Champions League: 5 stories to watch this week


Chelsea's Pedro. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Thirty-two teams begin their journey towards the UEFA Champions League final at Milan’s San Siro when the group stage kicks off this week.

Here are five key stories to watch from Matchday One…

Messi vs. Ronaldo
No, Barcelona and Real Madrid are not in the same round-robin group, but the two best players on the planet will be going head-to-head, in a manner of speaking. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo enter this season’s group stage tied as the tournament’s all-time scoring record with 77 goals each. Both surpassed previous record holder Raul last season, and have since traded the lead back and forth a few times. Ronaldo is coming off a spectacular five-goal effort in Real Madrid’s win over Espanyol on the weekend, while Messi bagged a brace off the bench to lift Barcelona to a 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid. But Barcelona doesn’t play until Wednesday, giving Ronaldo the advantage—you just know he’s going to find his way onto the score-sheet against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday to move out in front (temporarily) of Messi.

Can Juventus and Chelsea leave behind domestic woes?
Juventus has claimed just a single point from their opening three fixtures in Serie A, while Chelsea has just one win from its first five Premier League matches. Not exactly ideal starts for the reigning Italian and English champions. And it doesn’t get any easier for Juventus, last season’s Champions league finalists, as they travel to Manchester City on Tuesday—the Citizens are a perfect 5-0-0 to start the Premier League campaign, and have yet to concede a goal. Chelsea has a much easier time of it, hosting Israeli outfit Maccabi Tel-Aviv on Wednesday. But given the Blues’ defensive woes—12 goal conceded, the worst in the Premier League—and the fact that starting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is injured, maybe Tel-Aviv is catching Jose Mourinho’s team at the right time.

MORE ON THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Sportsnet soccer panel: Picks and predictions || Man City has improved by becoming ‘more City’ || Analytics: The strange case of Borussia Monchengladbach || FC Astana adds rich narrative to Champions League || 10 players to watch in the first round || 8 matches to watch in the first round || Spanish clubs look to reign supreme in Europe || Champions League: 5 stories to watch this week

FC Astana set for debut
Ever hear of FC Astana? Me neither. Not until recently, anyway, after they defeated Cypriot club APOEL to advance to the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history. Not that they have much of a history. Founded in 2009, they only took on their current name two years later. By then they’d already come second in the Kazakhstan Premier League and won the first of their two domestic cups. They won their first league title in 2014 and now stand poised to make some noise in Europe when they take on Benfica in Lisbon on Tuesday. They’ve lost just four times in 2015 and haven’t suffered a single defeat at home since September 2014. Yeah, I know, Kazakhstan’s top-flight isn’t the exactly the toughest division, but the pressure is going to be on Benfica, not on Astana.

Ibra and Memphis return home
Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns home (so to speak) on Tuesday when Paris Saint-Germain welcomes Malmo, the talismanic striker’s hometown and the club where he began his professional career. “It means a lot to me,” he told PSG’s official website ahead of the game. “I have a lot of good memories from there, even if I didn’t win any trophies.” Don’t expect Ibra to take it easy on his boyhood team—PSG is in the same group as Real Madrid, so it can’t afford to drop any points if it hopes to pip the Spaniards for first place. Tuesday will also see Memphis Depay return home when Manchester United takes on PSV Eindhoven, the club with whom he made his pro debut in 2011. Depay left PSV for United in the summer following a £25 million transfer, but has underwhelmed for the Red Devils thus far. Maybe a match against his old team will bring out the best in him.

Casillas to tie Xavi’s record
Long-time Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas will make his Champions League debut for Porto on Wednesday against Dynamo Kiev at the Valeriy Lobanovsky stadium. When he does, he will equal former Barcelona great Xavi’s record for the most tournament appearances at 151. This season marks Casillas’ 17th in the Champions League, the previous 16 coming at Real Madrid, where he made his European debut on Sep. 15, 1999 against Greek side Olympiacos. It’s a testament to Casillas’ longevity, consistency and quality that he’s about to surpass the record set by a player the calibre of Xavi, although how weird is it going to be seeing him play in anything but a Real Madrid jersey in the Champions League?

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