IT HAS come around quickly once more, but the UEFA Champions Leagues for 2020 and 2021 overlapped some weeks back and we’re already at the group stage. The usual suspects are there, as one would expect, the most notable absentees being Tottenham Hotspur, the 2019 runners-up, but there are 19 from last season’s group stage along with some grand old names like Ferencvaros, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Olympique Marseille. There are 12 past winners in the 32 and another four who have reached the final. Only four clubs have featured in every group stage for the past 10 years: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City. Another handful have been there eight or more times.
According to Football Database’s rankings, the hardest group should be B, that’s Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Their rankings add up to just 64. Champions League specialists Real are in the ascendancy once more after winning LaLiga, but their squad still needs some surgery. Both Inter and Gladbach are also rising, so they could make life very difficult for Zinedine Zidane’s team. It is never wise to write-off Shakhtar who won the Ukrainian league at a canter, losing just twice all season.
Group C is another tough one, with Porto, Marseille and Olympiakos ready to face Manchester City. Porto won the double in Portugal while Marseille were second in Ligue 1. The question is, can Pep Guardiola shake his expensive squad out of its current malaise and win a trophy he hasn’t lifted since 2011? It looked like their best chance had arrived last season, but they blew it.
Manchester United also have a very challenging group, with Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig, as well as Turkey’s champions Istanbul Basaksehir. It is possible they won’t get out of group H and will have to get their European kicks from the Europa League.
Group F, which features Zenit St. Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio and Club Brugge, is hard to predict. Zenit, managed by the shrewd Sergei Semak, have been champions in Russia for the past two years, but Dortmund’s young side may still be too strong for them. But in truth, while anyone could win this group, the eventual winner of the competition will not come from this quartet.
Liverpool, the 2019 winners and Premier League champions in 2020, have a relatively comfortable group D, but will be wise not to underestimate Atalanta, the surprise club of Italian football. They went further in the competition in 2019-20 than Liverpool, reaching the last eight before losing to Paris Saint-Germain. There’s also Ajax to contend with, but the Dutch side shorn of crown jewels like Mattijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek. Liverpool should win this group and the more interesting battle will be for second place.
Similarly, Bayern Munich should have little difficulty disposing of Atlético Madrid, Salzburg and Lokomotive Moscow in Group A, although that recent defeat in Hoffenheim shows they are not as all-conquering as the dismantling of Schalke suggested. However, Atlético, even with born-again Suarez are not what they were and the other group members are not powerful enough for Bayern.
Group G may give us the last glimpse of the two players who have stood astride the European game for the past decade coming up against each other. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may not be the players they were, but they will undoubtedly decide the placings in this group. Both are desperate to win the Champions League one more time, but both Juventus and Barcelona are in something of a transition and are under new management. They should still be too good for Dynamo Kyiv and Ferencvaros.
Chelsea will feel uneasy about facing Sevilla in Group E after picking up one point from Valencia last season over two games. Sevilla won the UEFA Europa League and although they have lost some key players in recent weeks, Frank Lampard’s work-in-progress team will find it hard against the Spanish side. Krasnador and Rennes are unlikely to seriously worry them, though, but the away games may be tricky.
The competition still has the ability to captivate and keep us on the edge of our seats, particularly in the latter stages. It may a feast for the bloated landowners, but the Champions League offers drama, excitement and brilliance – the best football in the world.
Predicted last 16: Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Porto, Liverpool, Atalanta, Chelsea, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio, Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig.