Five must-see UCL group stage games: Barca-Man City, PSG-Arsenal, more
The Champions League is about to get underway again. James Horncastle takes a look at the five matches to look out for in the group stages ...
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Arsenal, Sept. 13
The last time these sides met was so long ago that Arsène Wenger wasn't even manager of Arsenal. In fact, to find their last encounter you have to cast your mind all the way back to 1994 and a Cup Winners Cup semifinal decided by a Kevin Campbell goal at Highbury. Reunited at the Parc this Tuesday, Wenger, who amusingly confused Croatia's doctor for Unai Emery while doing a spot of punditry at the Euros, will finally shake hands with the real thing.
While the stakes will no doubt be higher at the Emirates in November, this game also comes at a delicate time, particularly for PSG. Emery isn't done experimenting with the team and the players are still adjusting to his methods. A defeat to Monaco before the international break was followed by a draw to Saint-Étienne on Friday and for all of Emery's success in the Europa League with Sevilla, he's never made an impact in the Champions League. The question is: can Arsenal capitalise at a time when PSG are uncertain in what they do and are still in search of new reference points?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is gone although as fans of Inter and Barça will tell you, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Both just so happened to win the Champions League in the year he left them. If anything, it bodes well...
Juventus vs. Sevilla, Sept. 14
After spending €162 million this summer (and still managing to turn a profit!), the Champions League is where Juventus will be judged this season, starting with Sevilla. The Old Lady has gone all-in to end her two-decade wait for this trophy and Juventus have matured in Europe under Max Allegri, reaching the final two years ago. Since then, and at his specific instruction, they have looked to add skill to the team in the firm belief that technique is what ultimately makes the difference in this competition.
Unlucky to go out at the Round of 16 last year after giving Pep Guardiola's Bayern a real scare, in truth Juventus only had themselves to blame after defeat in Seville meant they finished runners-up in their group. Their old friend Fernando Llorente came back to haunt them on that occasion. Luckily Llorente is now gone, as is Emery, the mastermind of Sevilla's hat-trick of Europa League wins.
Excitingly, though, Jorge Sampaoli has taken his place. This is his first experience in Europe and it will be fascinating to see him pit his wits against Allegri. Both managers have some wonderful talent at their disposal. Monchi, like Beppe Marotta and Fabio Paratici at Juventus, worked wonders again this summer, bringing Paulo Henrique Ganso, Wissam Ben Yedder, Samir Nasri and Paulo Dybala's old buddy from Palermo, Franco Vazquez, to Andalusia.
This game promises to be a classic, particularly with Juventus uncharacteristically leaking goals at the moment and Sevilla playing roller-coaster football.
Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern Munich, Sept. 28
We get a repeat of last season's enthralling semifinal when Atleti progressed on away goals and denied Guardiola the fairytale ending to his time in Munich and if there's even a smidgen of the drama, tension and skill we saw in late April and early May, this clash will be must-watch TV.
Carlo Ancelotti returns to the Spanish capital where he famously got the better of Atleti in the Champions League. Real claimed the Decima at their expense in Lisbon and then eliminated them in the quarterfinals the following year. In some respects, however, this is Ancelotti in a nutshell because the story was completely different in La Liga, where Atleti did the double over Real for the first time since 1951 and even trounced them 4-0 at the Calderón.
No one in football looks forward to facing Diego Simeone's side and Ancelotti is no different. However, Bayern will see this as an early opportunity to put last season's knock-out behind them. Omitted from the starting line-up the first leg, Thomas Müller missed a penalty in the second. He'll be out for redemption.
Barcelona vs. Manchester City, Oct. 19
Of course this isn't the first time Pep Guardiola returns to the Camp Nou to sit in the away dug-out. You'll remember how a little over a year ago, he daringly tried to get Bayern to out-Barça Barça and memorably had Mehdi Benatia, Jerome Boateng and Rafinha man-mark the "MSN."
As brave as it was foolish, Bayern valiantly held out until the 77th minute, Messi then floored Boateng and the floodgates opened. Barça won 3-0 and the lesson for Pep to learn was a simple one: Don't try and beat Barça at their own game. The trouble is while the Blaugrana have become more direct since Pep left, their game is his game too and he will not compromise on it.
For instance, Pep will not ask his Manchester City players to park the bus at the Camp Nou. You will never hear him say: "We didn't want the ball," like Jose Mourinho did when Inter prevailed there in 2010. Or set up like Atleti did last season, alternating between a high pressing game and getting everybody behind the ball in a deep block. How Pep approaches this game will be fascinating.
Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund, Dec. 7
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we were to get to the final Matchday in Group F and this game at the Bernabeu still decided the group winner? Historically there is often high drama when these teams clash in this competition, from the Torfall in 1998 to the Polka poker scored by Robert Lewandowski three years ago. Dortmund reached the final that year and I suppose one of things they they have in common with Real's neighbours Atleti is that no one ever relishes playing them although for the reasons for that are slightly different.
Real coach Zinedine Zidane has bad memories of facing BVB. He was on the losing side in the 1997 final when his Juventus team were beaten by Dortmund. However, all of that is in the past now and he can call upon a very settled side. Alvaro Morata was Real's only summer signing and he scored in both legs when Juventus eliminated Dortmund from this competition two years ago.
Dortmund, by contrast, have changed a lot, losing Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the summer but adding a number of uber-talented youngsters, the most exciting of which is Ousmane Dembele. Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel has the look and the genius of a charismatic Bond villain. Make no mistake: he will be a formidable opponent for Zidane to out-think.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.