This week marks the return of the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, football's premier club competition, and boy are there some absolutely edge of seat games coming up. Every August, fans wait in anticipation as the world's best players and clubs go head to head to fight it out once more for another season. This one has the potential to be the best yet. So, without further ado, let us dive in to the first round of fixtures.
Magpies Search for European Silverware
Newcastle United mark their return to Europe's top table with a mouth watering group, featuring 6 ties that could swing in any direction. Each game is a heavyweight clash in what has been billed the 'Group of Death', with opponents Milan, Borussia Dortmund and PSG in store for Eddie Howe's squad. It is sure to be a campaign filled with memorable nights and when the Champions League anthem rings around St James' Park for the first time in 2 decades you can only imagine the fierce roar that will erupt from 50,000 riled up Geordies. Their first tie brings them to one of Europe's sporting cathedrals, the San Siro in Milan, and they face off against a side who were hammered 5-1 this weekend against local rivals Inter. Will there be fireworks in Italy as the hosts seek to bounce back with a vengeance? Or will Newcastle pounce upon a demoralised Rossoneri to claim a famous European victory? Whatever the outcome, it will be a special night for all on Tyneside, and the first of surely many more to come this season.
Treble Winner's Steam Ahead
Many people would've forgiven Manchester City for having a slow start to the season, given the lingering hangover from the summer celebrations and the turnover of key players in the side. But Pep Guardiola is a perfectionist, and he certainly couldn't have imagined a more perfect run, as the treble winners continued to blitz every opponent in their path. In a tame group containing RB Leipzig, Young Boys and Crvena Zvezda (aka Red Star Belgrade), he will have more than enough confidence in his squad to continue in this vein. Anything less than maximum points would surprise most football fans. The more interesting prospect in this group however, is who finishes in 2nd. RB Leipzig have proven a handy team at times, but can have a soft centre. Young Boys are probably the weakest outfit in the group but have the potential to spark a surprise, and any team that visits Red Star will have a hard time. The atmosphere in Belgrade is one of the most hostile in Europe, and will strike fear into even the most determined of players. All in all, this group will be a walkthrough for last seasons victors.
Group E is another surprisingly unpredictable group, featuring Atletico Madrid, Lazio, Celtic, and Feyenoord. Neither of these sides quite seem to have the quality to win the competition, but any could be a surprise package. Maurizio Sarri has revived his career at Lazio, building an exciting and astute team that can threaten anyone on it's day. Diego Simeone is now a Champions League stalwart; everybody knows what they are getting with his Atletico side. But after a dissappointing performance last time out, they can be expected to be the frontrunners in this group, using a mixture of experience and defensive masterclasses to take down their opponents. Feyenoord come into this group as top seed, after a triumphant Eridivisie season, but they will need to be streetwise against their opponents. They revive an auld classic, facing off against Brendan Rodger's Celtic side in a replay of the 1970 final, in which the Dutch side were victorius. However, I am tipping the Glaswegian outfit to be this group's surprise package, as Rodger's redeems himself after being unable to rescue Leicester City's fortunes last season as they were subsequently relegated. The ambition and tactical knowledge of Rodgers, taking over the reigns of Ange Postecoglou's excellent Celtic side make them a certain dark horse, and it would be foolish to say they will go down without a fierce fight.
Barcelona come off the back of an incredible La Liga campaign, in which they blitzed to another title. This league season will not be so straightforward for Xavi's men, as rivals Real Madrid spent big money on big talent this summer. Their European campaign on the other hand, should be a breeze. They have been drawn in a group featuring first timers Royal Antwerp, whom they face on Tuesday, an as always fiery Shakhtar Donetsk side, and UCL regulars FC Porto. This is a group that you would expect them to top comfortably, with the exception of some tricky away trips to Poland and Portugal. It is hard to see Royal Antwerp gaining a single point here, as they simply lack the quality to make it out of this group. The 2nd qualification spot will be fiercely contested between Porto and Shakhtar, but I am backing the Portuguese side to slightly edge it, as they simply have more quality in their forward line. This is sure to be an exciting group and one bursting with goals.