The World Cup is the largest soccer tournament in the world, but if you ask the purists, the Champions League offers the highest-quality matches. You have all the same stars, plus a few more who didn’t qualify for the World Cup like Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but more importantly, the players enjoy a level of familiarity from playing with one another for nine months a year that is impossible to replicate in single summer tournament every four years.
UEFA announced the groups Thursday, splitting the 32 teams into eight groups.
Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiacos, Malmo
Group B: Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
Group C: Benfica, Zenit, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco
Group D: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
Group E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Roma
Group F: Barcelona, PSG, Ajax, Apoel
Group G: Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor
Group H: Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, Bate Borisov
Teams in the same group have to play one another twice — once in each team’s stadium. Already, several groups promise must-watch matches. Here are just a few of them:
Defending champion Real Madrid has won the tournament 10 times, more than any other team in the competition. Armed with freshly signed World Cup stars Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez, the Spanish giants will take on Liverpool, which last lifted the trophy in 2005 but has won the tournament (going back to when it was just the European Cup) five times, more than any other English club. It also plays one of the most open, attacking styles in the Premier League. Plus, any time you put Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli and Madrid’s Pepe — soccer’s answer to Ron Artest — on the same field, there’s a high likelihood of fireworks.
Last year, Atletico was so close to completing the most improbable of doubles — dethroning Barcelona and Real Madrid to win La Liga and the Champions League. It did win the Spanish league but lost to Real in the Champions League final. Atletico Manager Diego Simeone is reason enough to watch its matches, given his propensity for the ridiculous. Just this week, he was suspended for slapping a referee and refusing to leave the pitch, instead sitting in the stands like a ill-tempered child. After losing Diego Costa to Chelsea, Atletico added the highly touted Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić. The match will feature two of the best young midfielders in the world, Juventus’s 21-year-old Paul Pogba and Atletico’s 22-year-old Koke. And don’t forget recognizable stars and sage old hands such as Buffon, Carlos Tevez and Andre Pirlo.
Bayern Munich-Manchester City
For some reason, Manchester City has been unable to replicate its Premier League form in this competition and it hasn’t ever advanced past the final 16. Last year, Bayern Munich knocked them out, and now City will have a chance to exact revenge against the five-time champions. City spent the summer quietly re-signing its stars while adding a strong central midfielder in Fernando, in part to improve its defense specifically for this tournament and the teams that don’t play the same open, Premier League style. Bayern returns with its cast of World Cup winners, including star goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, and Mario Götze. And don’t forget Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben and the center of USMNT attention, Julian Green.
After Bayern Munich brutalized Barcelona in last year’s quarterfinals, to the tune of 7-0 over two games, many pundits were declaring the end of Barcelona’s tiki-taka dominance. Barcelona responded by paying more than $100 million to acquire Luis Suarez, who will be flanked by Lionel Messi and Neymar. However, you could argue that their attack wasn’t the issue, and they didn’t really do enough to fix their defense, but from a neutral perspective, you have to be excited by the idea of those three stars playing together. French champion Paris Saint-Germain will pose all sort of challenges, starting of course, with former Barcelona striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The above matches just scratch the surface, as just about every group has at least one captivating matchup. Now, we just have to wait for the official schedule.