There is no such thing as “March Madness” in European soccer. Perhaps the closest thing to signify the impending start of their nine-month long tournament is the UEFA Champions League draw. The last 10 clubs clinched qualification in the final playoff rounds Tuesday and Wednesday and are now into the group stage.
Each year in late August, after the 32 teams have been finalized, they are drawn into eight four-team groups in a star-studded gala in Monte Carlo. Six games will be played in the group stages before Christmas, with each team hosting and playing away to the other three teams in their group. No clubs from the same country can be pitted together, so often we get the pleasure of seeing the same powerhouse teams from England, Spain and Germany butting heads in group stage play.
The draw, which is listed at the bottom of this feature, is sure to be dissected by fans, players, coaches and most everyone across Europe and around the world interested in the top club competition in sports before the matches actually begin in earnest on Sept. 13.
Knockout fixtures will begin with round of 16 play on Feb. 14, 2017. It will all lead up to a final that is contested on June 3 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. This will be the first time the final has been contested in Wales, and it marks the smallest country, smallest association and smallest city to ever host a Champions League final. The Welsh have had a banner year, qualifying for their first-ever European Championship and then playing well enough to advance to the semifinals after beating Northern Ireland and Belgium in the knockout rounds.
This year’s so-called “Group of Death” looks like Group C. Barcelona is a perennial power and has won more titles than any other club. Manchester City has former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola in charge now; he’s won the Champions League trophies coaching at Barca and guided Bayern Munich to seven titles in three seasons there. Borussia Monchengladbach finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season and just scored nine goals in its two playoff games to qualify for group play. Celtic is the defending Scottish Premiership winner and has a storied history and an intimidating arena. Just two of the four will be in the competition come February.
After the draw in Monaco, Cristiano Ronaldo won Best Player in Europe. It hardly comes as a shock considering he helped Portugal win its first-ever Euro title this summer and led Real Madrid to the 2015-16 Champions League crown. Welshman and club teammate Gareth Bale and Frenchman and Atletico Madrid standout Antoine Griezmann were the other two finalists.
Group A – Paris St. Germain, Arsenal, Basel, Ludogorets
Group B – Benfica, Napoli, Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas
Group C – Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchengladbach, Celtic
Group D – Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, PSV Eindhoven, Rostov
Group E – CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco
Group F – Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon, Legia Warsaw
Group G – Leicester City, Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen
Group H – Juventus, Sevilla, Lyon, Dinamo Zagreb