Rejoice, soccer fans! The group stages of the 2012-2013 Champions League finally begin today in Europe. If you've ignored the Champions League in the past, you should correct that behavior immediately -- it's undoubtedly one of the best annual competitions in the world and offers a gamut of mouth-watering matchups for months on end.
For the uninitiated, the Champions League is the ultimate club soccer competition, featuring the best teams from every league in Europe. The usual suspects — the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea and Bayern Munich — qualify just about every year and give the tournament some sort of order, but one of the beautiful aspects of the Champions League is the variety. It's not every day a super club like Juventus travels to play the champions of Denmark in front of a capacity crowd of 10,000, but the Champions League makes that happen.
In the group stages, 32 teams are split into eight groups of four, and each team in a group plays a home and away against each opponent. The top two teams in each group move on to a knockout tournament, culminating with the Champions League final in May.
Let's take a look at each group, one by one, with predictions of which teams stand the best chance to advance to the knockout stages.
Group A: P$G and everybody else.
Teams in the group: Paris Saint-Germain, Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Kiev, FC Porto
How can Paris Saint-Germain be so fortunate? The club was recently bought by the Qatari Investment Authority in 2011 and has since become one of the biggest spenders in Europe, welcomed a slew of high-priced players with Champions League experience and a manager with four winner's medals to France within the last year. And then, PSG was given a dream draw for the group stages. New boys Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi should run rampant over the rest of Group A, but Manchester City's struggles in Europe have shown it takes time for a dream team to coalesce. Porto is clear second-best, but road trips to Croatia and Russia could be tricky to manage.
Teams advancing from Group A: 1. Paris Saint-Germain, 2. FC Porto
Group B: Arsenal's road to relevance.
Teams in the group: Arsenal, Montpellier, Olympiakos, Schalke 04
As with the rest of Group A for PSG, the teams in Group B set up well for Arsenal to steamroll right through to the knockout rounds. The Gunners, who still have not won a trophy since the 2005 F.A. Cup, have typically punched above their weight in Europe over the last five years. Though Arsenal is now without last season's leading goal scorer in Robin Van Persie, who left for Manchester United, the trio of Lukas Podolski, Gervinho and Olivier Giroud should score more than enough goals for attack-minded Arsenal. Giroud, in fact, was recently pried away from current French champions and group foe Montpellier , making the group stage just a bit easier for the Gunners.
The second spot is relatively wide open for the taking, but Schalke is a club with recent Champions League experience, and Montpellier is enduring a horrible start to the French Ligue 1 season. Olympiakos is a wild card. Advantage to the Germans.
Teams advancing from Group B: 1. Arsenal, 2. Schalke 04
Group C: Milan's misery.
Teams in the group: A.C. Milan, Anderlecht, Malaga, Zenit St. Petersburg
Group C might just be the pick of the litter in terms of must-watch soccer, because it's a completely unpredictable group. A.C. Milan, seven-time winner of the Champions League, gutted its former squad this summer to cut down on gross overspending. As a result, Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Antonio Cassano, Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso are all gone, and Milan just lost its second straight home game to open the Serie A season in Italy. The Rossoneri are in full-on crisis mode, and the team can't even fill up its home stadium with fans.
Meanwhile, Spanish side Malaga are second in La Liga behind only Barcelona, and Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg, with the help of endless investment capital from Russian gas giant Gazprom, just signed Brazilian winger Hulk and Belgian playmaker Axel Witsel with a massive 80-million-euro spending spree. Americans looking for a Group C rooting interest can always get behind Anderlecht, home of American national team player Sacha Kljestan, but the Belgian champions are likely to be swept away in group play.
Teams advancing from Group C: 1. Malaga, 2. A.C. Milan (but barely)
Group D: D is for Death.
Teams in the group: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax
Things that could very possibly happen in Group D play:
1. Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho come to blows. 2. Cristiano Ronaldo scores 10 goals. 3. Borussia Dortmund shockingly wins every game. 4. Manchester City's Mario Balotelli rips his shirt off after scoring, Hulk Hogan-style. 5. Mario Balotelli is subsequently given a yellow card. 6. Mario Balotelli punches out the referee. 7. Ajax loses every game.
