2018-19 UEFA Champions League Preview: Group Stage Edition
We are inching ever so close to having Champions League football back in our lives. The draw a few weeks ago helped us take one giant step towards us hearing “The Champions” blaring across our TV screens. The results turned out to be quite interesting. Sure some of the groups are real cakewalks (looking at you, Manchester City and Bayern Munich) but the rest of the teams surely have their work cut out for them.
There are some amazing matchups we are going to get during the group stages. Let’s take a look at the narratives in each of the eight groups along with who will make it to the Round of 16.
This is a good group if you want to watch two clubs with some young talent on display. Monaco and Borussia Dortmund both are well known for developing some of the world's best young players and selling them for mass profit. Atletico Madrid got younger too with the signings of Thomas Lemar and Rodri in the midfield. Lemar will have a reunion game as he faces his former club when Atletico and Monaco collide on Matchday 1.
Both Dortmund and Atleti will be looking to bounce back in the Champions League after crashing out in the group stage last year. It didn’t turn out so bad for them in Europe as Dortmund reached the knockout stages of the Europa League while Diego Simeone’s team lifted the trophy when it was all said and done. Atletico looked stronger than ever in the UEL final and in the UEFA Super Cup, beating Real Madrid 4-2. Dortmund had a huge win against RB Leipzig last week then followed it up with a 0-0 dud against Hannover. Lucien Favre has this team playing better than last year but they need to step it up a notch if they want to impress in Europe.
Club Brugge are the team from Pot 4 in this group. The good news for the Belgian side is that they have basically two weeks off before their first matchday and the only game in between is against Lokren, who are 14th in the Belgian Pro League. Then things get a bit tough as they have to play in all three competitions right after. Dortmund in the UCL, Gent in league play, and a Round of 32 cup clash against Deinzel all come in quick succession. They will fight hard in group play to snatch points against the big guns. Their best bet is nabbing some against Monaco.
Madrid and Dortmund are the favorites and rightly so, they are the two most talented squads. Monaco should be expected to finish around third with Brugge coming in the final spot.
Atletico Madrid and Dortmund advance
After impressing in the group stages last season (remember that 3-0 scoreline against Real Madrid?) Tottenham will be looking to do the same in this group. A summer with no transfers gave a lot of worry as to the squad depth of Spurs but they have started out the season in top form. We will truly get a sense of how much their lack of activity in the summer costs them as they try to advance deeper into cup tournaments along with fighting for a top 4 spot in the Champions League.
After getting a come from behind win against Lazio to get into the UCL, Inter Milan was rewarded by getting into a group with two of the top clubs in Europe. Inter have gotten a lot better in the transfer market, picking up additions such as Radja Nainggolan, Stefan De Vrij, and Keita Balde Diao. With Mauro Icardi up top and Ivan Perisic on the wings, Inter has solid threats in front of goal. They will be a much tougher out than many think and are certainly capable of an upset result in the group stages, especially at home in the San Siro.
PSV Eindhoven has a great young player in Chucky Lozano and he will be someone to watch for in the group stage. Lozano and Steven Bergwijn both possess talent on the wings. Even with PSV likely to finish last in the group, they should provide some highlights.
It’s not hard to determine who the best team in this group will be and it’s Barcelona. The Catalans are ready for a deep Champions League run, especially after the collapse they had against Roma. One of the topics Leo Messi talked about in his captain's speech to the fans was about winning the Champions League. It’s clear they want the Champions League title and should be favorites. With a summer of bringing in talent to solidify the bench, Barca is a deep team. It also helps that young starlet Ousmane Dembele has gotten off to a fast start this season. He scored the game-winning goal in the Spanish Super Cup and has been a menace on the wings every time he has featured for the Catalans thus far. He looks a lot more confident and could show those promising steps in development many Barcelona fans hoped for when he first signed with the club.
