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!
Sep 1, 2014, 8:35 AM EDT
There’s going to be plenty of movement today, and the early morning brings us news on Jay Rodriguez, Alvaro Negred, Matija Nastasic, and more.
Sep 1, 2014, 7:55 AM EDT
Manchester United are reportedly close to securing a world-class striker for just $9 million.
Sep 1, 2014, 12:42 AM EDT
Roundup of MLS action this weekend.
Aug 31, 2014, 10:57 PM EDT
Roundup of football transfers across Europe today.
Aug 31, 2014, 9:55 PM EDT
Real Madrid manager insisted that his squad just lost focus on Sunday when they were upset by Real Sociedad.
Aug 31, 2014, 8:24 PM EDT
Darren Fletcher isn’t perturbed by Manchester United’s super-early season struggles.
Aug 31, 2014, 6:58 PM EDT
Jermain Defoe has been linked away from Toronto FC, with a possible return back to England.
Aug 31, 2014, 6:18 PM EDT
Real Madrid didn’t display their standard victorious level of play as Real Sociedad shocked Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
Aug 31, 2014, 5:22 PM EDT
D.C. United keeps strong at the head of the Eastern Conference, defeating the New York Red Bulls, 2-0.
Aug 31, 2014, 4:25 PM EDT
Quick recap of the Premier League’s Sunday matches.
Aug 31, 2014, 3:38 PM EDT
Geoff Cameron has withdrawn from the United States’ latest roster prepped for the Czech Republic match.
Aug 31, 2014, 2:53 PM EDT
DC United hopes to fend off Bradley Wright-Phillips and company in the Atlantic Cup.
Aug 31, 2014, 2:39 PM EDT
With things not going as planned, Nelsen is out.
Aug 31, 2014, 2:10 PM EDT
Despite Yaya Sanogo’s disappointing performance against Leicester City, Wenger may sit on his squad.
Aug 31, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
After spending a career on the bench at Manchester United, he’s going to another club where he’ll likely be a backup.
Aug 31, 2014, 12:57 PM EDT
Leo Ulloa hit back at Arsenal’s early goal and Leicester held on strong against a tired and wasteful Arsenal.
Aug 31, 2014, 12:23 PM EDT
It appears the usually erratic, angry, and impulsive Mario Balotelli is nowhere to be found, and the Liverpool manager is to thank.
Aug 31, 2014, 11:33 AM EDT
With Torres, Lukaku, and Ba all gone and Costa proving injury prone, Remy comes in as cover at Stamford Bridge.
Aug 31, 2014, 10:45 AM EDT
Yaya Sanogo starts up front in place of the injured Olivier Giroud. Esteban Cambiasso is on the bench for Leicester.
Aug 31, 2014, 10:33 AM EDT
Aston Villa were bright nearly the whole match but struggled to fend off Hull late in a close victory.
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- Toronto FC fire Ryan Nelsen thanks to disappointing position and disparaging comments 1
- Leicester City 1-1 Arsenal: Home side holds strong for draw 3
- Done deal: Chelsea sign Loic Remy from QPR 0
- Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool: Familiar scenes as Reds storm Spurs in London 4
- Premier League Sunday Preview: Tottenham host Liverpool, Arsenal face Leicester 0