Group D is undoubtedly the group of death, and the early season struggles of Real Madrid in Spain (losses to Getafe and Sevilla) and Manchester City in England (a win after a miraculous comeback against Southampton, a draw that should have been a loss against Liverpool, and a draw with Stoke), make Group D all the more compelling. Both Madrid and City have incredibly deep squads capable of Champions League glory, but both teams have stumbled in Europe in recent years.
Borussia Dortmund will fly under the radar, but the current German champions dominated their domestic league last season, and, despite losing Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United, return the bulk of a young and exciting squad, highlighted by a budding superstar in Mario Götze (seriously, check these highlights).
The logical picks to advance are Madrid and City, but the format of the group stages make for some interesting possibilities, and we expect the results of Group D to remain up in the air until the final match day (December 4th).
Teams advancing from Group D: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Borussia Dortmund
BREAK TIME! Here's the official Champions League Anthem, as sung by heavenly angels (we think). If you watch the games on TV, you'll be hearing this a lot.
Group E: The unknowns.
Teams in the group: Chelsea, Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Nordsjælland
Group E begs a bunch of questions.
Can Chelsea defend it's title? Can Frank Lampard and John Terry fend off old age? Can John Terry avoid sleeping with anyone else's wife or shouting off-color remarks for an entire season? Can Fernando Torres SCORE SOME GOALS ALREADY? Or can new acquisition Eden Hazard pick up his slack? Can 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo be the best player in the group and guide resurgent Juventus to the final? Can Shakhtar Donetsk turn its Ukrainian home into a fortress and sneak into the knockout rounds? Can anyone pronounce "Nordsjælland"?
Regardless, Chelsea and Juventus are the clear favorites in Group E, and both teams should cruise to the knockout round.
Teams advancing from Group E: 1. Chelsea, 2. Juventus
Group F: Bayern's revenge tour.
Teams in the group: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov
Bayern Munich lost the 2012 Champions League final in heartbreaking fashion in front of its home fans, and there's no doubt Bastian Schweinsteiger (pictured above) spent all summer stewing and muttering unholy things in German and throwing darts at a picture of Petr Cech. It was the second time in the last three years Bayern lost in the final, but at least the runners-up were gifted an easy group draw. The real battle in Group F will be for second place between Valencia and Lille, and the teams will play each other in the last game of the group December 5th.
Teams advancing from Group F: 1. Bayern Munich, 2. Valencia
Group G: A Messi massacre in the making.
Teams in the group: Barcelona, Celtic, Benfica, Spartak Moscow
Barcelona has only played four league games in 2012, and Lionel Messi already has six goals. The question is not whether or not Barcelona will win every game in Group G, but whether or not Messi can score over 12 goals in doing so. We put the odds at 3/2.
The race for second will likely come down to whether or not Benfica or Celtic can poach maximum points from Spartak Moscow, which is the weakest team in the group. Celtic is habitually underwhelming outside of Scotland, and Glasgow Rangers aren't in the league anymore to push the current Scottish champions. Benfica is currently atop the Portuguese Liga standings ahead of Porto and has years of European experience to fall back on.
Teams advancing from Group G: 1. Barcelona, 2. Benfica
Group H: Frequent fliers.
Teams in the group: Manchester United, CFR-Cluj, Galatasaray, Braga
Sir Alex Ferguson has been managing Manchester United since 1986, so he's seen his share of road trips, but the 70-year-old is going to need a new neck pillow for all the long group-stage trips United will have to make. Cluj is tucked away in the quaint city of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, 1,556 miles from Old Trafford. Braga is in northern Portugal, 1,438 miles from Manchester, and Galatasaray's home field is all the way in Istanbul, Turkey, 2,080 miles away. Mind you, United should win all of these games handily and newly arrived striker Robin Van Persie will likely grab goals by the bagful, but there's always the chance of a vampire attack against the Romanians from Cluj.
As for second place, flying to Turkey is a pain in the ass for teams used to short trips, and the Turkish fans are infamously hostile, so we give the edge to Galatasaray.
Teams advancing from Group H: 1. Manchester United, 2. Galatasaray
After the group stages, each group winner will be matched up against a runner-up from a different group during a live draw on December 14th.
Today's games (all start at 2:45 p.m. ET):
FC Porto at Dinamo Zagreb; Dynamo Kiev at Paris Saint-Germain; Arsenal at Montpellier; Schalke 04 at Olympiakos; Anderlecht at A.C. Milan; Zenit St. Petersburg at Malaga; Ajax at Borussia Dortmund; Manchester City at Real Madrid