The 2015/16 UEFA Champions League gets underway with mouth-watering fixtures lined up for the opening gameweek.
Real Madrid’s quest to win back their trophy will start at the Santiago Bernabeu against Shakhtar Donetsk. Last year’s runners-up Juventus face a tough fixture against in-form Manchester City, who will be desperate to qualify from the Group of Death. Defending champions Barcelona will be looking to defy history and become the first team to successfully defend their crown, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Memphis Depay will face their former clubs.
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Tuesday 15 September
Paris Saint-Germain 1/8
Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets the chance to face his hometown club and the team with whom he started his career, as Paris Saint-Germain begin their Champions League campaign against Malmo on Tuesday. The French champions and the Swedish title-holders meet at the Parc des Princes in the opening round of games in Group A and with Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk also in the section, PSG can not afford to slip up. The Parisians will be full of confidence following their impressive start in Ligue 1 which has seen them win four of their five matches with a 2-2 draw on the weekend against Bordeaux. Laurent Blanc has an embarrassment of riches in attacking positions with the likes of Lucas, Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Ibrahimovic. Malmo have won just once in their last five away games, losing three times. PSG rarely lose at home and I’m tipping them to win with a clean sheet at 5/10.
Real Madrid 3/20
Shakhtar Donetsk 13/1
Real Madrid appointed a new manager over the summer and it appears that Rafa Benitez was not everybody’s choice to replace the popular Carlo Ancelotti. The combination of nagging pressure from Real supporters and Barcelona’s recent dominance is not going to make things easy for the former Valencia and Liverpool manager. Things weren’t made any easier when Real drew 0-0 at Sporting Gijon on the opening day of the La Liga season. Real find themselves in a tricky group, alongside PSG and the always dangerous Shakhtar Donetsk. That being said, Real Madrid are a side who never fail to impress in Europe and have a wealth of talent including Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez, among many others. Ronaldo will be fired up for this match after scoring an astonishing five goals in Real's 6-0 hammering of Espanyol on the weekend. He did so with a hat-trick inside the first twenty minutes and in record-setting fashion. The handful of goals pushed the Portuguese past Raul on Real Madrid's all-time La Liga scoring chart, with Ronaldo now at 230 goals to Raul's 228. Shakhtar failed to take home the Ukrainian title for the first time since 2008/09 and consequently had to go through qualifying. Entering in the third qualifying round, they took on and beat Fenerbahce, before a 1-0 victory in Vienna against Rapid was enough to send them into the group stage. The loss of Douglas Costa to Bayern, Luiz Adriano to Milan and Fernando to Sampdoria lessens their capabilities, though Mircea Lucescu remains one of the canniest coaches in the game. Real Madrid should have enough quality to see off Shakhtar here, and I'm tipping them to win on the halftime-fulltime double at 9/20.
CSKA Moscow 3/1
Wolfsburg finished runners-up to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga last season and despite losing star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne to Manchester City, the club still has plenty of talent and have made some very good signings, picking up Max Kruse, Dante and Julian Draxler. The Wolves are unbeaten in their four league matches with two wins and will face a stern test against an in-form CSKA Moscow side. The Russians have been superb in the Premier Liga, winning seven of their eight matches with a 2-2 draw at home to Zenit on Saturday. This should be a tight affair but I’m tipping Wolfsburg to make home advantage count at 17/20.
PSV Eindhoven 9/4
Manchester United 12/10
Memphis Depay makes a swift return to his old stomping ground when his Manchester United side visit PSV Eindhoven – the club he left in the summer. Depay's return is not the only source of intrigue in a contest which pits home coach Phillip Cocu against Louis van Gaal, a man he played under for both FC Barcelona and the Netherlands. Cocu's side are twelve games unbeaten in all competitions, winning 6-0 against SC Cambuur on Saturday. United are back in the UEFA Champions League after a season's exile. Fourth in the 2014/15 Premier League, they beat Club Brugge 7-1 on aggregate in last month's play-off round to secure their participation. Anthony Martial came off the bench to score on his debut in Saturday's 3-1 defeat of Liverpool and should start here instead of injured Wayne Rooney. Van Gaal has an extremely talented squad at his disposal with the likes of Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Depay. United have lost just once in their four meetings with PSV, picking up two wins. Back United at 12/10.
