and a Djemba Ba strike earned Chelsea a 3-0 win against 2nd placed Schalke to keep the London side top of Group E. Giovanni Sio’s injury time equalizer was enough to secure a point for FC Basel following Steaua Buchareșt‘s early lead. The Romanian side are still cruelly in 4th place on just two points.

In Group F, Arsenal‘s season seems to be improving and improving – as does midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s. The Welshman’s 62nd minute goal was enough to earn the Gunners a difficult victory against Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side in the fortress of yellow and black that is the Signal Iduna Park. Elsewhere Gonzalo Higuaín double helped Napoli defeat Marseille at the Stadio San Paolo to keep the Italians on 9 points along with Arsenal who lead on goal difference.

Atlético Madrid made it look easy in the Calderón following their 4-0 victory against Austria Vienna to keep them on top of Group G with 12 points. Zenit St Petersburg 1-1 draw against FC Porto in the Petrovsky Stadium keeps them in the group’s 2nd position with the Portugese outfit just a point behind and with one eye on that precious 2nd place.

Finally in Group H, Barcelona entertained AC Milan at the Camp Nou. Superstar Leo Messi had been a few games without a goal and was out to prove himself and did just that with two goals in the Catalans’ 3-1 victory against the Italian giants. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, trouble with fans and police before kick-off will dominate some headlines as Neil Lennon’s Celtic team will be disappointed to go back to Glasgow following a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Ajax which keeps them bottom of the group. Barcelona top the group on 10 points, while Milan are in 2nd place on 5 points. A victory for Celtic, currently on 3 points, in their next fixture could see them go right up to second place.

Gameweek 5 will be played on November 26/27.

 

Which games did you enjoy? Tell Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Champions League gameweek 3 round-up

Gameweek 3 of the Champions League is over – let’s look back at the last two days of football action:

On Tuesday Arsène Wenger celebrated his 64th birthday. However I’m sure there was little celebrating taking place for the Frenchman following his Arsenal side’s 2-1 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s 82nd minute winner. Arsenal, Dortmund and Rafa Bentiez’s Napoli, who themselves beat Marseille 2-1, are all on 6 points in Group F.

AC Milan kept Barcelona frustrated in the San Siro on Tuesday. Robinho’s opening goal following a beautiful one-two with Kaka was met with an equaliser from Leo Messi 14 minutes later. Also in Group H, Celtic beat Ajax 2-1 in Glasgow. The goals either side of half-time from James Forrest and Beram Kayal and Celtic lie in 3rd, with Barcelona leading and Milan in 2nd place.

In Group G, Zenit St Petersburg overcome 10-man FC Porto for their first group win while Atlético Madrid‘s Diego Costa grabbed a double in the Spanish side’s 3-0 win over Austria Vienna. Los Rojiblancos lead the group on maximum points with Zenit and Porto behind on 4 and 3 points respectively.

Fernando Torres scored twice to help secure Chelsea a 3-0 victory over Schalke 04 Meanwhile in Bucharest, Leandro Tatu’s late strike earned Steaua a draw against Swiss side FC Basel and their first point in Group E. Chelsea still lead the group on on goal difference ahead of Schalke with Basel in 3rd place on 4 points.

On Wednesday, two Sergio Aguero goals earned Man City against CSKA Moscow but the Russians were unlucky to have a goal ruled out ten minutes from time. Replays suggest the goal should’ve been allowed. Also in Group D, Bayern Munich predictably won 3 points following their 5-0 win against group minnows Viktoria Plzeň.

Zlatan Ibrahomovic was in fine form scoring four of the goals in PSG‘s 5-0 win against Anderlecht in the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. The French side still top Group C, with Olimpiacos and Benfica in 2nd and 3rd respectively as the two sides drew 1-1 in the Estádio da Luz.

A 2nd minute Iñigo Martínez own-goal was enough for David Moyes’ Man United side to get their much needed 3 points over Real Sociedad who themselves are yet to get off the mark. United lead Group A on 7 points with Bayer Leverkusen lurking behind on 6 pointss. The Germans thrashed Shakhtar Donetsk 4-0 in the BayArena.

Finally, Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in Wednesday evening’s tastiest fixture – Real Madrid v Juventus. The Spanish outfit beat Antonio Conte’s men 2-1 in a tight contest at the Bernebeu. In the other game in Group B, Galatasaray beat FC Copenhagen by 3-1 with first-half goals from Wesley Sneijder, Didier Drogba and Felipe Melo. The Turks lie in 2nd place on four points with Real in first on maximum points. Juve are placed in 3rd spot disappointingly on just 2 points.

Gameweek 4 is in a fortnight as these sides all meet again. The likes of Juve and Arsenal will be seeking revenge.

 

What games/players stuck out the most for you? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League is back! Gameweek 1 preview.

Champions League is back. Is anyone else excited? Oh, everyone is? Ok then. Let’s waste no more time and have a look what’s to come over the next couple of days in Europe’s biggest club competition.

In Group A, it’s an unbelievably massive fixture for David Moyes as he leads his Manchester United side against Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford. Usually, I’d say “ah, it’s business as usual” if Fergie was in charge. But it’s a new era and, to be honest, I don’t know it’s going to fare. United will have to keep the criminally under-rated Stefan Kießling quiet, that I do know.
The people of San Sebastian will be treated to a night of Champions League football as Real Sociedad take on Shakhtar Donetsk at Anoeta. It’s been ten whole years since the Basque side played in Europe. Shakhtar, on the other hand, are at this point veterans of the Champions League and will be looking to spoil the party.

Group B sees Turkish giants Galatasaray take on Real Madrid. Will Gareth Bale feature? Carlo Ancelotti may give the Welshman a run out following his debut where he scored for Madrid. Start as you mean to go on as they say. Gala aren’t pushovers though, with big names such as Sneijder and Drogba in the squad, not to mention that ferocious home support, it’ll be tough for CR7 & co.

Current champions Bayern Munich entertain CSKA Moscow. This is Pep Guardiola’s big return to the competition, having last won the cup in 2011, beating Man United at Wembley in the final. CSKA will prove to be good opponents as they are unbeaten in the Russian Premier League, which began in July.

Chelsea take on FC Basel at Stamford Bridge. The Swiss outfit will be fresh in the misery of English clubs as they look to build on eliminating Manchester United from two seasons ago. Chelsea however, along with new names such as Samuel Eto’o, Andre Schurrle and Willian won’t let anyone get the better of them on their own turf – not on José’s watch.

Group F contains four excellent teams and is, in my view anyway, one of the most intriguing groups. Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli will all battle it out. Anyone could end up in first – or last place. Arsenal travel to the south of France to face Marseille first as Rafa Benitez’s Napoli will take on Borussia Dortmund.

Finally, the media dubbed Group H as “the group of death”. For Celtic, that is certainly true. They travel to Italy to face AC Milan. And despite the return of the prodigal son Kaká from Real Madrid, I truly think Celtic have caught Milan at a good time. The time is now. Then again, the San Siro is an incredibly hard place to win for anyone.
Barcelona entertain Ajax – a club who the Catalans historically model themselves on. On paper, the Dutch side have no chance. But Barça’s new coach Tata Martino will be put to the test in his first ever European job. No pressure then.

 

What are your predictions? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)