October 25, 2020

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Champions League Group Stage Breakdown

by Zack Lambert

October 1st, 2020

Just 38 days removed from the final of the 2019/20 version of the competition, the Champions League has officially entered the group stages. The day of the draw usually spurs the widest variety of reactions from fan bases. Teams are doomed to crash out or ready to move on. There are cries of pain as an underdog is paired with two giants or a super club is placed with clubs from Serbia, Ukraine, and Belgium.

The world’s largest club competition carries massive implications for teams. The money from the tournament could finance your favorite team’s next star, be demoralizing performances could affect the rest of the season. A beautiful comeback in the beautiful game is only fun for half of those participating. History is written by the victors, just ask Paris.

Today every team has a chance. From holders Bayern all the way down to Ferencvárosi, every team has a path through to glory. That’s the beauty of today. Fantasized daydreams of the club hero hammering in the late winner, championship parades projected onto sleepy streets, players evolving into legends and heroes as we turn in for bed. Today it’s all so real. So enjoy it. Indulge in the possibilities. Be happy you’re here. Let’s talk about it.

Group A

FC Bayern München, Club Atlético de Madrid, FC Red Bull Salzburg, FC Lokomotiv Moskva

Many Champions League groups leave some sort of reasonable pathway for a smaller team to make it into the knockout stage, but I’m really struggling with envisioning Salzburg or Lokomotiv making it through. Bayern are the holders from last season and put on one of the most stunning displays in the history of the competition with a 8-2 drilling of Barcelona. They’ve gotten better. On the other hand we have Atlético who are candidates to win La Liga and quarter finalists in last season’s competition.

The history for both Salzburg and Lokomotiv in the Champions League is rich. While neither club has ever won, both are consistent fixtures considering how often they top their respective leagues. Maybe if this were last season we could convince ourselves that Salzburg has a chance with their group of young stars, but those players are gone. As much as I love an underdog, there’s no way either team will move past the two giants of European football. The teams will finish in the order they’re listed.

Group B

Real Madrid C.F., FC Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Internazionale Milano, Borussia Mönchengladbach

In recent months I’m not sure I’ve seen a team outside of Bayern play more consistent football than Real. Their close to the 2019/20 La Liga season was pure dominance and despite their loss to Manchester City in the Champions League, I feel that they’re still one of the three best football clubs on the planet. They’re the only Group B team that I’m confident in.

Going in order, Shakhtar are another constant fixture in the tournament as the best team in Ukraine by some distance. They can cause problems for sure, but there’s no real threat to make the next level this season. Inter are likely the team to move on, but we’ve seen this team crumble before. On paper they’re one of the best units in the world, but football games are won on the pitch. Can the goals of Lukaku and Lautaro float the ship this season or will the team be condemned to another season of second half Europa League? In a group that’s much kinder than their 2019 iteration I can’t imagine there’s any room for error in the eyes of the board.

As for Gladbach, they’re the true wildcards. The once-Prussians are always lingering around the Champions League positions in Germany but rarely do they make too much noise. However, with a very young core who have proven performers and a real star in Marcus Thuram, I can’t say it would shock me if they managed to weasel their way into the next round. Real are likely candidates to win the group and Milan are surely favored to advance, but Gladbach will throw everything they have at the competition.

Group C

FC do Porto, Manchester City F.C., Olympiacos F.C., Olympique de Marseille

Group C is a lot like Group B in that there’s a clear winner in my eyes and a fight for the second spot. Manchester City are the obvious winners as they don’t prefer to crash and burn out of the competition until the quarter finals. But the third spot is up for grabs. Marseille is a very talented football team who have already beaten PSG this season. However, that talent hasn’t carried over in other matches as well as they’re struggling to keep near the top of the table early on.

Porto are another recurring player in the group stages as one of the top teams in Portugal and their talent is also unquestionable. They’re scoring very consistently in Liga NOS and made very few changes in the offseason. The battles between OM and Porto will decide how this group shakes out. As good as Olympiacos are, they’re going to be easy points for teams who will be desperate to gain an edge. The question won’t if they’ll lose but instead by how much will they lose.

So in my eyes Manchester City run away with the group, possibly picking up 18 points. With Olympiacos at the bottom, maybe not even able to scrap one measly point, OM and Porto are in the middle. Both teams have won the competition before but of course neither win is recent. The rosters tell me that Porto is going to win. Marseille are very inconsistent and while they’ll likely sort out some issues before those matches, they’ll also have a big battle to make it back to the competition next season. Porto have to be the second team moving on.

Group D

Liverpool F.C., AFC Ajax, Atalanta B.C., FC Midtjylland

If Liverpool are to replicate the performance they had against Arsenal for the rest of the season then we ought to simply give up and give them the trophy. However, we’ve seen the inconsistencies that can rear their ugly head. The monumental loss against Atléti was far less than glamorous, but with Thiago added to the team, Liverpool should be confident in finding a comfortable level. However, they can’t relax in this group.

Ajax are one of the historic clubs in Europe and despite being stripped of their young talent in recent seasons they’re still extremely dangerous, especially in European competition. As for Atalanta, if you like goals you know their name. Atalanta led Europe in domestic nettings last season and seem keen to up the ante this year. The Italian club made a mesmerising run last season and with the same roster composition, they look ready to replicate the feat. With apologies to the keepers of Denmark, there’s no room for you in the next stage.

So again we’re faced with the question of who will take the middle positions. While Liverpool need to see these matches out and will field competitive lineups until their spot is clinched, they’re going to win the group. Ajax and Atalanta will be appointment football. Can the Dutch meesters overcome with strategy and discipline or will the meteoric entertainers in Italy bob their way to the knockouts? For my money it’s another cold second half in Europa League for four-time winners Ajax.

Group E

Sevilla FC, Chelsea F.C., FC Krasnodar, Stade Rennais F.C.

Sevilla earned their way into the competition in two ways: winning the Europa League and finishing fourth in La Liga. While the Spaniards were rightfully in the first pot drawn, they won’t be favorites. Chelsea narrowly earned their way into the Champions League but deserve the position and have spent accordingly. Their shopping spree is not only aimed at winning the Premier League, but also the Champions League. So far neither seems like a reality, but being placed in one of the easiest groups in the competition gives the latter half of the dreams life.

Stade Renne were the third best French team last season and currently sit atop of the young table now, but I’m not confident in their international potential. As for Krasnodar, they were formed in 2008 and have failed their way up thanks to financial limitations of other clubs. I forbid all from trusting them to win anything. Chelsea are sure to move on and I believe Sevilla are too. Both teams are built to survive in Europe and both teams have experience on the biggest stages. There’s not much hope for the others.

Group F

FC Zenit, Borussia Dortmund, SS Lazio, Club Brugge KV

Speaking of easier groups, here’s what could be the easiest. I’ll say right now that Dortmund and Lazio are going to advance from this group. Dortmund have a full season of their young stars and with the additions in the offseason they’re only getting better. Plus, Jadon Sancho is still on the roster (for now) and he’s a huge bonus for the team. Lazio were nearly the Italian upset champions last season and were it not for the pandemic stoppage I believe they could have upset Juve. However, they lost momentum and finished fourth. Lazio employ some unbelievably talented players. They’re moving on.

Club Brugge are the Belgian representatives this season and while they can make some noise in normal seasons, they’re not going to do much of anything against these offensive juggernauts. Zenit make appearances fairly often in the group stages and, like Brugge, they’ve been known to cause some problems in the past. This season they don’t have a poor team but they’re not going to be the problem they usually can be. Dortmund and Lazio are moving on and the only struggle will be for who takes the top spot and who plays in Europa League.

Group G

Juventus F.C., FC Barcelona, FC Dynamo Kyiv, Ferencvárosi TC

Accusing officials of being corrupt is usually a big deal. However, when those officials are world football decision makers, those claims are much more likely to hold water. I don’t want to make any rash claims, but no one should be surprised if UEFA fixed this outcome for Juve and Barcelona to play. You might have heard of Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. Those two players are long time rivals and two of the best players on the planet. Legends of the game. With Messi unhappy with Barcelona and a move to America being on the table next season, it’s possible that this pairing was premeditated. Nobody is complaining at all. Everyone will relish watching these two Galacticos going head to head for what could be the final time, but it sure is a nice coincidence that things played out so well for everyone.

Sorry about the conspiracy theory, but I needed to get it off my chest. The other teams in the group, while nice cclubs, don’t have a chance. Ukraine and Hungary will just be pit stops on the way to the knockout rounds for Barça and Juve. If I were forced to pick I would call Juventus to take the top spot, but all bets are off when the two best players of all time meet on the pitch. Dynamo, Fradi, thanks for participating!

Group H

Paris Saint-Germain F.C., Manchester United F.C., RasenBallsport Leipzig, İstanbul Başakşehir F.K.

This is as close to a group of death that we’re going to see this season. Last season we had Dortmund, Barcelona, and Inter in the same group. Paris is the only team that I think is about the same quality as those others, but the span in competition is close enough that we can award Group H as the toughest. It’s a tough thing to be the 4th in a group like this but Istanbul hasn’t a chance of making the next round.

A typical group of death has questions about every team and their chances of moving on, but the 2019/20 runners-up, Paris Saint-Germain, probably won’t be losing much sleep about their odds of advancing. Manchester United placed third in the Premier League last season and were on track for a huge offseason, but Jadon Sancho is still in Dortmund and United look very inconsistent. They’ve struggled mightily so far this season and while they’re historically great in Europe, history doesn’t help much now. RB Leipzig are trained killers and even without Timo Werner or Patrik Schick, they’re still very good. While I couldn’t be surprised if United or Leipzig win their matches, I would be surprised if Paris doesn’t make it through.