They’ll Be Aiming for the Reds

September marks the return of Europe’s most exciting competition: The Champions League.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

As the orange Champions League ball rolled from the center spot to kick-off the much-awaited final between Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC, both teams had one focus in mind: the trophy they had to walk past to get onto the pitch. Months of hard work culminated in this one game, and the pressure was on for both teams. Liverpool had lost the previous year’s final to Real Madrid, and Tottenham had infamously never won the trophy, let alone been in a final. Both teams had difficult (albeit different) paths to this point that included many late winners, comebacks, and most importantly, goals. It wasn’t long before the favorites, Liverpool, made their mark. In fact, it took them only two minutes to win a penalty before their Egyptian superstar, Mohamed Salah, dispatched it cooly. The game remained back and forth without any goals before Liverpool legend Divock Origi came on to score Liverpool’s second and give them the safety net they needed. Liverpool lifted the trophy for the sixth time in their history, giving Jürgen Klopp his first trophy as Liverpool manager. This year’s Champions League should be far from the same. There will be a new ball, new teams, new players, and new challengers, all fighting for the crown sitting on Liverpool’s head. Here’s how Matt and Ahmed think the group stage will go.

Group A

Real Madrid: This group boasts two battles: the battle for first place and the battle for third place. Real Madrid and PSG will likely battle for first. Madrid have had their problems recently with form and injuries, but they’ve improved this summer with the signing of Eden Hazard, who is one of the world’s best wingers and will add some much-needed flair to their stuttering attack. Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, and Ferland Mendy will provide competition for players whose starting jobs have seen little threat in recent years. Their manager Zinedine Zidane will hope to replicate his famous spell a few years ago that saw three consecutive Champions League trophies in Madrid.

Paris Saint Germain: While Madrid is arguably in worse form than PSG, this summer has been an odd one, even for Parisian standards. Neymar’s future was in question all summer, with Barcelona and Real Madrid circling for the Brazilian’s signature. He ultimately stayed against his will. PSG’s signings have seemed random, and there is an air of desperation about them, especially Mauro Icardi, who isn’t an upgrade on their current starting striker, Edison Cavani. They did better business elsewhere, signing Idrissa Gueye, Pablo Sarabia, and Abdou Diallo, who will provide good competition within the squad. Nonetheless, PSG didn’t improve at full-back, which is a position PSG lacks quality in and one that is becoming increasingly important in the modern game. All in all, there’s too much drama in Paris. Madrid edges this one.

Galatasaray: Galatasaray did good business this summer. They signed 12 players for just 4.5 million Euros, which is unheard of in today’s market. They brought in a good mixture of experience and youth, but not enough quality to challenge the juggernauts in this group.

Club Brugge: Club Brugge struggled to make it into the group stage. The Belgian team lack the quality to threaten anyone in this group but Galatasaray.

Group B

Bayern Munich: Last year in the round of 16, Liverpool knocked Bayern out 3-1, with Bayern never truly posing a threat. This year, Bayern is back and ready to climb to the top of the European Cup. They clinched the Bundesliga title this past season, beating Borussia Dortmund by only two points. Expect to see Robert Lewandowski driving the offense, Phillipe Coutinho adding a creative spark in midfield while on loan from Barcelona, and Lucas Hernandez keeping the back line in order. Reenergized, Bayern is ready to finish first place and move on to the round of 16 with the Spurs.

Tottenham: The Spurs had a great run last year until Liverpool cut them just short in the finals. This year, Tottenham is looking to redeem itself and obtain that elusive first Champions League trophy. They have added support to their midfield with two newcomers: Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele. With the likely transfer of Christian Eriksen to a new league, however, the Spurs may not be capable of beating Bayern, thus ending up second in the group and ultimately passing into the round of 16.

