Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Ajax set to top groups: Uefa Champions League draw analysis and predictions

Ian Hawkey analyses the Uefa Champions League group stage draw and predicts which teams will progress to the knockout stage

The vcompleted group stage draw for the 2019/20 Uefa Champions League. EPA
The vcompleted group stage draw for the 2019/20 Uefa Champions League. EPA

Group A: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Club Bruges, Galatasaray

It was an eerie sensation for Real Madrid’s executives to have to wait until the second round of the Champions League group-phase draw to see where they would end up. Unusually, they were not among the top seeds, having sacrificed that right by winning neither the Champions League - theirs in 2016, 2017 and 2018 - nor their own domestic league last season.

The upshot of their fallen status is a pair of Judgement Days against Paris Saint-Germain. While these clubs would expect to survive into the knockout stage, these meetings of the most decorated club in European Cup history - Madrid - and perhaps the one that yearns most impatiently to lift its first Champions League - PSG - will be viewed as gauges of the health of both.

They will also be, fitness permitting, a stage for PSG's Kylian Mbappe to remind Madrid how eagerly they want him on their roster at some stage in his career.

Prediction: Real Madrid and PSG

Group B: Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur, Olympiakos, Red Star

Spurs were standard-bearers for all the brave upstarts who spiced up last season’s competition, and the runners-up from 2018-19 ought to have no great trepidation about home and away games against Bayern Munich now that they have crossed so many important thresholds as a European force.

Look out for the Harry Kane versus Robert Lewandowski sub-plot, a duel between two thoroughbred centre-forwards.

The favourites may not carve up the group so easily, though. Olympiakos, who have come through three qualifying rounds to make it to the groups and scored 10 unanswered goals in their home legs, and Red Star Belgrade are intimidating hosts; Red Star took three points from Liverpool and drew with Napoli at home during the group phase last year.

Prediction: Bayern Munich and Tottenham

Group C: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta

It might have worked out worse for the Champions League newcomers, Atalanta. Wherever they finish in Group C, the breath-of-fresh-air Italians promise their more intrepid supporters some adventures, all the way to Ukraine, to Croatia and to the home of the English champions whose moments of brittleness in the most prestigious of all club competitions have become an irritation.

Will this be City’s season to break the glass ceiling of the semi-final, so far the furthest they have ever gone in the European Cup? They have the means, and the manager, and by no means a daunting first set of assignments.

Last year, City put nine goals past Shakhtar Donetsk in the group phase and believe that should have signposted the route all the way to the final were it not for the most marginal of VAR decisions in their epic quarter-final against Spurs. Expect City to look determined from the off - and Atalanta to enjoy themselves.

Prediction: Manchester City and Atalanta

Group D: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow

So a dose of revenge, to be served while still quite warm. Juventus’s comeback from two goals down against Atletico in the last-16 stage last season set the tone for the many dramatic recoveries that characterised the competition in 2018-19, and it was certainly a heated affair.

Juve’s Cristiano Ronaldo was fined for a crude gesture explicitly aimed at answering a … well, an earlier crude gesture made by Atletico manager Diego Simeone in the first leg.

Ronaldo’s hat-trick won that tie. His all-Portuguese confrontations with Joao Felix, Atletico’s €100m-plus teenager, will excite attention, as will Alvaro Morata’s return to the Juventus where he matured as a centre-forward.

But neither Atletico nor Juve, who have reached four of the last six finals between them, will feel totally assured of sharing the top two spots, not when they glance at the bright start Bayer Leverkusen have made to the Bundesliga campaign.

Prediction: Juventus and Atletico

Group E: Liverpool, Napoli, Salzburg, Genk

Liverpool against Napoli is a rerun of what turned out to be a tight, edgy contest for one spot in the knockouts last winter. And look what happened after that.

Meanwhile, Liverpool versus Carlo Ancelotti, the Napoli head coach, is an encounter with an even longer, complicated backstory, one with two Champions League finals in its past, including the scarcely credible Liverpool bounceback in Istanbul against Ancelotti’s AC Milan of 2005.

There is no escaping history while Liverpool, now the holders again, eye another Istanbul final in 2020. “We want to compete and try to defend the Cup,” Virgil van Dijk, named Uefa’s Player of the Tournament for 2019, said yesterday. He should make his unusual unruffled way to the last 16, though Salzburg might be tricky, and Napoli do hold some aces.

Prediction: Liverpool and Napoli to finish in top two

Group F. Barcelona, Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague

Welcome back to elite management, Antonio Conte. With a thud. The new head coach of Inter, a man over whose excellent record as a club coach has hovered the idea he is never quite so commanding in European competitions, has been plunged into a mini-league almost as menacing as he could have imagined.

Not only are Barcelona priming themselves with extra forward power to make amends for four long years without appearing in a final, but a dashing Dortmund are shaping up as more worldly and deep-of-squad than they were a year ago.

There’s plenty to relish, like the possible return of Alexis Sanchez, set to join Inter on loan, to the Barcelona where he used to play, and, likewise, Dortmund’s Paco Alcacer, reborn, post-Barcelona, up against his old club. The toughest group of them all, in terms of the prestige of three of the contestants.

Prediction: Barcelona and Dortmund into the next stage

Group G: Zenit Saint-Petersburg, Benfica, Olympique Lyonnais, RB Leipzig

Perhaps the most open of the groups, and quietly welcomed for that by the least worldly of the contenders, RB Leipzig, who are making their second ever foray into Europe’s premier competition with a degree of confidence they can do a better job than two seasons ago, when, in spite of impressive victories over Porto and Monaco, they finished third in their mini-league.

Their games against Lyon pitch an exceptionally young manager, Leipzig’s 32-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, against one just starting out: Sylvinho, a Champions League winner in his playing days, and those fixtures may turn out decisive in the joust for a place in the knockouts. Benfica still regard themselves as aristocrats in the European Cup, for their distinguished history, but have a wretched recent record to correct.

Prediction: Lyon and Benfica to reach last-16

Group H: Chelsea, Ajax, Valencia, Lille

Ajax have quite a legacy to honour this season, and the summer sales of two of the young stars who helped drive them to within seconds of an unlikely final last May, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, look likely to clip their ambitions of a repeat. But no one will regard Ajax as anything but the team to beat once Group H begins.

Not least because Chelsea and Valencia are both far more fragile than their cachet as two-time finalists - Chelsea in 2008 and 2012; Valencia two years on the trot at the turn of the millennium - suggests they should be.

Chelsea’s transition, as they endure a transfer sanction and take on a freshman coach, Frank Lampard, makes their meeting with Ajax especially intriguing: two young teams with a certain swagger about them. Nor will Lille, Ligue 1’s surprise runners-up, be cowed.

Prediction: Ajax and Chelsea to go through

Updated: August 29, 2019 11:02 PM

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