Champions League: How the groups stack up
The group stage draw for the 2017-18 edition of the Champions League is out and it has thrown up some interesting match-ups. The premier European competition will kick off on 12 September with the last round of group games being played on 6 December. Here’s a look at all the groups and the two likely qualifiers from each.
Group A: Benfica, Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow
Manchester United will be returning to the Champions League as Europa League winners after missing out from Europe’s elite competition for the last two years. On the basis of the significant strengthening they have done in the summer transfer window, the Red Devils will be favourites to top the group. Two-time European champions Benfica are likely to be their biggest opposition, while a trip to cold and icy Moscow is not an easy journey, and will likely enable CSKA to spring a surprise or two. Swiss champions Basel have upset more fancied opposition in the past and the Swiss outfit will attempt to play spoilsport again.
Prediction (1-4): Manchester United, Benfica, Basel, CSKA Moscow
Group B: Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Anderlecht, Celtic
This group has the potential to be one of the most exciting in the tournament with a delectable match-up between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. Although nouveau riche PSG lack the pedigree of five-time European champions Bayern, their purchase of Neymar—which was done with the explicit intent of challenging for the Champions League—will add an edge to the encounter. Celtic, as always, will provide electric atmosphere for their three home games but it will be a surprise if they upset the big two in the group. Anderlecht may finish without a point.
Prediction: Bayern Munich, PSG, Celtic, Anderlecht
Group C: Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, Roma, Qarabag
Antonio Conte guided Chelsea to the Premier League title in only his first season in English football but his record in European football isn’t up to scratch. In his three years at Juventus, quarter-finals was the furthest he could take them. Atletico Madrid, on the other hand, have played two finals in the last four years. The games between the sides are likely to be defensive masterclass with both Conte and Diego Simeone putting a premium on defensive nous. Roma will attempt to challenge the duo and it will be interesting to see how the Roman outfits acquisition of transfer miracle worker Monchi’s signings fare in Europe. Champions League debutantes Qarabag will be richer for the experience.
Prediction: Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Roma, Qarabag
Group D: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiakos, Sporting
Juventus and Barcelona are the clear favourites in this group. Juventus have been doing exceedingly well in the tournament under Massimiliano Allegri but have stumbled at the last hurdle twice in the last three seasons. Both Juve and Barca have lost important personnel in Leonardo Bonucci and Neymar and it will be interesting to see how they rearrange their defence and attack, respectively. Last season the two teams met in the quarter-final and the Catalans barely got a look in as the Old Lady thumped them 3-0 on aggregate. Sporting and Olympiakos will be left fighting for a Europa League spot unless they upset the apple cart and beat the mighty two.
Prediction: Juventus, Barcelona, Sporting, Olympiakos
Group E: Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Liverpool, Maribor
Liverpool are back among the European elite after three years, having won their Champions League playoff against Hoffenheim. Jurgen Klopp will relish the rarefied atmosphere and fancy his team’s chances of topping the group ahead of Sevilla. The Spaniards thumped the Reds 3-1 in the 2015-16 Europa League final but they have seen significant churn and may struggle to replace the quality of Vicente Iborra and Vitolo. Nevertheless, they will regale fans with some exciting, attacking football. Moscow will be a difficult trip for all the teams but Liverpool and Sevilla have enough quality in their ranks to trump the reigning Russian champions.
Prediction: Liverpool, Sevilla, Spartak Moscow, Maribor
Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, Napoli, Feyenoord
Pep Guardiola struggled to shape Manchester City in his image in his first season in England as the Citizens badly struggled in Europe. However, having had a season with his team and plugged most gaping holes from the last season with a £200 million transfer outlay in the summer, Guardiola will have fewer excuses in case of further failures. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli will be City’s biggest rivals in the group and the twin clashes between the two sides should lay down a marker for attacking football. Shakhtar and Feyenoord are evenly matched and will likely cause ample problems for both City as well as Napoli.
Prediction: Manchester City, Napoli, Shakhtar Donestk, Feyenoord
Group G: Monaco, Porto, Besiktas, Leipzig
It has the promise of being the most evenly-matched group. Monaco surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals last season but their performances also meant that most of their star performers have been poached away by top European outfits.
Nevertheless, Leonardo Jardim’s side have signed capable replacements and have thus far played well in their domestic league. Leipzig are tournament debutantes with a lot of ambition, while two-time European champions Porto have strong credentials for a top-two finish. No team cherishes a trip to Turkish cauldrons, which will give Besiktas an edge and make this a very difficult group to call.
Prediction: Monaco, Porto, Leipzig, Besiktas
Group H: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, APOEL
It is hard to look beyond the reigning champions Real Madrid in this group. They are the hot favourites to go all the way and collect a third consecutive Champions League title. Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur will contest for the second qualification spot in the group. The Germans have an edge on the basis of their European experience, while the relative greenhorns Tottenham will have to show a lot more than their last few European appearances in order to trouble Real Madrid or Dortmund. However, the clash between Dortmund and Tottenham will showcase some of the hottest young talent in European football.
Prediction: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, APOEL