Sunday, September 24, 2017

Champions League Group Stage Guide – How will each group end up?

Dan Steeden in Editorial, UEFA Champions League 12 Sep 2017

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The time has come to once again half sing half scream the immortal Champions League anthem at your television screen. That’s right, the biggest competition in club football returns tonight, but who will come out on top in each group? Which players should you look out for? Will Celtic win a game? This Champions League group stage guide will answer all those questions and more.

Group A Prediction:

Manchester United – 4/11 to win Group A
Benfica – 7/2
Basel – 12/1
CSKA Moscow – 12/1

Remember the 2011/12 Champions League campaign when Manchester United were in a group with Basel and Benfica? They finished third. However, having qualified by winning the Europa League, United under Mourinho should go deep into the competition. Paul Pogba is the player to watch as he looks as he looks like he has more freedom to get forward this season.

Portuguese champions for the fourth consecutive season, Benfica lost some key players in the summer, including Victor Lindelof who now plays at Old Trafford. They should still finish second fairly comfortably, and Franco Cervi is an exciting winger to keep an eye on – he is the only Benfica player in history to score in all of the Portuguese competitions in one season.

FC Basel consistently dominate the Swiss Super League but come unstuck against the rest of Europe’s elite. They’re a good bet for third place though, and Norwich fans will remember a certain Ricky van Wolfswinkel who has seven goals in seven league games thus far.

It often feels as though CSKA Moscow are just there to make up the numbers as they haven’t made it out of the group stage in the last five seasons. One man you can cheer on is Igor Akinfeev, who has only recorded one clean sheet in 11 years of Champions League football.

Group B Prediction:

PSG – 19/20 to win Group B
Bayern Munich – 8/11
Anderlecht – 100/1
Celtic – 80/1

This looks like it could be PSG’s year as they secured the services of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to line up with Edinson Cavani as part of the deadliest strike force in Europe. Only winning the tournament will do for Unai Emery’s side, and this is their best shot at it in a very long time, especially with Neymar amongst their ranks. They could be worth a shot to win it all at 6/1.

This group will provide a tough test for Bayern Munich and big name retirements, notably Philipp Lahm, as well as a defeat at Hoffenheim at the weekend, mean that the Bavarians aren’t at their best. Experience won’t be enough to pip PSG to the post in this group. Robert Lewandowski’s is at the centre of controversy following his comments about Bayern’s transfer policy, but he is lethal on the pitch and should bag a good collection of goals.

The Belgian champions Anderlecht reached the quarter finals of the Europa League last season, but lost a huge talent in Youri Tielemans who departed for Monaco. They area strong side though and Leandro Derdoncker looks like he could become a remarkable player.

Celtic have never won their opening Champions League group stage game, and last season they didn’t win a single game in an admittedly tough group. Another tricky selection of opponents could prove too much for Brendan Rodgers’ side, but we see an upset at Celtic Park. Scott Sinclair scored five times in qualifying and is the player to look out for.

Group C Prediction:

Atletico Madrid – 13/10 to win Group C
Chelsea – 11/10
Roma – 9/2
Qarabag – 100/1

There are no new faces at Atletico Madrid thanks to a transfer ban, but there is a new stadium called the Wanda Metropolitano. The Rojiblancos managed to keep hold of the talismanic Antoine Griezmann and they have so much experience in the competition that it’s difficult to look past them to top the group.

Antonio Conte didn’t experience much success in the competition with Juventus, but his Chelsea side are a strong unit and dominated the Premier League last season. Alvaro Morata has started well and will look to help continue Chelsea’s love affair with the Champions League. Let’s be realistic though, it’s Diego Costa narrative that we’re all interested in here.

Eusebio Di Francesco’s Roma side have embarked on their first season following Francesco Totti’s retirement, but they haven’t won in their last six Champions League games. Qualification from this horrible group looks like it will be beyond the Giallorossi, but Edin Dzeko should bag a few goals.

FK Qarabag bring a bit of romance to this group as they are the first team from Azerbaijan to qualify for the Champions League group stage having beaten FC Copenhagen in qualification. Left back Anso Agolli captained Albania at Euro 2016.

Group D Prediction:

Juventus – 13/10 to win Group D
Barcelona – 8/13
Olympiacos – 100/1
Sporting Lisbon – 33/1

Last season Juventus made it all the way to the final only to lose out to Real Madrid, even despite Mario Mandzukic’s spectacular acrobatic goal. They lost Dani Alves and Leonardo Bonucci over the summer, but added Blaise Matuidi in preparation for another positive campaign. The Old Lady knocked Barcelona out of the completion last season, and with the hugely talented Paulo Dybala at the helm Juve look like a force to be reckoned with.

Barcelona completed one of the greatest comebacks in the competition’s history against PSG last time around, but they looked lacklustre at times and it seems that their dominance has fully declined. At least drawing Juventus will provide Lionel Messi with at least two more chances to score his first ever goal against Gianluigi Buffon. Ousmane Dembele joined the Blaugrana to replace Neymar, but it remains to be seen how Barca will cope with the loss of the Brazilian.

Olympiacos are another team that always seem to be in the group stage but never progress any further. They have a lot of experience in the competition, and new signing Emmanuel Emenike now leads their attack, but their real battle is with Sporting Lisbon.

The side from the Portuguese capital struggled last season as they lost five of their group stage games. They do have a very prolific goal scorer in Bas Dost and could certainly challenge for the third spot, but it will be an uphill battle.