This will be a tough road for the top three teams but Barcelona will make it out of the group as winners. The Catalans should get enough points early to see their way through. Inter Milan will put up a fight but ultimately Tottenham should finish second. We will get to see some drama in the later matchdays of this group, including the final one where Barcelona will play Spurs. This could possibly decide who finishes first in the group.
Barcelona and Tottenham advance
This features a group with three strong attacking teams so look for some really high score lines on their given matchdays. We all know about Liverpool and their potent attack. With Sadio Mane and Mo Salah on the wings, they are a constant threat to burn your back line on counter attacks. Roberto Firmino does a good job as the central striker and his pressing defensively helps make Jurgen Klopp’s system run more smoothly. Liverpool also ramped up their midfield with the arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho. Keita will be instrumental in their success against Europe’s elite. They shocked the world by reaching the Champions League final before running into the buzzsaw which is Real Madrid. While back to back appearances to the final is highly unlikely, they can make some noise. Their defense has seemed stable so far in Premier League but they will be facing two teams with explosive attacks of their own. Both Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli can punch a couple of goals into the back of the Liverpool net if they are not careful.
PSG have had a great start to the Ligue 1 season as they look to dominate the French league once again. Like Liverpool, they have a big three of their own in Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappe. It will be a nightmare for the rest of the three to try and stop Paris. They cruised in group play last season despite having giants such as Bayern Munich in their group. The real goal for Paris however, will be in the knockout stages. They will be pushed in this group stage as there are three legit teams who all have a shot at advancing. Questions are going to be asked about their defense as well as their depth in the middle of the park. They still haven’t totally gotten over the loss of Blaise Matuidi and need a real box to box player to solidify things. While the Parisians should be favorites to win the group, as they have the best side, it’s not certain.
Napoli had their share of losses too this summer with Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho heading to Chelsea. It doesn’t mean they have taken numerous steps back, however. Carlo Ancelotti still inherits a very talented squad and despite crashing out of the group stage last year, they have a puncher's chance to advance. It was clear from the onset last season they were more focused on the league and decided not to pursue any other trophies because of it. We will see this season how Ancelotti rotates the squad in Europe. At the very least they are slotted at a solid third. Red Star Belgrade will be a tough place to play and the atmosphere will be great. Against these three teams, however, it’s hard not seeing them finish anywhere other than last.
Liverpool and PSG have the most offensive firepower while their defenses seem more stable than Napoli’s at the moment. The Partenopei will be right with them step for step, though. If either of them slips up, Napoli will be waiting to pounce at a chance of reaching the knockout rounds.
PSG and Liverpool advance
Out of all the groups in the Champions League, this is the one which is a toss-up. This is actually a pretty crazy group when you think about it as it’s not often you see four teams all with a shot at advancing. There aren’t any European giants or any real minnows in group D. It looks to be an all-out slugfest.
The four teams will be Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray, and Lokomotiv Moscow. If anything, it will be a group which requires a ton of traveling as both Porto and Lokomotiv will have to travel across Europe to play each other. None of these teams are particularly overpowering over the other so it will be hard to tell who is the favorite heading into the first matchday. Both Porto and Schalke have experience in the knockout rounds. Galatasaray and Moscow are tough away fixtures. If both are able to churn out a result or two on the road, it will go a long way in their hopes of finishing in the top two or even the Europa League spot. The team to watch out will be Schalke. They have gotten off to a shaky start in Bundesliga play with two losses to begin the season. Things could get even worse with a fixture against Borussia Monchengladbach awaiting them. A good start to their European season would calm down some of the voices of worry but you have to wonder if they will be able to handle both Champions League and Bundesliga simultaneously.
Out of all the teams in the group, Porto is the ones who are the most likely to advance given their pedigree in Europe. Hector Herrera still runs the midfield and Vincent Aboubakar will poach some goals in this group. Second place is honestly a toss up but in the end, talent tops all. Schalke should have enough to barely scrape by for second place. Lokomotiv will surely be in the battle for second too and are a dark horse to watch in this group. After making the Round of 16 in Europa League last year, it will be a big jump in talent for the Russian side. If there is a group where they can raise some eyebrows, this is the one.