Olympiacos: Olympiacos is unlucky to be drafted in the same group as the two prime candidates for the quarterfinals: Tottenham and Bayern. They have been playing well in the tournament and made it to the Europa League last year. Coach Pedro Martins has warned Bayern and Tottenham about playing at the Karaiskakis Stadium, a tough arena to visit for travelling teams. Olympiacos will at most make it to the Europa league this year.

Crvena zvezda: The last time Crvena zvezda won the European Cup was in 1991, nearly 30 years ago. The Serbian team last year was drawn with PSG, Napoli, and Liverpool. Though Crvena zvezda beat Liverpool at home and tied Napoli last year, they suffered brutal losses against PSG and Liverpool, gaining them only four points in the group stage. There is once again not much chance of Crvena zvezda surpassing Olympiacos, let alone Bayern and Tottenham.

Group C

Manchester City: Sometimes it feels like the M in Manchester City stands for money. The club somehow always finds the money to improve without selling much of their squad. It’s hard to knock their decision-making, though. They made two smart signings in Rodri and Joao Cancelo, who bring further (and largely unnecessary) quality and depth in the midfield and at full-back. If their squad can stay healthy, City should win it all this year.

Atalanta: Only Atalanta can provide a challenge for City in this group. The Italian side shocked the world last season by qualifying for this competition. Their team boasts a creative core with an experienced backline that few teams have been able to figure out. The likes of Alejandro Gomez and Duvan Zapata are game-winners, and Atalanta’s interesting 3-4-1-2 formation creates loads of chances for their star men. A tough nut to crack, Atalanta can be very dangerous when underestimated.

Dinamo Zagreb: The Croatian side is another team that can be very good on their day. They probably won’t challenge for the top two spots, but the Europa League seems a fair alternative for them given that they kept a hold of the exciting Dani Olmo despite interest from larger clubs.

Shakhtar Donetsk: Shakhtar will be damning their luck now that they’ve drawn Manchester City again in the group stages. The Ukrainian team withoddly a lot of Brazilian players have lost many of their best players recently. And with an aging squad, they will likely finish bottom of the group.

Group D

Juventus: Juve has conducted some interesting summer business with Mathijs de Ligt’s arrival from Ajax, along with Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot as free transfers. They are still dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo, now 35 years old, to lead their attack as he did last year, when Juve managed to knock out Atlético Madrid with his hat trick. Maurizio Sarri, the new manager coming to Juve from Chelsea, has the necessary experience to lead the skilled team deep into the tournament.

Atlético Madrid: With Antoine Griezmann’s departure to Barcelona this summer, Atlético has proceeded with a whopping $130 million transfer for João Félix, a teenager from Benfica. Last year, Juventus defeated Atlético 3-2 in the round of 16, and Atlético is looking to redeem itself. With Diego Simeone preparing the team, Atlético’s offense is ready for anything with Félix, Alvaro Morata, and Thomas Lemar driving the attack.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen: Bayer had a quick exit last year in the group of 32 against Krasnodar, a performance they want to recover from. This year, with Julian Brandt’s departure to Borussia Dortmund, Bayer will likely take the backseat to Atlético and Juventus in this group. On the other hand, Leon Bailey is hungry for more goals, and Jonathan Tah is ready to control the back line, so Bayer is capable of at least reaching the Europa League.

Lokomotiv Moscow: Lokomotiv Moscow doesn’t have much to look forward to in this competition, unless their opponents slip up. Though they are not known for lighting up the scoreboard, Lokomotiv Moscow like to play physical. They have previously played against Atlético Madrid, only to lose 3-0 and 5-1 in the Europa League in 2018. They will have a rough time facing the contenders in this group, ultimately finishing last.

Group E

Liverpool: Liverpool will have no trouble passing to the round of 16 with this group. They have had varied outcomes when facing Napoli, but having won the competition last year, they will likely come out on top of this group. With star defender Virgil van Dijk and a dangerous offense led by Salah and Mane, Liverpool will make it deep into the competition this year.

