Champions League returns with a competitive edge

The Champions League is back, and with it comes what is meant to be the annual procession; Barcelona, Real Madrid and co waltzing through their groups with barely more than a shrug of appreciation towards the opposition they brush aside.

This is the Champions League – where competition really begins in the second round.

Until last week that is. Barcelona and AC Milan played out an entertaining 2-2 draw, meaning that the battle for top spot in their group (presuming that BATE and Plzen both finish third and fourth) could go to the wire. Other groups are wide open too after Apoel beat Zenit in a group also including Shakhtar and Porto, whilst Inter Milan fell to a shock home defeat to Trabzonspor. With CSKA and Lille drawing in the same group, this will be another closely fought foursome.

And then there is the group of death, from which Bayern Munich are expected to qualify from, and impressively began with a 2-0 win at Villarreal, struggling in the fledgling Spanish league table. The Spaniards look third favourites now in a three horse race for second alongside Manchester City and probable favourites Napoli. Those last two played out an entertaining 1-1 draw, with City pulling off what was a great result on their Champions League debut against the early Serie A leaders. Holding the likes of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi to a draw was a coup for Roberto Mancini’s side as both teams made their debut in the competition. It means the battle for second is well and truly wide open.

And then there is the group involving Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, who played out a 1-1 draw in Germany last week. With Marseille beating Olympiacos, this looks a three horse race. Dortmund are vastly underrated and have the quality to win this group if they play at their best, but could rue a succession of missed chances against Arsene Wenger’s men. But this is a group of domestic under achievers. Dortmund have endured a nightmare start to their Bundesliga defence in Germany, whilst Marseille are bottom of the French league after six matches bizarrely. And Arsenal’s start in England has been if anything, even worse, though they at least sit outside the relegation zone. It promises a tight and fascinating group.

Elsewhere, Chelsea beat Bayer Leverkusen to give them a great start in a group also involving Valencia and Belgians Genk. Valencia only drew with Genk, meaning Chelsea should be set to go through as group winners, but the Spaniards have looked impressive domestically, and could yet threaten Andre Villas Boas’s men.

Elsewhere, Manchester United got off to a good start against Benfica with a 1-1 draw away from home, and should cruise their group barring the potential for some mild turbulence on their passage to the next phase.

Another interesting group will be the one involving Real Madrid, who beat Dinamo Zagreb last week, but come up against notorious foes Lyon soon. Ajax will hope Real continue their form from last year when they thrashed the French side at home to knock them out in the second round as the Dutch side claimed a useful draw at home to them last week and harbour hopes of pinching second spot in the group.