Champions League groups – ranked in order of quality

Group D: Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach

Manchester City have a peculiar habit of finding themselves in the competition’s toughest group. While previously attributable to the fact they were often a third seed, this time around City were in the second pot, yet were drawn against good sides from pots 3 and 4.

City can take consolation from the fact Juventus are not the force of old, having lost Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo in the summer. They’ve signed reasonably well, but the newcomers will take time to settle, and might not peak until after this group stage.

Sevilla are a well-organised and entertaining side and have proven their quality in the Europa League over the past two seasons, while Borussia Monchengladbach coach Lucien Favre is a good tactician. City should progress, while Sevilla might be a good bet to sneak through ahead of Juve.

Group E: Barcelona, Leverkusen, Roma, BATE

Defending champions Barcelona will qualify with ease, but the fight between Leverkusen and Roma for second place will be fascinating, especially as they meet in back-to-back group games in match days 3 and 4. BATE are highly unpredictable – three years ago they beat eventual champions Bayern, but last season ended their group with a -22 goal difference. The latter seems more likely here.

Barca’s opening game in Rome will be their toughest of the group stage – but the Giallorossi never seem to upset top European opposition, with last season’s 7-1 defeat to Bayern a good example of their struggles against superior sides.

Leverkusen are very well-organised and excellent on the break under Roger Schmidt, and over two ‘legs’ against Roma, they should have the upper hand – and follow Barca out of the group.

Group A: Real Madrid, Paris, Shakhtar, Malmo

Malmo will be decent at home, but have minimal chance of qualification. Therefore, there are obvious favourites to progress, because Shakhtar Donetsk seem at their lowest level for years.

Even when their side was packed with exciting players, Shakhtar never had the expected impact upon this competition – and with both Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa departing this summer, it’s questionable whether they still have enough raw quality within the side. Their nervy 3-2 playoff victory over Rapid Vienna was somewhat unimpressive, they’re still forced to play home matches away from their own stadium, and they failed to win the league last season for the first time in six years.

Real are roughly the same side as last year, albeit with a new coach. Rafael Benitez has an impressive record in European competition and should have few problems here. PSG have improved thanks to the arrivals of Angel Di Maria, Kevin Trapp and Layvin Kurzawa, and could be worth backing to win the group – they have back-to-back games against Real in matches 3 and 4, which will be decisive.

Group H: Valencia, Lyon, Zenit, Gent

The departure of Nicolas Otamendi is a huge blow for Valencia, and they’ve spent a lot of money on three players they had on loan last season – Alvaro Negredo, Joao Cancelo and Andre Gomes – so haven’t truly improved the side.

That opens the group up for challenges from Lyon and Zenit, with Gent the outsiders. Lyon were occasionally excellent last year, and despite usually being a selling club, they’ve kept their squad together and added Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Jeremy Morel, Rafael, Claudio Beauvue and the wonderful Mathieu Valbuena. They should top this group.

Zenit, meanwhile, will play Andre Villas-Boas’ usual brand of attacking football. As always, they’re relying on big contributions from Hulk and Danny – and need someone to provide goals in the absence of Salomon Rondon. They’ll probably need to be content with a place in the Europa League knockout stage, as they’ve never convinced in the Champions League.

Group B: Manchester United, Wolfsburg, CSKA, PSV

It’s difficult to know how Manchester United will adapt to the Champions League after a year away, although Louis van Gaal has considerable experience in this competition, and his tactics should allow them to progress.

Wolfsburg will be severely weakened if they lost Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City – with the Belgian they’d be second-favourites here, without him they’ll struggle. He was so important in that number ten role, connecting midfield and attack, and his absence will leave a gaping hole.

PSV are a hugely likeable side under Philipp Cocu and might be a decent bet to sneak second place ahead of the German side, while Leonid Slutsky’s CSKA are good on the counter-attack. In all, this Group B might not feature one of the competition’s favourites, but it’s the most balanced group in the competition.

Group C: Atletico, Benfica, Galatasaray, Astana

Three famous names in European football, and one name more famous for their cycling team. Astana could be in for a series of absolute thrashings here, although the away trip to Kazakhstan is going to be horrendous. For Benfica, it means a ten hour flight – the competition’s most easterly and westerly sides meeting.

Atletico are a truly excellent team and should top the group – as ever, they’ve replaced departing players very smartly. Benfica have a talented squad but lost a lot of experience, and long-serving manager Jorge Jesus, over the summer – they haven’t quite mastered this competition, though would be a good bet to challenge for the Europa League if they drop down.

Then there’s Galatasaray, who have a couple of famous veterans like Lukas Podolski and Wesley Sneijder, but depend more on the group of hard-working Turks who also boast technical quality, like Selcuk Inan, Burak Yilmaz and Hamit Altintop. They should follow Atletico out of the group.

Group G: Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Tricky away trips are the only thing for Chelsea to worry about. Otherwise, this looks like another procession – Chelsea never really struggle at this stage, only bowing out early under Roberto Di Matteo in a difficult group. They’ll finish top, and Maccabi Tel-Aviv will surely finish bottom.

Porto are a very good team, playing proactive, structured, energetic football under former Spain U21 coach Julen Lopetegui. They’ve lost Jackson Martinez and their energetic Brazilian full-back duo of Danilo and Alex Sandro, though, and their replacements are inexperienced.

Dynamo Kiev are a decent side – champions of Ukraine for the first time in six years and going well under Sergei Rebrov, with stars like Miguel Veloso and Oleg Gusev. It will be between them and Porto for second, with their opening day fixture in Ukraine potentially crucial.

Group F: Bayern, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb

The least interesting group in the competition. More than any other group, there’s a clear hierarchy here, and it’s difficult to imagine how they won’t finish in the order listed above.

Furthermore, Arsenal are also up against two sides they’ve regularly played over the past few seasons. It’s the third time in four seasons they’ve met Bayern at some point, and the fourth time in seven seasons they’ve met Olympiakos in the group stage. Weirdly, their trip to Athens has always been on the final matchday when they’ve already secured qualification.

Basically, there’s little of interest here. Arsenal and Bayern will play one another back-to-back, probably with the group table reading 6-6-0-0 beforehand. Bayern should eventually secure top slot.

Posted in , Champions League | 2 comments

September 1st, 2015 by Michael Cox

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