European football is back in town and Matchday 2 on Wednesday will see teams from Groups E, F, G and H face rivals as eight matches are scheduled to kick off simultaneously across Europe.
We take a look at 5 things to look forward to from these group clashes.
City take on Bayern Munich… again
Clearly the biggest game of the night, the Group E tie will throw together the current reigning English and German champions in a match that promises to be a tantalising affair. Bayern Munich would be vary of the English champions though, having lost to them in the same fixture last year on Matchday 6. That aside, Bayern have a burgeoning list of injuries to keep players. Pep Guardiola will be without the services of Badstuber who joined Javi Martinez, Ribery, Schweinsteiger, Rafinha, Thiago and Weiser in the sick bay recently. Arjen Robben’s appearance is also under a cloud of doubt as he is still recovering from a knee injury that recurred post his World Cup campaign with the Dutch National team. City on the other hand will have a relatively full squad to chose from with Jovetic and Zabaleta the only players missing (Zabaleta is serving a suspension that he received in last year’s tournament). City have improved in leaps and bounds over the last three season and practically proved a point by beating Bayern at their own home in addition to winning the EPL title in a calm and composed manner. They would look to enhance their reputation as a top dog club by winning the ultimate glory of the European championship.
Barcelona host Cypriot champions APOEL FC at the Nou Camp
Luis Enrique will make his European coaching debut as Barcelona will meet the reigning Cypriot champions APOEL in a relatively easy Group F encounter. With PSG and Ajax the other teams in the group, APOEL would clearly be feeling slightly underweight and most regard them as the underdogs of the group. Barcelona will miss Dani Alves and recent acquisition, Thomas Vermaelen through injury. Mascherano, who started for the club on Saturday, went off just after half-time after picking up a knock. It is unclear whether he would be fit for the clash. Messi and Iniesta, who both sat out the international break through injuries, however, handed a great boost to Luis Enrique after starting for Barcelona in the La Liga last weekend.
APOEL are competing in the group stage of the tournament only for the third time, having reached the quarter finals in their last appearance in the 2011-12 season. In the previous two appearances, APOEL have played eight games away from home and have never won, losing three and drawing the rest against Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit. APOEL would love to upset the Spanish giants at their home but a more prudent approach may be of damage control. Play for a draw but if losing, control the number of goals they let in. Dominated by Brazilian and Portuguese players, the visitors can look to counterattack but must be wary of losing defensive shape if they choose to go down this route.
Jose Mourinho fields possibly the strongest Chelsea side in decades against Schalke ’04
Chelsea did superb business over the summer transfer window, jetissoning some more flotsam and reinforcing their squad where needed. Most notable of these reinforcements is the arrival of Atletico’s star striker Diego Costa. Costa has already taken the EPL by storm, having scored 7 goals, including a hat trick, in just 4 games. It is imperative that Costa will prove to be the key to Chelsea’s bid for European supremacy this season. Mourinho would be a happy man as he gets to pick from practically a full squad with Didier Drogba the only absentee via an ankle problem. Yet the Portuguese gaffer has downplayed Chelsea’s chances, stating that it would be difficult to better the “semi-final” finish of last season. Whether this is feigned modesty or based on something he knows and we don’t, only time will tell. For now, this promises to be the most exciting fixture in Group G with both the clubs highly anticipated to make it through to the Round of 16. As a result, this game also gains a fresh angle since clubs would want to finish on top of their group to get that advantage (notional or otherwise) in the draw for the next round.
Schalke ’04 will have worries of their own when they travel to London stemming from their burgeoning injury list that currently has 9 players on it, most notably captain Benedikt Howedes who is sidelined via a hip injury. They would also be wary of the same fixture last season when Chelsea defeated them 3-0 at home on Matchday 4. All in all, Schalke are clearly not in the best state that they would have wanted to be in when facing the English giants.
NK Maribor make their return to UEFA Champions League with home game against Sporting Club de Portugal
The Group G clash will feature two returnees to this tournament – Sporting are back after their last appearance in the tournament in 2008-09 when they reached the Round of 16 while Maribor end an even longer exile as they return to the tournament for the first time in 15 years. Maribor will have the comfort of starting their first game after this long gap in relatively familiar home conditions. Porto on the other hand have not been happy hunters on opening day, having lost 2 of their previous 6 opening fixtures and winning only one of the remaining. In addition to that, Maribor could well shock the visitors in a reprise of their shock victory against Dynamo Kiev all those many years ago. Both these clubs will probably not make it past this round but they would definitely want to put on as good a show as possible for the benefit of their fans and for generally gaining European experience and exposure, commodities hard to come by at both these clubs.
PSG take on Ajax away from home in another sizzling Group F tie
PSG travel to Amsterdam to take on Ajax for their campaign opener. Both clubs are pretty much on an even keel with Ajax slightly outweighing PSG via their richer history. The recent infusion of cash from its Middle Eastern owners, however, has helped PSG level out most such inequities. PSG might miss the services of Brazilian defensive duo David Luiz and Thiago Silva as both are carrying injuries that may not allow them to recover in time. The game will also mark the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovich to his former club. The match also gains significance as it is widely expected that one of these two clubs would join Barcelona to qualify for the Round of 16. Laurent Blanc would be conscious of this fact as well as the fact that most of his wards, bar Ibra, have never played in the Netherlands. Ajax on the other hand hold a mighty fort at home, dropping just 9 points from home games last season, winning 13 of the 17 available.