The 2014-2015 UEFA Champions League group stages began with a whimper for the Premier League sides, with only returnees Liverpool winning their opening encounter against Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad as Manchester City suffered last minute-heartbreak away to Bayern Munich, Arsenal were outclassed by Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea were held to a draw by Schalke.
In the absence of stalwarts Manchester United, whose poor season under David Moyes ensured they failed to qualify for a European competition for the first time since 1990, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool returned following a five-year absence. The Red’s search for a sixth title, ten years on from the miracle of Istanbul, got off to the best possible start with Mario Balotelli’s first goal for Liverpool and a penalty from Steven Gerrard enough to see off the stubborn Bulgarians, who proved far more of a challenge than they were given credit for. After Balotelli broke the deadlock with ten minutes to go, substitute Dani Abalo gave Liverpool a real fright when he coolly rounded Simon Mignolet as the clock ticked into added time, only for debuting goalkeeper Milan Borjan to needlessly upend Javi Manquillo in the box; Gerrard dispatched the resulting spot-kick at the Kop end with the nerve of a man who had seen it all before. With defending champions Real Madrid’s 5-1 demolition of Basle confirming their status as favourites to qualify from Group B, Liverpool will treat their next fixture against the Swiss champions as pivotal if they are to progress.
Arsenal failed to evoke their famous away triumph at the Westfalenstadion in the group stages last season as the Gunners fell to a disappointing 2-0 defeat, a score line which could have been far worse had Dortmund taken advantage of some haphazard defending from the visitors. Goals either side of the interval from Ciro Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang made the difference on the night, but in truth Arsenal never really came close to challenging for the points, with new signing Danny Welbeck failing to win over his new supporters by squandering Arsenal’s best chance when well placed, while World Cup winners Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski had a minimal impact on the game on home soil. The 1-1 draw between Group D rivals Anderlecht and Galatasaray mean Arsene Wenger’s men are certainly not out of the running yet, but a significant improvement is needed.
Their woe was shared by Manchester City, who came within touching distance of walking away from their fifth meeting with Bayern Munich in three years with a well-deserved point, only for old boy Jerome Boateng’s late winner to send the Premier League champions home empty-handed. As is customary for a Pep Guardiola side, Bayern controlled much of the possession and had the lion’s share of chances, but a barnstorming performance from Joe Hart in the City goal kept the match firmly in the balance. However a repeat of last season’s victory at the Allianz was not to be, as Boateng’s deflected drive after City failed to clear their lines from a corner flicked beyond the despairing reach of Hart to leave Manuel Pellegrini with a difficult task ahead of their upcoming Group E matches against Roma and CKSA Moscow.
Jose Mourinho and Chelsea could have wished for a better start too, as Cesc Fabregas’ first goal for his new club was cancelled out by Schalke frontman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar after Fabregas was dispossessed by Julian Draxler. On the night Stamford Bridge welcomed back club legend Didier Drogba, now 36 and in the twilight of his career after a spell in Turkey with Galatasaray, the Blues failed to continue their electrifying start to the season, even Diego Costa’s appearance from the bench in the final 15 minutes failing to turn the tide in Chelsea’s favour as chance after chance came and went. Nevertheless, with weaker opposition in the form of Sporting Lisbon and Slovenian minnows Maribor to come in Group G, Chelsea’s passage to the knockout stages remains comfortably on track.