- The UEFA Champions League group stage draw is intriguing
- Real Madrid are in transition and Barcelona in decline
- Juventus, PSG, and Atletico Madrid are serious contenders
Atletico Madrid, the UEFA Europa League holders, have been drawn in a tough UEFA Champions League Group A along with Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, and Club Bruges. Diego Simeone’s team are, arguably, the best team in Europe right now and will see the transition at Real Madrid as an opportunity to finally win the ultimate prize.
Lucien Favre has started well at Dortmund and he will hope that Monaco’s current weakness will help the 1997 champions into the second phase. Bruges, a power in the 1970s, are surely making up the numbers here and will do well to get points on the board in what is one of the more difficult groups.
BVB will need to start well. With the key back-to-back double header against Atletico, it’s vital that Favre’s team win away in Belgium and at home to Monaco before the pivotal clashes with the Spaniards. If they don’t, then opportunity knocks for Monaco. Two wins against Bruges – and a point in Dortmund – would have them in a very strong position going into the last two match days.
Group B is also intriguing. Barcelona, a gently declining European power, confront Internazionale, Tottenham and PSV. Spurs will be expected to join the Catalans in the next round, especially as Inter must face Barcelona twice on match days 3 and 4.
For all the talk of Liverpool finally winning some serious silverware this season, Group C has presented them with a serious challenge and a real danger of elimination. If Napoli can win in Belgrade against the returning Red Star, then a victory over Jürgen Klopp’s team at the San Paolo would given them a cushion going into two hugely difficult encounters with PSG. Liverpool’s opening game at Anfield against the French is, therefore, key.
Group D is the most even. Porto, Galatasaray, Schalke, and Lokomotiv Moscow all have hopes of progression. The Galatasaray-Schalke double-header will go a long way to deciding who accompanies the Portuguese into the last 16.
Bayern will surely be too strong for the regal opposition of Group E. Benfica and Ajax are evocative names and either could accompany the Bavarians into the next phase. The Portuguese have the edge but, once more, the double-header with Ajax on match days 3 and 4 will tell a tale. AEK Athens could play a major part in determining who comes through if they can take points from the more fancied sides.
For once, Manchester City have no excuses. A group containing Hoffenheim, Lyon, and Shakhtar Donetsk is tricky but holds no fears. The real interest here will be seeing who accompanies them into the knockout rounds. Recent history suggests the Ukrainians, but all three sides have a chance.
Real Madrid, who finally look vulnerable again, will probably make it through Group G with some ease, but you can never count on Roma doing what you’d expect of them. In that sense, there is hope for CSKA Moscow and even more when you look at the fixtures and see their double-header is against the Italians. That’s their window of opportunity.
Jose Mourinho will do well to still be in situ at Old Trafford by the conclusion of Group H, and the draw hasn’t helped his chances. Juventus, and Ronaldo, are clear favourites, but Valencia are the kind of team that can trouble United and open up the serious possibility of first round elimination. Young Boys will enjoy their glamorous adventure, but they’re not a factor in this group.
Predicting a winner is a mug’s game at this point. The only requirement is survival into the spring when the real tournament starts. But the contenders are obvious. PSG, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid look to have the ability to confirm that the Real Madrid-Barcelona-Bayern Munich hegemony is, at least, temporarily over.