Champions League 2018-19 Group Stage Preview
Arsenal and Chelsea fans look away. We are barely a few fixtures into the regular season and we’ve been treated to a feast of surprises already from the best leagues across the continent.
Some teams have fired up in their respective campaigns with incredible starts, while others have failed in their attempts to burst out of the blocks, but football fans everywhere still no doubt crave for the greatest club competition in the world – the UEFA Champions League.
Nothing can match the vicious hostility of a Wednesday night in Europe, the goosebumps that rattle through players at the sound of the Champions League anthem or the perplexing unpredictability the tournament throws up on a weekly basis.
GROUP A: Atletico to be tested.
TEAMS: Atletico Madrid, AS Monaco, Club Brugge, Borussia Dortmund
Group A feels like a hipster’s choice. With Atletico’s pedigree, Dortmund’s colorful supporters, Monaco’s youth exuberance and Brugge’s unknown quantities, there is enough on the tap to keep the most casual fan interested. Diego Simeone continues to work miracles to keep Atletico competitive in what would otherwise become a two-horse race in Spain, and with Antoine Griezmann staying and arrivals of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins, this looks the strongest Atletico in a few years. After a disappointing couple of seasons, the impressive start by Dortmund this season suggested Lucien Favre might be the man to make Dortmund competitive again. Monaco reached the Champions League Semi-final in 2017 but their trajectory has been sadly predictable as their best players were picked off. Club Brugge have not won a game in the Champions League since 13 years and little is expected from them this season as well. Apart from Club Brugge any of the other teams should fancy their chances of reaching the knock-out stages. Keep eyes on Monaco’s latest summer signing Aleksandr Golovin and Atletico’s Gelson Martins as the two take on defenders for fun and make things happen from midfield.
Star Player: Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)
Keep an eye on: Christian Pulisic (Dortmund)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Atletico Madrid 2.Borussia Dortmund 3. AS Monaco 4. Club Brugge
GROUP B: Barcelona might be concerned
TEAMS: FC Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur, Internazionale Milan, PSV
Another match-up of heavyweights in this group. Barcelona- a contender for the top spot, Tottenham - a team trying to find their footing in this tournament and Inter Milan- a returning champion. Add to the mix the current champions of Netherlands and you have a group with a plot thicker than blood. Tottenham, having negotiated a brutal group in 2017-18, found the draw no easier this time. Spurs fans will still be wondering how they lost against Juve last season when they dominated all but last half hour of the tie. The key is to process that experience and develop and it will be interesting to see how Pochettino prepares his side for clash of the colossuses. Increasingly, the ideology-led approach of Barcelona seems to be fading, as they become just another club signing top players. That said, the squad improvement has been massive compared to last season- Going from a bench of inexperienced and incompetent Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne to a bench of Malcom, Arthur, Arturo Vidal. Inter are in yet more transition. Having made intriguing signings like Radja Nainggolan, Kwadwo Asamoah, Stefan De Vrij yet winning just one point at home in two games in the Serie A demonstrate how much work needs to be done to bring Inter back to the stage of European glory. PSV have a difficult go as well, but now’s the opportunity to show Dutch football in a positive light. There’s a lot of attacking potential in this quartet, with the likes of Lozano, Perisic, Ousmane Dembele and Heung-Min Son set to entertain on the flanks.
