It is the Holy Grail of European club soccer. It's the competition that can make managerial careers, or lead to pink slips (especially if your boss is Roman Abromovich or Florentino Perez) if you don't win it. And it's what all top players want to win, which means if you're a Spurs fan, you probably better enjoy Harry Kane while you can.
The Champions League returns this week, as thirty-two teams will play for the chance to win a really large trophy. Sixteen teams will advance to the knockout stages, eight more will enter into the Europa League, and the last eight will simply add some much-needed money to their coffers. With it comes the return of Champions League fantasy.
Unlike the Premier League game, this one takes a bit more research not only of the teams and players involved, but also the managers and their tendencies. Knowing which managers will run out their top eleven players every week, and which managers will rotate in lesser-used players for all but the big matches, plays a massive role in allocating those important funds.
First off, let's take a look at the sixteen matchups we will see this week:
Tuesday, September 15
Benfica v Astana
Galatasary v Atlético Madrid
Paris St Germain v Malmo FF
Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk
Sevilla v Borussia M'gladbach
Wolfsburg v CSKA Moskva
Wednesday, September 16
Bayer Leverkusen v BATE
Chelsea v Maccabi Tel Aviv
Dinamo Zagreb v Arsenal
Dynamo Kyiv v FC Porto
Gent v Olympique Lyon
Olympiakos v Bayern Munich
With thirty-two teams to choose from, and no bench to speak of, selection is very important. However, it also means there are lots of choices and with the right research, you can find some very solid bargains. Also, if you can find bargains at similar costs playing on different days, you can take advantage of the transfer rules outlined in Gavin's post yesterday Here is a list of players to keep an eye on for your team when weighing both cost and performance.
Anthony Lopes, Lyon (5.7m) -- Sometimes you just have to start building your team by seeing who is playing the weakest teams, and grab their top guys. It helps even more when you look at a keeper who is in top form and is playing a likely fourth-place finisher in the group. Olympique Lyon has recorded four clean sheets in five league matches, and the play of Lopes has been a key reason why. He is facing a Gent side that has recorded only seven goals in seven matches. Considering that he is 0.6m cheaper than the most expensive keeper, Manuel Neuer, and isn't in the top ten in terms of cost, he is a terrific value.
Iker Casillas, FC Porto (5.7m) -- You can do much worse than a former World Cup and Champions League winner, especially when he is facing off against Dynamo Kiev to start out the tournament. Both teams are unbeaten in their domestic competitions at the moment, but Porto has been terrific defensively, allowing only two goals in their first four matches. Saint Iker still possesses immense talent in the box, and should provide a great shot at a clean sheet.
Julio Cesar, Benfica (5.4m) -- A goalkeeper in his mid-30s who has won a World Cup and a Champions League, playing in Portugal. This sounds familiar. There is a reason that experienced, talented keepers continue to be good values in competitions such as these. Cesar isn't as nimble or athletic as some of the other keepers who you could purchase, nor is he a flashy name. Instead, he is a very good value buy, a keeper who won't be rattled on the big stage, playing at home against a minnow in the form of Astana. While the visitors have scored a fair amount of goals in their domestic league, playing a top-five opponent presents a much larger challenge than what they face in Kazakhstan.
Thiago Silva, Paris St Germain (6.4m) -- The most expensive CB in the game is worth every penny with a first week matchup against Gent. Not only is a clean sheet very likely, but he is always a threat to score a goal on a set piece. He's as close to a must-have as it gets this week.
Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea (6.3m) -- He's not a value in terms of cost, but he has a history of coming up big in Champions League. Normally you would see rotation from Jose Mourinho in a match as simple as the one they appear to have with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but with the struggles the Blues have had in the Premier League, look for many of the regulars to get the start to boost confidence and ensure three points. Ivanovic should get plenty of opportunities to attack on corners and free kicks, and a clean sheet is highly probable.
