Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Dortmund vs. Real, anyone? No? How about Bayern Munich-Atletico Madrid? Barcelona-Man City?

The annual contesting of the UEFA Champions League is always something to look forward to on the football calendar, and after some lackluster – and, frankly, unnecessary – play in games, the group stage is all set. The 8 pools were set up today, and there are some seriously good fixtures on the slate.

Now, I just want to point something out really quickly. How weird is it to not see Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Wolfsburg in the Champions League draw? It’s pretty weird for me. Anyway, let’s get straight into the most interesting group stage matches.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid

Starting off with a bang, the reigning champions draw German powerhouse, Borussia Dortmund in an opening matchup that should be filled with enough fireworks to go around.

Real Madrid UCL
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Real need no introduction. They sport a front line that includes the best player in the world and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric – as if he needed any more of an introduction – made some noise at the European Championships with his sparkling play on the Croatian national team alongside Ivan Perisic.

Madrid’s squad last season was as deep and strong as we have ever seen, and the addition of Alvaro Morata and a presumably much stronger and reinvigorated James Rodriguez will make them just as dangerous.

On the other side are my dark horses in this tournament. Dortmund gave traditional juggernaut, Bayern Munich, all they would handle all the way through the Bundesliga season in 2015-16. And, sensing a potential changing of the guard, Dortmund went out and spent over $110 million on 8 transfers.

Highlighting the group is former Dortmund star, Mario Gotze – who was swiped away from the aforementioned Bayern Munich. Alongside Gotze is another German national, Andre Schurrle, and a couple of 19 year old prodigies, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor. The new stable of strikers will join Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and form an incredibly formidable attack.

Borussia Dortmund Squad
Dortmund Squad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Now, all of those glamorous transfers were mostly made out of necessity, as Dortmund lost Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mats Hummels, but I believe the strong attack will make them an incredibly dangerous team that could potentially make huge waves with an upset here.

Also, remember the last time these two teams matched up in the Champions League with Los Blancos as a heavy favorite? Yeah, watch out for Dortmund.

Group A: Arsenal vs. Paris Saint Germain

On the surface, this matchup seems like a very even matchup between French and English powerhouses, but, unfortunately, this is probably the most predictable of the fixtures i’m going to be highlighting. Does that mean it’s not going to be entertaining? Absolutely not.

Make no mistake, this is an offensive GEM of a match. Brilliant players are all over the pitch from both sides. Theo Walcott, Angel di Maria, Granit Xhaka, Adrian Rabiot, Marco Verratti, David Luiz, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Calum Chambers; the quality on the pitch – with regards to strictly offense – is remarkable.

Now, if this match had taken place a year ago, PSG would run away with it. The French champions were firing on all cylinders with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading up the attack, but now that he’s gone? I still favor PSG, but the Gunners do have a shot in both legs.

Both clubs will advance to the knockout round – considering that FC Basel and FC Ludogorets round out group A – and that could be the only way this matchup isn’t a spectacular scoring fest. But I’m going to pretend that both clubs go full bore and we get some lovely, high scoring football.

Group E: Bayer Leverkusen vs Tottenham Hotspur

Here’s the one you disagree with. You can’t agree with me on everything, but I really like this matchup.

Chicharito vs Alderwierld? Yes, please.

I really don’t care what you say, this game is worth watching just to see what kind of magic Chicharito pulls out of his hat against Mauricio Ponchettinho’s bunch.

Chicharito
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Also, who knows, maybe Tottenham regains the form that made them the Premier League runners up from just a season ago and put on an offensive clinic led by Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Maybe not, but still, the offensive potential in this game is too good to ignore. All hail Chicharito.

Group D: Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid

Holy nuts, whoever put this matchup together clearly wants to cut the riffraff and get straight down to the business of separating the best football clubs in Europe.

A rematch of one of the two semifinals from last year’s Champions League, both teams remain mostly unchanged, with the only significant transfer between the two being Bayern’s heist of Mats Hummels from their German rivals, Borussia Dortmund.

The fact that both of these clubs remain mostly unchanged is reason for excitement because holy wow what a matchup this is.

Antoine Griezemann and Yannick Carrasco have had their coming out parties, and they join Fernando Torres on a club that has silently competed in two of the last three Champions League finals. And guess what, Atletico is set to be just as good as they’ve ever been.

Griezmann and Carrasco
Photo courtesy of ESPN FC

On the other side are the German champions and their stable of ridiculous talent. From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern is almost stupid stacked with talent. Kingsley Coman, Renato Sanches, Arjen Robben (forget about him?), Arturo Vidal, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Julian Green; it’s almost unfair how talented this Bayern side are.

