Classic encounters await in the Champions League

A little over three months after Real Madrid became kings of Europe for an 11th time in Milan, the group phase of the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League is all set to begin. The 25th edition of the competition, the final of which will be held at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, sees the arrival of two newcomers in Leicester City and Rostov, the respective champions of England and Russia, while the holders are aiming to become the first ever side to successfully defend the title.

Some 31 teams will be attempting to prevent Los Blancos from doing just that and to earn the right to go for global glory at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2017.

There is a long way to go before the trophy is presented, however. To set the scene for the start of the group phase, picks out a stand-out encounter from each of the eight sections, casting its eye over a couple of rematches from last season’s competition and some fixtures that have now become continental classics.

Group A: Paris Saint Germain-Arsenal, 13 September, Parc des Princes
The Gunners have an excellent record in France, having won on their last seven visits there, and arrive in Paris with designs on testing a new-look PSG side now under the stewardship of Spanish coach Unai Emery.

Shorn of the services of iconic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is now with Manchester United, the Parisian giants have made a shaky start to the season, but are determined to break new ground in Europe. Will this be the season when they finally advance beyond the quarter-finals and perhaps even kick on to win the famous trophy for the first time?

Group B: Napoli-Benfica, 28 September, Stadio San Paolo
Appearing in Europe’s blue riband club competition for the fifth time, Napoli will be looking to contest top spot with fellow group favourites Benfica.

The Italians will host the first meeting between the sides, which pitches together two coaches anxious to build on successful debut seasons in their respective posts. While Maurizio Sarri led I Partenopei to second place in Serie A last term, Rui Vitoria steered the Lisbon club to a Portuguese league and cup. It remains to be seen if the two sides will miss their recently departed stars, with Napoli having bid farewell to a Juventus-bound Gonzalo Higuain and Benfica losing the services of Nico Gaitan to Atletico Madrid.

Group C: Barcelona-Manchester City, 19 October, Camp Nou
Barça versus City is a fixture that is becoming something of a European classic. This is the third season running that the two will cross swords in the competition, though their 2014 and 2015 encounters came in the last eight, with the Mancunians failing to win any of those four games.

The return of City’s new coach Pep Guardiola to the Camp Nou will add even extra spice to the occasion, as if it were needed. On his first visit back to his old stamping ground, which came with Bayern Munich last season, Guardiola looked on as a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona romped to a 3-0 win. Having on that occasion described the Argentinian as a player who is impossible to defend against, the City coach now has a fresh opportunity to find a way of neutralising his former charge.

Group D: Bayern Munich-Atletico Madrid, 6 December, Allianz Arena
Despite Bayern laying siege to their goal in the second leg of last season’s semi-final in Munich, Atletico weathered the storm to win through to their second Champions League final in three years.

The two will come face to face again just a few months on, with memories of that titanic encounter having remained fresh. Still led by Diego Simeone, Los Colchoneros have kept the nucleus of that side together, and will come up against an old foe in Carlo Ancelotti. The new Bayern coach was the man who masterminded Real Madrid’s 2014 final win over El Cholo’s Atletico.

Group E: Tottenham Hotspur-Monaco, 14 September, White Hart Lane
Spurs and Monaco both return to the competition following three-year absences. Third in the Premier League last season, the Londoners will be hoping to rekindle memories of their magical run six years ago, when Gareth Bale helped propel them to the last eight. With Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino at the helm and Harry Kane leading the line, Spurs play a high-octane brand of attacking football.

Monaco, who qualified for the group phase via the League Route, are a side that can hit hard on the counter and are led up front by Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who will no doubt be anxious to reassert himself following a luckless, injury-ravaged stay in England.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund-Real Madrid, 27 September, Signal Iduna Park
Another modern classic of European football, the two having met four times in the 2012/13 season, when Dortmund recorded a famous 4-1 win in the first leg of their semi-final clash. The Spaniards have happier memories of their last meeting, however, scoring a quarter-final win over the German side en route to la décima. On that occasion current Real boss Zinedine Zidane was an assistant to Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp was the man in charge of a Dortmund side now coached by Thomas Tuchel.

Played out before the stadium’s famous Yellow Wall, this is a match that promises plenty, with two sides well versed in the art of exploiting space and committed to playing pacy, attacking football.

Group G: Leicester City-Porto, 27 September, King Power Stadium
The Leicester fairy tale will continue with their second group match, which will see the Champions League anthem play for the very first time at their home ground. Former European champions Porto will provide suitably distinguished opposition for Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes, with tournament new boys Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez having the task of finding a way past Iker Casillas, who has made more appearances in the competition than any other player.

Group H: Sevilla-Juventus, 22 November, Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan
These two sides faced off on the final matchday in the group phase last season, a game the already-eliminated Spaniards won to book a place in the Europa League, which they then went on to lift for the third time running. That defeat left Juve in second place in the group, consigning them to a last-16 tie against Bayern Munich, one they would lose.

Though the Italian champions are the favourites to win the group, they can expect a stiff test against a Sevilla side now under the guidance of Jorge Sampaoli, who was on the three-man shortlist for the 2015 FIFA Men’s Football Coach of the Year award.



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