Hoonhout: Previewing the Champions League group stage
Tobias Hoonhout | Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Buckle up, everyone; the Champions League is back.
As the biggest club competition of the world’s game, the UEFA Champions League is where the stars come to play. Under the lights. With that one-of-a-kind anthem. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, no explanation will suffice.
After a hectic summer that saw France win a dramatic World Cup and Cristiano Ronaldo make a stunning move to Juventus, here’s a group-by-group preview of perhaps the most majestic competition in sports.
Group A: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge
While this group may have been patently more difficult a year ago, the gutting of AS Monaco by big clubs poaching the mercurial group of youngsters — including Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva — that carried the French club to the semifinals two seasons ago should give Madrid and Dortmund the confidence to progress. Without much UCL experience, Brugge doesn’t look to have a shout.
Group B: Barcelona, Tottenham, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven
Potentially a “group of death,” Group B certainly has the star power to keep it entertaining until the final matchday. Barcelona will be itching to return to the promised land after shockingly going out to Roma in the quarterfinals last year, while Spurs disconcertingly fell to Juventus last year in the round of 16 after topping a group that included eventual-winners Real Madrid. Inter has spent big this summer after returning to the competition for the first time since 2011-12, but PSV certainly have the talent to hang around the big boys — just ask Germany about Hirving “Chucky” Lozano. Barcelona should progress, but if Tottenham stumbles or PSV steals a few wins, second place is wide open.
Group C: PSG, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star Belgrade
High-powered attack seems to be the name of the game in Group C, as the two highest scorers from last year’s group stage in PSG and Liverpool are now face-to-face. Both teams have spent big money in recent months, but there’s a sense that club talismans Neymar and Mo Salah could depart for even greener pastures if the silverware doesn’t come. Napoli have lost both manager Maurizio Sarri and midfielder Jorginho to Chelsea and look to have hit a ceiling, but Carlo Ancelotti is a known Champions League commodity and provides the right formula. Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade are back in the competition after 26 years, and while they may be minnows in the group, they should have a chance in all three home games — Rajko Mitic Stadium is one of the most daunting places to play in the world.
Group D: Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray
This group is wide open. None of the teams have begun the season particularly well, but as often happens, the European competition could spark something completely different. I’m no expert, but I’d back Porto’s experience — led by World Cup-winner Iker Casillas in goal — and Galatasary to advance.
Group E: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens
Bayern Munich has reached the semifinals of the competition six of the last seven years, but has yet to return to the final since winning it in 2012-13. New manager Niko Kovac will be hoping to blend the experience and youth of his talented squad into a winning formula, and there’s no reason the club couldn’t finally break the deadlock again this season. Second place looks to be between Benfica and Ajax, with the Dutch giants adding veterans Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind to the ranks, but Benfica has done well holding on to its core from the last few seasons and should have enough to advance.
Group F: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim
Only time will tell if Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have enough firepower to finally capture the European crown, and after running away with the Premier League last season, the aim is now definitely higher. Shakhtar finally seems to be devoid of its conglomerate of Brazilians, but still may have a shout at second. But Lyon, with Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay and more should have enough to get by the Ukrainians and Hoffenheim, who are participating for the first time.
Group G: Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen
Gone is Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, and in are serious questions about Madrid’s ability to win an unprecedented fourth Champions League in a row. The weight of the world is now on Gareth Bale’s shoulders, but the Welshman isn’t one to shy away from the spotlight, as was on display this past May in Kyiv. Roma has undergone a number of changes to its squad since last year’s semifinal berth, but should be a shoe-in for second. CSKA and Viktoria Plzen look primed to battle it out for a Europa league spot.
Group H: Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys
Ronaldo was brought to Juventus to win the Champions League, and after finally opening his account for the Old Lady this weekend, he looks set to start the campaign with a bang. Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are in their third season, which in Mourinho’s career is never a good time with his management. Any guffaws, and Valencia with its summer additions looks to be circling. Young Boys, enjoy being the punching bag.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.