Predicting the Teams to Make the Knockout Stages of the Champions League

Dan SheridanContributor ISeptember 19, 2013

Predicting the Teams to Make the Knockout Stages of the Champions League

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    The 2013-14 Champions League kicked off this week, with the first round of fixtures producing no fewer than 52 goals—10 of them coming from La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.

    Even at this early juncture, the race for qualification to the knockout phase is taking on a familiar look.

    With the exception of one or two opening day shocks, most of Europe’s big guns got off to a positive start, with the likes of Manchester United, AC Milan and holders Bayern Munich all picking up victories.

    So with the competition up and running for another season, we take an early look at the teams most likely to progress beyond the group stage.  

Group A

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    It may have been David Moyes’ first Champions League fixture as manager of Manchester United, but that didn’t stop his side picking up all three points against Bayer Leverkusen.

    Wayne Rooney registered his 200th goal for United against the team that finished third in last season’s Bundesliga, and their 4-2 win sent out a clear signal of intent to the rest of the group

    In San Sebastián, Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk put their poor run of form in the league behind them with a 2-0 victory over Real Sociedad.

    A brace from Alex Teixeira eased Mircea Lucescu’s men to the top of Group A, and after such a strong start, both Shakhtar and Manchester United will fancy their chances of advancing.

     

    To qualify: Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk 

Group B

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    Anyone who doubted Real Madrid’s aims in this season’s Champions League had their questions answered in emphatic fashion on Tuesday, with Los Blancos winning 6-1 at Galatasaray. 

    A second-half hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo—along with a Karim Benzema double and the opening goal from Isco—fully justified their billing among the favourites to win the competition.

    Over in Denmark, however, Serie A champions Juventus didn’t quite have things their own way, with FC Copenhagen holding Antonio Conte’s men to a 1-1 draw.

    A solid defensive performance from the Danes frustrated La Vecchia Signora, but in Carlos Tevez and Fabio Quagliarella, the Italians should have enough to fire their way out of the group alongside Madrid.

     

    To qualify: Real Madrid and Juventus

Group C

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    The question on everyone’s lips before a ball was kicked in Group C was which side would finish in second place behind big-spending Paris Saint-Germain?

    After Tuesday’s opening fixtures, it’s easy to see why.

    The French champions made light work of their trip to Athens to face Olympiakos, winning 4-1 in Greece thanks to goals from Edinson Cavani, Marquinhos and a brace from Thiago Motta.

    In the group’s other fixture, Benfica edged past Belgian title winners Anderlecht with a straightforward 2-0 victory at the Stadium of Light.

    The ease with which they won the tie suggests the Portuguese giants have a lot to offer in the competition, and their opening day triumph makes them favourites to qualify behind PSG.

     

    To qualify: Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica 

Group D

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    Last season’s Champions League winners were in a ruthless mood on Tuesday. Bayern Munich began the defence of their European crown with a 3-0 victory over CSKA Moscow.

    The Bundesliga giants are one of the biggest favourites to retain their title in Lisbon in May, and their opening fixture produced a professional display at the Allianz Arena.

    However, Bayern boss Pep Guardiola knows things won’t be simple in Group D, with Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City also comfortably winning 3-0 in their first game.

    Goals from Edin Dzeko, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero handed City the ideal start against Czech side Plzen, and their expensively assembled squad could force a fascinating battle for the top spot.

     

    To qualify: Bayern Munich and Manchester City 

Group E

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    FC Basel’s dramatic comeback against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge produced the shock of the week. The Swiss champions landed a 2-1 win to ruin Jose Mourinho’s Champions League return with the Londoners.

    While the defeat shouldn’t deter the Blues too much in their pursuit of the knockout stages, it underlined the dangers of complacency in Europe’s premier club competition.

    An intriguing group was thrown wide open thanks to Schalke’s 3-0 victory over Chelsea’s next opponents, Steaua Bucharest, with goals from Atsuto Uchida, Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler.

    Despite the scoreline, Steaua looked in control for long spells at Veltins-Arena, but there is strength in depth at both Chelsea and Schalke and that could ultimately make the difference.  

     

    To qualify: Schalke and Chelsea 

Group F

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    The groans coming out of North London could be heard far and wide last month. Arsenal were matched up with 2012-13 finalists Borussia Dortmund, big-spending Napoli and French heavyweights Marseille. 

    The Gunners, however, made the perfect start to their so-called "group of death," winning 2-1 in the south of France to register their 10th successive away win.

    Over in Naples, Dortmund endured a night to forget. Both goalkeepers and their manager were sent off in a 2-1 defeat that saw Gonzalo Higuain net his first goal for the Italians before local boy Lorenzo Insigne wrapped things up.

    Both results set the group up perfectly, and Napoli’s visit to Arsenal in the next round of fixtures could turn out to be a pivotal clash. In what is by far the tightest group to call, qualification could go right down to the wire.

     

    To qualify: Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund

Group G

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    After a lengthy absence from the Champions League, Atletico Madrid made the perfect return on Wednesday, beating Russian outfit Zenit St. Petersburg 3-1 at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.

    Despite a stunning strike from Zenit striker Hulk, the Spaniards were too strong for Luciano Spalletti’s men, and played their way to the top of Group G convincingly. 

    Atletico’s likely challengers for top spot are Porto, who snatched a 1-0 win away to Austria Vienna thanks to a second-half effort from Argentinian Lucho Gonzalez.

    While there is room for improvement from Zenit, their next match at home to Vienna is now a must-win fixture. Anything less than three points could see them struggle.

     

    To qualify: Atletico Madrid and Porto

Group H

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    While Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines on Tuesday following his hat-trick in Turkey, Lionel Messi did the same 24 hours later by grabbing a trio of his own in a 4-0 rout of Ajax. 

    The little Argentinian is now closing in on Raul’s record of 71 Champions League goals, and with the 26-year-old just nine behind the Madrid legend, few would bet against him beating that achievement this season.

    At the San Siro, AC Milan were made to work hard for their 2-0 victory over Celtic, and the Italians were lucky not to fall behind against Neil Lennon’s men.

    Their skins were saved by a late Emilio Izaguirre own-goal and a Sulley Muntari strike. The Scottish champions were a tough nut to crack last season, and they could ruffle a few more feathers this term.

     

    To qualify: Barcelona and AC Milan