Can the Champions League hit the same heights as last season?

Could Real Madrid struggle without the dynamism of Angel di Maria?

Could Real Madrid struggle without the dynamism of Angel di Maria?

The Champions League has a lot to live up to this season.

After a summer in which the competition’s status as the greatest show on Earth was called back into question due to a World Cup for the ages, Europe’s premier club tournament must remind the public just what they missing while gallivanting off on their Brazilian fling.

So let’s get to it. Which of the opening fixtures in the first clutch of games will be able to pump up the drama and bring back that spark of romance to make their estranged viewers forget about Brazil, carnival, sex, Pele?

Basel to bruise a reeling Madrid

Poor Carlo Ancelotti. Having finally tamed the bombastic beast of excess that lurks within the soul of Florentino Rerez last season, the Italian has now seen the two conduits of sense and reason that underpinned his Champion League-winning team leave the Bernabeu to be replaced by fancy dan playmakers.

Without the balancing powers of Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid have slumped to two La Liga defeats in a row against Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid to leave Carlo’s eye brow at an all time, muscle quivering high. The left side of the poor man’s forehead must be in constant spasm.

Fortunately, up next for Real are group stage giant-killing specialists, Basel. Wait, that’s not good for them at all. In fact, the Swiss could be exactly the wrong team at the wrong time for the reigning champions, with the 33-year-old Marco Streller still playing as if he wears some amulet from the Gods designed to punish the rich and hubristic wherever he finds them on a football field.

Saying Basel are going to beat Real at the Bernabeu sounds like too much of a tip, but here we are.

Betting Instinct tip – Basel to humble the champions is 14/1 with, while the Swiss side are 5.22 to avoid defeat

#FreeShinji versus dat guy: the Manchester United reject derby

In case it passed you by at all, Manchester United aren’t in the Champions League this year due to an administrative error by David Gill, who has clearly lapsed on his responsibilities as a Machiavellian super fiend in the pay of the Glazers at UEFA.

Still, the suits at Old Trafford have done their best to help the club’s fans out by ensuring that Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck will play under the floodlights of Europe this season, which is almost as good as the club competing itself. Count up the various savings on travelling costs and this Plan B becomes inarguably sound.

So who should United fans be backing in this clash of their two honorary B teams? Let’s go with Arsenal. Not only is Welbz “dat guy”, but Borussia Dortmund weren’t all that convincing at home against Bayer Leverkusen, which was their last real test going into the first game of their Champions League campaign.

The Gunners on the other hand looked really rather good against Manchester City, and benefited from the mobility of the ex-United forward up front, although his inability to find the back of the net could still cost them.

Betting Instinct tip Danny Welbeck to score at any time is 15/8 with

Ultimate Warrior Football  Edition: The Red Army of Soviet Russia versus the Roman Empire

Put the ball down and take off your boots.

No, this isn’t a strange, English reboot of the Terminator franchise starring Vinnie Jones, in which a mechanised, killer Wimbledon defender travels back in time to kill the mother of Peter Winkelman. Well, it’s sort of close.

This week, the Champions League meets The History Channel, as CSKA Moscow—a team once run by the Red Army back in the days of the USSR— travel to the Italian capital to face AS Roma. For the uninitiated, Roma’s badge sports an image of Romulus and Remus from the Roman legend of how Rome was founded, and for the sake of this bizarre set-up, were definitely once run by a rouge load of Centurions back in the days of the Roman Empire.

Expect football to take a back seat as both teams don their traditional battle dress and weaponry to decide once and for all who wins in this historically inaccurate insult to the whole idea of recreations.

CSKA Moscow are obviously going to win. They’ve got great winter coats, and tanks, and planes, and guns. Roma have got eagles and short swords. You’d have to be a brave punter to put any cash down on their chances, but then again…

Betting Instinct tip CSKA to lead at half-time is 5/1 with

Separatists to prosper against victims of an insurrection

Athletic Club are a proud symbol of Basque nationalism. They’re sponsored by a local, Bilbao-based chemical corporation, and only field footballers of Basque descent.

Shakhtar Donetsk’s long-term future is currently uncertain due to the Ukraine crisis which threatens to rip their country in two, and with the team, known as The Miners due to their industrial roots, based on the eastern, generally pro-Russian side of the nation, their situation could get extremely complicated, extremely quickly.

As such, there’s not too many jokes to be found in this match up, but plenty of opportunity to profit from an awful scenario that exists far beyond the realms of football.

With the game set to take place in Bilbao, Athletic Club will hold a mighty home advantage in their new San Mames 2.0 stadium, not least because their players aren’t currently living with the prospect of a geo-political meltdown on their doorstep.

It also helps that Bilbao are again looking good this season under the guidance of manager Ernesto Valverde. Back them. It won’t make you a bad person, or an exploiter of bad news stories. Honest.

Betting Instinct tip – Athletic to win by two or more goals is 5/2 with

Greg avatar GREG JOHNSON (gregianjohnson) is a freelance football writer based in London and contributor to  FourFourTwo, Squawka, Drowned In Sound and Mirror Football. He also co-edits The False Nine football  blog and podcast. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.


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