Here is a synopsis of each club and their projected finishes from Leander Schaerlaeckens. Continue to check back all day for each group’s predictions.
Champions League titles: 4 (1 as the European Cup)
Arguably the best club team on the planet, Barcelona boasts the unquestioned number one player in Lionel Messi. The Catalans are tough for any team to handle, to say nothing of taking the ball away from. It’s not uncommon for Barcelona to hog 70% or more of possession and pass teams into the ground. Where they are showing some signs of strain is in the heart of the field: no one doubts Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s talent, but this is a tired bunch that has won it all for both club and country. The pressure finally grew too great for Pep Guardiola, and this year his assistant, Tito Vilanova, has the reins.
Champions League titles: 1 (2 as the European Cup)
One of the two biggest and most successful teams in Portugal, Benfica owns most of that nation’s major records. Most league titles? Check, with 32. Most cups? Yep, that too, with 24. What they have not been is a European power for decades: their glory years on the continent are fifty years passed. This year might be different: Benfica has the pieces to be a dark horse in this tournament, if not an outright spoiler. Oscar Cardozo is a solid forward but their depth is really in midfield where Axel Witsel, Ola John and Javi Garcia hold court. They also have strength in the net where old hand Artur has proven to be tough to beat. Keep an eye on this squad: a favorable draw should see them in the knockout stages.
3. SPARTAK MOSCOW
Champions League titles: 0
“The Meat” are one of the great Russian sides, a feisty team that since 1922 has consistently played smart, attacking soccer. Helmed now by Unai Emery, who led Valencia through two solid seasons, this Spartak side is looking to play a more flowing game. They nipped Fenerbache in the playoffs with talismanic forward Ari providing the chop; Emmanuel Enike is his partner up top. Kim Kallstrom is the experienced hand in the midfield with Aiden McGeady and Demy de Zeuw in support. Spartak are going to give some teams some real trouble.
Champions League titles: 1 (1 as the European Cup)
The Hoops are making their triumphant return to the Champions League after a long absence: Celtic last tasted the group stages in 2008-09 but showed flickers of their former glory last season when they narrowly missed out on escaping the Europa League group stages. No one is confusing this team with the greats that used to rule Scottish football, however, this is a hard-working side that faces no steady competition and is a cut below most. Gary Hooper and Giorgios Samaras roam up top, Kris Commons and Joe Ledley steer the ship and Fraser Forster backs them. They’re good enough to run all over the rest of the SPL, but Europe may be too big an ask for Neil Lennon’s men.