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A mere 51 days after Bayern Munich lifted the 2019-20 trophy in Lisbon, the Champions League carousel starts up once again on Tuesday. Read on for Yahoo Soccer’s comprehensive guide to the group stage...
Champions League Group A
Teams: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Lokomotiv Moscow, Red Bull Salzburg
The reigning champions may have shown some fragility in recent outings — Bayern conceded an uncharacteristic six times in the three matches before the international break — but they will have little trouble topping Group A. The Bavarians won all six of their group games last season and haven’t lost at this stage since a 3-0 humbling to Paris Saint-Germain in September 2017.
Bayern, however, does not possess a sterling record against Atletico Madrid, who eliminated the Germans at the seminal stage in 2015-16 with a typically tenacious away-goals masterclass. Atleti also defeated Bayern in the group stage in the previous season.
Lokomotiv Moscow, meanwhile, boast Portuguese forward Eder, but they finished rock-bottom of their group last season. Expect more of the same here.
Player to Watch: Robert Lewandowski
Atletico Madrid’s boisterous strikers Diego Costa and Luis Suarez will certainly make headlines — for one reason or another — but Robert Lewandowski is the undoubted star of the show. Last year’s Champions League top scorer struck 10 times in the group stages, and remains paramount to Bayern Munich’s success.
Prediction: 1. Bayern Munich 2. Atletico Madrid 3. Red Bull Salzburg 4. Lokomotiv Moscow
Teams: Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach
Real Madrid don’t typically struggle at the group stage, but the perennial European titans find themselves in what may be the group with the most parity.
Los Blancos are usually well equipped to get out of any situation, but they stumbled several times in last season’s group stage, dropping points at home to Club Brugge, and in both meetings with PSG.
When Zinedine Zidane’s side faced Manchester City in last season’s recent round of 16, they couldn’t handle the pace and press, and that does not bode well for meetings with Inter Milan and Borussia Monchengladbach, both of whom like to press high.
2020 Europa League finalists Inter Milan will be expecting to progress, and they have the tools to do so. Gladbach are the outsiders, competing in the competition for the first time in four years, but have established themselves among the Bundesliga’s elite in the interim.
Prediction: 1. Inter Milan 2. Real Madrid 3. Borussia Monchengladbach 4. Shakhtar Donetsk
Player to Watch: Romelu Lukaku
If Inter is to make Real Madrid to drop points, their talismanic Belgian striker will have something to do with it. Lukaku scored nine times in European competitions last season, and will likely increase his continental tally this term.
Teams: Porto, Manchester City, Olympiakos, Marseille
There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and Man City getting a comparatively favorable ride in the Champions League group stage.
Pep Guardiola’s men have been the favorites with the bookmakers in the last two campaigns, and only sit behind Bayern Munich in this edition (per BetMGM). They have, however, stumbled against French opposition in recent European contests, being ousted by Lyon at the quarterfinal stage last season.
Marseille, coached by Andre-Villas Boas, finished second in Ligue 1 last season and have strengthened the squad with the likes of Luis Henrique, who arrived from Botafogo over the summer. They will be aiming for second place, and represent a banana peel for the Premier League side.
But don’t sleep on reigning Portuguese champs Porto, who were seeded in Pot 1 and are technically the top team of the group. However, the 2004 Champions League winners sold Alex Telles and Fabio Silva to Premier League opposition over the summer, and may not be entirely competitive.
Olympiakos were impressive in last season’s Europa League, but they may struggle to make an impact on this group.
Prediction: 1. Man City 2. Marseille 3. Porto 4. Olympiakos
Player to Watch: Kevin De Bruyne
Man City’s midfield gem regularly delivers game-changing passes and has proven pivotal to their successes. Outside of City, Marseille will lean heavily on former West Ham star Dimitri Payet.
Teams: Liverpool, Ajax, Atalanta, Midtjylland
Liverpool’s last Champions League outing saw them suffer at the hands of Atletico Madrid at a packed Anfield, in what would become one of the finals games with a full complement of fans in 2020. All eyes will be on Jurgen Klopp’s side to see if they can regain their furious pace and cloak of invincibility that has slipped since that night in March.
Group D presents what may be the best fixture of the entire group stage: Liverpool’s pair of bouts with Atalanta. The highly entertaining Italians had the mettle and the talent to go deep in the competition last season, and their fearless press will be highly entertaining when it comes up against Klopp’s charges.
Ajax were a hair from making the 2019 final, but their team has been mined of much of its talent since then. The summer departures of Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and American defender Sergino Dest will weaken their chances.
As for FC Midtjylland? Sadly, the plucky Danes rank among the weakest sides in this season’s contest.
Prediction: 1. Liverpool 2. Atalanta 3. Ajax 4. Midtjylland
Player to Watch: Papu Gomez
Liverpool may have bigger stars, but Atalanta deserve much credit for keeping their squad entirely intact this season, with the exception of departed fullback Timothy Castagne. The Italians have awesome firepower in their ranks — they scored 13 goals in their opening three league games this season — and captain Papu Gomez is more than capable of some dazzling individual skill.
