Watching properly every round of the Champions League can be a daunting task. There are so many interesting games every week and, despite the fact that everyone has their own preferences, some are just better than others. This article hopes to rank this week’s batch and it is destined, mainly, for neutral fans who want to know which one are the most interesting. But I also invite all the others, since after suffering with your team’s performance you can choose where to spend the rest of your time, watching highlights or delayed transmissions.
I won’t try to trick you into thinking that I used here some kind of fancy methodology to come up with these rankings. They are as subjective as they come, but I tried to do my best to balance the different criteria in order to reach an unbiased list. Star power, relevancy for the group’s final classification, uncertainty about the match winner, expected stadium atmosphere and pure football quality were part of my evaluation and most of you won’t agree with my assessment. And that’s great, because I invite you to comment below and share your thoughts.
Oh, and I also highlighted one player to watch in every match, because focusing on individual performances its part of the fun too.
1. Juventus (ITA) – Olympiacos (GRE)
Eleven years ago, on the last time these two teams met in Turin, the Greeks left under the weight of a seven goal defeat and they probably haven’t forgot it, since that was the biggest European loss in their history. The Champions of Greece, despite the triumph against this opposition, at home, have been irregular this season, especially on the domestic league, where they stand on an unusual second place because of their struggles to win away from home. Although, If they can, somehow, get away from the Juventus Stadium with points, a place in the last 16 is just around the corner and their opponents will be in danger of falling in the group stage for the second consecutive season. This promises to be a tense, hotly contested match on a packed stadium, and that deserves a bright spot on this list.
Player to watch: Roberto (Olympiacos). The Spanish goalkeeper was the star of his team’s win in Athens and will have to be equally impressive if the Greeks hope to take a decisive step towards the qualification.
2. Ajax Amsterdam (NED) – FC Barcelona (ESP)
For the second consecutive year these two European giants were drawn in the same group and, after Barcelona’s win in the last round, the Dutch are hoping to repeat last season’s outcome, when they were able to beat the Blaugrana at home after losing in the Catalan capital. If they can’t, they will, once again, head to Europa League, a competition better suited for their revolving squad of young players. But while they’re still here, their skill and speed will create problems on a weakened Barça defence that jeopardized the team on their last two games.
Player to watch: Luis Suárez (Barcelona). The Uruguayan’s European debut for Barcelona arrives after two La Liga games that ended in defeats and a chorus of critics directed at the team. A great game by an angry Luisito, still bitter after being left out of the list of contenders for the Golden Globe, and an improved connection with Neymar and Messi on the team’s attack will go a long way towards Barça’s success on this competition and the rest of season.
3. Bayern Munich (GER) – AS Roma (ITA)
The dismantling suffered by the Giallorossi against the Germans was an outlier, as was the 5-1 Roma’s trashing of CSKA in the first round. Nevertheless, the Italians have to show a different face in the Bavarian capital in order to keep the second place on the group, a classification in jeopardy if Man City defeats CSKA as expected. The Romanians were defeated in the weekend, at the San Paolo, in Napoli, while Bayern won against rivals Dortmund, having the chance to qualify and guarantee the first place in the group with a victory on Wednesday.
Player to watch: Frank Ribery (Bayern Munich). The French winger is having a difficult start of the season after missing the World Cup with an injury. His first game was in mid-September, but since then he hasn’t been able to regain the spot in the starting line-up, with a single full game appearance in the German Cup. However, Ribery was decisive coming in as a substitute in the comeback victory against Dortmund this weekend, and the position in the group facilitates Guardiola’s decision to rest some of his main offensive options. Will he take advantage of the opportunity and displace Mario Gotze?
4. Real Madrid (ESP) – Liverpool (ENG)
The number of European Championships won by these two teams adds up to 15, but that isn’t enough to vault this game to the top of this list. And whoever saw the game at Anfield, two weeks ago, will understand the reason. The title holders are at least two steps ahead of the English vice-champions and it is difficult to believe the Merseyside Reds can close that gap at the Bernabéu. The Spaniards will qualify with a win and their offense looks more than ready to devour a Liverpool defence, who, despite the expensive reinforcements, has been underwhelming in the Premier League. Couple that with the loss of the two star strikers of last year’s team and they can’t score goals either. I’m betting on another multi-goal differential victory for Real Madrid and a late consolation strike by the visitors.
Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid). You know I tried to stay away from him, but until he bests Raul’s record, the spotlight keeps shining. He needs one goal to tie, two to surpass and I believe he will score once more against “his” Man United rivals. I’m just not sure he will finish the week as the only record holder…
5. Borussia Dortmund (GER) – Galatasaray (TUR)
Believe it or not, the Germans are tied for the last place in the Bundesliga after ten games and, at the same time, lead Group D of the Champions League with 9 points and a 9-0 goal differential. We know the players prepare for domestic and European affairs in different ways, but how can you explain this discrepancy? Meanwhile, the Turks top their domestic league but have been a disaster in Europe, suffering two four goal defeats on the two games that followed a compromising home draw against Anderlecht. On one of the world’s best places to see a football match, the BVB Stadium, Galatasaray will have the support of thousands of Turkish emigrants and will test an impressive historical record playing in Germany (5W-5L-3D). With Dortmund trying to forget another painful domestic loss and Galatasaray fighting for the Europa League spot, this is one of the most interesting matches of the week.
Player to watch: Ilkay Gundogan. The German international of Turkish descent returned from injury recently, after almost a year away from the fields, and played twenty minutes in the Istanbul match, setting up the final goal of Dortmund’s win. With the team in control of the group, seems like a good time to start the smart midfielder. His superb passing skills are key for the success of the fast, attacking style implemented by Jurgen Klöpp and he will surely help the team in the task of getting back to the regular top performances.
6. Manchester City (ENG) – CSKA Moscow (RUS)
A battle between two teams searching for their first wins of the campaign and hoping to leap over AS Roma in the Group E standings. The English Champions failed to maintain a two goal lead in the game disputed on an empty stadium in Moscow and could come to regret the loss of those two points, badly needed after the draw with Roma in their own stadium. If we factor in that City has won only two of their last eight home games in the Champions League, and have had an irregular season so far, the Russians can certainly hope to leave Manchester with something.
Player to watch: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City). The Argentinian has been on fire in the last weeks, scoring twice in Champions League matches, achieving a poker against Tottenham, and adding the decisive goal to defeat rivals Man United last Sunday. He also has seven goals in four games against Russian sides in European competitions. With City at risk of missing the boat to the next phase for the third time in four seasons, they need the 26-year-old more than ever.
7. Athletic Bilbao (ESP) – FC Porto (POR)
Bilbao is one of the best cities in Europe to see a football match and the New San Mamés is still waiting to celebrate its first real Champions League goal, after the home team drew 0-0 with Shakhtar in the first round. Hosting the leader of the group and in dire need of a win to keep the hopes of progressing, it’s safe to say that the atmosphere will be raucous. The opposition is the odd Portuguese side (argh!) whose been taking care of business, and Porto also has enough experience to cope with the hostile environment. An intriguing matchup that can go either way.
Player to watch: Iker Munian (Athletic). The 21-year-old Spanish international is an old acquaintance of Porto’s coach Julen Lopetegui, who coached him in the squad that took the 2013 Under-21 European Championship, and he was probably relieved to see the diminutive midfielder start the first game on the bench. However, the Pamplona native came on at the half and contributed to a much better exhibition by the Basques, who were unlucky to leave empty-handed. It’s safe to say Ernesto Valverde won’t repeat the jest and the little magician will be counted on to provide much-needed creativity.
8. Sporting CP (POR) – Schalke 04 (GER)
A stunning domestic defeat on the weekend was a less than ideal preparation for a Sporting team desperate for a win. Back at the competition after a seven-year absence, the Portuguese have battled bad luck, inexperience-related errors and controversial referee decisions to sum a single point after three games, holding their backs against the wall before trying to extract revenge from their German opponents. On the other side, Schalke has endured a season of ups and downs coupled recently with the loss of the gifted Julian Draxler for the rest of 2014, but can qualify with a win in Lisbon. Both teams have players capable of excelling in a passionate match contested inside a nervous and anxious Alvalade Stadium.
