By George Simms
The UEFA Champions League is a tournament purpose-built to find the best team and club in Europe in any given season. When fans across the world hear the Champions League Anthem, based off Handel‘s coronation march Zadok the Priest, they are well aware they are about to watch a potential coronation themselves: Kings of European Football.
This season’s competition kicks off this evening in Kyiv and St Petersburg, with a condensed group stage meaning that the games are played in two three-week blocks, either side of a dreaded international break. Here is a preview of what to expect from the first round of the group stages.
Group A kicks off with a clash of two European titans who have featured in six of the last ten UCL Finals between them. Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich side are considered by many, with a very good case, to be the best side in Europe and are defending champions of this competition.
They play host to Atlético Madrid. Simeone’s side are famously hard to play against and this game will inevitably be a baptism of fire for both teams into this year’s tournament. Bayern certainly hold the upper hand in theory – newly crowned European Player of the Year Robert Lewandowski has scored six goals in his last two games and managed 15 in just 11 UCL games last season.
However, as ever with Atlético, expect them not to go down without a fight, especially with arguably the most talented keeper in world football, Jan Oblak, between the posts.
They are joined in Group A by two relative minnows, but two sides who have proven themselves to also be stubborn and disruptive in recent versions of this competition.
Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg side introduced Erling Braut Haaland to the competition last season, who scored eight goals in six games as they played out some high-scoring thrillers. In Zambian striker Patson Daka they seem to have a ready-made replacement for the Norwegian superstar – Daka has scored 11 goals in eight games so far for the Austrian champions as they remain unbeaten in all competitions.
They host Lokomotiv Moscow, a side who have conceded just once in their last six games and sit fourth in the notoriously volatile Russian league. This should prove to be a key matchup between the two sides realistically vying for the Europa League place that comes with third in the group and if any side are going to cut open Lokomotiv, it will be Jesse Marsch’s young side.
Zinedane Zidane’s Real Madrid side need no introduction within this competition, having won it 13 times, including four in the last decade. This is one of the weaker Real Madrid sides of recent years, but they appear to compensate for that with a fiercely mean defence, which was statistically the best in Europe’s top five leagues last season. The La Liga champions lost 1-0 to minnows Cádiz at the weekend as Spanish football’s marmite man Sergio Ramos went off injured. He was pictured training yesterday and is expected to start but Dani Carvajal will miss out.
They face Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk, a famously difficult side to play in the competition (as Chelsea fans like me may remember). Their hopes will be pinned on an unusual, but nonetheless successful, mixture of Brazilian and Ukrainian talent, especially Victor Kovalenko who scored twice on Saturday. This Shakhtar side are ageing from their glory days and shouldn’t have too much to trouble the defensively strong Madrid side.
Inter Milan have an incredibly talented host of (predominantly former Premier League) players. The ever-present Romelu Lukaku has four goals in four Serie A games this season and is partnered by the equally talented Lautaro Martinez up front. Expect Antonio Conte’s men to try and outscore their opposition, which should not be too great a task when you look at their opponents, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Managed by former Salzburg boss Marco Rose, Gladbach sit 11th in the Bundesliga after a poor start and should be no match for Inter.
If you look at their squad, it is quite unbelievable that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have not yet won this competition. They will try again this year, with their squad bolstered by the return of the inimitable Sergio Aguero, although European Midfielder of the Year Kevin de Bruyne is still ruled out. They open their campaign against a Porto side who lost some key players on deadline day in Alex Telles and Danilo Pereira. Their relatively leaky defence should give the Citizens an easy outing on Wednesday evening.
Also in Group C are Greek champions Olympiacos, who are my bet for a surprise package in this tournament. They have conceded only once in six games this season and with a strong attack led by UCL stalwart Mathieu Valbuena and Youssef El-Arabi, who scored a hat-trick in just 50 minutes at the weekend. They face a distinctly average Marseille side who, although somewhat rejuvenated by the return from injury of talisman Florian Thauvin, will potentially lack both the experience and the firepower to beat the Greek side.
