UEFA Champions League Group Stage Preview
The Union of European Football Associations Champions League (UCL) returns today. And for those who have read an of my previous articles, you know that outside of the World Cup, I believe the UCL to be the best soccer competition around. The UCL features the top clubs with the top players across the European continent. And there is no better collection of soccer talent anywhere on earth.
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Now as exciting as the UCL is, the unfortunate reality is that the group stages are historically mostly a foregone conclusion. Last season I correctly identified 15 of the 16 teams to advance out of the group stage to the knockout state. Not because of some magical crystal ball. Not because of some special insight. No, it really boils down to a matter of finances. Just like most sports these days. The haves continue to score and the have nots, while pulling off surprises now and then (2015 Kansas City Royals winning the World Series) mostly provide for some entertaining play but in the end fall short.
As an example lets just look at Group A. Manchester United is clearly the most well known club in that group. Manchester United’s team payroll for last season (highest in the EPL) was over $300M. SL Benfica’s most recent payroll was in the neighborhood of $30M. FC Basel 1893 has a club value of $55M. That’s not their payroll. That is the value of the entire club! An analysis of all the groups would point of the same things. The bottom line is that the teams that advance almost always come from one of the five big leagues, English Premier Leauge, the German Budesliga, the Italian Serie A, the Spanish La Liga, and the French Lique 1. I don’t think this year will be any different. So lets look at the groups.
Manchester United (EPL), SL Benfica (Portugal), PFC CSKA Moscow (Russia), and FC Basel 1893 (Swiss). Man U is too deep and talented to do anything but win this group. Jose Mourinho’s squad is playing well and they resigned striker Zlatan Ibrahmovich. Benfica should finish second and move on. And I don’t expect this group to provide any surprises.
FC Bayern Munich (Bundesliga), Paris Saint-Germain (Ligue 1), Celtic FC (Scotland), and RSC Anderlecht (Belgium). Bayern Munich and PSG are clearly the two class squads in this group and both will advance. The question is in which order. Bayern is one of the top clubs in the world once again. However, PSG made two huge additions this past transfer window bringing in Neymar and Mbappe. I still give the nod to Bayern but this could be close.
Chelsea FC (EPL), Club Atletico de Madrid (La Liga), AS Roma (Serie A), and Qarabag FK (Azerbaijan). This group is a bit more interesting with three big clubs in the mix. Chelsea and Madrid should advance but Roma could surprise. Qarabag is the first club to ever make the UCL out of Azerbaijan but unfortunately this isn’t a group for an unexpected run to be made.
FC Barcelona (La Liga), Juventus (Serie A), Sporting Club de Portugal (Portugal), and Olympiacos FC (Greece). Juventus went all the way to the final last season, and although they lost Dani Alves and Leonardo Banucci from their back lines they are still very stout. Barcelona also lost a stud in Neymar but they replace him with Ousmane Dembele so they remain stocked. In fact in the first three La Liga matches Barcelona has won them all outscoring their opponents 9-0. But for some reason Juventus seems to have figured out how to control the Barcelona attach so I think they win the group with Barcelona taking second. Flipping those wouldn’t be a surprise. Anybody else finishing in the top two would be a surprise….a really big one.
Liverpool FC (EPL), Sevilla FC (Serie A), FC Spartak Moscow (Russia), and NK Maribor (Slovenia). Liverpool got a tremendous break pulling out this ping pong ball. This is one of the easier groups and the should have a fairly easy time winning the group. Sevilla typically plays tough in European competitions and should manage to take second but Spartak could surprise them if they aren’t careful. Maribo…..never mind.
Manchester City (EPL, SSC Napoli (Serie A), FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), and Feyenoord (Dutch). Manchester City should win this group followed by Napoli. But the other two clubs are both solid sides and could provide some threat.
FC Porto (Portugal), AS Monaco FC (Ligue 1), Besitkas JK (Turkey), and RB Leipzig (Bundesliga). This is the most wide open group in the competition. There is no clear world class club but there are no door mats either. From a pure competitive standpoint this will be the most interesting group. I will go with Porto and Monaco to advance but won’t be surprised to see Besitkas squeeze into the top two.
Borrusia Dortmund (Bundesliga), Real Mardid (La Liga), Tottenham Hotspur FC (EPL), and APOEL FC (Greece). In every international soccer tournament there is always one group that sticks out above the rest. Luck of the draw (or in this case bad luck) makes what looks to be the group of death. And this year in the UCL its Group H. The Spurs are coming off a second place finish in the EPL and have started out going 2-1-1 with their only loss to leader Chelsea. But unfortunately for them they got drawn with Dortmund and Real Madrid. You know, that Real Madrid team that won it all last year. This group will be the most fun to watch from a technical perspective. Three world class clubs. And making this group especially interesting for us American fans is that we get to watch Christian Pulisic play in four matches against RM and the Spurs. This kid is special and he does’t turn 19 until next week.
In the end I feel for the Spurs. I think they have a solid club and I love watching Harry Kane up top. But in the end I think Dortmund and Real Madrid are too tough and will advance.
So there you have it. Not picking any surprises. Money and the big clubs should move on to the knockout stages. Then the handicapping gets a bit tougher! The draw for the knockout stage will be held on December 11. In the meantime we have three months of some incredible soccer to watch!