Player to watch: Nani (Sporting). The player loaned by Man United has enjoyed a fantastic season back at his youth club, totalling already two goals in this competition, and figures to be, once again, the main weapon at the disposal of coach Marco Silva. The Portuguese winger is key on every aspect of Sporting’s attack and can decide a match in a matter of seconds, either by one of his trademark power shots or with a masterful assist. If the visitors hope to return to Gelsenkirchen unscathed, they should supervise him tightly.
9. Zenit (RUS) – Bayer Leverkusen (GER)
The multimillionaire Russian side started this year’s campaign in style, scoring twice inside the first twenty minutes of their game at Lisbon, but haven’t been able to find the back of the net since then, with their form dipping on the domestic competitions too. At the turn, they have four points and are in third on group C, thus in dire need of a home victory to restart the proceedings. The visitors racked up six points from two impressive home wins against the post-draw favourites of the group, and can almost guarantee a spot in the next phase with a win in St. Petersburg. There are condiments for an interesting match on the icy cultural capital of the Russian Federation.
Player to watch: Hakan Çalhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen). The Turkish maestro became one of the most expensive purchases on the history of the German club, but has proved to be worth the 14.5 M€ spent on his signature. The 20-year-old has one of those enlightened right foot that are rare due to the capacity to lay the ball wherever one desires, and those attributes make him responsible for converting all the set pieces on the team. He has already accrued one goal and two assists in the competition, and seems capable of much more.
10. SL Benfica (POR) – AS Monaco (FRA)
The Portuguese champions have been one of the biggest disappointments in this year’s edition, and are already in a do or die situation heading into the 4th round, staring at the prospect of missing the chance for a new run at their “beloved” Europa League, a truly embarrassing outcome for one of the top seeded teams in the competition. Conversely, the hard-working French side that lost much of their firepower in the summer has scrapped points in every game till now, and has managed to keep his net inviolate. After the 0-0 draw at the Principality, the home side will have to come out flying in order to secure an important win that cuts the difference for their opponent, while the visitors will try to defend well and created havoc on a depleted Benfica’s defence using their speedy forwards.
Player to watch: Bernardo Silva Anderson Talisca (Benfica). The 20-year-old Brazilian has been the sensation of the Portuguese League so far, with an astonishing eight goals scored in nine appearances, but failed to impress on the Champions League, where he has successively been the first player taken off by his manager. On a Benfica team that has scored a single goal in 270 minutes, it would help if the lanky midfielder could prolong his ability to fill the net to the middle of the week.
11. Malmö FF (SWE) – Atlético Madrid (ESP)
The Spanish Champions recovered quickly from their initial defeat in Group A and are already leading with 6 points, hoping to make it 3 straight wins on their trip to Sweden. Two weeks agora, at the Vicente Calderon, the Swedes held the 0-0 until half-time, but the magic of Koke opened the floodgates shortly after, and the hosts never looked back. The two-time Champions of Sweden will probably opt for the same defensive strategy on a stadium where they have yet to concede a goal in four Champions League home matches (including preliminary rounds). Malmö was able to defeat Olympiacos early on, and with a bit of luck maybe they can do it again.
Player to watch: Markus Rosenberg (Malmö). The experienced Swedish striker returned in January to his hometown team, after almost a decade touring the Dutch, German, Spanish and English Leagues, and has been essential for this year’s success. In the last three European home games he always managed to put his name on the board twice, and Malmö fans surely hope that their most qualified player can carry the load once again.
12. Arsenal (ENG) – Anderlecht (BEL)
This year’s Champions League season started for Arsenal with a clear defeat at Dortmund, but Arsène Wenger’s men have managed to turn it around with wins against Anderlecht and Galatasaray, putting the team on the brink of qualification. A win at the Emirates on Tuesday is all they need and their fans expect a less dramatic game than the one two weeks ago, when the English side only secured victory with two late goals. Conversely, the Belgian champions seem to be on their way out of the competition, on the group stage, for the third consecutive season, and are relegated to a battle for the third spot with the Turks, an encounter scheduled for the next round, at Brussels.
