25 Surprises That Could Shake Up the Champions League
With the top-heavy nature of modern football, the Champions League runs the risk of becoming a little predictable. Every season there are a handful of surprises, however, and 2013/14 will surely be no different.
Whether it is an unfancied team making a run to the quarter-finals, a glamour club getting dumped out of the competition at an early stage or a relatively unknown player making a name for himself, you can guarantee that more than a few unpredictable events will occur to keep football lovers interested.
Sure, there's a high probability the English and Spanish clubs will do well and the final will be contested by Barcelona and Bayern Munich or clubs of a similar status, but it is nice to anticipate a few shocks along the way.
Here are 25 surprises that could shake up the competition and ensure fans and the media have plenty to talk about.
Ibrahimovic Wins the Golden Boot
You would get pretty long odds on anyone other than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo topping the scoring in this year's competition, but 31-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic has the experience, the skills and the ego to bag himself a bundle of goals.
He also has quite a team behind him in PSG and will be getting assistance from the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore, Marco Veratti, Lucas Moura and Edinson Cavani.
PSG also have a relatively straightforward group, on paper at least, meaning Zlatan will be eyeing off a heavy haul in the group stage against Benfica, Olympiacos and Anderlecht.
Guardiola and Bayern Find It Tough
Having registered three wins and a draw from their first four Bundesliga games under Pep Guardiola, there are no early signs of any disruption to the momentum Bayern gathered last season.
In the high-pressure arena of the Champions League, however, any lack of polish will soon be exposed.
If the entire squad is not yet on board with all of the tactical and philosophical changes being integrated by the former Barcelona manager, Bayern could struggle in crunch encounters.
This could be a transition year for the club as far as European football is concerned.
Saviola Enjoys a Renaissance at Olympiacos
Well-traveled Argentine forward Javier Saviola will appear in the UEFA Champions League for Olympiacos this season, where his mercurial talents may just offer the Greek side the spark they need to make an impression in the UCL.
The 31-year-old has been a fan favorite wherever he has played (and he has worn the jersey of some of the most prestigious clubs in the world, including River Plate, Barcelona and Real Madrid), and his prodigious dribbling skills and creative flair should prove of great benefit to the Olypiacos attack.
The other teams in Group C will underestimate Saviola and Olympiacos at their peril.
Italian Teams Outshine German Teams
German football is currently on a high after Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund reached last season's Champions League final and several years of strong showings from German clubs in European competition.
Italian clubs, meanwhile, have been far less impressive since Inter won the UCL back in 2009/10 and have slipped to fourth place in UEFA's coefficient rankings.
Germany sits in third with a score of 69.927 while Italy are just ahead of Portugal with 55.605.
Canny reinforcement by Napoli and Juventus in the offseason, though, could see them outperform the Bundesliga brigade this time around.
Bayern have a new (albeit highly regarded) coach, Dortmund have lost their best player in Mario Gotze, and Bayer Leverkusen have also been weakened with the departure of Andre Schurrle. It is also safe to say it would be a surprise if Schalke went deep into the competition.
Could this be the year of the Serie A fight-back?
Huntelaar Punishes Chelsea
Prolific Dutch goalscorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was linked with several English clubs in recent years, including Arsenal and Liverpool, but finally penned a new deal with Schalke.
The man who has scored 34 goals in 59 games for the Netherlands should be keen to prove his worth against English opposition, and Chelsea will be firmly in his sights on Matchdays 3 and 4.
Basel Make the Quarters
Swiss Super League champions FC Basel advanced to the semi-finals of the Europa League last season and have enough talent in their squad to pack a punch in the continent's most important club competition as well.
Basel may be long odds to advance to the round of 16 from Group E, but Chelsea and Schalke are by no means certain to claim first and second place.
Just ask Manchester United, whom Basel pipped in the 2011/12 knockout stages.
If the Swiss side can repeat that performance, their extensive experience in European competition and impressive roster of players, such as veteran striker Marco Streller, will mean they have a realistic chance at going even further.
Hummels Loses His Starting Place for Dortmund
He may have been one of the most sought-after defenders in the summer transfer market, but Mats Hummels has not started the new Bundesliga season well.
As SW Lim reports on Goal.com, Hummels was dropped by Joachim Low for Germany's last two World Cup qualifiers after a series of poor displays for club and country.
Whether the player is indeed suffering a crisis of confidence, as Low seems to think, or is lacking motivation after failing to secure a move elsewhere, it is the type of situation which can sometimes go from bad to worse.
