Fantasy Champions League: Can Ajax repeat the magic?

Can Ajax of Amsterdam match last year's amazing run into the Champions League semifinals? AFP/Getty Images

The Champions League is back! The group stage gets underway with eight matches on Tuesday, followed by eight more on Wednesday. That means it's time to build your first Champions League fantasy lineup of the season. Before you dive in, though, the first thing you need to know is that one team -- by a huge margin -- is the biggest favorite of Matchweek 1. That team is Bayern Munich, playing at home against Red Star Belgrade on Wednesday.

Bayern has been a little slow out of the blocks in the Bundesliga, with two draws in their first four games -- including a 1-1 finish against fellow Champions League participant RB Leipzig this past Saturday. However, the same can't be said for star striker Robert Lewandowski, who has scored a goal in each of his team's first four games, good for a Bundesliga-best seven in total. He's also taken five-plus shots in all four games. That's why Lewandowski will be my Tier 1 forward and captain this week.

The only other player I would consider in this spot is Lionel Messi, who returned to full training on Sunday and has been included in Barcelona's Champions League squad. But Messi hasn't played a minute yet for Barca this season due to a calf injury and even if he starts on Tuesday he could be rusty. Plus Barca has a much tougher game than Bayern, having to travel to Borussia Dortmund.

Sticking with Bayern, I'm also going with Joshua Kimmich as my Tier 1 defender. Kimmich has been deployed as a midfielder of late. He already has one assist this season and is third in the Bundesliga with 12 chances created. That total includes six chances created against Leipzig on Saturday.

Additionally, I've got Bayern's Manuel Neuer as my goalkeeper. Neuer did not have a good season last year, with only 10 clean sheets in 26 appearances. That said, he already has one this season (at Schalke) and has limited Bayern's opponents to only one goal in two of his other three starts. Plus, I just don't like Red Star's chances of scoring at Bayern. This is a huge leap, in terms of the level of competition, from the Serbian league.

Shooting stars

Ajax were the darlings of the Champions League last season, making a Cinderella run to the semifinals and nearly knocking off Tottenham to make the final. They lost two of their stars during the summer as midfielder Frenkie de Jong is now with Barcelona and defender Matthijs de Ligt has joined Juventus. Ajax still has a bunch of good players, and are solid favorites at home against Lille on Tuesday.

Hakim Ziyech has four goals and two assists in Ajax's first five games in the Eredivisie this season, helping the side to four wins and a draw. He didn't score in a 4-1 victory over Heerenveen on Saturday, but did get an assist while also taking a team-high seven shots and four chances created. Ziyech loves to shoot, averaging five-plus shots-per-game in the Champions League last season. He'll be my Tier 2 midfielder this week. Sticking with Ajax, Nicolas Tagliafico will be my Tier 2 defender. Ajax's starting left back scored two of the four goals against Heerenveen and took four shots in that game. That's no fluke as Tagliafico also scored three goals in 10 Champions League appearances last season.

Other picks

  • Erling Haland, FC Salzburg (Tier 2 forward): Salzburg has won all seven of its games in the Austrian Bundesliga so far this season, and have outscored their opponents 34-6 in the process. Haland is only 19 years old, but already has 11 goals and four assists -- including a hat trick and two assists in a 7-2 victory over Hartberg on Saturday. Salzburg is a pretty strong favorite at home against Genk, who are currently ninth in the Belgian league and coming off a 2-1 loss to Charleroi on Friday.

  • Raheem Sterling, Manchester City (Tier 1 midfielder): Manchester City is coming off a stunning 3-2 loss at newly promoted Norwich City in the Premier League on Saturday.Yet, they are still the second-biggest favorites this week, playing at Shakhtar Donetsk. Sterling has failed to score in his last two games, but got five goals over Man City's first three games of the season. Plus, he did have six shots and four chances created against Norwich.

  • Alejandro Gomez, Atalanta (Tier 3 midfielder): Atalanta finished third in Serie A last season, qualifying for the Champions League for the very first time. They also were the highest-scoring team in Serie A, with 77 goals in 38 games. The team has scored seven over the first three games this season, result in two wins and a defeat. Papu had seven goals and 11 assists in 35 appearances last year, and had 112 chances created. That was 15 more than any other player in Serie A. He already has two assists this season, plus eight shots and seven chances created. Atalanta is favored despite playing at Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday.