The Champions League group stage begins on Tuesday, Sept. 18 and with it, the most exciting and competitive soccer tournament in the world gets underway. The World Cup every four years is fantastic but the high-level play in the UEFA Champions League dwarfs what was on display this summer in Russia. The best players in the world, with their most optimal sets of teammates, take the field.
A few things you need to know before entering the eight-tier ESPN Fantasy game for the Champions League: The group stage games are normally quite high scoring as there are matchups where clearly superior teams from England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy play smaller teams from other European nations. The best plan is to play attackers from heavy favorites in the betting markets and rack up goals, assists, shots on goal and chances created as our game rewards those stats much more heavily than defensive stats.
What follows are notes to help you make your selections in all eight tiers of the first set of choices for Matchweek 1.
Tier one forward
This is likely the tier that your captain is going to come from, as it contains the games' best. Barcelona is the biggest favorite in the betting markets and they have a projected goal total of over 3 (around 3.3 projected goals). Lionel Messi is the cream of the crop that includes Neymar, Luis Suarez and Kylian Mbappe. Neymar does all things for PSG but has a much tougher matchup against Liverpool while Barca plays PSV Eindhoven, a team from the Netherlands. Messi scored 6 goals with 2 assists in 8 UCL starts last season while shooting 4.4 times per contest. Messi is also likely the best choice for your captaincy.
Tier two forward
The second tier of forward is more difficult as we go away from the true superstars of the game. Lorenzo Insigne, Memphis Depay, and Alexis Sanchez have the best chance of accruing what we call "peripheral" statistics. That means outside of just goals and assists, they will create chances, get shots on goal and generally provide value to your fantasy team even if they are unable to get on the score sheet. Depay has a tough matchup against Manchester City but he is his team's primary free-kick and corner-kick taker which adds assists and chance created points. Insigne is on the road against Red Star Belgrade, a team that Napoli should be much better than, but playing on the road in Eastern Europe is notoriously tough. The best pure goal scorer on the slate is Robert Lewandowski, but if he doesn't score, he is likely sitting on your lineup with a lackluster score on the road against tough Portugese side Benefica.
Tier one midfielder
For many people, this tier will be the hardest decision they have to make. Christian Eriksen is the primary engine in Tottenham Hotspur's attack and they play at home against mediocre Italian side, Inter Milan. David Silva and Raheem Sterling offer a lot of passes completed and chances created upside for Manchester City (particularly Silva), while Phillipe Coutinho has the same cushy matchup as a massive favorite that Messi does. However, the class of this group is likely Gareth Bale who is classified here as midfielder and has nine appearances for club and country this soccer season and has 8 goals and 2 assists, including 3 goals in 3 La Liga starts. Bale is one of the five best footballers in the world while healthy and a home matchup against a dilapidated Roma side is not discouraging for his value. If not for Messi in this slate, Bale would be my captain selection.
Tier two midfielder
This is an incredibly deep tier of players and I expect that it will be one of the most wildly different among fantasy managers. There is not one clear player that leaps out over the rest. Arturo Vidal is the biggest name and has the great matchup against PSV, but he is less of an attacking player and more of a pure central midfielder. Vidal's upside lower than someone like Isco or Marco Asensio, two attacking midfielders for Real Madrid. Isco is my favorite selection of this group as he is the creative engine for Madrid with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, but I see merit in Asensio as a differential, Arjen Robben as a high upside play for Bayern Munich on the road against Benefica, and also Dele Alli as a potential goals plus assists plus chances created monster, if he is fit to play for Spurs.
Tier three midfielder
Educated soccer fans will get a fairly decent edge when we get to Tier Three. We are presented with two Shaktar Donetsk mids in Alan Patrick and Maycon, both of whom have an advantageous matchup against Hoffenheim. Patrick is a huge sleeper in this tier as he is fresh from Brazil and seems to be Shaktar's next in the line of talented young Brazilians that stretches from Douglas Costa, Luiz Adriano, and Willian. Manuel Fernandes is a similar value as he takes all of the set pieces and is the primary creator for Lokomotiv Moscow who have an easier matchup at home against Turkish side Galatasaray. I also think Benefica central midfielder Pizzi is a high upside play as he has been tearing up his home league and the UCL qualifiers with 6 goals and 2 assists in club play so far this season. Pizzi also takes corner and penalty kicks for Benefica.
Tier one defender
Benjamin Mendy for Manchester City is the cream of this crop. He has been an attacking force for the best attacking team in the EPL so far in 2018 and plays more like a winger than a defender. Sergio Ramos does take penalty kicks for Real Madrid and will get some blocks and interceptions and Joao Cancelo for Juventus is a very attacking-minded fullback but this tier starts and ends for me with Mendy.
Tier two defender
Alex Telles is the primary set piece taker for FC Porto and is very talented from open play as well. Telles had 3 goals and 13 assists in his league campaign last season and will post stats more like a central midfielder than a defender. Lukasz Pischek is another talented attacking defender but his set piece role will be non existent and the club does play away in Belgium. Most of the other options here are center backs (who will not generate many offensive stats) or full backs for teams who are not expected to attack very often.
While there are more ways for goalies to get points than in other fantasy scoring systems (smothers, claimed crosses and punches) the best way for goalies to get points will be through saves and clean sheets. We do want some save opportunities as just 10 points for a clean sheet is not great. David De Gea plays for a strong Manchester United team but they do seem to funnel shots his way and he is the best GK in the world, making him the top option. Man City's Ederson has very strong win-to-0 odds as does Barca's Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.