If he doesn't pick his game up sooner rather than later, he could find himself warming the bench at Dortmund before the group stage is through.
Both Russian Clubs Make It Through to the Knockout Stages
Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow both boast squads chock full of quality.
The Luciano Spalletti-coached Zenit club has the likes of Domenico Criscito, Axel Witsel, Danny and Hulk on their books, while CSKA can count on stars such as Seydou Doumbia, Alan Dzagoev and Keisuke Honda.
Zenit's group, containing Porto, Austria Vienna and Atletico Madrid looks manageable, if not necessarily simple.
CSKA will have their work cut out for them in getting out of a group containing Plzen, Bayern and Manchester City, but should not be ruled out of contention.
It would be a huge boon for Russian football if both clubs can make it through.
Gareth Bale Struggles to Adapt
With great swathes of cash comes great responsibility. Having completed his move from Tottenham to Real Madrid for the a world-record transfer fee, Gareth Bale will now have to live up to the expectations that come with it.
Will the Welsh wizard nail down a spot in the Real Madrid starting 11? Even if he does, will he be able to handle the pressure of playing for one of the highest profile clubs in the world?
Bale has the swagger and the skill set to succeed, but if a few mediocre performances plant a seed of doubt in his mind regarding his own ability, there is a risk he could become overwhelmed by the situation.
The eyes of the world will be on Bale; he must hope things fall into place for him quickly in Madrid.
Celtic Confirm Their Status as Barcelona's Hoodoo Club by Beating Them Again
Call it gritty, call it lucky, call it plucky, call it whatever you like, but Celtic's 2-1 win over Barcelona in last season's Champions League group stage was the most celebrated result for the club in recent years.
If they can pull off a similar upset this time around, they would earn the status of "bogey side" for the Spanish champs.
Milan Fail to Make It out of Their Group
Seven-time European champions AC Milan are a side with plenty of potential. Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy rank among Italy's brightest young stars, and the likes of Riccardo Montolivo and Giampaolo Pazzini are experienced and proven campaigners.
There is no denying that Milan's current squad lacks the quality of previous generations, however, and could find themselves coming unstuck in a particularly tricky group.
A pair of losses against Barcelona is not out of the question, and Celtic and Ajax could both cause major headaches for the Italian side.
Milan may define themselves by their international success, but an early exit from the Champions League this season would allow the club to concentrate on Serie A and rebuild for next year.
Messi Registers More Assists Than Goals in the Competition
With the arrival of Neymar at Barcelona to give the forward line even more bite, coach Gerardo Martino could decide Messi can contribute more from a slightly deeper role for the Blaugrana.
Ever content to do what's best for the side, Messi would happily drop back into midfield and provide incisive passes for his teammates to benefit from, while no doubt chipping in with a few goals of his own.
Bruma Becomes a Star
The brilliant young Sporting Lisbon product signed for Galatasaray shortly before the end of the transfer window in a huge coup for the Turkish club.
He may not be a household name just yet, but given the opportunity to shine on the European stage, Bruma could soon be getting chins wagging when taking on giants Real Madrid and Juventus.
Quick, powerful and silky smooth on the ball, the 18-year-old has been touted as the new Cristiano Ronaldo. Time will tell whether he merits such plaudits, but this season's Champions League could be the start of something big.
Kaka Gets Minimal Game Time
When Kaka left his beloved Milan for Real Madrid in 2009, it was a huge story. The 2007 Ballon d'Or winner's stocks have fallen somewhat since then, however, and even though his return to the Rossoneri is big news, he doesn't quite generate the headlines that he used to.
The Brazilian is still expected to play an important role in Max Allegri's team, but there is also the possibility that this once-sensational footballer will never recover his former brilliance.
Like Andriy Shevchenko before him, this prodigal son could find that his status has been downgraded from club talisman to bit-part player.
Manchester City Make Light Work of the Group Stage
The Citizens have not enjoyed the best of times in the Champions League, having failed to escape from difficult groups for the past two seasons.
The pressure will be on once again when they confront Plzen, CSKA Moscow and European champions Bayern Munich in Group D.
It could be third time's a charm for Manchester City, though, and if they can hold their own against the German side, they have the wherewithal to dispatch the other two opponents and cruise into the knockout stages with minimal drama.
Rogic Emerges as a Key Player at Celtic
The lanky Australian who plays like an Argentine "enganche," or playmaker, has so far only appeared sporadically in Celtic's first team after moving to the Scottish Premier League from the Central Coast Mariners in January.