Star Player: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Keep an eye on: Hirving Lozano (PSV)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. FC Barcelona 2. Tottenham Hotspur 3. Inter Milan 4. PSV
GROUP C: The Group of Death
TEAMS: PSG, Liverpool, SSC Napoli, Red Star Belgrade
This group offers emotional storylines, cross continent travel and the prospect of scintillating football. Edinson Cavani’s return to Napoli- where he first shot to fame as a raw, greasy-haired striker – will draw cheers from Southern Italy. PSG are living proof that being rich is one thing, using wisely the advantages that it brings is something else. Thomas Tuchel is far more system-driven manager than Unai Emery, and much will depend on whether he can reconcile the tension between his idea of football and Neymar’s self-indulgent tendencies. Liverpool look a stronger side than last season, with Alisson a clear improvement in goal and far greater strength in depth for Jurgen Klopp to call upon in the midfield. The dangerous Napoli side lost their tactical master Maurizio Sarri, but under experienced title winner Carlo Ancelotti they have had a flamboyant start. Liverpool’s face off against Napoli will be the pick of the bunch. The potential for goals is high between these two sides, a clash of relentless brands of football featuring high lines and rigorous pressing. Red Star Belgrade, though not expected to do much might spring a few surprise especially at home with their extremely vocal support.
Star Player: Kylian Mbappe (PSG)
Keep an eye on: Naby Keita (Liverpool)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Liverpool 2. PSG 3. SSC Napoli 4. Red Star Belgrade
GROUP D: Might go down to the wire
TEAMS: Galatasaray, Lokomotiv Moscow, Schalke 04, Porto
Group D isn't one for the neutrals. There's not much that grabs headlines here, unless it's in the flashy stands of Galatasaray's stadium. This group might just reset the equilibrium with most of the high voltage clashes in the other groups. When Yuri Semin returned to Lokomotiv Moscow for a fourth spell in charge, it was widely seen as a sentimental appointment but the wily 71-year-old inspired them to a first league title in 14 years. Despite veteran additions like Grzegorz Krychowiak and Benedikt Howedes, Lokomotiv have the least potent squad on paper, although the weather will play a huge part in deciding their home games. There’s been the usual swirl of ins and outs at Porto and, while they are as good as anybody in the world game at managing that, five goals conceded in their last two league games suggests vulnerability. Schalke under the tutelage of manager Domenico Tedesco defied expectations when they finished runners-up in the Bundesliga last term. The danger for Schalke is that they go the way of so many other Bundesliga sides and, having qualified for the Champions League, fail to reproduce the form that got them there. The loss of Leon Goretzka to Bayern Munich does not help. The Galatasaray fans will make a hostile environment for the visitors at the Turk Telekom Arena, but one cannot expect the same from the squad. The Turkish champions should be aiming for a more getable spot- the Europa league spot.
Star Player: Vincent Aboubakar (Porto)
Keep an eye on: Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Porto 2. Schalke 04 3. Galatasaray 4. Lokomotiv Moscow
GROUP E: Benfica and Bayern to lead the way.
TEAMS: Benfica, Bayen Munich, AEK Athens, Ajax
Group E is deceiving. Although it may look like Bayern have a direct route to the next round, Benfica and Ajax are good enough to complicate matters. Niko Kovac took over as Bayern manager in the summer and immediately increased the physical load on players, something that may sit well with a group of German players who have something to prove after a dismal World Cup. Bayern did little to reinforce their team, putting more pressure on the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben to win matches on their own. Benfica, Rui Vitoria’s Portuguese runners-up, remain unbeaten in seven this season and have continued to hone their talent. Ajax did well to avoid a fire sale this summer. Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech is a fantastic playmaker who can set up goals and score from distance, and teammate Dusan Tadic is a capable match winner whose linkup play could prove troublesome. AEK have not been in the group stage since 2006-07 but Marinos Ouzounidis’ side ended the reign of Olympiakos’ seven straight league titles indicating a radical transition. It's not as straightforward as it seems.
Star Player: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
Keep an eye on: Hakim Ziyech (Ajax)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Bayern Munich 2. Benfica 3. Ajax 4. AEK Athens
GROUP F: City’s free pass
TEAMS: Manchester City, Shaktar Donetsk, 1899 Hoffenheim, Lyon
Here's another group with a few traps. City stumbled against Shakhtar in last season's group stage (In a dead rubber situation), and the youthfulness of Lyon and Hoffenheim could send a jolt through the Premier League champions. Despite that, Manchester City’s squad is awesomely strong even if Kevin De Bruyne is likely to miss the entirety of the group stage with his knee injury. Expect City to canter past the Group stage with ease. There is a familiar group-stage opponent with City, like last year, grouped with Shakhtar. Bernard, Fred and Darijo Srna have gone, but four Brazilians have been signed as Shakhtar have maintained the policy that has brought them such success. Lyon side is brimming with confidence and can give their fans a run for their money. 1899 Hoffenheim are expected be the punching bags for the other heavyweights in the group. However, their extremely young coach Julian Nagelsmann has big aspirations and will give every drop of blood and sweat to take Hoffenheim to heights. A lot of goals may be expected with all the teams preferring a more open, expansive style of play.
Star Player: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Keep an Eye on: Memphis Depay (Lyon)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Manchester City 2. Lyon 3. Hoffenheim 4. Shakhtar
GROUP G: A new era for Real Madrid
TEAMS: Real Madrid, AS Roma, Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow
A classic case of two halves. Madrid and Roma are destined to make it out of Group G, with CSKA and Plzen set to compete for the right to claim third and the Europa League spot that goes with it. Real Madrid may have won the past three Champions Leagues, but there is vulnerability about them this season, as highlighted in their defeat to Atlético in the Super Cup. The manager and player most responsible for those successes have left and the underlying structure was never that convincing – something seen in how rarely Real actually controlled games even while winning them. But a capacity to peak at the right moment in Europe, even while treading water in the league, has long been a trademark. They have, anyway, been a little fortunate with the draw. Roma’s summer transfer business was frenetic, with 12 players coming in on permanent deals, while the likes of Nainggolan have left. A repeat of last season’s semi-final seems unlikely. Manager Eusebio Di Francesco either aces his tactics or bombs completely, so it's imperative he gets his approach right against the three-time defending European champions. CSKA Moscow, similarly, have lost key players with Bebars Natcho, Pontus Wernbloom and Aleksandr Golovin all departing; one win in five league games this season tells its own story. Viktoria Plzen may be minnows, but they have begun their defence of the Czech title with six wins out of six.
Star Player: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
Keep an Eye on: Cengiz Under (Roma)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Real Madrid 2. Roma 3. Viktoria Plzen 4. CSKA Moscow
GROUP H: Headline Galore
TEAMS: Manchester United, Juventus, Valencia, Young Boys
There is no doubting the major story of Group H, Paul Pogba will face the Old Lady for the first time since his €100-million transfer to United, Cristiano Ronaldo will return to Old Trafford, and Valencia will try to break up the love-in with some good football of their own. No side embodies the optimism of Serie A so much as Juventus and their summer business. After seven straight Scudetti, this summer felt like a concerted effort, after two defeats in finals in the past four seasons, to win a first Champions League since 1996. Ronaldo may not be as mobile as he was, but he is as close to a guarantee of goals in major games as anybody. For Jose Mourinho, whose grumpiness is already threatening to overshadow this season, the draw has offered more bad news. If the Premier League continues to be a struggle, there will be no respite in Europe, but Mourinho's record in cup competitions cannot be ignored. Valencia are looking to rebuild from the ashes. Once a club with a lot of potential, they spiralled down in debt after mismanagement all these years. Valencia finished fourth in La Liga last season and may be even stronger this season having signed Michy Batshuayi, Kevin Gameiro, Denis Cheryshev and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Young Boys, after winning the league for the first time since 1986, at least offer some relief. Expect a few unexpected results given that Manchester United’s recent slump continues. Valencia’s tendency to pop up with the odd result, Ronaldo’s supposed scoring woes and an outsider team from the Swiss Alps all makes for a very interesting group.
Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
Keep an Eye on: Goncalo Guedes (Valencia)
PREDICTED TABLE: 1. Juventus 2. Manchester United 3. Valencia 4. Young Boys