The best annual club tournament in the world begins in earnest today, as the Champions League Group Stage kicks off. The Champions League features many of the finest clubs in Europe in a tournament that will run up until the final on May 25, 2013, in London's Wembley Stadium. Last year, Chelsea of the English Premier League upset Bayern Munich of the German Bundesliga in Bayern's home stadium in a thrilling final decided by penalty kicks.
The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance to the Round of 16. Teams will play home and away against each of the squads in their group. Here is how I see the group stage playing out, with teams I predict will advance in BOLD:
Group A: Dynamo Kyiv, Dinamo Zagreb, Porto, Paris Saint Germain
PSG significantly bolstered its roster by adding Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and Ezequiel Lavezzi for one main reason: to compete for the Champions League title. PSG should win this group as long as their club chemistry is at a decent level. Porto, champions of Portugal last season will fend off the others for second.
Group B: Schalke, Montpelier, Arsenal, Olympiacos
Arsenal is fortunate to be placed in a relatively weak group, but the Gunners also seem to be improving in the early stages of the EPL season sparked by new signing Santi Cazorla. Tough to figure out a second-place squad here since the others are fairly even on paper, but I will go with Schalke and super striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar.
Group C: Anderlecht, Malaga, Zenit St. Petersburg, AC Milan
Milan is fortunate their group is one of the weakest, as they have been weakened by a budget-forced roster turnover. Gone are many of their stars from last year's quarterfinal run, such as Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, but enough talent is on the roster to advance out of this group. Zenit St. Petersburg, last year's Russian champions, put up a tough battle against Benfica in the Round of 16 last year and should get to at least that stage this time around.
Group D: Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Real Madrid
The Group of Death could swallow up a Real Madrid team dealing with internal turmoil from manager to star player, but look for them to advance. Man City is too talented from goalkeeper to forwards and everything in between to not move on, though there will be some tense moments.
Group E: Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk, Nordsjaeland, Chelsea
Last year's CL winners, Chelsea, made some significant changes to their lineup, losing cup-winning goal scorer Didier Drogba but countering with additions of Eden Hazard and Oscar. Juventus, the champions of Italy's Serie A last year, bring back much of the same roster and should be able to hold off the competition for second in the group.
Group F: Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov, Bayern Munich
Bayern should have no trouble winning this group, given their level of talent and their desire to want another shot at the Champions League title after falling just short last year. Valencia has a solid club and should be able to advance.
Group G: Benfica, Barcelona, Spartak Moskva, Celtic
A very interesting group headlined by Barcelona, which is still the most talented team in the world on paper. Group runner-up will be hotly contested, but I will go with Benfica coming off last year's upset of Manchester United in the group stage.
Group H: CFR Cluj, Manchester United, Galatasaray, Braga
As just mentioned, the Red Devils of ManU were upset in this stage last year by Benfica, so don't look for them to allow another let down with their high level of talent. United is defnitely the class of this group. I will side with Braga as the second team, given their recent league success in Portugal amid tougher competition.
Ok, let's hear it...who you got advancing? Any sleeper picks?