FC Bayern Munich v FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Photo by Lukas Barth for Getty Images

I didn’t need to hype this match up any more than it already was, but Bayern-Atletico twice in the group stage? Thank you, God.

Group C: FC Barcelona vs Manchester City

And now, your main event of the group stage.

Pep Guardiola’s main task at Manchester City has been made crystal clear: win the Champions League. He’s been given all of the money the clubs has to offer, and completely free reign to go get any player his heart desires in the name of winning the Champions League.

Following two squash matches against clearly overmatched Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti, City are through to the group stage where they draw the title favorites, Barcelona.

Nolito and Delph
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Barca return to the Champions League with a vengeance following their failed pursuit of the first back-to-back title win in UCL history. But, while Barca stood pat this summer and didn’t really get any better – in their defense, it’s hard to get better when your attacking trio is Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi – Manchester City went out and just about owned the transfer market.

In total, City brought in 9 transfers for just over $240 million, highlighted by Everton defender John Stones, Barcelona starting keeper Claudio Bravo, and Shalke wonder boy Leroy Sane. The talent on the field will be evident, and this will be an extremely tightly contested matchup, but let’s get to the off-field storylines that really make this a game worth watching.

The aforementioned Pep Guardiola has been clear that his ultimate goal at City is to win the Champions League, and to do that he has to go through his former club. The City boss made his name at Barcelona, and knocked them out of the Champions League last season while with Bayern Munich. Revenge will be in the air and Pep will be hungry to prove his side belongs in the upper echelon of elite football powerhouses.

As I mentioned in the transfers section of this blurb, Claudio Bravo is Manchester City’s new keeper, and the former Barcelona #1 will be making his homecoming during the leg of this matchup contested at the home of the Spanish champions. Also, the last time Bravo and Lionel Messi squared off, the Argentinian fired a now infamous penalty shot high over the bar of Bravo’s Chilean goal to give Chile their 2nd straight Copa America title over Argentina.

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Chile
Photo by Adam Hunger for USA Today Sports

So, on top of the fact that this is as good of a football matchup as you can possibly get, the extra storylines make this fixture as much of a ‘can’t miss’ as the Champions League group stage has to offer.

……….

Considering the madness that football has provided us with lately, we could be staring down the barrel of a Benfica-Leicester City Champions League final. Would you rather see something like a Bayern-City final? Of course you would, but for the first time in a while, I can’t confidently guarantee that we’ll see traditional powerhouses in the semifinals and final. Strap in, this could get wild.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

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Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

It’s been a while since I ventured into ‘Ryan Riffs’ territory, but I’m back, and we’re venturing into even more new territory with this venture. This, I’m hoping, will be the first of many articles diving into British Premier League soccer, among other soccer. So, let’s do it.

Traditionally, the Premier League has been a hierarchy, with a certain few teams running a monopoly at the top of the table with only a brief interruption from a random club here and there. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool have been the traditional big boys in the British schoolyard. Usually, you would pick one of those teams, and 100% of the time you would be right.

Then, along came Manchester City.

Man City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

In 2011-12, the Citizens became the first club outside the ‘Big Four’ listed above to win the Premier League title since 1994. The very same season, Tottenham broke into the top 4, and a chain of chaos was set in motion capped off by Leicester City winning the Prem this past season.

The Foxes were listed at 5000-1 in the oddsmakers book before the season, but they took those odds rode them all the way to the most improbable title run in the history of sports. Leicester City confirmed, last season, what everyone now knows; the Premier League will be absolute chaos.

Leicester City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

Seriously, any number of 6 teams have a legitimate shot to win the title, with clubs like West Ham and Everton having an outside shot. Never before have traditionally bottom feeding clubs been able to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, we actually have a shot.” It’s beautifully hectic and impossible to predict.

So, now that we’re on the same page – ha ha ha, writing puns….please love me – let’s get into my Premier League thoughts, just two weeks into the season.

……….

Manchester United are back. Following their 2012-13 title win, United have fallen down the table, eventually finishing outside of Champions League contention for the first time since 1995 – along with Chelsea, coincidentally. But, unfortunately, the empire of Old Trafford is back, and in a big way.

Last season, United were a mess of a team. Full of underachieving attackers, old, slow midfielders, a shoddy defense, and a whack-job of a manager, it’s pretty amazing that they even were able to end the season in 5th.

United has addressed all of those concerns during this offseason in astounding ways, and they are as dangerous as ever. Beginning with the signing of manager Jose Mourinho to helm the team, you could make the argument that Man U replaced the incompetent Louis Van Gall with the most brilliant manager in the world – I prefer Pep Guardiola, but that’s a different argument for a different time. And Mourinho immediately went to work hauling in droves of talent.