Atletico Madrid 15/20
Turkish champions Galatasaray will be in for a tough night when they host Atletico Madrid at the Turk Telekom Arena. The Lions have made an inconsistent start to the Super Lig and could find it difficult to contain Diego Simeone's men given the quality at his disposal. Atletico Madrid are one of the hardest sides to beat in the whole of Europe. Simeone has totally transformed the club since taking over as manager, guiding Atletico to La Liga and Copa Del Rey success. He also managed to lead the club to the Champions League final two years ago, where they were cruelly denied the title after a late Sergio Ramos equaliser for their rivals Real Madrid. Atletico then went on to lose convincingly in extra time, something that many fans are still rather bitter about. The additions of Luciano Vietto and Jackson Martinez has given them an improved strike force from last season, while the mercurial talent of Antoine Griezmann bodes well for their chances. Atletico are unbeaten in four fixtures against Galatasaray, winning two games – both away from home – and drawing the other two. Back Atletico and move on.
Portuguese champions Benfica will welcome Kazakhstani minnows Astana to Lisbon on Tuesday. Benfica have won all three of their home games in the league beating Estoril 4-0, Moreirense 3-2 and Belenenses 6-0 on Friday. The Eagles have a host of attacking talent including Nicolas Gaitan, Anderson Talisca and Jonas who is the top scorer in the Portuguese league with five goals. Astana qualified for the group stages of the Champions League by beating Maribor of Slovenia, HJK Helsinki of Finland and Cypriots APOEL but will have little hope of escaping a group that features Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray and Benfica. Benfica are a banker bet here but are too short at 2/9, I’d recommend taking them to win both halves at 27/20.
Manchester City 15/20
See featured match.
Borussia Monchengladbach 9/2
The two-time defending Europa League winners are looking to crack their way into the Champions League. Sevilla was the last team out of La Liga to qualify for the Champions League but they are not a team to be taken lightly. Sevilla lost just one home game all of last season (against Real Madrid) in all competitions and will be confident of victory here having beaten Monchengladbach twice in the Europa League last season, 3-2 and 1-0 in Seville. Los Rojiblancos have lost their top scorer Carlos Bacca to AC Milan, but have signed two quality strikers in Fernando Llorente and Ciro Immobile. Monchengladbach finished third in the Bundesliga last year and had an impressive result beating Bayern Munich 2-0 at the Allianz Arena last season. They have a talented team which includes Christoph Kramer, Raffael Araujo, Granit Xhaka and Thorgan Hazard. The Foals have struggled in the Bundesliga this season and are coming off a 3-0 home defeat against Hamburg. They've also lost both away meetings. The home win is a banker bet at 11/20.
Wednesday 16 September
Bayer Leverkusen 2/9
BATE Borisov 11/1
Bayer Leverkusen qualified via the playoffs, with a comfortable 3-1 aggregate victory over Lazio, having finished fourth in the German league last season. Roger Schmidt’s side are hard to beat at home having lost just once from seventeen games last season with ten wins and six draws. Leverkusen have bolstered their squad by bringing in Javier Hernandez, Kevin Kampl, Charles Aranguiz and Kyriakos Papadopoulos. BATE have been dominant in their domestic league having won fourteen of their nineteen games played with four draws and just one defeat. The Belarusian champions are known for causing upsets having beaten Bayern Munich 3-1 in the 2012/13 season and I’m tipping them to earn a commendable draw at 5/1.
AS Roma 42/10
See featured match.
Dinamo Zagreb 11/2
Arsenal open their Champions League campaign away against Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb. Zagreb are no strangers to the Champions League group stage, but they have no idea how to advance from it. Never since the change of format in 1992 have they progressed from the group stage. Dinamo are not going to be in anyone’s picks for the last sixteen and they could potentially be the group’s playtoy. Arsenal are blessed with an abundance of attacking talent with Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez leading a lethal team that is superior to Dinamo Zagreb in all departments. The Gunners played Zagreb in the play-off round in 2006, winning 3-0 away and 2-1 at home. The away win looks a certainty at 9/20.
Bayern Munich 9/20
Olympiacos will need more than just home advantage to upset the German champions. In fact, they’ll need to be special just to keep up with Pep Guardiola’s side. Bayern have won all four of their Bundesliga matches scoring thirteen times while conceding just twice. The Bavarians once again look poised to make a deep run in this prestigious competition. They lifted the cup back in 2012/13, beating league rivals Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in the final and are certainly among the favourites to go all the way this time as well. Bayern have retained their top talent, gotten Javi Martinez back from injury and added a pair of instant stars in Douglas Costa and Arturo Vidal. The arrival of Vidal in particular adds a formidable piece in the midfield. The rest of the team is a bevy of terrific attackers and defenders. If this team can stay healthy and play its combination of possession and fast attack, then Bayern could be the team to beat. Bayern are tipped to win on the halftime-fulltime double at 21/20.
Dynamo Kyiv 19/10
FC Porto 31/20
Dynamo Kyiv won their league at a canter last season, which was enough to secure them a place in the group stage draw. Dynamo went the whole of last season unbeaten on their turf and have followed that trend by winning all three of their home matches this season, scoring eight times without reply. Porto have made some quality signings in Maxi Pereira, Iker Casillas, Danilo Pereira, Giannelli Imbula and Dani Osvaldo. They’ve won three of their first four games in the Portuguese league with a 1-1 draw at Maritimo. These sides played out to a goalless draw in the 2012/13 season and it’s very likely to happen again.
Maccabi Tel Aviv 16/1
Chelsea will be keen to kick off their group-stage bid with a convincing win at Stamford Bridge. In spite of a disastrous start to the domestic campaign, Jose Mourinho's charges have so much experience and ability that anything short of a semifinal berth in Europe will be a disappointment to them. The Premier League champions have a squad brimming with world-class players like Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Pedro. Mourinho knows that the Champions League is something that is missing from his CV at Chelsea and this group could be the silver lining in the season as he chases that elusive crown. Pedro is going to be absolutely critical to Chelsea’s chances in Europe. Too often last term there wasn’t enough thrust to their attack but the former Barcelona star will add pace and directness to the Blues’ play. Maccabi Tel Aviv shocked many by beating recent European stalwarts Basel to get this far, but the Israeli champions will find it difficult to trouble the 2012 Champions League winners. Chelsea should prove too strong for their opponents and I’m backing them to win on the halftime-fulltime double at 5/10. They also look a solid bet to win their group at 12/10.
Zenit Saint Petersburg 36/10
Valencia returned to the Champions League group stage this season after missing out in each of the last two years. To reach this point, the Spanish side had to defeat Monaco, quarter-finalists last term, in a two-legged playoff. Valencia haven’t got off to a flying start in La Liga having drawn both of their games against Rayo Vallecano and Deportivo, but playing in the Champions league again is a big motivation. Zenit are third in the Russian league with five wins from eight matches with two defeats against Krasnodar and Krylia Sovetov. It should be close affair but Valencia are tipped to capitalize on home advantage.
Olympique Lyon 12/10
Gent are making their Champions League group stage debut this season having never previously qualified before. Gent rallied to their first ever Belgian league crown under the guidance of boss Hein Vanhaezebrouck, overcoming the likes of Club Brugge, Anderlecht and Standard Liege for their maiden domestic title. They managed to retain the services of all of their top stars this summer, possibly through the prospect of game time in Europe’s elite club competition, and added attacking midfielder Thomas Matton from domestic rivals KV Kortrijk. 26-year-old Swedish centre back Erik Johansson will sure-up the defence for their Champions League debut. Lyon are coming off a goalless draw with Lille and the long-term loss of exciting Lyon attacker Nabil Fekir to a serious knee injury will be a major concern for Hubert Fournier’s side. Lyon will now look to the talents of new signing Mathieu Valbuena while Clement Grenier and Alexandre Lacazette will need to produce their magic from last season. The draw looks the likely outcome at 21/10.
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