Best of the Rest - TBR Analyses Champions League Groups A, C, F and H
With 4 English sides making it through to the Champions League group stages this year, there are another 4 groups that are without representation from these shores. European powerhouses such as Barcelona, La Liga Champions Atlético Madrid, P.S.G and Juventus are the standout names in these groups and could well await any one of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal in latter rounds. TBR analyses the groups in question, giving you all the necessary information to be clued up on all things Champions League when the matches begin in a couple of week’s time.
Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo
Having come within minutes of a first ever Champions League triumph in May, Atletico Madrid will be hard pushed to get so close again to lifting the trophy, although there is no reason that Diego Simeone’s side cannot push for the latter stages again. While there has inevitably been a fire sale involving quite a few of the squad that won La Liga in 2013/14, Atletico have picked up Mario Mandzukic, Jan Oblak and Antoine Griezmann, among others, over the summer. Also, Simeone is a charismatic manager who can mould a group of players into more than the sum of its parts, as evidenced by the indefatiguable manner in which they overcame an injury setback and going a goal behind in their concluding league game against Barcelona to get the draw that they needed to win the title. The quarter-finals are within reach again for Atletico.
Juventus remain one of the great mysteries of European football. Historically the best club by a distance in Serie A, Juve always seem to be a huge disappointment on the continent, in particular last season when they failed to progress beyond the group stage in what was hardly the most taxing foursome. Massimiliano Allegri has taken over from Antonio Conte in the dugout and he signed Alvaro Morata and Patrice Evra for the Bianconeri. After three Serie A titles on the trot, the pressure is now on to finally make a proper impression in Europe. Nothing less than the last 16 will do for Juve.
Olympiakos almost pushed David Moyes out the door at Old Trafford last season when they convincingly beat Man United at home in the last 16, only to be taken apart in the return leg in Manchester. Like Juventus, they have almost become bored with mopping up domestic titles, so their season will be judged on how they fare in continental competition. With a decent squad in place and given Juve’s tendency to mess up in Europe, the Greek champions will be quietly confident of reaching the knockout stage once more, although I suspect they may have to settle for Europa League football in spring 2015.
Malmo are one of two group stage debutants in 2014/15 and thus will start as clear favourites to finish bottom of Group A. The 1979 runners-up seemed to have an uphill task against Red Bull Salzburg at one stage in the play-offs, but a stoppage time away goal in Austria was the springboard for a comprehensive home win for the Swedes. The hero of that second leg win was Markus Rosenberg, who had a decidedly mediocre spell with West Brom a couple of years back. That doesn’t offer a whole lot of encouragement as they enter unchartered territory, and as much as they will relish upsetting the apple cart, the other teams in Group A will have too much for them.
Players to watch: Mario Mandzukic (Atletico), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Pajtim Kasami (Olympiakos), Markus Rosenberg (Malmo)
Prediction: 1st Atletico, 2nd Juventus, 3rd Olympiakos, 4th Malmo
Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Monaco
Benfica have plenty of continental ghosts to exorcise, having been beaten in agonising fashion in the last two Europa League finals. At least they go into this Champions League campaign as top dogs at home, with Porto regularly lording it in Portugal, but the summer has not been kind to the Lisbon club. Jan Oblak, Lazar Markovic, Ezequiel Garay and Rodrigo Moreno have all left the Estadio da Luz, so the heat is on those who remain to produce the goods. Benfica would have been the top seeds that everyone else would have wanted and could face a battle just to get out of this group.
Having first qualified for the group stage six years ago, Zenit are now mainstays of Champions League football and will have no great worries about this group. The much-derided Andre Villas Boas has made a fine start to life in St Petersburg, guiding his team past Standard Liege in the play-offs with minimal fuss, and one of his summer signings, Ezequiel Garay, will line up against former club Benfica. One man with a point to prove is striker Hulk, who has been hit and miss with Zenit thus far and comes into this season on the back of a hugely disappointing World Cup with Brazil. The Russian club will need him to put that difficult summer behind him quickly.
It was hardly a ringing endorsement of Bayer Leverkusen that they got thumed 5-0 at home by Man United in last season’s competition, particularly given United’s well-documented problems, but in truth the Germans had what could be described as an off-night in that match. They still advanced to the last 16 and look well placed to do likewise again this time. Despite losing Emre Can to Liverpool, the club from the Ruhr still have a considerable attacking threat, with Stephan Kiessling, Son Heung-min and new arrival Josip Drmic all potent options in the final third. New coach Roger Schmidt is a fan of entertaining football and looks a good fit for Leverkusen, who may well belie their classification as third seeds.
Few clubs have tasted such polarised ups and downs as Monaco in the last 10 years. From Champions League finalists to bottom of Ligue 2, second place upon their top flight return to a wretched start to this season, there aren’t too many grey areas where the Monegasques are concerned. They look set to hang onto star striker Radamel Falcao for the time being, but their squad has weakened over the summer, with James Rodriguez leaving a massive hole to fill for new boss Leandro Jarolim. Recent history suggests they will either take this group by storm or flop completely; their current uncertainty is tilting me towards the latter extreme.