Teams: Sevilla, Chelsea, Krasnodar, Rennes
It’s been a swashbuckling season for Chelsea so far, whose policy of “score now, defend later” remains in place. Frank Lampard has been granted several high-profile signings this summer, and should be in a good position to progress.
Sevilla, meanwhile, face a problem: If they progress from this group, how will they win the Europa League for the millionth time?
The Spanish side are true experts in the continent’s secondary continental contest, but stand an excellent chance of topping this group. Julen Lopetegui’s team have been reunited with Ivan Rakitic, and have already caused Barcelona problems on the domestic front this season. They are likely to have more fortitude than Chelsea — certainly from a defensive perspective.
Group E appears to have a clear dichotomy between its top two sides and the other two. Both Krasnodar and Rennes are appearing in the group stage for the first time, and will likely be battling it out for progression to the Europa League. Krasnodar have an awkward away trip to southern Russia to their benefit, but Rennes — who are enjoying a spectacular start to the Ligue 1 season — are likely to nab third place.
Prediction: 1. Sevilla 2. Chelsea 3. Rennes 4. Krasnodar
Player to Watch: Luuk de Jong
Beyond Chelsea’s American star Christian Pulisic, Sevilla’s Luuk de Jong has certainly shown his credentials on the European stage. The Dutchman scored the winner against Manchester United in last season’s Europa League semifinals, and netted twice in the final against Inter Milan.
Teams: Zenit Saint Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio, Club Brugge
The headliners here are clearly Borussia Dortmund, who share many traits with Chelsea: excitement going forward, youthfulness and a tendency to capitulate in defense. Lucien Favre’s side will almost certainly progress from a relatively weak group, which may offer star striker Erling Haaland a chance to pad his stats. The group may also offer a showcase for American attacking midfielder Gio Reyna, who impressed in his debut in the competition last season.
Second spot in the group is likely to be a battle between Lazio and Zenit. The former were league title contenders last season until their form fell off a cliff after the restart — and they have been a mixed bag this term. The latter remain dominant in their native Russia, but typically fail to make a significant impact on this stage.
Club Brugge have finished third in their respective group in the last two seasons, but will be hard-pressed to achieve such heights this time around.
Prediction: 1. Borussia Dortmund 2. Lazio 3. Zenit Saint Petersburg 4. Club Brugge
Player to Watch: Erling Haaland
The most prolific striker in the competition not named Robert Lewandowski will be a treat to watch for his incredible finishing, outstanding positioning, furious pace and dangerously intense goal celebrations.
Teams: Juventus, Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev, Ferencvaros
The headline of the entire group stage is the battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. This will be the first time they have faced each other in the group stage.
Barca may have a better pedigree in this contest, but this campaign is uncertain for the Catalans. Manager Ronald Koeman was not able to make the summer signings he wanted, Barcelona remains a mess off the field and the 8-2 shellacking at the hands of Bayern Munich a few months ago still lingers.
Juventus are not yet a known quantity under inexperienced manager Andrea Pirlo, but this group could be the Old Lady’s for the taking.
Like Group E, there is a divide between the European titans and the humble challengers. Dynamo Kiev have long departed the European spotlight, while Hungarian champions Ferencvaros are likely the weakest side in the contest by some distance.
Prediction: 1. Juventus 2. Barcelona 3. Dynamo Kiev 4. Ferencvaros
Player to Watch: Lionel Messi
Naturally, Ronaldo will be a key player in this group, but Barca will be relying on their fading talisman more than ever in this campaign.
Teams: Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Istanbul Basaksehir
This season’s Group of Death looks particularly threatening to Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — who is already under fire at Old Trafford — must face a finalist and semifinalist from last season’s competition. Yikes.
PSG were designed by their Qatari owners to compete in the Champions League, and they came agonizingly close to reaching their objective in August. They famously faltered against Solskjaer’s United two seasons ago, but seem like a certainty to progress.
Leipzig is weakened by the departure of striker Timo Werner, but were able to reach the semifinals this past summer without his assistance. Julian Nagelsmann’s side may lack United’s heritage, but they have better pedigree to go further in this competition.
Istanbul Basaksehir, meanwhile, should not be entirely dismissed. Away trips to Istanbul are never easy and the Turkish champions will be looking for an upset in their group stage debut.
Prediction: 1. Paris Saint-Germain 2. RB Leipzig 3. Manchester United 4. Istanbul Basaksehir
Player to Watch: Neymar
Kylian Mbappe is PSG’s most potent outlet for goals, but Neymar will be pulling the strings. The Brazilian has slowly phased out the theatrics and may have a handle on his temper — he will be laser-focused to bring PSG the silverware they desire.
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