Uefa Champions League draw: Easy route for Real Madrid, Ronaldo set for Old Trafford return
Ian Hawkey takes a look at the draw for the European Cup group stage that also sees Inter Milan in a brutal pool
GROUP A: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Bruges
The tenants of the Metropolitano stadium will wary of some of the visitors heading their way at the beginning of what will be a big year for that arena. Atletico’s new home hosts the Uefa Champions League final next June 1. Atletico manager Diego Simeone might not like to acknowledge that make this competition a special target, but in supporters’ minds it cannot help but be so. Atletico expect. They have, after all, reached the final twice in the last five years.
But this is a tough first set of hurdles, with Monaco, the semi-finalists of 2016/17, and a Borussia Dortmund who have strengthened in the summer transfer window, on the immediate agenda. That is a pair of resonant nights for Thomas Lemar, who became Atletico’s most expensive acquisition when he joined from Monaco last month, and for Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, once an idol of Atletico fans.
Bruges look the outsiders by a distance, but the Spanish, French and German teams will be sensitive to how treacherous the group phase can be. Atletico, Europa League champions in May, fell out at the first phase last season.
So did Dortmund. And so did Monaco.
Forecast: A tight joust, with Atletico Madrid and Dortmund progressing.
Group B: Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan
Pity poor Inter Milan. It has been seven years since they participated in the most prestigious of club competitions, which meant a rather abrupt fall given they were European champions as recently as 2010. Their reward is to end up in perhaps the most testing group of all the eight.
The 'B' in this Group B stands for brutal.
Barcelona, champions in 2015, are impatient for a return to the final, and equipped for a strong run in Europe even as they begin their post-Andres Iniesta era, and Inter, who fought out a tetchy semi-final with the Catalan club nine seasons ago, will dread the possibility of Barca's Philippe Coutinho reminding them of the many gifts he has, gifts Inter once owned but carelessly let go.
For Spurs, another significant test of their growing stature. Last season they came through a tough group but were then undone by Italian savvy, in the shape of Juventus.
Tottenham are the only Group B members who have never won the European Cup. Their task is to show they are on the way to becoming an established modern heavyweight in it.
Forecast: Barcelona and Tottenham to make the last 16.
Group C: Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star Belgrade
Not much need for introductions among the men in charge of the three front-runners in Group C. For the umpteenth time in his distinguished career, three-time Champions League-winning manager Carlo Ancelotti, newly installed at Napoli, goes back to a previous place of employment.
This time it is Paris, where he oversaw domestic success with Paris Saint-Germain as they were turning rich and ambitious. They are still both of those things and now under the guidance of Thomas Tuchel, who not so long ago succeeded Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund.
Tuchel versus Klopp is a contest to relish, as are a Napoli who have it in them to dazzle. The quality of the football in this group should be high, and the reappearance of Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League group phase after a very long absence is intriguing. The Serbian club, who won the European Cup in 1991, surprised by winning their play-off this week against Salzburg.
They might yet steal a point or two from the French, Italian or English aristocrats.
Forecast: Liverpool and PSG to pip Napoli for the top two spots.
Group D: Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray
In many respects this looks the mildest of all the groups, although what it might lack in kudos it makes up for in kilometres, all the way from Oporto on the Atlantic to the capital of Russia, via the Ruhr, and the Bosphorus.
Lokomotiv share a responsibility to carry through on the hints of a renaissance in Russia football that the national team took all the way to a penalty shootout in a World Cup quarter-final last month. They have a chance, with good home form, of squeezing through.
It is an opportunity, too, for two promising young managers, Porto’s Sergio Conceicao, and Schalke’s Domenico Tedesco, up against a pair of veterans, Galatasaray’s Fatih Terim and Lokomotiv’s Yuri Semin.
And another year for Porto goalkeeper Iker Casillas to celebrate his longevity. It is 22 seasons since he was first called up, as a schoolboy to join Real Madrid on a Champions League trip.
Forecast: Porto and Schalke to go through.
Group E: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens
There are 11 past European Cups spread across the trophy rooms of Group E, although the key factor in them is the timelines. Once upon a time, in the early to mid 1970s, Ajax and Bayern between them monopolised the European Cup. But is a generation now since the most decorated of Dutch clubs grasped it last, and in Amsterdam, where experienced players like Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic have been recruited this summer, there is recognition that purely young talent brings fewer guarantees in elite club competitions than perhaps it once did. Bayern will expect to command the group, and it looks a gentle initiation for their new head coach Niko Kovac. Ajax, and AEK, will for their part hope for a stumble from Benfica, who may be perennials in the Champions League and proud of their European Cup successes in the 1960s but who suffered a humiliating bruise to their pride a season ago. They lost all six of their group phase matches, a chastening episode, on which they will be determined to improve.
Forecast: Bayern top, with Benfica following them into the next phase.
Group F: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim
Manchester City, record-breakers and standard-setters in the English Premier League, will be reminded over and over in the next two and half weeks that it is high time they broke their glass ceiling in Europe. One semi-final in seven years and counting is a poor return for a club with City’s resources and particularly for a team with their current swagger.
Last season, City found Shakhtar Donetsk challenging opposition in the group phase and will expect to do so again, while at the same time suspecting that the newcomers to this stage, Hoffenheim will be motivated, and well-drilled under their unusually youthful head coach Julian Nagelsmann, still only 31 but much admired, not least by City's coach Pep Guardiola. The scuffle for second place in the group, which City have the nous to take control of early, looks open, with a Lyon who reached the semifinal of the Europa League in 2016-17, the likeliest to seize it.
Forecast: Last 16 spots for City, with Lyon on their coat-tails.
Group G: Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen
Can Real Madrid really win a fourth Champions League title on the trot? The apparently seismic changes at the club in the three months since they beat Liverpool in Kiev to make it three in a row suggest not. The coach of that triple, Zinedine Zidane, has left, and so has his most reliable matchwinner, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The new man in charge, Julen Lopetegui, has a good early test of how the likes of Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio can step up with a pair of meetings with Roma, semi-finalists last season. As for the long trip to CSKA Moscow, that has the potential to trip up the Spanish or Italian team, but the shape of the group has a lopsided look overall, with the clubs from the east likely to be contesting third place.
Forecast: Madrid and Roma to take their place in the knockouts.
Group H: Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys
No match in which Cristiano Ronaldo takes part is low-key these days, and that is just how Juventus, who have made the biggest investment in their history in signing the Ballon D’Or holder, like it. Ronaldo is in Turin to bring his European expertise to a club that feels just a little short of Champions League-winning knowhow. As part of the great Ronaldo premiere, he now gets a reunion with the club where he won the first of his five European Cups a decade ago, Manchester United.
Ronaldo back in Manchester; Ronaldo versus his compatriot and former coach at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho. There’s plenty more backstory in the United-Juventus matches, too. But the group may have another protagonist. Valencia are glad to be back in a competition they have twice reached the final of this century, and Ronaldo and Mourinho both know theirs is a tough city to visit and triumph in.
Forecast: Juventus and Manchester United to go on, though with at least one scare for one of them on the way.
Updated: August 30, 2018 11:09 PM