But if Tom Rogic was granted an extended spell of playing time, his close ball control, smooth passing and footballing vision could potentially give Celtic a whole extra dimension to their build-up play.
His style is perfectly suited to continental football and Neil Lennon would do well to utilize him in the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid Miss out in Group G
Group G looks to be one of the most well-balanced groups in the UCL, and that can often spell trouble for the favorites.
With no obvious whipping boys, every match is a scrap for points.
The departure of Radamel Falcao to Monaco has robbed Diego Simeone's side of their most decisive player, and a failure to adapt to that loss quickly could see them bundled out of the Champions League after just six matches.
Casillas Leaves for Another Champions League Club in January
When legendary Spanish keeper Iker Casillas was demoted to the Real Madrid bench last season after butting heads with Jose Mourinho, the thought must have crossed his mind that he simply had to wait for the Portuguese manager to move on before he would be reinstated as the club's No. 1.
New gaffer Carlo Ancelotti has, surprisingly, shown a preference for Diego Lopez in goal for the first La Liga matches of 2013/14, meaning Casillas remains on the outside.
In any other year, this situation would be a problem for the champion shot-stopper, but leading into a World Cup, a lack of game time amounts to a crisis.
If he can't break into the side in the next few months, expect him to jump ship in the next transfer window, when plenty of high-profile clubs will no doubt be interested in securing his services.
Chelsea Play Entertaining Football
The Special One is back at Chelsea and for many football pundits that indicates that, firstly, the team will be exceptionally hard to beat and, secondly, they will play a dour brand of football.
Mourinho enjoys nothing more than shaking things up, however, and with the exceptional array of attacking footballers at his disposal, including Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Andre Schurrle, he may just opt for a more fluid, more positive style of play in the Champions League.
Champions League Rookie Gerardo Martino Outsmarts European Coaches
Though he is already a highly regarded manager in South America, Gerardo Martino was a relatively unknown entity in Europe when he was chosen to take over from Tito Vilanova as Barcelona manager in July.
Experienced continental coaches might believe the Blaugrana will be somewhat vulnerable this season as Martino learns to adapt to European football, but the former Newell's Old Boys gaffer is tactically savvy enough to take them on at their own game and come out the victor.
Fellaini Earns Instant Cult Status at United
Belgian international Marouane Fellaini was a huge figure at Everton, but now faces a different kind of challenge having moved to one of the world's biggest clubs in Manchester United.
United fans are notoriously hard to win over, but Fellaini has the personality and all-action playing style to make an instant impression.
He could become a key figure at the club in short space of time, especially if he shines in the UCL.
Rifts in the Real Madrid Camp Hobble Their Campaign
Real Madrid are expected to have a serious tilt at Champions League glory this time around following the purchases of Gareth Bale from Tottenham, Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad and Isco from Malaga.
Isco has already made a positive impression in his first appearances for the club, so signs are good that Madrid will be an even more powerful force than last season.
With so many superstars in the squad, though, there is always the risk that supersized egos could collide and thus affect team unity and overall performance.
Ronaldo has already expressed his anger at the departure of Mesut Ozil, while the sheer scope of the Bale transfer may ruffle feathers and the Casillas/Lopez situation has the potential to flare up into full-blown feud.
Madrid fans will be hoping personality clashes don't cause results to suffer.
Lewandowski Struggles for Goals
Borussia Dortmund's star striker was heavily tipped to leave the club over the summer, but all potential moves were blocked by the club so the Polish international will stay put, for now at least.
Whether Robert Lewandowski's reported desire to leave will have an effect on his attitude to playing for Dortmund remains to be seen.
If he fails to fire, Dortmund could struggle for goals.
Luis Suarez Joins a Champions League Team in January
The Luis Suarez saga was one of the dominant transfer stories of the offseason.
The wantaway forward, who was reportedly keen to play Champions League football, was linked to Real Madrid and Arsenal, but eventually reaffirmed his commitment to Liverpool.
Words are cheap in modern football, though, and it would surprise some, but not everybody, if the Uruguayan pushed hard for a move once the transfer window opens again.
Jueventus Win the Whole Thing
Though Juventus are considered dark horses to win the Champions League and have even been tipped to go far by the likes of Arsene Wenger, it would still be a huge boil-over if they managed to beat Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United to the title.
That is not to say the task is impossible, however, and the Italian champions will be quietly confident they can revive their glory days by claiming a third European crown.