Matteo Darmian, Manchester United (6.0m) -- With all the attention that should be paid to the left side of the United lineup (which we will discuss in a moment), it could lead to a field day for Darmian on the right. The Italian defender has had a terrific start to his career as a Red Devil, and he should have the pace and freedom to put pressure on a PSV left side that has been vulnerable at times this season. As always, he is also a good bet for a zero in the goals-allowed column, especially with the return of David De Gea.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Lyon (5.3m) -- Denied a goal after a stunning save by Lille's keeper over the weekend, he is always a threat to score off a set piece and is good value when you consider the probability of a clean sheet and hiw low cost.
Memphis Depay, Manchester United (6.6m) -- This is somewhat of a risk/reward pick, but one that could pay off. He has already shown that he seems to play better when facing European teams rather than Premier League sides, and he will be taking on a team whose players and tendencies he knows. The flip side is, those same players know his tendencies. However, after the comments by the PSV Eindhoven manager over the weekend, I expect him to come out with something to prove.
Andre Schurrle, Wolfsburg (6.1m) -- CSKA Moscow are not a pushover by any means, but their defense will be tested by the German winger. The Russian side have never won on German soil, and they struggled to beat an FC Krasnodar that Wolfsburg destroyed 9-3 on aggregate in Champions League qualifying. Schurrle should be able to have a significant impact on this match.
Blaise Matuidi, PSG (6.0m) -- While many will spend close to another million on Di Maria or Verratti, I will put my money on the dynamic French midfielder. He has bagged two goals and two assists in five Ligue 1 matches this season, and just scored a brace in international play. His pace and strength should cause the overmatched Malmo FF players to have nightmares after he terrorizes them on Tuesday.
Wesley Sneijder, Galatasary (6.0m) -- He is in terrific form at the moment, is about to sign a new contract, and is a Champions League winner. Throw in the fact that they are at home, you could do much worse than an attacking, set-piece specialist at this price.
Fernandinho, Manchester City (5.2m) -- He has been dominant in the midfield so far this season, and after the performance he put in over the weekend, I find it highly unlikely that he would be dropped against a Juventus side that, while struggling, are a dangerous team. He might not score a goal, but an assist would not be out of the question, and a clean sheet is very possible.
Cristiano Ronaldo / Lionel Messi (9.1m each) -- I could explain why you must have one of these two beasts in your lineup, but I assume if you've made it this far into the article, you are here for a reason. If you accidentally clicked on the link and are still reading at this point, then we appreciate your patronage. For the rest of you, I'm assuming that you have read the aforementioned post by Gavin from yesterday, so let's keep it simple. Ronaldo plays on Tuesday, Messi plays on Wednesday, so here's what you, me, and everyone else should be doing:
Step 1: Put Ronaldo in your team for 9.1m
Step 2: Schedule Messi to be transferred into your team for Ronaldo
Step 4: Profit
Simple enough. Moving on.
Hulk, Zenit St Petersburg (7.7m) -- Taking on a Valencia team that has not been the most impressive this season, the Brazilian striker hopes to erase some of the poor showings he (and the club) had in Champions League last season. He drew and converted a penalty in their 2-2 draw with CSKA Moscow over the weekend, he comes into the match with confidence and a decent price tag.
Anthony Martial, Manchester United (6.8m) -- With Rooney missing the trip to the Netherlands, and the Fellaini experiment being somewhat of a failure, I would be shocked not to see the teenage striker in the starting eleven on Tuesday. He should be able to benefit from the attention being paid to Memphis and with his confidence high, he is a cheap alternative to some of the higher-priced big name strikers.
Chicharito, Bayer Leverkusen (6.5m) -- Expected to get his first start on Wednesday when Leverkusen hosts BATE, Chicharito offers a very enticing value. The speedy striker is healthy and made his first appearance this weekend, and his experience in the Champions League may come in handy. He will be eager to prove himself after his transfer from Manchester United, and with a very winnable match he's a good bet for a goal.
Not counting my scheduled transfers and my changes that might be made prior to Tuesday (as we find out team selections), here is my roster:
Anthony Lopes (Lyon)
Marcelo (RM) / Thiago Silva (PSG) / Darmian Matteo (MUN)
David Silva (MCY) / Matuidi (PSG) / Douglas Costa (BAY) / Memphis (MUN)
Ronaldo (RM) / Griezman (ATL) / Martial (MUN)