Crank up the music. Save a seat in anticipation. Ditch Pro Evolution Soccer for EA Sports FIFA. The UEFA Champions League returns to its group stage this midweek. As is customary, this mid-September, Europe’s big guns begin a nine-month journey for the honour of losing to Real Madrid in the final, and with that, here’s a look at each group, as well as predictions over who’d remain when 32 gets trimmed to 16 in December.
Note: Predictions are liable to almost always go wrong.
Group A (Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Club Brugge)
Atletico Madrid will be highly motivated, given that the final is played at their home stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. Diego Simeone’s side have begun the season in a slow manner, but they’ve created a habit of having slow starts and are always a very formidable side in the latter stages. They’ve recruited well in the summer, and will fancy their chances. Dortmund and Monaco were disappointing in the Champions League last season, four points between them, Dortmund’s European form ultimately affecting their league run and costing Peter Bosz his job, while Monaco’s dire results could be linked to losing players to bigger sides. It’s no different for Leonardo Jardim’s side this summer, and they’ve begun their Ligue 1 season in underwhelming fashion. Club Brugge are in their second group stage campaign in three years, and only the bravest would bet against the Belgians finishing bottom.
Prediction: 1. Atletico; 2. Dortmund; 3. Monaco; 4. Club Brugge
Club Brugge v Dortmund
Monaco v Atletico
Group B (Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV, Internazionale)
Barcelona have suffered three successive quarter-final exits from the Champions League, the latest of which was that astonishing collapse in Rome five months ago. Ernesto Valverde’s side have their sights set on a sixth European crown, while getting to the last four this season should be the minimum. Spurs have a wonderful side, and toppled Real Madrid in the group stage last season, but their inexperience was exposed by Juventus in the last 16 last term. They’ll hope to have learned from that collapse, as they aim to leave a lasting impression this time. Inter Milan, meanwhile, are back in Europe’s biggest club competition for the first time the 2011/12 campaign, seven seasons ago. But Luciano Spalletti’s side rode their luck to get back to this stage, have looked off the pace in Serie A this season, and are heavily reliant on skipper Mauro Icardi. Dutch champions PSV are the least-fancied side in this group, and qualification to the next round will be a monumental achievement for Mark van Bommel’s side.
Prediction: 1. Barcelona; 2. Tottenham; 3. Inter; 4. PSV
Barcelona v PSV
Inter v Tottenham
Group C (Paris St. Germain, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star Belgrade)
PSG are still aiming to go the distance in Europe, having never gone past the last eight since their Qatari owners came in, and the last two seasons have seen exits in the first knockout round. Thomas Tuchel is the latest manager tasked with getting Le Parisiens the European Holy Grail. Liverpool were finalists last season, as they thrilled the continent on their way to Kiev, only to fall to Real Madrid. The Reds have an even stronger squad this term, and will more than fancy themselves capable of going one better. Napoli, for all their thrilling football last season, failed to get past the group phase last season, and former manager Maurizio Sarri has left for Chelsea. But, in new manager Carlo Ancelotti, they have a proven winner in this competition (the Italian has won three Champions League titles as a manager). Red Star Belgrade, European champions in 1991, are the first Serbian side in the group stage since 2010, and are the answer’s to this year’s edition of the question ‘why are Red Bull Salzburg not in the Champions League?’
Prediction: 1. PSG; 2. Liverpool; 3. Napoli; 4. Red Star Belgrade
Liverpool v PSG
Red Star Belgrade v Napoli
Group D (Porto, Lokomotiv Moscow, Schalke, Galatasaray)
The most open of the groups this season, with no standout big gun or minnow. Porto might be considered favourites in this group, Sergio Conceicao’s side the most consistent in Europe of the four, and they have got past the group stage in three of their last four seasons. Schalke are back in the Champions League, after a three-season absence, but will hope their torrid league form doesn’t reflect in Europe, as the Miners have lost all three of their Bundesliga games so far. Russian champions Lokomotiv Moscow are in the Champions League for the first time since 2003 and Yuri Semin has a squad of players experienced in this stage, while Turks Galatasaray return after a two-season absence.
Prediction: 1. Porto; 2. Lokomotiv; 3. Galatasaray; 4. Schalke
Galatasaray v Lokomotiv
Schalke v Porto
Group E (Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens)
Since winning the Champions League in 2013, Bayern Munich have suffered four semi-final exits in the five seasons that have followed. All five eliminations (including one quarter-final exit) have come at the hands of Spanish opposition, one against Atletico, one against Barcelona, and three against Real Madrid. Niko Kovac is the new man in charge, after Jupp Heynckes went back into retirement, and with league success almost a given, the Croat knows his tenure is likely to be measured by Bayern’s European exploits. Benfica were hapless in the Champions League last season, finishing bottom of their group, while Ajax haven’t got past the group stage in over a decade, and are in fact making their first group stage appearance in four years. For AEK Athens, it’s a return to Europe’s big time after 12 years away, but qualification to the next round may be a bridge too far for the Greeks.
Prediction: 1. Bayern Munich; 2. Ajax; 3. Benfica; 4. AEK Athens
Benfica v Bayern Munich
Ajax v AEK Athens
Group F (Manchester City; Shakhtar Donetsk; Olympique Lyon; Hoffenheim)
Manchester City look like the outright favourites in Group F, Pep Guardiola’s side clearly a cut above the others. The aim for City is European glory, of course, having fallen at the quarter-final stage last season. Beyond City, it looks an even fight for the other qualification spot in this group. Shakhtar were pitted in the same group as City last season, and made it to the next round, beating City on the way, but have lost key players in Fred and Bernard. Lyon and Hoffenheim make up the group, Lyon with a young and inconsistent squad, while Hoffenheim are inexperienced when it comes to Champions League football, the farthest they had previously gotten was the play-offs last season.
Prediction: 1. Man City; 2. Shakhtar; 3. Lyon; 4. Hoffenheim
Shakhtar v Hoffenheim
Manchester City v Lyon
Group G (Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow; Viktoria Plzen)
Champions Real Madrid are looking for a fourth successive Champions League crown, and will be one of the favourites to be champions come May. Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane have gone, but the rest of the squad remains, and the team seems to be adapting to Julen Lopetegui’s style of play. They’ll be favourites to get out of this group, as will Roma. The Italians were the surprise packages of last season, getting to the semi-finals, after that stunning comeback against Barcelona in the last eight. Eusebio Di Francesco’s side have started the season poorly, but will be disappointed if they fail to make it past the group stage. The other sides in Group G are Viktoria Plzen, the Czech side who have never gone past the group stage, and Russians CSKA Moscow, who have finished bottom of their Champions League group in all but one of the last five seasons.
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid; 2. Roma; 3. CSKA; 4. Plzen
Real Madrid v Roma
Plzen v CSKA Moscow
Group H (Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, BSC Young Boys)
The headlines of Group H are surely going to revolve around Manchester United and Juventus; United, Jose Mourinho and a supposed sense of disconnect growing at Old Trafford; Juventus, the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo and their quest to be European champions again. The romance is also likely to be in the air when they meet, Ronaldo facing his old side United, while Paul Pogba meets old Juve friends, but focus on both sides will take the limelight off Valencia, Marcelino’s team who won’t be fazed by facing either side. Swiss club Young Boys will hope to do more than make up the group.
Prediction: 1. Juventus; 2. Man Utd; 3. Valencia; 4. Young Boys
Young Boys v Manchester United
Valencia v Juventus