Porto and Schalke advance
Now we enter the first of the two cakewalk groups. It’s a common joke to say the Bundesliga is essentially Bayern Munich and everyone else. It applies to Group E as well.
It’s clear the Bavarians are through and out the heavy favorites to win this group. Even after looking like they took a step back quality wise in the Champions League, Bayern still has enough depth in the middle of the field to keep things chugging along. Their 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt should ease concerns too. This will be the first real test for Niko Kovac, Bayern Munich’s new manager. Carlo Ancelotti was immediately sacked after their blowout loss to PSG so it shows you how seriously they view their form in Europe. Luckily for Kovac, there isn’t an opponent of the Parisians quality in their group. Bayern should comfortably finish first.
The battle for the second place spot probably won’t be a drama-filled one either. Despite both having to play in the playoff rounds to reach the group stages, there is a gap of quality between Benfica and Ajax. Like Bayern, this should be an easy group for the Portuguese side to navigate. Finishing second won’t be a hard task for Benfica.
This now leaves the third place spot between Ajax and AEK. The Greek side barely scraped by in the play-off round as well and Ajax fought in a tough two-legged battle against Dynamo Kiev. There are gaps in quality between everyone in Group E. The battle for third place is no different. Ajax is the better side and should make their way into the Europa League.
Bayern and Benfica advance
All you need to do for Group F is take one look at the teams lined up and know who will top it. Manchester City is far and above the best team and should have it all wrapped halfway through the group stage. Even with the injury to Kevin De Bruyne, the Man City machine keeps plugging along. Pep Guardiola’s side has played stellar and has done so despite the likes of Leroy Sane getting off to tough starts. With the addition of Riyad Mahrez and a healthy Benjamin Mendy, Man City have so much firepower to work with. Bernardo Silva looking more comfortable in the system is a boost too. Last year they got bamboozled by Liverpool in the quarterfinals and looked pedestrian during the tie. Guardiola should have this side motivated and ready to go from the start. They are favorites to not only win the league but are in the mix of teams who can win the entire competition.
Now for who will finish behind Manchester City in the second spot is another open-ended question. Shakhtar, Lyon, and Hoffenheim all have what it takes to rally a couple of strong results together and stumble into second. At the same time, there are numerous questions surrounding the consistency of the last two in the group in Lyon and Hoffenheim. You don’t know which versions of these teams will show up on a given matchday. Lyon, for example, has a very underrated attack with Memphis DePay at the helm but they can’t seem to find the back of the net often. A lot of times for Lyon it’s been a lot of low-quality chances from outside the box and on the counter. Hoffenheim have started their season on an ok note but the jury is still out on how they will stack up against tougher competition in Europe. Shakhtar Donetsk should be the leader of the pack in this race for second. Like Porto, Shakhtar has done well in Europe as of late. While they won’t necessarily trouble Manchester City, they should be favorites to finish second.
Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk advance
Last season was a magical Champions League campaign for both Roma and Real Madrid. It often illustrates the difference in the level of expectations for teams in Europe. While for Roma supporters it would have been grand to see them win the Champions League, just reaching the semi-finals was an amazing achievement. It was even sweeter considering how they reached there, on the heels of one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history. After being thrashed 4-1 in the first leg, Roma staged an epic comeback back home in the return leg. They beat the Catalans 3-0 and advanced thanks to an away goals tie-breaker. It was one of the best comebacks in a Champions League tie the soccer world has ever seen. Now Roma has to play another Spanish giant as it draws defending winners Real Madrid in their group. Apart from their numerous pre-season matches in the summer, 2016 was the last time these two teams played in a competitive game. It was the Round of 16 in the UCL and Real Madrid dominated the tie, earning back to back 2-0 victories to see off the Italian side.
After winning three straight Champions League titles, this will be a completely different Champions League campaign for Real Madrid and we all know why. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus this summer shocked the club and not splashing the cash for a superstar to replace him was perplexing as well. While they almost certainly will try to land a top ten player in the world next summer, it looks like Real Madrid are making Gareth Bale the star of this team. The Welshman is now the star and will be looked upon to bag more goals for Los Blancos. Bale does have the talent to be a star for Real Madrid. His blistering pace causes so many problems for defenders and will open up spaces in the defense for others. Guys like Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio will have more goal scoring opportunities because of it. The midfield and the defense will still be the same as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the middle of the park. Raphael Varane, who had an exceptional season for both club and country, will lineup along Sergio Ramos. With the loss of Zinedine Zidane factored in as well, it will be a tall mountain to climb for Madrid if they want to win the UCL for the fourth time in a row. They might not make it back to the final but a quarterfinal appearance isn’t an unreasonable expectation.
The two other teams in this group are CSKA Moscow and FC Viktoria Plzn. These two teams will battle for the third place spot of this group with the Russian side being the favorites. They are currently 6th in the Russian Premier League as Zenit and Spartak Moskova have gotten off to great starts domestically. Plzn are huge underdogs and despite being in the thick of things in the Czech league, it will be difficult for them to get results in this group. Their best shot comes on matchday one when they face off against CSKA.
It’s clear who the two best teams are in this group in Real Madrid and Roma. They’ll be the ones who advance to the knockout stages. Expect Madrid to finish at the top despite the transition to a life without Ronaldo.
Real Madrid and Roma advance
To say it’s been a turbulent season so far for Manchester United is an understatement. Between the comments made by Jose Mourinho and the two losses to start the season, the pressure is on in Old Trafford. Despite finishing second in the league last season, it was still defined as an “ok”. Losing to Sevilla in the Champions League Round of 16 didn’t help either. This is a big year for Mourinho as he enters in the heavily talked about "Year 3 Mou". It's usually around the time things implode and the Portuguese manager is let go. It will be an uphill battle in the league as both Manchester City and Liverpool are favorites to lift the trophy. The Champions League draw did no favors for the Red Devils either. Manchester United can’t afford to have performances like they did against Brighton if they want to do well in this group. They have made some upgrades and depth signings this summer, especially in the midfield with the addition of Fred from Shakhtar. Mourinho still has a lot of questions left to answer about this squad. Who will start on the wings is the first question. Defense is in question as well with Eric Bailly in and out of the lineup constantly. There is a lot of shuffling in those two areas for Manchester United and it shows on match days.
United’s biggest problem will be Juventus. The Italian champions had a fantastic summer picking up Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo. Last season’s UCL campaign ended in infamy as a fantastic comeback in Bernabeu was canceled out by a late penalty awarded against the Old Lady. Juventus are bringing back a lot of their old squad but have replaced Gonzalo Higuain with Ronaldo, an obvious upgrade. The only real question for this squad will be the goalkeeping situation with Gigi Buffon now gone. The adjustment of Ronaldo on this Juventus team has gotten off to a rocky start but expect him to start scoring goals soon. Now it’s up to Max Allegri to see how he can field the best starting XI. Juventus will be very hard to stop in the Champions League this season.
Valencia is a sneaky underdog in this group. They have some young talent in attack with Michy Batshuayi and Goncalo Guedes, who made his move from Paris permanent this summer. They can catch teams on the counter with the pace on the wings too. After finishing 3rd in a group with Gent, Lyon, and Zenit last season they will be itching to make it back to the Round of 16. They certainly have the talent to make this happen.
Valencia has a chance to finish second in this group, especially if Manchester United slips up. However, Manchester United should have just enough to squeak into second. This is setting up to be a group to pay attention to.
Juventus and Manchester United advance