Group D is objectively the most exciting group. Having just likely just lost Virgil van Dijk for the season, Liverpool will have to rethink their defensive identity for the visit of the always exciting Ajax. I’d expect Mo Salah and Sadio Mané to still find a way to fire Klopp’s men to victory, but expect high-scoring games throughout this group.
A lot of these may well come with Atalanta on one side or the other. Gasperini’s men have quickly become respected as one of the most feared attacking sides in Europe and with thirteen goals across their first three Serie A games, it’s not hard to see why. However, they were disciplined 4-1 in Napoli on Saturday, even with the return of Josip Iličić, showing their defence still has definite holes. They visit Danish minnows Midtjylland, who beat a good Slavia Prague side 4-1 in the play-offs, but will likely get swept aside by this flying Atalanta team.
Whilst this may look an easy group for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, anyone who has seen their defensive organisation so far this season will understand that it is unlikely to be. They open their campaign at home to Unai Emery’s fierce Sevilla side, who gave Bayern Munich a close game in the European Super Cup recently. Although Sevilla will be weakened by the loss of Jules Koundé to a positive Covid-19 test, Emery has proven to be an astute European cup manager time and time again and could upset the London side this evening.
Rennes have been Ligue 1’s surprise package and they could not really ask for a kinder game to start off their campaign. Bolstered by the addition of Amien’s Sehrou Guirassy, they should be too strong for a Krasnodar side dependent on fading former European talents like Marcus Berg and Rémy Cabella.
Group F’s strongest side are without doubt this young Borussia Dortmund team, who appear to be going from strength to strength. With Jadon Sancho back from injury, he is likely to be joined by Haaland and Marco Reus up top for a truly formidable front three. They visit a Lazio side in poor form domestically and who have a penchant for throwing the UCL in order to push for the Serie A. Expect a good showing from Dortmund to announce themselves properly into this year’s tournament.
Alongside them are Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg, a side with quality across the board. They will need strikers Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba to be firing as they have been domestically and can rely on a solid defence marshalled by Mikhail Kerzhakov. They are visited by a free-scoring Club Brugge side, who famously took a point off Real Madrid last term having gone 2-0 up. Between Hans Vanaken and Krépin Diatta they have players capable of marshalling a game and scoring goals and will certainly not be an easy game for any team in this group.
Messi and Ronaldo. Two former European champions who each have their own contender for Greatest Player of All Time. First up is Messi’s Barcelona, who face Hungarian champions Ferencváros after losing 1-0 to Getafe at the weekend. They are yet to find a rhythm under Ronald Koeman but should certainly have enough firepower to dominate this game, especially after Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho were rested this weekend.
Although Ronaldo will miss the first two games after his positive Covid-19 test, Juventus go to a Dynamo Kiev side they will be expected to beat. This is unlikely to be an easy side for Andrea Pirlo’s fledgling managerial career, especially without their talisman, as Dynamo sit top of the Ukrainian league.
I’ve seen streams of social media posts reminding the world what happened last time PSG and Manchester United met, but it is not going to happen again. This PSG side will be looking to go one better than their final loss last season and have all the firepower to do so. Having signed Danilo Pereira and replaced Thiago Silva with Marquinhos back at centre-back, alongside Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Ángel Di Maria, the Parisians should walk through United’s Swiss cheese defence.
One of last year’s real surprise packages were semi-finalists RB Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann’s side return to the UCL once more. They appear to have compensated for Timo Werner’s loss with a committee attack, including the likes of Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku, Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg, and should have an easy game to start their campaign off.
Although they achieved the difficult feat of becoming Turkish champions last season, İstanbul Başakşehir sit in the relegation zone this season, despite their host of Premier League rejects such as Demba Ba, Martin Škrtel and Rafael. They won their first game of the season this weekend thanks to Edwin Višća, but should be easily rolled over by this fiery RB Leipzig side.
Image: Rami via Creative Commons