Group E Prediction:

Liverpool – 4/7 to win Group E
Sevilla – 15/8
Spartak Moscow – 9/1
Maribor – 50/1

Champions League football finally returns to Anfield, and Liverpool should light it up on the European stage. Boasting one of the fiercest strike forces in Europe, Jurgen Klopp will be hoping he can emulate the success he achieved at Dortmund when he led the German side to the 2013 final. They tore apart a highly competent Hoffenheim side during qualification and look the favourites to top this group.

Sevilla beat Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final, but since then they have lost their influential sporting director Monchi to Roma and only just made it through the qualification game against Istanbul BB. Their team is too good not to make it out of this group, and recent addition Luis Muriel is an exciting signing, but they shouldn’t top Liverpool.

Moscow is not an ideal place to travel to and this could play into the hands of the Russian champions in their home games. Interestingly, Antonio Conte’s former assistant Massimo Carrera manages the Russian side, and with the electrifying Quincy Promes on the wing they could cause a few upsets.

Maribor just about made it through qualification and former Leeds manager Darko Milanic will be targeting a few upsets as the Slovenian champions attempt to show what they can do on the European stage. This group will be tough for them, but look out for the exiting Slovenian Under-19s international Sandi Ogrinec.

Group F Prediction:

Manchester City – 4/7 to win Group F
Napoli – 9/4
Shakhtar Donetsk – 9/1
Feyenoord – 16/1

With Pep Guardiola in the dugout and world class players across the pitch, Manchester City are primed for a successful season in the Champions League. Now Pep finally has his desired fullbacks in the form of Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker, the Citizens are starting to click. It also looks like Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero are developing a good partnership, which should help banish memories of their defeat to Monaco last season. Kevin De Bruyne will be the key player who can unlock the potential of those around him.

Napoli are an exciting team to watch and have an outstanding tactical manager in Maurizio Sarri. Since being converted to a striker Dries Mertens has been on fire, and with Marek Hamsik pulling the strings it’s easy to see why they were the highest scoring team in Italy last season. They don’t quite have the quality of Manchester City, but the two games in which they face Guardiola’s side should be dazzling.

There is a lot of exciting talent in Shakhtar’s forward ranks with an abundance of South Americans, and with the legendary Darijo Srna leading the team from defence the Ukrainian champions look the favourites to finish in the third place spot to secure Europa League football.

Feyenoord surprised a lot of people when they won the Eredivisie last season, and club hero Dirk Kuyt ended his career in joyous circumstances. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side will probably struggle in this tough group, but the atmosphere inside De Kuip will be brilliant.

Group G Prediction:

Monaco – 11/8 to win Group G
Leipzig – 9/4
Besiktas – 8/1
Porto – 11/4

It is tough to tell how well Monaco will do this season having lost many of their players who achieved so much last season. A semi-final exit last time around surpassed all expectation and places a lot more expectation on the shoulders of the reigning French champions. They did manage to keep the likes of Radamel Falcao and the brilliant Thomas Lemar and this should be enough to make it out of this group at the least.

The club everyone loves to hate, Leipzig had an excellent season in the Bundesliga as they finished runners up to Bayern Munich. Unlike Monaco the German side managed to keep hold of their key players, most notably Timo Werner and Liverpool target Naby Keita, and go into this Champions League campaign with nothing to lose. This freedom should allow them to perform at the top of their game.

Besiktas are an interesting prospect this season as they have loaded up on signings with a lot of experience. Pepe, Gary Medel and Ricardo Quaresma are amongst the men hoping to help the Turkish side progress from the group stage for the first time, but this is a tough group.

Having fallen short of Benfica recently on the domestic front, Porto will want to prove they aren’t just a selling club. They reached the round of 16 last season but lost Andre Silva, which might make this group a little too tough for the Portuguese side. The highly coveted midfielder Danilo Pereira is one to keep an eye on.

Group H Predictions:

Real Madrid – 2/5 to win Group H
Borussia Dortmund – 15/4
Tottenham – 9/2
APOEL – 250/1

The only team ever to retain the Champions League in its current format, Real Madrid are the best team in the world. Their squad is frightening, with superstars like Ronaldo, Bale and Modric backed up by players with incredible potential like Marco Asensio. This team could dominate world football for a while, and Zinedine Zidane’s side should certainly dominate this group. They are the favourites to win the competition at 4/1.

Dortmund are arguably the most exciting team in Europe to watch, but they have lost manager Thomas Tuchel and potentially world class winger Ousmane Dembele. That isn’t to say that the remaining players are bad, especially when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leads the line. New coach Peter Bosz should give the American wonder kid Christian Pulisic a bigger role following Dembele’s departure.

Could Tottenham have been drawn in a worse group? With all of Spurs’ home games being played at Wembley, which hasn’t been kind to them in the Champions League, and such tough teams to compete with, it looks as if Mauricio Pochettino’s men will struggle once again. They have sensational players in Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, but they won’t quite have enough to progress.

APOEL have won the Cypriot First Division 26 times, but struggled in qualifying and likely won’t make much of a dent in the big hitters of Group H. If they can cause some sort of upset it will be a great moment for the club, but I fear the fans may have little to cheer about.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Steeden


Dan is a recent graduate of the University of Birmingham and an often frustrated Wigan Athletic fan. When not despairing at events unfolding at the DW Stadium he can be found fangirling over Antoine Griezmann or staying up into the early hours of the morning to cheer on the Seattle Seahawks.

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