For two straight seasons, a Croatian has lifted the Champions League trophy. In 2013, Mario Mandžukić did it with Bayern while Luka Modrić helped Real Madrid gain their record 10th title in 2014. The 2014-15 rendition of the tournament begins Tuesday.
This season, there will be a total of eight Croatians vying for the Champions League crown. Here’s a breakdown of all the players and their chances of getting out of group stage.
Although Luka Modrić and Real Madrid have started out slow in La Liga this season, expect them to not only make it out of group stage this year, but to still be in the tournament come April as semifinalists. There is way too much talent on this team, as well as experience, not to make a run at a back-to-back title. There will be plenty of pushback from the likes of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea or Bayern Munich later in the tournament, but Real will get their mojo flowing later in the season when it’s do-or-die. In Real’s group: Dejan Lovren and Liverpool as the Reds bring back night football to Anfield. Expect both clubs to finish 1-2 ahead of Basel and Ludogorets.
Mario Mandžukić won a title at Bayern Munich, but now the Croatian striker is looking to get Atletico Madrid over the hump as last year’s La Liga champions were oh so close to winning their first Champions League title, only to unravel in the final minutes against Real Madrid in the Final. Atletico will top the group, which consists of Juventus, Olympiakos and Malmo.
Ivan Rakitić is back in Champions League for he first time since leaving Schalke. But this time around, he has much, much more firepower around him. This is a revamped Barcelona side which will have Messi, Suarez and Neymar running at opposing defenses. Barring injuries, this Barcelona team will make a run at the title. They should easily top the group with little say from PSG, Ajax or APOEL. Wunder-kind Alen Halilović has also been added to the Barcelona Champions League roster. Although he’s not expected to play, if Barca can lock up a knockout round berth early, we can see Halilović play in some junk time late in the group stage.
In 2011, captain Darijo Srna got Shakhtar Donetsk to the quarterfinals before being ousted by eventual champions Barcelona. At age 32, this may be Srna’s last chance to make some real noise in the tournament as Shakhtar were given a kind draw alongside FC Porto, Athletic Bilbao and BATE. Shakhtar could finish top two in this group if they play solid football at home. Shakhtar is perfect in Ukraine through the first six matches of the season. If they can get a generous lead atop the table in the upcoming months, that should ease the stress of playing doubles in the same week.
Danijel Subašić is currently Monaco’s #1 keeper. But that can change quickly. Monaco have only earned four points from the first 5 matches of the young Ligue 1 season and currently sit in 19th place. Monaco let Falcao go to Manchester United on loan and could find scoring difficult in a tricky group which consists of Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica. 18 year-old Tin Jedvaj has already scored two Bundesliga goals with new club Bayer Leverkusen. With double duty coming up, Jedvaj could see some time in Champions League play. Expect Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen to progress.
Finals projection: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid