Spain tightened their dominance in Europe’s club competitions last season. Real Madrid beat city rivals Atletico on penalties in an all-Spanish final as Sevilla made history in the Europa League final, defeating Liverpool 3-1 in Basel to win the competition three times in a row.
However, though Villarreal’s defeat in the playoffs to Monaco meant just the four Spanish teams will be in the competition, they will look to maintain La Roja’s grip on European club football.
Holders Madrid would love to break new ground by becoming the first team to win the Champions League back to back. Pitted in Group F, Los Merengues face a blend of old adversaries and new opponents.
The old foe comes in the form of Borussia Dortmund, who will pose a tough challenge, especially after strengthening brilliantly in the summer. In addition, Madrid are well aware of their classic duels in the knockout stages in recent years. Both group fixtures carry huge importance as they decide who finish top of the group, thus earning the qualifying team a favourable draw in the last 16.
Also in Group F are Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon. Though they've fallen behind domestic rivals Benfica and Porto on the European stage, they can still pack a punch at Estadio Jose Alvalade. Losing Joao Mario to Inter along with possibly star striker Islam Slimani to Leicester City is a double blow, so it’s vital for Sporting to recover if they want to make an impact in Europe. Completing the group are Polish champions Legia Warsaw. They will be unfamiliar opponents for Madrid, but their fans will provide an excellent atmosphere whether home or away.
For Barcelona, last season was a domestic success as they won La Liga and the Copa del Rey. But their elimination in the quarter final stage of the Champions League was a disappointment that they hope to amend. The club have rectified their issues in defence, which led to their Champions League elimination at the quarter-final stage, by bringing in centre back Samuel Umtiti and left-back Lucas Digne, and winning the competition will be Luis Enrique’s main objective to satisfy their ever-expectant fans.
However, if they are to win it, they must first negotiate an intriguing group. Manchester City will be tough opposition, but it’s also a homecoming for their ex-Coach Pep Guardiola, who brought the Catalans so much success. It's also a homecoming for recently-sold Claudio Bravo, and the Chilean will look to remind his old club of his worth.
Scottish champions Celtic may not have reached the Champions League for two years, yet La Blaugrana know all too well of their capabilities. Back in November 2012, Celtic famously beat Barca 2-1 in Glasgow and shocked the footballing world. Under the tutelage of Coach Brendan Rodgers, they will try to use the memories of that evening at Parkhead to try to spring another surprise on Luis Enrique’s men. Meanwhile, Borussia Monchengladbach will be a force to be reckoned with, despite their Champions League inexperience. Gladbach are a resilient force at their home of Borussia Park and new teams in the tournament can bring unpredictability.
Next up are Atleti, who suffered heartbreak again in last year’s final that for a time put Coach Diego Simeone’s future in doubt. However, those fears were soon put to rest and Los Colchoneros have strengthened by adding goals in striker Kevin Gameiro.
Group D includes Bayern Munich and PSV – teams Atleti defeated in last year’s knockout stages. Bayern have undergone change as they've appointed a new Coach in the experienced Carlo Ancelotti and made shrewd additions in the transfer market. Simeone will know how difficult PSV can be to face after being taken to penalties, thus the Dutch champions will be itching to exact revenge.
Completing the group are debutants FC Rostov. Though inexperienced in the competition, as well as recently changing Coach, they are to be respected. The Russian club beat two clubs of great tradition during the qualifying rounds, Anderlecht and stunningly Ajax. Atleti will be glad they travel to Russia in mid-October and not November or December.
Finally, a new-look Sevilla side under attack-minded Coach Jorge Sampaoli will see the Champions League as a exciting challenge. Group H consists teams that on their day can spring a surprise. Juventus may have lost Paul Pogba but have bought expertly in Gonzalo Higuain, Miralem Pjanic, Daniel Alves and Marko Pjaca. They’ll represent a tough test for the Andalusians.
Lyon wield young French talent in Nabil Fekir and the dangerous striker Alexandre Lacazette – underestimating them will only lead to defeat. Dinamo Zagreb may have lost their excellent young talents Pjaca and Marko Rog in the summer, but with their outstanding academy graduates, including former Madrid target Ante Coric, the Croatians can provide a thorough examination at the Stadion Maksimir.
Different challenges face Spain’s teams in the Champions League, but all three clubs hope they will contest the final in Cardiff on June 3.