Sep 15, 2013, 3:00 PM EDT
With the Champions League group stage set to begin play on Tuesday, the world’s biggest annual soccer tournament is back in our lives on the big stage.
To get the content started, we look at four teams who aren’t favorites that could potentially make noise this season.
Last year, Malaga, Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk and Schalke shocked many and not only progressed into the knockout stage but Malaga and Schalke actually won their groups ahead of teams such as Arsenal and AC Milan.
Malaga’s run to the quarterfinals actually vaulted manager Manuel Pellegrini to a big stage, where he landed the job at Manchester City.
So who this year could surprise the world under its brightest spotlight? The gaps between top, mid-tier, and bottom are quite large, so surprises may be hard to come by. But we here at ProSoccerTalk enjoy the banter as always, so we dive in:
1) Schalke 04
This season, success from the German club wouldn’t be nearly the surprise it was last season, but they still haven’t garnered the world-renowned respect they possibly should. They went undefeated in group play last season, beating Arsenal 2-0 on the road and maintaining a bend-don’t-break attitude that led to three draws but the goose egg in the loss column.
Maybe the reason last season’s surprise group stage run made almost no noise is because they proceeded to fizzle out against Group H runners-up Galatasaray in the first knockout round, losing 2-3 at home in a disappointing second leg.
This season, they’ve vastly improved, landing a coup by signing one Kevin Prince-Boateng from AC Milan. It was rumored, unsurprisingly, that Boateng had offers from many top clubs but Schalke turned his head the most and the midfielder with both holding and attacking skills will be a force in the middle.
They brought in attacking options as well to support the aging but still reliable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Schalke signed Adam Szalai from FC Mainz, and partnering with young star Julian Draxler (pictured, right) on the wings, this German club is a good bet to come out of a group with Chelsea, Basel, and Steaua Bucuresti.
Somehow a Pot 4 team despite numerous European appearances in the past few years, naturally the Serie A club created a terrible Group of Death with Arsenal, Marseille, and last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund.
Having finished 2nd in Italy last season, Napoli brought in Rafa Benitez to replace the departed Walter Mazzarri who left for Inter. The former Chelsea manager completed a run of absolutely brilliant transfer business, making this squad much-improved on an already successful base.
Benitez sold Edinson Cavani to PSG for a hefty price, and used the cash to buy players like Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Pepe Reina.
The overhaul has worked to perfection so far, as Napoli have begun the Serie A season with three wins in three, on a total goal differential of 9-2. Higuain has two, Callejon has two, and – perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Napoli’s market moves – incumbent attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik has four.
Despite a worst-case-scenario draw, Napoli have the tools to make a Group of Death splash and ruin the Champions League for Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund.
3) Bayer Leverkusen
Not the strongest German team to ever grace the Champions League, but with a good draw, Bayer could make some group stage noise.
Led by German international Lars Bender and striker Stefan Kiessling, they’ve started the Bundesliga season scorching hot, with wins over quality opponents in Wolfsburg, Monchengladbach, and Stuttgart, and their only loss coming to Schalke.They added Korean striker Heung-Min Song from Hamburg, and invested a fair bit of money in him, and he’s rewarded them with two goals and an assist in six matches so far.
Their group is interesting – Manchester United is the only top-tier team in the pack, leaving presumably the second spot open for the taking. However, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad are no pushovers, and thus it will be a battle.
American Sacha Kljestan has gotten his Juliper Pro League season off to a roaring start, and he brings that with him into the Champions League Group C. Kljestan has 4 goals in 7 league matches so far, a hefty tally for a defensive midfielder.
Anderlecht are a wild card this year, drawn into a really weak group – possibly the weakest one of the tier. Their Pot 1 team Benfica is a weak Pot 1 side, and only PSG look like a lock. It’s tough for any Pot 4 team to ever make noise, so Anderlecht have their work cut out for them no matter where they end up, but this is an intriguing scenario for the Belgian side.
They’re led by red-hot Argentinian striker Matias Suarez, who at 25 years of age is just entering the prime of his career. He has a whopping six goals and six assists in Anderlecht’s seven league matches so far, and he will look to bring that success into Tuesday’s match with Benfica in Portugal.
So who do you have advancing in the 2013/2014 Champions League? We’ll have much more coverage here on ProSoccerTalk of the upcoming group stage openers on Tuesday, including a complete preview, group analysis, and predictions. Stick around!
Jul 4, 2015, 11:23 PM EDT
On a day where Laura Bassett showed great resolve, England won over many neutrals.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:30 PM EDT
The U.S. hasn’t given up a goal in 513 minutes at this World Cup, heading into the final against Japan.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:39 PM EDT
Kei Kamara -> Ethan Finlay (x2) was all Crew SC needed to jump three places in the Eastern Conference.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:20 PM EDT
Eduaro Vargas and Paolo Guerrero beat all the big names to the 2015 Copa America top scorer’s award.
Jul 4, 2015, 8:00 PM EDT
The solidarity between Japan teammates — and between the two teams contesting the final — is remarkable.
Jul 4, 2015, 7:04 PM EDT
It took 99 years, but Chile are finally champions of South America after defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout.
Jul 4, 2015, 6:28 PM EDT
Steven Gerrard is winning points with LA Galaxy supporters before ever stepping on the field for his new club.
Jul 4, 2015, 6:07 PM EDT
Regulars in the latter stages of the Champions League, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid continue their summer spending sprees.
Jul 4, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
We go once more at the 2015 Copa America. This time it’s Argentina vs. Chile for all the marbles.
Jul 4, 2015, 3:09 PM EDT
Carli Lloyd has taken rightfully taken over the spotlight, but Morgan Brian’s supporting role is no less important.
Jul 4, 2015, 1:18 PM EDT
Croatia’s most successful club has seen police throw its president and manager in prison.
Jul 4, 2015, 12:07 PM EDT
Popularity of women’s soccer has improved greatly the past few years, but there’s still much work to be done, and the US international isn’t happy with FIFAs parading of accomplishments.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:50 AM EDT
With the Dutchman set to turn 32 before the start of the league season, Manchester United may look to cash in on his star power after a down year.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:22 AM EDT
The German international didn’t get a first-team guarantee from Arsene Wenger, so he moved on.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:47 AM EDT
Stoke had an offer accepted by Inter, but two more clubs are reportedly in the mix for the Swiss international.
Jul 4, 2015, 8:31 AM EDT
Argentina looks to end a 22-year continental trophy drought against the hosts who have never won the Copa America.
Jul 4, 2015, 7:56 AM EDT
Your transfer activity on this July 4 morning.
Jul 4, 2015, 1:15 AM EDT
Tyrone Mears scored an absolute beauty late in the match to down a ten-man D.C. United.
Jul 4, 2015, 12:59 AM EDT
The English defender is still getting over the heartbreak of an own goal.
- Krieger credits Ellis, communication for United States’ defensive success 2
- Chile 0-0 (4-1 PKs) Argentina: Chile’s first Copa America title in 99-year history (video) 2
- Lloyd, Brian prove crucial to United States’ turnaround at Women’s World Cup 2
- Report: Robin van Persie agrees to personal terms with Fenerbahce 3
- Copa America Final preview: Argentina looks for first title since 1993 against hosts Chile 0
- Transfer Rumor Roundup: KPB to Orlando City, Liverpool in for Brazilian teen 4