CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PREVIEW How will Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona and Juventus fare? Groups E to H assessed
The Champions League returns this week with the first round of group stage fixtures. Champions Bayern Munich kick off their campaign with a mouth-watering clash with Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid on Wednesday evening, Liverpool travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax at the same time, while Manchester City host Portuguese champions Porto.
In preparation for another campaign, we have assessed every team in the competition. So you can brush up on your Lokomotiv Moscows and your Atalantas as well as the classic big boys, find out who has the group of death and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of this year's favourites.
We can hear the Champions League theme already. So, without further ado, this is how every team in the Champions League is shaping up ahead of game week one.
Last season’s all-conquering treble winners have strengthened with the signing of former Manchester City winger Leroy Sane and a clutch of exciting young players. As ever, the league title should take care of itself, leaving coach Hansi Flick the luxury of selecting his strongest team in Europe. Bayern should walk Group A even with the threat of Atletico Madrid.
Diego Simeone’s masters of the dark arts just got a little more sinister with the signing of Luis Suarez on a free from Barcelona. A wobbly start to the La Liga season shouldn’t have much bearing on the performances of a team who shine in cup competitions. Expect Atletio to qualify as runners-up in the group.
Red Bull Salzburg
The winners of the past seven straight Austrian championships will pour all of their efforts into their European assignments, with success almost guaranteed domestically. Young and talented though Jesse Marsch’s squad may be, the American coach will surely have to settle for third-place and a spot in the Europa League given the competition in Group A.
Last season’s Russian Premier League runners-up will almost certainly finish last in a tough group. Marko Nikolic will look to make his team compact and hope they can nick the odd goal to make life hard for opponents but in reality they have almost no chance of qualifying.
FFT Reckons... Bayern should breeze the group with Atletico in second place. Neither of the smaller teams has enough to prevent the big boys from going through, but Salzburg should grab the Europa League spot.
Zinedine Zidane’s La Liga champions will want to improve on their feeble performance in the Champions League last season, when they were dispatched with ease by Manchester City in the round of 16. A lack of major signings means they may struggle again, however, and they may have to settle for a runners-up spot in a strong group.
The Ukrainian big dogs will rue a tough draw which means they will probably have to battle it out for third with Gladbach. Luis Castro’s side have the talent to cause an upset, however, and second place isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
The Italians are back in the big time after finishing runners-up in the Europa League last season. Antonio Conte’s side are tactically astute, defensively sound and, in Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, boast one of the best strike partnerships in Europe. Inter must be challenging for top spot.
You have to feel sorry for Gladbach. Despite having a squad bursting with talent and an excellent young coach in Marco Rose, a seriously tough group means they have almost no chance of making it to the knockout stages. Third place, and the Europa League group stage ticket that comes with it, would be a fine achievement.
FFT reckons... Inter Milan may win the group, with Real looking weaker than they have in a long time. Borussia Monchengladbach to just steal third spot to reach the Europa League.
Arguably the weakest team to have been drawn from Pot A, Porto will have their work cut out to qualify. Manchester City will consider themselves favourites, while Marseille will also back themselves to qualify for the next round. The Portuguese side, who won the competition in 2004, may have to settle for third.
The hot favourites to win a comfortable group. Pep Guardiola has never failed to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League and this year should be no different. City have the squad, and the coach, to go all the way this season. But that has been true for a couple of years, at least.
Third-place must be the target for the weakest team in the group. It should be between Pedro Martins’ Greeks and Porto for the Europa League spot, but a slip-up from either Manchester City or Marseille could make things interesting at the top end for all involved.
Last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up will be gunning to finish in second place, behind Manchester City, in Group C. A talented squad, based around the remarkable genius of Dimitri Payet in midfield, should reach the knockout stages.
FFT reckons... Manchester City to make light work of this group but second place should be a more hotly contested affair. Marseille, based around the ageing brilliance of Payet to go through with them. Porto in third.
Last season’s implosion against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 could be forgiven as the Reds focused on claiming their first English league title for 30 years. If they’re to improve on their European showing this year, however, they may have to do it without the hugely influential Virgil van Dijk; the defender damaged knee ligaments in last weekend’s Merseyside derby and will undergo surgery this week. Their status as one of the favourites for this competition will have taken a serious dent as a result of that misfortune, but they should still qualify from Group D without much trouble.
The Dutch side may have been picked apart following their phenomenal semi-final-reaching campaign of 2018/19, but they remain a talented group with a clear playing style. Elder statesman Dusan Tadic remains the key man in attack and Ajax have the confidence to beat any side on their day. Expect a ding-ding with Atalanta for the second spot in Group D.
The Italians have fast become a second favourite team for football fans across Europe. A talented squad, assembled on a shoe-string budget by Gian Piero Gaspirini, were unfortunate to lose to 2-1 PSG in last year's modified quarter-finals. They'll want to do better this year, and will back themselves to at least finish second in the group behind Liverpool.
The Norwegians have been handed a horror show of a group and will take a minor miracle for them to make the knockout rounds. Given the strength of the competition, even third place and a spot in the Europa League would be considered a remarkable achievement.
FFT reckons... Liverpool to top the group, even without the talismanic van Dijk in defence, with Atalanta doing enough to reach the knockouts too. Ajax will steal the Europa League spot.
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