After arguably the most dramatic, jaw-dropping Champions League season in its 64-year history, this year’s competition should live up to the hype. I’m previewing each group and giving my prediction on who will move to the knockout stages.
Group A: Paris St-Germain (FRA), Real Madrid (SPN), Club Brugge (BEL), Galatasaray (TUR)
Despite the inevitably dramatic outcome of Group A, the main focus right now will be on which team Brazilian superstar Neymar will play against. Real Madrid or PSG? Neymar has made it clear he has no interest in returning to his club, but the Parisian giants are insistent in keeping him and have only made nonsensical offers to Madrid. No matter where Neymar plays, Real Madrid and PSG are the heavy favorites to take this group — with Neymar’s destination potentially determining the winner. Barring any surprises, Club Brugge and Galatasaray will battle it out for the third-place position to secure a spot in Europa League knockout rounds.
Winner: Real Madrid; Runner Up: PSG
Group B: Bayern Munich (GER), Tottenham Hotspur (ENG), Olympiacos (GRE), Red Star Belgrade (SRB)
Minus the hostile and often frightening atmospheres both Olympiacos and Red Star Belgrade will likely possess, Bayern and Spurs won’t face much tough competition in this group. Tottenham are coming off their best Champions League performance in their history with a trip to the final, and Bayern Munich must be keen on returning to historically elite Champions League form. Look for a good battle between the English and German giants for the top spot. As with Group A, the two smaller clubs here will fight for Europa League qualification.
Winner: Tottenham Hotspur; Runner Up: Bayern Munich
Group C: Manchester City (ENG), Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR), Atalanta (ITL), Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team will look like Goliatht against a David-esque trio in their group. City looks to be getting even better, and barring any unmitigated disasters, will cruise to a Group C win. Pep will be keen on resting some key stars each match to increase odds at a third straight Premier League title. The remainder of Group C contains three decent, generally experienced Champions League squads. Several quality games will be played without City involved, and every point will be crucial in order to advance to the knockout rounds.
Winner: Manchester City; Runner Up: Atalanta
Group D: Juventus (ITA), Atletico Madrid (SPN), Bayer Leverkusen (GER), Lokomotiv Moscow (RUS)
A repeat of the round of 16 tie from last season pits Juventus and Atletico Madrid head-to-head in group D. Last season, Juve’s Cristiano Ronaldo failed to win the Champions League in his first season with the club for the first time in four years. Knowing what he’s capable of combined with an expiring clock, expect a focused and driven Cristiano Ronaldo. While many expect Juve and Atleti to advance again with ease, Bayer Leverkusen’s exciting brand of football may give way to the contrary. Diego Simeone’s tight Atleti defense with the almighty Godin will be tested, for sure. I see Atletico just squeaking through on goal differential despite losing star forward Griezmann to rivals Barcelona. Sorry Lokomotiv Moscow, this was a tough group to draw.
Winner: Juventus; Runner Up: Atletico Madrid
Group E: Liverpool (ENG), Napoli (ITA), FC Salzburg (AUS), RC Genk (BEL)
Like fellow English giants, Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s defending champion Liverpool squad would’ve been happy with the results of the group draws mid-week. Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli seems to be their only remote challenge with smaller clubs FC Salzburg and RC Genk likely to fight for a Europa League position. Like Pep, Klopp will have the premier league table on his mind when selecting squads for this group’s simpler fixtures. Napoli shouldn’t worry much either.
Winner: Liverpool; Runner Up: Napoli
Group F: Barcelona (SPN), Borussia Dortmund (GER), Inter Milan (ITA), Slavia Praha (CZE)
Contrary to Group E, this table produces three of Europe’s top clubs — and then Slavia Praha. High energy games featuring some of the most scintillating action will be plentiful in this group. Each club (besides Praha) possesses a knack for forward-thinking, goal abundant play with several exciting talents and new signings. Barcelona should take the group — with the head-to-head games between Dortmund and Milan determining who qualifies for the Champions League or the Europa League group stages. For the second year in a row, I see Dortmund falling to an incredibly challenging group.
Winner: Barcelona; Runner Up: Inter Milan
Group G: Zenit (RUS), Benfica (POR), Olympique Lyon (FRA), RB Leipzig (GER)
Group G includes the weakest duo from Pot 1 and Pot 2 combined with the strongest from Pots 3 and 4 setting up for a form-takes-all battle from four medium-size European sides. RB Leipzig, which finished third in a similarly tight quartet two seasons ago, looks well-set to improve this time around. Lyon shocked Manchester City last season, but with Sylvinho in charge and the likes of Tanguy Ndombele, Nabil Fekir and Ferland Mendy having departed, their appearance has changed. They have a goalscorer in Moussa Dembélé and should overwhelm Benfica who are now without brilliant youngster, João Félix. Every match will be tight, and whoever finds the form, finds the way.
Winner: RB Leipzig; Runner Up: Olympique Lyon
Group H: Chelsea (ENG), Ajax (NED), Valencia (SPN), Lille (FRA)
This is the group of teams longing for their star players. In fact, Valencia is the only member of the group not to have lost key outfield players over the summer. Chelsea conceded Hazard to Madrid, Ajax lost rising superstars Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, and Lille sent Nicolas Pepe to Chelsea rivals, Arsenal. Frank Lampard might have hoped for a softer hand from the lower pots but will be happy enough to have avoided any of the heavyweights. Although clear favorites, Chelsea could stumble despite expectations. Lampard has an extremely inexperienced roster with many debuts to hand out. I expect they get through but not without a scare or two along the way. Ajax, despite their colossal summer following a magical run, have enough to fend off Lille and Valencia for second.