Players to watch: Lima (Benfica), Hulk (Zenit), Josip Drmic (Leverkusen), Radamel Falcao (Monaco)
Prediction: 1st Leverkusen, 2nd Benfica, 3rd Zenit, 4th Monaco
Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, AFC Ajax, APOEL Nicosia
It seems that whatever Real Madrid can do, Barcelona can match. With the holders spending big on marquee names, Barca also got the checkbook out to bring in Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo, Jeremy Mathieu and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. The impending striking trio of Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi promises to be mercilessly destructive for opposing teams, while the other signings give the four-time winners some welcome squad depth. Although Suarez will miss the first three group games through suspension and this is new territory for inexperienced coach Luis Enrique, Barcelona could be absolutely lethal this season and will come through this group with plenty to spare.
Quarter-finalists in the last two seasons, PSG may believe that this year they can follow in the footsteps of Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and be the surprise hit of the competition. Even if they did see fit to spend £50million on David Luiz, they have a very strong starting XI and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even at 33, can produce the spectacular. They have kept the bulk of the squad that romped to the Ligue 1 title last season, although more will be expected of striker Edinson Cavani, who let Chelsea off the hook in last term’s quarter-final. Along with Barcelona, they will comfortably emerge from Group F.
Once a name that struck fear into the minds of European football fans, Ajax in the 21st century seem to be merely a feeder club for the continent’s elite. Frank de Boer will have a job on his hands to mastermind a route to the last 16 in Europe, while they face increasingly stiff competition for a fifth successive Eredivisie title. They looked a vulnerable side in their recent 3-1 defeat at home to rivals PSV Eindhoven and did not catch a lucky break with this group stage draw. The best they can probably hope for is to finish third and possibly make their opponents sweat for a top two placing.
On their last appearance in this competition three years ago, APOEL Nicosia sensationally reached the quarter-finals, where they were dispatched by Real Madrid. They did benefit from a relatively charitable group stage draw that year, however, and that is not something they have been given this time around. They will again aim to summon the underdog spirit of 2011/12 and take the scalp of a far more illustrious opponent, but it’s difficult to see lightning striking a second time around.
Players to watch: Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Serge Aurier (PSG), Daley Blind (Ajax), Cillian Sheridan (APOEL)
Prediction: 1st Barcelona, 2nd PSG, 3rd Ajax, 4th APOEL
FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE Borisov
Europa League winners in 2011, Porto have been disappointing in European competition since then and lost out to Benfica domestically last term, so they will not be found wanting for motivation this campaign. Coach Julien Lopetegui is young but ambitious, characteristics which brought success at Porto for Andre Villas Boas and Jose Mourinho in the past, and has recruited cleverly over the summer, with Cristian Tello, Adrian Lopez and Carlos Casemiro all joining the two-time European champions. Porto look revitalised this term and could be well placed to have a decent Champions League run.
Shakhtar‘s season preparations have been hugely difficult, but not for footballing reasons. The civil unrest in Ukraine, particularly near the club’s Donetsk base, has forced them to set up temporary camp in Lviv, which is 600 miles from home. The unstable political situation also played on the minds of six players, including key men Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa, who refused to return to Ukraine for pre-season training. While such a mindset is quite understandable given the scale of violence in the region recently, it doesn’t bode well for the Champions League campaign that lies ahead. Through no fault of their own, Shakhtar might have to write this one off.
Keen observers of Spanish football will know that Athletic Bilbao are one of the most exciting teams to watch in La Liga and they have now complemented that with enough quality to see off Napoli in the play-offs and reach the group stage for the first time since 1998/99. Midfield lynchpin Ander Herrera jumped ship to Man United over the summer, but otherwise the squad is more or less the same as that which was the pick of the bunch behind Barcelona and the Madrid duo in Spain last season. Bilbao have also proven themselves worthy opposition on the continent, having reached the Europa League final in 2012, and should fare considerably better than Basque rivals Real Sociedad, who last year made a long-awaited return to this competition but flopped miserably.
It is often overlooked in thinking back to Bayern Munich’s Champions League-winning season of 2012/13 that the Germans suffered a shock defeat in the group stage to little-known BATE Borisov from Belarus. In their three previous campaigns at this level, BATE have gone face to face with Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern, Barcelona and AC Milan, so they have no qualms about lining up against the best of the best. They have usually found such opposition too tough to crack, though, and even in what appears to be a less daunting group this time around, their most probable fate is another fourth-place finish.
Players to watch: Cristian Tello (Porto), Luiz Adriano (Shakhtar), Iker Muniain (Bilbao), Sergei Krivets (BATE)
Prediction: 1st Porto, 2nd Bilbao, 3rd Shakhtar, 4th BATE
Who do you think will be the winners of each of these 4 Champions League groups, and do you expect any major surprises to come from them? Which side do you think will pose the greatest threat to the English teams in the latter rounds? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball.