The annual continental club competition comes around once again. Last season’s UEFA Champions League was one of the most exciting and entertaining in recent memory, with underdogs Ajax and Spurs surpassing expectations, PSG and Real Madrid both collapsing in the round of 16, and Liverpool hoisting their 6th european title and their first since 2005’s iconic victory in Istanbul. With this season’s final also set to take place in the Turkish city, I will be looking at the group stage drawn recently (Thursday 29th August 2019) and establishing my predictions for who will progress from the group stages and into the knockout stage. Can any side recreate Ajax’s fairytale run? Will Real Madrid regain their recent clutch on the trophy? Could another all England final be on the cards? Let’s have a look at the official groups: when listing the names I will do so in the order I predict each team will finish in the group.
Paris St Germain
Immediately, a mouthwatering tie presents itself. “Los Blancos” Real Madrid are of course looking to overturn last year’s embarassment at the hands of Ajax, and are perhaps the most likely team to progress from Group A. Of course, this is their 2nd season without Cristiano Ronaldo; a certain Ronaldo who helped them decisively knock out PSG two years ago. PSG will once more be looking to prove their doubters wrong and seriously contend for the Champions League, following consecutive R16 exits. But with Neymar looking ever closer to joining old club Barcelona, they rely on Kylian Mbappe maybe now more than ever before. Brugge missed out on UCL football last season with their loss in the playoffs, whilst Istanbul’s own Galatasaray enter the competition as Super Lig Champions, but recent years have seen them fail to make a major impact in the group stage, last advancing from the group stage in the 2013-14 season.
This one does seem particularly straightforward. The heavyweights are the heavy favourites for obvious reasons, though both Real and PSG could be spooked and drop vital points to their lower ranked opposition.
Red Star Belgrade
Spurs cannot catch a break. After their heroics and impressive performances that took them to Madrid last season, they’ve been rewarded with another potentially difficult group. German champions Bayern Munich are always a formidable force in football, whilst Belgrade impressed many last season with strong performances, including a 2-0 win over Liverpool, in the textbook definition of a ‘group of death’. Olympiacos don’t even head into this campaign as champions of Greece (the actual champions, PAOK, fell to Ajax in the qualifiers) and are looking like the clear candidate for a 4th place finish in the group. Munich to top the group, with Spurs struggling but eventually getting that coveted runners up spot in Group B.
Perhaps we just write Man City and Shakhtar on the same piece of paper in every draw from now on, having been paired together for both the past two seasons. Guardiola hasn’t won the UCL in nearly a decade, where he was manager of Barcelona, but he faces three difficult away fixtures in three different exciting underdogs. Debutants Atalanta were thouroughly impressive in the Serie A, and boast a dangerous range of attackers in Alejandro Gomez, Duvan Zapata, and Josip Illicic. And Shakhtar’s South American influence of play, pretty much a requirement for top teams in Russia and Ukraine, can always pose a threat. Out of these two ‘favourites’ for 2nd place, I feel Shakhtar’s previous UCL experience will benefit them, as will likely secure vital home victories against the other teams in the group not from the North West of England.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a man who one half of Madrid have nightmares about. For 6 consecutive seasons, a side featuring the Portuguese Icon has knocked out Diego Simeone’s side, and the signing of De Ligt makes Juventus even more a serious contender to hoist the trophy next year. Bayer Leverkusen meanwhile are a team I’m incredibly excited for: just some of their players, like Kai Havertz and Danny Da Costa, have been lauded for their talent at such a young age. Not to forget Moscow, who also have noteworthy players in former PSG and Sevilla CDM Krychowiak, former German international defender Bendikt Howedes, and national team striker Feodor Smolov. On paper, this is the most exciting group for me. But it’ll inevitably boil down to who can get at least some spoils against clear favourites Juventus, and the easy money is on Joao Felix’s and Jan Oblak starring for Atletico Madrid.
Red Bull Salzburg
After their sixth european trophy and, at the time of this article being wrote, only 1 league loss since the beginning of last season, Liverpool look to be a phenomenal force and are likely to steamroll this group: a significantly easier group than last year’s PSG, Napoli, and Red Star. Napoli have looked strong as well, adding PSV’s Hrving Lozano to the attack and the former ‘Greek God in Rome’ Kostas Manolas to form an incredible centre back partnership with the much sought after Kalidou Koulibaly. Whilst Salzburg are Europa League stalwarts, and could be expected to hang in with two fixtures of modern european football. I can’t say much for Genk, and like their compatriots from Brussels in Group A, they have the unfortunate experience of being with 3 well-experienced European sides. Liverpool failed to win a single away game in their UCL group last year, once again a very real possibility this year. But they and Napoli should be clear`favourites to progress, with Liverpool edging Napoli on goal difference. Expect a battering off Liverpool at Anfield for Genk.
Here it is. The group of death. The Spanish champions, the Czech champions, and two former UCL winners. Inter have started their season off incredibly and are one of the few sides left in the top 5 leagues who have yet to taste defeat. Antonio Conte and his summer signings in Diego Godin and Romelu Lukaku look like another genuine threat to Juventus’ grasp on the Scudetto. On the other hand, La Liga and the Bundesliga may only be in their first few game weeks, but Barca and Dortmund haven’t had the strongest starts, largely due to injury woes and increased competition for European football. So for me, it comes down to these two for that 2nd place spot. Barca boast a phenomenal home record, but Dortmund can flick a switch and become the best team in the world in the right situation. It’s a coin toss, and I’ll go with Barcelona to join Inter Milan in the knockout stages.
Red Bull Leipzig
A group that appears incredibly lacking of star power on paper, may actually be an intriguing prospect: anyone can qualify from this group. Timo Werner is looking to replicate his fine form from the past few seasons for Leipzig, and is a dark horse to be top goalscorer if Leipzig progress from the group stage for the first time. The remained of the group are all Europe’s ‘there’ teams: they fill out the rest of the bracket in the UCL, one might get into the quarter finals, but the round of 16 usually proves the end of their road. If the Portuguese league so far is any indicator, then a sudden power shift at the top of the table could force Benfica to refocus its efforts on the Liga NOS. Lyon and Zenit is a tough decision, as the South American influence at Zenit has continued with the signing of ex-Barca man Malcom, whilst Moussa Dembele has been consistently scoring for the French side. I’m picking Olympique Lyonais, with Memphis Depay and Dembele being a potentially dangerous strike force.
Like the aforementioned Group G, this group is incredibly balanced and frankly anyone can qualify. Ajax have started the season undefeated, but you have to ponder whether the losses of de Jong and de Ligt will harm them in Europe, given they and their tactics were on centre stage up until the semi finals last season. Chelsea started off slowly but have becoming more convincing under Frank Lampard, with Englishman Tammy Abraham hitting the water running. Valencia had a superb Europa League run that, like Ajax, ended in the semi finals at the hands of a North London club, and will be looking to at least add another trophy to their Copa del Rey success last season. To me, Lille are looking like rank outsiders, as the losses of Leao and Pepe to AC Milan and Arsenal could prove troublesome. Difficult to predict, I see Ajax having at least another crack at the quarter finals, whilst Frank Lampard’s maiden UCL season as a manager could at least reap the rewards of a spot in the knockout stages.