CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW: MESSI VS RONALDO, THE GROUP OF DEATH AND MORE
The Champions League draw is always a big event at the start of a season, mapping out the next few months in the best club competition football has to offer. John Gilding breaks down the highlights of the group stages.
Group of Death – Group H
There’s always one. Every year, every draw, there’s one group of teams that looks a lot scarier than all the others. This year the ‘Group of Death’ feels a little less deadly, but there is definitely a standout candidate. Group H features PSG, last year’s runners-up, a Manchester United side on the way back to the top, and RB Leipzig who will be looking to build on last season’s impressive Champions League debut.
The key fixture here is the repeat of that tie in 2019 when Man United came back from behind to beat PSG in the Round of 16 with a last-minute Rashford penalty. That game was United’s last victory in the Champions League, and they’ll be hoping to recreate it in order to progress.
This group could go any way. PSG seem the strongest candidates on paper if Neymar can stay fit. RB Leipzig have lost a lot in Timo Werner, but have a suitable replacement in Hwang He Chan, who could surprise. Manchester United have some convincing to do after their shaky start to the season, but definitely have the capacity to challenge the others.
UCL newbies Istanbul Başakşehir are also in on the party, but will certainly feel like the small fry of the group.
The Walkover Group – Group C
It’s happened again. Just a few months after reversing their ban from the competition, Manchester City have once again found themselves the shark in a pond full of goldfish. This year’s group doesn’t feature a match against Shakhtar Donetsk, unlike the previous three, but it does have Porto, Olympiakos and Marseille.
None of these teams are to be taken lightly, but nobody would argue that they are the same calibre of many of the other teams in the competition. If City don’t coast through this group, there will be some serious questions to be asked.
The Standout Tie – Juventus v Barcelona (Group G)
Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo.
Not much more has to be said. Two of the greatest players the game has ever seen going head-to-head. There is an added caveat that this is potentially the last time we get to see the two of them playing on the same pitch in their primes. Although neither of them are showing signs of slowing down, a decline is inevitable at some point, and there is a chance that they won’t be drawn against each other in the Champions League again before that point. Enjoy it while you can.
The Chaos Group – Group D
While some groups have a clear two favourites to progress, others are a bit more cloudy, and Group D certainly looks like one to watch.
Liverpool are the clear favourites in this group and have answered some concerns over their squad depth with their summer business, especially Tsimikas from Olympiakos, who will finally give Andy Robertson some cover at left-back that isn’t James Milner. However, a couple of injuries to key players like Mané or Alisson as a result of their compressed match schedule could make them much more vulnerable. Still probably favourites, but with gaps in their armour.
The next team drawn in this group, Ajax, may have lost many of the star names from their dream European run in 2019, but should not be underestimated. They still have a few key names from that team in their ranks, like Onana, Tadic and Neres, and will be determined not to have a repeat of last season, when they missed out on the knockout stages by a point.
Although they may not have the same surprise factor as last year, Atalanta have already smashed Lazio 4-1 this season, so seem to have the same thrilling “score first, ask questions later” mindset as last time. They also now have a point to prove, aiming to show that they were not just a one-hit-wonder, and establish themselves as a regular force in the Champions League.
UCL debutants Midtjylland are the unknown quantity, but did score a remarkable four goals in the last 25 minutes of their qualifier, coming back from behind, to earn their spot in the group stage. They definitely have the potential to cause a few upsets.
This group promises to be full of goals, and it’s tricky to predict which way it’s going to go, other than it being absolute chaos right up until the final whistle.
The Surprise Package – Stade Rennais (Group E)
After finishing third in a shortened Ligue 1 season, Rennais are making their debut in the Champions League in this campaign.
Their group features Chelsea, Europa League winners Sevilla and Russian side FC Krasnodar. Chelsea and Sevilla will be heavily favourited to go through, but Rennais have the power to cause an upset.
Much of what is good about their play stems from Eduardo Camavinga, their hard-working 17-year-old central/defensive midfielder. He broke into the first team at 16, and was a regular starter all through last season, attracting interest from Real Madrid this summer. He turned Madrid down in favour of playing with Rennais in their first Champions League campaign, and playing a key role in it too. They are a solid defensive unit, and have plenty of goals in the team which could carry them into the knockout stages.
Taking points off the top two teams and making sure they take all six against Krasnodar will be vital if they are to succeed in the competition.