Bayern Munich (GER)
Manchester City (ENG)
CSKA Moscow (RUS)
Many of the groups this year look to be two horse races but there is nothing simple about Group E, easily the hardest in the competition. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are meeting for third time in four seasons at this stage, but both will have been particularly disgusted to have landed the pot 4 dangers Roma, who make qualification anything but assured for the three sides.
Bayern Munich are 8/13 to top the group and when looking at their previous group stage form – they have topped their section for the last 3 seasons –and their record against Manchester City in competitive games (several changes were made in City’s two wins, that came at the end of the each of their group stages) and one could see this as a foregone conclusion but Pep Guardiola’s men have been top on a head to head and goal difference for two of their last three success and do not make appeal at long odds on with Guardiola having to deal with many notable injury problems while also suffering a small World Cup hangover; There is also the issue of finding his best tactical formation, as Schalke and Wolfsburg have shown.
Manchester City are the obvious choice of many to pick up second but they took have started the season fairly slowly and their crucial opener tonight is hard to call. However, they have gained a large amount of experience over the past three seasons and with Manuel Pellegrini having plenty of positive European experience behind him with Malaga especially they should being to live upto their pedigree on the premier stage.
The real team of intrigue are Roma, who were second on their return to the big time in Serie A last year and have bought well to compensate for the loss of Mehdi Benatia with Kostas Manoalas and Ashley Cole both coming while Juan Iturbe should add pace to an already fine midfield which has Miralem Pjanic, Alessandro Florenzi and Daniele De Rossi. Franceso Totti is 38 but carefully managed and can still make a difference along with Matia Destro and they should prove tremendously tough opposition; They lost just 5 games last year and three of them came when the title race was well and truly run.
CSKA Moscow are hardly to be underestimated but they were brushed aside by Bayern Munich and Manchester City last year and do not look to have made significant improvements to their team while the giants have all strengthened over the summer. It could be a long season for Leonoid Slutsky. Roma are probably too big to qualify at 5/2 but this group could be a very trappy, as well as thrilling
Advice: No bet.
Barcelona should be able to win their two horse race with PSG and lead the French side to the last 16. With Ajax losing more of their stars with every passing season and APOEL unlikely to repeat the heroics of 2011-12, this game should come down to the two games between the two and Barcelona look well placed to take at least a point from Paris before Suarez comes into the fold and their matchday 6 meeting will see the Catalans as strong favourites. Barcelona lost in Ajax last year but qualification will still be on the line when the two meet in Holland this time around and they should get the better of the Parisians.
Advice: 2 pts Barcelona/PSG straight forecast (8/11 Paddy Power, Hills)
Chelsea should walk this. They face an Schalke side that they beat 5-0 on aggregate last season – and who have gained one point in their three Bundesliga games – a Sporting Lisbon side that for all their fine talents in midfielders William Slimani and William Carvalho, were well beaten by Benfica to the Premira Liga title last season, and a Maribor side who were given several problems by Celtic before sneaking through to the group stages. The Blues have a nasty set of fixtures in the league awaiting their home return – they have to play Manchester City at Eastland on Sunday, Arsenal (home) United (away) and Liverpool (away) after their first four fixtures. This looks a no bet group on the face of things, although it is tempting to back Sporting Lisbon to go through second behind the Blues at 5/2.
Advice: No bet.
Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR)
It has been a long time coming for Athletic Bilbao but they are back in Europe’s premier competition and they can bring knockout football to the newly developed San Mames. Ernesto Valverde’s side will rely on their home form but there’s a good reason – they beat Barcelona and drew with Real Madrid, while winning 13 home games and losing just twice, one of them to the eventual champions. They carried on in the same vein again when beating Napoli 3-1 here to make it through, having more than held their own for significant parts of their 1-1 draw at the Sao Paolo stadium. The way that they competed against Spain’s top three gives hope they should be able to handle the three tough trips this draw has presented them and they can continue the fairytale into the knockouts.
Porto dropped down to the Europa League last season but were being criminally mismanaged by Paulo Fonscesca at the helm before his replacement Luis Castro proved to be little better, but a summer of overhaul has seen Julen Lopetegui bring a whole wave of fresh new faces to spice up the attack.
Oliver Torres, Christian Tello, and Adrian Lopez and Casemiro add a wealth of options upfront to compliment Jackson Martinez while Yacine Brahimi and Bruno Martins-Indi look to be smart and sensible additions to cope with the rise in class from the Primera Division. The effect of their presence seems to have worked based on a 3-0 aggregate win over Lille which has warmed them up for this competition in fine style. They can go through with Bilbao, with the dual forecast making appeal.
Shakhtar have to be respected but a gradual talent drag looks to have taken the spark out of a team that was so difficult to deal with (and will be this time round) when they made the quarterfinals and they failed to get out of a similarly competitive section last year., No major players have left the club over the summer but the unrest in Ukraine has forced them to move their home games to Lviv and also their squad has now had to base itself in Kiev, which are both far from ideal considering the likely fine margins that will separate these teams at the end of the year and they lost two of their three trips last year including a 4-0 beating at Leverkusen.
BATE Borisov are big outsiders but they loo to have been written off far too easily. They are gaining experience in the competition rapidly with 2 recent appearances in the group stage and they took 6 points when last seen in this competition in 2012. They have tussled with the likes of Bayern Munich (famously beating them 3-1 in Belarus) and Milan (having drawn in Belarus) before and should present an obdurate away test for all three of their rivals although their record on the road does not inspire confidence.
Advice: 4 pts Porto-Athletic Bilbao dual forecast (6/5 general)