Player to watch: Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal). The former Barcelona man started the season slowly, but has been on a tear over the last weeks, scoring nine times on the same number of matches. On a team missing the injured Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck, the dynamic Chilean international can’t afford to have a night off.
13. Paris SG (FRA) – APOEL FC (CYP)
The Parisians lead the group and will qualify for the knockout phase with a victory against the diligent Cyprian side. A late strike by Edinson Cavani in the game at Nicosia, two weeks ago, kept the French Champions in control of the group, and they shouldn’t run into trouble closing the deal on home ground, where they are unbeaten in European competitions since 2006. APOEL will not repeat the fairy tale campaign of 2011-12, when they reached the quarter-finals of this competition, but they have earned respect in a tough group, suffering a single goal in every game, playing good football, and keeping the end results in doubt.
Player to watch: Lucas (PSG).The talented 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder arrived in Paris at the beginning of 2013 and had to wait for the chance to crack the starting eleven on a stacked French squad. However, this season, he managed to do it and has been one of the main dynamos on an attack missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, tallying five goals and 2 assists on the French Ligue 1. He surely would like to extend his goal exploits to the Champions League, where he has never scored before.
14. Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR)- BATE Borisov (BLR)
Shakhtar’s record-breaking 7-0 away victory two weeks ago was shocking, and elevated the total of goals suffered by the Belarusians to 14 in three games, with an odd win against Bilbao struck in the middle. Experience seems to suggest that BATE will respond well in the return game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they can leave Lviv with points. Still, Shakhtar is a much better team and the Ukrainians need a win to take another decisive step towards the qualification, making up for the two points foolishly lost on their round two clash against Porto.
Player to watch: Luiz Adriano (Shakhtar Donetsk). The five goals scored on the first leg trashing of BATE vaulted the Brazilian to the top of the goal scoring table on this year’s Champions League, and he would certainly like to stay there, at least, until the end of the group phase. His six goals are two in front of Benzema, and three ahead of a group of players headed by Ronaldo, therefore the Shakhtar striker might want to continue padding up his stats against lowly opposition.
15. Maribor (SUI) – Chelsea (ENG)
The draw conceded at home on the first round of the group phase seems to have been nothing more than a slip up for the London side, and Chelsea is already in control of group G. After the 6-0 thumping victory at Stamford Bridge, a new win will qualify the Blues for the last 16, but the game in Slovenia might not be the cakewalk some expect. Maribor won last year, at home, against an English side, Wigan, and actually fared quite well in their first two games in this year’s Champions League, drawing with Schalke and Sporting, therefore it is possible that Mourinho’s men will have to work hard to leave with a win.
Player to watch: Agim Ibrahimi. The Macedonian midfielder was essential on Maribor’s run through the qualifying rounds and impressed also on his team’s first games on the group stage, creating chances using is above-average technical skills and delivering powerful and dangerous shots. After failing to convert on a penalty in London, the 26-year-old will try to redeem himself and showcase his talents against a Premier League side, hoping to captivate enough to prompt a dream transfer to the wealthiest league in the World.
16. FC Basel (SWI) – PFC Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL)
On match day three, a last-minute strike by Yordan Minev delivered the first ever Bulgarian win in the Champions’ League group phase, and put the mostly unknown Champions of Bulgaria on an unexpected second position in Group B, tied with Basel and Liverpool. While it is still difficult to believe that the Razgrad outfit can actually go further in the competition, they have shown their resiliency multiple times, losing by a single goal against the Spanish and English giants. On the other side, the Swiss team is usually strong at home, losing only once on their last nine games as a host in the competition, and they need the three points to leapfrog to a qualification spot. This matchup surely lacks glow but the equilibrium is guaranteed.
Player to watch: Derlis González (Basel). The 20-year-old Paraguayan forward is one the brightest prospects of his country’s football and is already a regular fixture on the main National team squad. Serving in his first season at Europe, after two years on loan, by Benfica, to Paraguayan clubs, the young Derlis has impressed with his speed and technical attributes and found a way to secure a spot on his team’s starting line-up. After the goal scored on his Champions League debut at the Santiago Bernabéu, he has another good chance to improve his profile.