Barca faces stiff Champions League test vs. Roma


Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi. (Siu Wu/AP)

The 2015-16 UEFA Champions League kicks off this week with Matchday One of the group stage.

Sportsnet’s soccer panel of broadcasters, writers and pundits offer their picks and predictions below…

Thomas Michalakos, It’s hard to bet against the mighty Barcelona—the Messi, Neymar and Suarez trident is simply unforgiving—but I do believe Roma won’t be a doormat that the visitors will walk all over and rub their feet on. Rudi Garcia has done well to replenish a squad—with Wojciech Szczesny, Lucas Digne, Mohamed Salah, Edin Dzeko and Iago Falque—that fell flat and capitulated as last season wore on following an impressive beginning. A league win against Juventus a few weeks ago was great for confidence and morale in the Roma camp, but Barcelona is a different beast entirely—as we saw in last year’s final.

Prediction: Barcelona wins 2-0

Gerry Dobson, Sportsnet : Maybe this is just what the doctor ordered. If I’m Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, I’m spinning it that way. How the mighty have fallen. Saturday’s stunning loss to Everton means the Blues are off to their worst league start since 1986, with just four points from five games. So maybe a fresh start in the Champions League will rub a little salve into the wound. After all, they seem to always avoid defeat on Matchday One of the group stage.
And Maccabi Tel Aviv shouldn’t provide much of a challenge.

Or should they? They seem to have the stars aligned in their favour right now. They lost the first leg in each of their two qualifying rounds before making it to the playoff round. Then they dispatched traditional Champions League giant killers Basel with a pair of draws. But I just don’t see Tel Aviv’s success continuing this week.

Prediction: Chelsea wins 3-1

Jamie Doyle, Sportsnet magazine: This match couldn’t be coming at a better time for Dynamo Zagreb. The Croatian side are all but unstoppable, having not lost a match since—wait for it—November 2014. That’s 41 games unbeaten. Now, that’s in the Croatian league, so let’s not go thinking Zagreb is going to win the Champions League or anything, but they have enough momentum behind them to worry the visitors on Wednesday.

The bad news for the Croatian champions? Arsenal are in-form, too. After a shaky start to the Premier League season, the Gunners are finally firing, having seen off Stoke at a canter this weekend. What’s more, that win came on the back of goals from their strikers, giving Arsene Wenger a bit of relief from the torrid of abuse he’s taken for not buying a forward in the now-closed transfer window.

The other bad news for Zagreb? Well, even in their current form, they’re no match for Arsenal. Sure, the Londoners are prone to making things hard on themselves, and have a big match with Chelsea on the horizon and on their minds. But, if we’re being honest, an in-form Arsenal’s not-quite-A-squad should be enough to down Dinamo.

Prediction: Arsenal wins 2-0

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

James Sharman, Sportsnet: It is always nice to see a fresh face make its way to the Champion’s League group stage; a club that endured some tough times but have climbed back up the ladder to the big show. No, not PSV Eindhoven who returns after a six-year hiatus. No, welcome back Manchester United to the top tourney in club footy! Yes, that is a tad sarcastic, but let’s be honest, it was a little weird not seeing the Red Devils in last year’s tournament.

United come into this one in high spirits having smashed arch rivals Liverpool on Saturday 3-1, including a sublime debut goal from the world’s most expensive teenager (Justin Bieber aside) Anthony Martial. Whether Martial starts this week is the big question, with Wayne Rooney sidelined for a second match. Perhaps Marouane Fellaini will earn his second straight start in attack, but I imagine Martial will see some minutes.

The player to watch might be Memphis Depay, who returns to PSV where he starred and engineered his move to United this summer. Depay is a superb player who has started slowly for his new club, and if ever there was a recipe for a big night this is it. PSV is coming off a 6-0 win and are unbeaten in 12 games. Manager Phillip Cocu, who played under Luis Van Gaal at Barcelona, is confident a surprise could be on the cards here, and why not?

Prediction: PSV wins 2-1

Dan Riccio, Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Manchester City has hit the ground running in the Premier League with five clean sheet wins to open the campaign. That alone doesn’t bode well for the Italian side who have yet to find the type of chemistry that carried them to the final of this competition last season. A midfield missing Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo is struggling to get the ball to its attacking players. The loss of Carlos Tevez may be the biggest hit to this Juventus side—they lack his work rate and instincts in the attacking third. This “work-in-progress” version of The Old Lady is not yet equipped to challenge a top side like City on their home ground.

Prediction: Manchester City wins 2-0

Noah Love, The quest for the Undecima—Real Madrid’s 11th title— begins as the Spanish giants have definitively shaken off a slow start to the season. Cristiano Ronaldo poured in five goals against Espanyol on Saturday to go from nowhere in the scoring race to the league leader by two. James Rodriguez is out injured, but Gareth Bale’s shift to the middle of the field has yielded immediate dividends for the offence and a healthy Karim Benzema looks as dangerous as ever.

While the Champions League campaign begins just after Florentino Perez badly bungled the David De Gea transfer, goalkeeper Keylor Navas hasn’t been beaten in any of the team’s first three games. Even Rafa Benitez, whose hiring was largely derided by Madridistas, can’t screw up with this ridiculously talented squad. Shakhtar last season failed to win the Ukranian Premier League for the first time since 2008-09, signalling maybe, just maybe, the team has finally sold too many of its talented Brazilians. Make no mistake, without the likes of Douglas Costa, Willian and Fernandinho, Shakhtar is not the dark horse it once was.

Prediction: Real Madrid wins 4-1

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