Mourinho’s first signing was designed to address the Red Devils’ poor 2015-16 defense, and what a signing it was. Eric Bailly has come in and immediately impressed, with some calling him “the perfect Mourinho defender.” Needless to say, Jose really likes him, and he has certainly contributed during the early part of the season.

Next up was the casual entrance of one, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And when I say casual, I mean not at all. In typical Zlatan fashion, he made a grand entrance to Old Trafford and brought all of his traditional style and flair. So far, Ibra has scored 3 Premier League goals in his first two games, as well as the winning goal in the Community Shield final. Not too shabby.

Mourinho’s cap to the summer was literally the biggest transfer of all time; Paul Pogba. The former United academy star turned Juventus star returned home to the tune of just over $118 million, breaking the world record transfer fee held by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale. Pogba returned to the club that brought him up and, in the eyes of many, catapulted Manchester United to the assumed top of the Premier League’s predicted final standings.

So, in short, United needed better defense, a creative midfielder, a proven scorer, and a capable manager. What they got was Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba – only the most creative midfielder I’ve ever seen – Zlatan freaking Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho. Yeah, I’d say the Red Devils are back to being the football powerhouse we all know them as.

Zlatan and Pogba
Photo courtesy of Zlatan’s Instagram, God bless that man.

So far, United has beaten Bournemouth and Southampton by a combined tally of 5-1, with their next fixture being another away game against upstarts Hull City – we’ll get into them soon.

They will presumably squash Hull and now have 3 dominant Premier League wins to open the Mourinho era. But don’t get too excited, the first major test – and boy, what a test it is – for the new look Red Devils comes in the Manchester Darby at Old Trafford on September 10th. What a clash that should be.

……….

And speaking of the early season Manchester Darby, that game is between the two clear Premier League title favorites. As wide open as I made things sound in my opening riff, the signing of Pogba to United and the impending signing of Claudio Bravo to Manchester City – combined with the new arrival of John Stones – have separated these two from the rest of the pack.

Chelsea have looked good so far, with Antonio Conte’s defensive structure making them look very hard to crack combined with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s early season brilliance. But Chelsea just don’t seem to have the extra gear of talent that United and City can press out onto the field on a consistent basis.

The same goes for Liverpool, who’s opening fixture with Arsenal was a brilliant offensive display that coincided with Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane announcing their arrival with authority, but their offensive arsenal – we’ll get to them in just a second – is limited, and they can’t defend for their lives. Jurgen Klopp’s bunch will be fun to watch, but don’t count on them finishing atop the table.

And Arsenal, what do we even say about them. Another silent summer of Arsene Wenger apparently forgetting that his defense is absolute trash and not making any transfers. That has resulted in a confusing 0-1-1 start, including a thrilling 4-3 loss to Liverpool that exposed every defensive fault you could ever think of, and a 0-0 draw with Tottenham that showed every offensive flaw you could ever think of.

Arsenal, as much as their seemingly star studded roster would have you believe, is not a serious title threat. In fact, they are legitimately in danger of finishing outside of a Europa League spot.

Yeah, this is a strange time in football.

Because I feel inclined to touch on the reigning runner ups, Tottenham aren’t title contenders either. As exciting as their offensive talent seemed last season – with Harry Kane’s 25 goal season and Dele Alli’s breakout – Tottenham’s lack of consistency and inexperience will doom them. The top 4 is not in their future, but they should still be a fun offensive club. When Spurs and Liverpool face off? Tune in.

All of that was basically a really long way of me undermining my entire first riff on how unpredictable the Premier League is. Manchester City and Manchester United have separated themselves as legitimate title favorites.

I talked about United at length, and City’s depth and offensive firepower are incredible. Between Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito, Kelechi Iheanacho, David Silva and a suddenly remarkable Raheem Sterling, City can and will put up lots of scoring this season.

Man City Squad
Photo courtesy of BBC

The question has always been defense.

New manager Pep Guardiola’s late pre-season addition of John Stones has seemed to fix some of those questions, with Stones playing a very sturdy fullback position. And, to boot, it is expected that former Barcelona #1 Claudio Bravo will join the team on a transfer tomorrow.

If that happens, it would be a huge boost as one could argue that Bravo is the ‘sweeper keeper’ in Europe – an aspect that Guardiola relies on, and is the thing that is resulting in Joe Hart’s saddening and impending exit.

September 10th will be the first day that really gives us an idea of what the Premier League landscape will look like, with the top two title contenders facing off at Old Trafford in a power shifting matchup that will have a lot of eyes on it.

Regardless of the result of that one match, it should be a wild Prem season. Buckle up.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League