Predicting the 10 Most Exciting Games of the Champions League Group Stage

Charlie Melman@@charliemelmanCorrespondent IISeptember 6, 2012

Predicting the 10 Most Exciting Games of the Champions League Group Stage

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    Shortly after the international break is mercifully over, and in less than two weeks, Champions League football will return, and with it, some of the most exciting club games in the world.

    There is nothing quite like the feeling of two top-notch European clubs going at it for the highest stakes in the game on its biggest stage—especially when the club you support is one of them.

    With every day bringing us closer to dramatic football goodness, let's take a look at some of the best fixtures we are likely to see among a great slate of group stage teams.

September 18: Montpellier vs. Arsenal

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    Whenever Arsenal play a French team, there is always the storyline of Arsene Wenger, scholar of the French game and connoisseur of Ligue 1's talent, going home to the place where his fame was forged.

    That's flowery and all, but Wenger won't actually be managing in France because of a touchline ban from last season—instead, assistant manager Steve Bould will take the reins for the first time.

    Of more import is the real homecoming of Olivier Giroud, who left Montpellier for Arsenal this past summer, and, if he does not score in the Gunners' preceding match vs. Southampton, will be desperate to open his scoring account against his former club.

September 18: Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

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    Such is the deadliness of this year's "group of death" that the opening match will look like the potential Champions League final.

    Here, the reigning champions of the two best leagues in the world will duke it out at Real Madrid's home stadium, and the Bernabeu will be rocking for this game.

    Of greater concern will be the disposition of Cristiano Ronaldo. After rampant speculation following his declaration of sadness after Madrid's last match, all eyes will be on whether Ronaldo, who could potentially transfer to Manchester City, seems to be enjoying himself on the pitch.

September 19: Chelsea vs. Juventus

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    All eyes will be on Chelsea, as they take the first step in defending their Champions League crown against Juventus, who could seriously threaten the Blues in the latter stages of the competition this year.

    Chelsea are, no doubt, much improved and rejuvenated from last season, but everyone knows that they are only here because they won the competition last year, and they had to defy their sixth-place finish in the Premier League to keep their place with the big boys.

    Juventus, after all their spending recently, have built a wonderfully balanced and effective squad in front of Gianluigi Buffon, and, despite the departures of some key players, boast a similar side to last year's—unbeaten in Serie A.

October 24: Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid

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    Conventional wisdom would dictate that Real Madrid and Manchester City are the favorites to advance from the group of death this year, but, if Borussia Dortmund will step up, this is the game in which to do it.

    At home, in one of the most intimidating cauldrons of sound in the world, the Germans have a massive advantage over their opponents, and making the most of their games at Signal Iduna Park is crucial for Dortmund.

    They also happen to have a very good team, and, despite the loss of Shinji Kagawa, talents like Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski (phew) make this side one of the best in the competition.

October 24: Arsenal vs. Schalke 04

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    For the two teams expected to get out of this quality group, their first meeting, at the Emirates Stadium, will be the one that sets the tone for their next in Germany.

    If Arsenal can come out and win at home, it will give them much less to worry about in a very hostile atmosphere, and will put the players' and fans' anxious minds at ease.

    Schalke, while generally regarded as an inferior team, have tremendous depth in attack, and if they can at least make up goal difference on the road, they will have accomplished something.

    Tune in nevertheless, because this will be a fast-paced, attacking fixture.

November 6: AC Milan vs. Malaga

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    In this fixture, it will be interesting to see how two teams that were somewhat depleted by their dealings in the summer transfer window will hold up against each other.

    Both AC Milan and Malaga were scrutinized for their recent selling, with the former cutting Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva loose, while the latter let star Santi Cazorla go to Arsenal for less than he's probably worth.

    Yet their squads are both strong enough to compete at a high level, and both are capable of producing some entertaining attacking play without leaving the back door so wide open that their defences are a joke.

    All in all, this should be a very entertaining game that we'll all get to hyper-analyze afterwards.

November 20: Valencia vs. Bayern Munich

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    Here is a match of the type that we often see in the Champions League: two good teams with polar opposite records in their respective domestic leagues squaring off in what looks like a fair matchup.

    Valencia, with the terribly underrated Roberto Soldado leading the front line, have been mightily struggling in this young La Liga season, but the team undoubtedly has quality, and their commitment to attacking football cannot be dulled.

    Bayern Munich are, well just what you would expect from them: surging to the top of the table in the Bundesliga with some convincing displays; if they can keep all their key parts healthy, last year's finalists could easily be finalists again this season.

December 4: PSG vs. Porto

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    I put this game here because, in the last meeting between two big clubs in Group A, one side could cement their place in the knockout round, while the other could get themselves booted prematurely.

    Paris Saint-Germain are a very, very good team in both attack and defence, but they are not so dominant, especially against sides that will really come to play, so to speak, that they will cruise to the top spot in the group.

    Nor will Porto, for sure.

    Porto lost their best attacker, and arguably best player, Hulk, to Zenit St. Petersburg in the past few days, and will have to rely on the likes of Joao Moutinho to carry them past the initial round of Champions League play.

    Look for an intense, open match, and the victor, if there is one, to win this very close group.

December 5: Braga vs. Galatasaray

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    In a group that Manchester United will almost certainly win (although we said that last season when the Red Devils were drawn against cupcake teams) the real battle will be for second place.

    And I venture to say, respectfully, that that honor will not go to CFR Cluj-Napoca, though I have been more wrong in my life.

    Thus, it's Braga of Portugal and Galatasaray of Turkey, two teams that would scare me as my opponents, who must scrap it out.

    I would be inclined to pick Galatasaray here, but Braga beat the odds by defeating Udinese in the last round of qualifying, and the sort of confidence gained from such a feat is a very dangerous thing.

December 5: Lille vs. Valencia

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    As with the last couple of slides here, I think that this game is considerably more exciting than it usually would be because of the significance I anticipate it having.

    Presumably, BATE Borisov will not pull off another miracle and make it to the quarterfinals this season, so that leaves Lille and Valencia to finish behind presumptive winners Bayern Munich and claim the second knockout-round spot.

    Going by league form, neither team looks ready to make that step, but a lot can happen between now and early December.

    While Valencia might have the stronger squad on paper due to former Lille star Eden Hazard's departure to Chelsea, Lille have enough in the likes of Marvin Martin and Salomon Kalou to catch any team off guard.

    Like the Champions League itself, this battle should be riveting to the very end.