Cristiano Ronaldo has rediscovered his scoring form, Bayern Munich has gone back to wing wizardry and English champion Chelsea is already in crisis. The table is sufficiently set for the the 2015-16 Champions League. Sixteen games will get us underway on Matchday One this week across Tuesday and Wednesday, and with them come a number of intriguing storylines.
Here are five of them:
Where does new-look Manchester City stand in Europe now?
No club spent more money in the summer transfer window than Manchester City and its three big-money signings–Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi–could all make their European debuts for the club against Juventus at the Etihad Tuesday. City has started the season like a team on a mission, as it should given the previous year of complacency and underachievement.
While wresting back the Premier League title is one of the targets, the Champions League has to be a priority this year; after two years of failing to get out of the group stage under Roberto Mancini, City has fallen in the round of 16 two years running, although it could say drawing eventual winner Barcelona last season was a tough break (winning its group would've prevented the possibility, though).
City had another stroke of misfortune with this draw: UEFA changed the seedings so only champions were in Pot 1, meaning PSV Eindhoven and Zenit St Petersburg were ranked higher. As a result, City was the strongest team from Pot 2, and it was grouped with Italian champion and last season’s Champions League runner-up Juventus, Europa League winner Sevilla, and German outsider Borussia Monchengladbach.
One piece of good luck: of the bunch, only City has won a league game so far this season. And now might be a good time to play last season’s runner-up Juventus, which has drawn one and lost two games as it gels a new-look side following the departures of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez. Claudio Marchisio, Alvaro Morata and Sami Khedira are all injured too.
For City, it will be notable if coach Manuel Pellegrini sticks with just one up front–likely to be Wilfried Bony as Sergio Aguero, worryingly, is injured–and loads the midfield. That should provide extra cover if Yaya Toure wants to push forward. In the past, Pellegrini has fielded two strikers, leaving City short in midfield. It’s too early to peg City as a possible winner of this tournament, but if Aguero can get back to fitness and the new wingers click quickly, City could top the group and then at least face an easier route to the quarterfinal. That should be the bare minimum requirement from this campaign.
|PSG vs. Malmo||Bayer Leverkusen vs. BATE Borisov|
|Real Madrid vs. Shakhtar Donetsk||Roma vs. Barcelona|
|Wolfsburg vs. CSKA Moscow||Dinamo Zagreb vs. Arsenal|
|PSV Eindhoven vs. Manchester United||Olympiakos vs. Bayern Munich|
|Galatasaray vs. Atletico Madrid||Dynamo Kyiv vs. Porto|
|Benfica vs. Astana||Chelsea vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv|
|Manchester City vs. Juventus||Valencia vs. Zenit|
|Sevilla vs. Borussia Monchengladbach||Gent vs. Lyon|
Return to sender for Memphis
Dutch champion PSV Eindhoven sold its two key players to the Premier League this summer: captain Georginio Wijnaldum to Newcastle and top scorer Memphis Depay to Manchester United. The quirk of the draw has brought a speedy return to Eindhoven for the Dutch winger, who sparkled in United’s qualifying win over Club Brugge, but has had limited impact, so far, in the Premier League.
PSV manager Phillip Cocu was deputy coach when Fred Rutten gave the 18-year-old his PSV debut and remembered a smart player destined for the big time. “He had speed, skills and explosive power for 90 minutes, plus the winning mentality and the drive to score. Sometimes it worked against him, he was too eager,’ he told The Sunday Times. “We worked a lot on him to bring calmness. He went home, thought about it and came back better. He developed rapidly.”
There is a feeling in Holland that Depay may actually be better suited to Louis van Gaal’s possession-based style of play, which allows the odd burst of pace and dribbling skill, rather than the more energy-sapping counterattack that PSV played last year, when Depay won the Eredivisie Golden Boot with 22 goals.
“We could see straightaway that Memphis could dribble past a man,” said former reserve coach Erik ten Hag, now at Bayern Munich. “He still does that and that’s a huge weapon. At the elite level, how many players can really dribble past someone? That’s a rare quality.”
PSV has started the season pretty well; unbeaten and with Luuk de Jong scoring seven goals in his opening six games. With Luciano Narsingh providing pace down the flank and Adam Maher and Mexican international Andres Guardado holding fort in the middle, United will find this a tougher test than against Brugge (especially with Wayne Rooney ruled out through injury). As for Depay, if Depay does find the net upon his return, will he celebrate?
He answered that question Monday:
Other Matchday One reunions: Luis Enrique returns to Roma, where he began his senior coaching career, as coach of the reigning champion Barcelona; Slavisa Jokanovic, once a midfielder at Chelsea, is back in west London as coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv after guiding the Israeli champion to an impressive qualifying win over perennial over-achiever FC Basel; Zlatan Ibrahimovic takes on his hometown club, Malmo, with PSG hosting their bout. His hero's return to Sweden will have to wait a couple of months until Matchday Four.
Guardiola's season of reckoning at Bayern
Maybe it's a good thing that Borussia Dortmund has started the Bundesliga season like a train under new coach Thomas Tuchel. The knock on Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich was that in the last two seasons, it has won the league so easily that the intensity has dropped by the time the big European games have come around; although on both occasions it was hammered by Spanish opposition in the semifinal: in 2014, 4-0 at home to Real Madrid and last season, 3-0 at Barcelona.
The Spaniard has still overseen some incredible performances at Bayern–notably the 7-1 win at Roma, though last month’s center-back-less 3-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen was also outstanding–but needs to win the Champions League if his move to Bayern is to be seen as an unqualified success. Even if he wins a third straight league title, another bad European failure would taint his three-year spell in Bavaria. Mind you, it wouldn't stop any other club in the world wanting him when his contract expires at season's end.
Pressure mounting on Villas-Boas
Will Andre Villas-Boas see out the season at Zenit? That’s the realistic question going around St. Petersburg after last week’s announcement that the Portuguese coach had not accepted Zenit’s offer of a contract extension. Villas-Boas’s spell in Russia has had elements of his time at Chelsea; his complaints about the reduction in the foreign-player quota hint at paranoia, while freezing out club heroes like Andrei Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov is a power play gone wrong that helps nobody (we've seen this before with Villas-Boas, with how he handles Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard at Chelsea).
He is currently serving a six-game touchline ban for shouting out an assistant referee. Zenit is already six points behind CSKA in the league, and a failure to get out of Group H (which features Gent, Nabil Fakir-less Lyon and Valencia) could see Villas-Boas out of work before the new year.
Astana makes Champions League debut
This is the first time a side from Kazakhstan has made it into the group stage. Astana, a side only founded in 2009, has made it after qualifying wins over NL Maribor (Slovenia), HJK Helsinki (Finland) and APOEL (Cyprus). Its coach is Stanimir Stoilov, who in 2006 guided Bulgarian champion Levski Sofia to this stage of the competition for the first time, and its star player is Nemanja Maksimovic, who scored the winning goal over APOEL. He also netted Serbia’s winning goal in its recent Under-20 World Cup final win over Brazil.
Maksimovic is already one of Europe’s hottest prospects, and a decent group-stage showing could see his transfer value sky-rocket this season. Astana faces Benfica away this week, and despite a tough group draw with Galatasaray and Atletico Madrid, could pick up some historic points at home throughout the stage.