Napoli: Napoli failed to pass the group stage last year and was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Europa league, proving a disappointment in both competitions. Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Martens, and Arkadiusz Milik seem a dangerous trio this year, however, especially since they are under the management of Carlo Ancelotti. Napoli poses a threat in this group and will pass to the round of 16 with Liverpool.

Redbull Salzburg: An ambitious young team led by American manager Jesse Marsch may just be what it takes to steal Napoli’s position at second in this group. This team enjoys good ball movement, leading to various opportunities in attack. Though they have lost Moanes Dabour, a prominent goal scorer, to Sevilla, Redbull Salzburg may be the silent but deadly draw in this group.

Genk: The last time Genk qualified for the group stage of the Champions League was in 2011-2012. Last year, they lost in the round of 32 in the Europa League. Genk has not been having much luck in this competition, and unfortunately, they will finish last in this group.

Group F

F.C. Barcelona: New arrivals Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, and Lionel Messi form a dangerous lineup for this competition. Barca has repeatedly won the Champions League and La Liga, and they will not have much trouble reaching first and round of 16 in this “group of death.”

Borussia Dortmund: Manager Lucien Favre’s 4-2-3-1 formation may help change Dortmund’s fortune this year as Axel Witsel continues to manage the midfield. They were defeated in the round of 16 last year and look to hold a deeper campaign in the competition this year, especially with Mats Hummels back in the defending line. Dortmund may have trouble obtaining second place in the group due to Inter Milan’s new arrivals.

Inter Milan: With the arrival of experienced players from across Europe’s best leagues including the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Diego Godín, and Alexis Sánchez, Inter Milan can cause some trouble in this group. Stefan de Vrij has been a stellar defender for Inter, and with Antonio Conte managing, the team may be able to overcome a relatively young Dortmund and pass to the round of 16.

Slavia Praha: Slavia Praha is a solid team with great distribution from the midfielders to the strikers, creating opportunities around the pitch. However, in this high caliber group, Slavia Praha will not be able to surpass their contenders in their intense battle for the round of 16.

Group G

RB Leipzig: Yet, another team whose recent rise to success largely has money to thank. They have used their money extremely well though, bringing in young players and developing them into future stars, unlike many other rich clubs. They have a tightly knit group of guys who play well. They should top this group.

Lyon: After making some smart signings to try to mitigate the loss of key players, Lyon could have been a lot worse this season. However, this year’s squad is easily a downgrade. Over time, they can grow into the team they were last year. But until then, they will likely finish second.

Benfica: The Portuguese outfit has made hundreds of millions of Euros of profit off of player sales in recent years, and this summer was no different. They sold their crown jewel Joao Felix for an eye-watering fee of 126 million Euros. The problem with this business model is that it usually leaves the team lacking quality to go deep in European competition. This year is no different.

Zenit: Few countries have succeeded in beating Russia in battle in the winter. However, many clubs can boast about doing so. After Zenit fans’ racist treatment to the newly signed Malcolm, things are not looking sunny in Russia in more ways than one.

Group H

Ajax: After reaching last year’s semi-finals, Ajax showed the world what a young an exuberant team that plays positively can do to Europe. Even after losing key players Mathijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, the team still looks strong and will fancy its chances against a weakened Chelsea.

Chelsea: There were no new additions to Chelsea’s squad this year due to their transfer ban, but Chelsea fans will be happy to see that new manager Frank Lampard is giving a chance for Chelsea’s loan army to prove their worth to the team. Players like Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Kurt Zouma will feel like new signings despite being at the club for years. The team is still gelling, so topping this group will be a tough ask, but qualification should still be the goal.

Valencia: The bats improved over the summer with some great new signings. However, the start of the season has shown that they’re still figuring things out on the pitch. They might well challenge for top two if they can pick up their form.

LOSC: Lille pulled off a surprise second-place finish in Ligue 1 last year with their creative and quick play, but they sold basically every one of the consequences in their team, so it will be tough to replicate that form.