UEFA Champions League 2018-19
Its right around the corner. The best soccer on the planet (and its not close either). The UEFA Champions League (UCL) Group Stage begins Tuesday, September 18 and finishes up on Wednesday, December 12. The draw for the Round of 16 is then held on December 17 with play returning in February of next year. So just what do we expect to see this fall? Who are the favorites to advance out of the Group Stage and might there be some surprises?
Before we dive into each group its important to understand the dynamics of the UCL and what it means to the sides and the players. First the players. There are two key things from the players perspectives. This is, what most would agree, is the biggest trophy a player can win on a club team. Sure league titles are great. Sure league cups are great. But this is the ‘one”. There just isn’t a bigger prize out there. Secondly, and for a lot of players this is critical and that is a chance to hone their skills at the highest level of play. Two key benefits can befall from this.
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1) Exhibiting strong play at this level earns a player notice by the big money clubs (and the same goes for the UEFA Europa League as well). Getting on the radar of a big club means a shot at a big time contract.
2) Exhibiting strong play at this level can cement (or earn) a players spot on his respective national team. If you can play well at this level then you can expect to show strong play at the World Cup.
So the impetus is there from both the team and the individual players perspectives to shine in UCL. But there is a downside to both UCL and Europa League as has been discussed in previous articles. And that is the extra demand it puts on the players from a physical perspective. Certainly, the deeper the team the better they are prepared to handle all these extra matches. But it is a stress no matter how you want to slice it. Additionally, there are just about zero freebies at this level. Surely, when a Bayern Munich plays a Athens FC there is some breathing room. But a slip up is not easily recovered when a team only gets three Group Stage matches. There is no long season to get past an upset.
Also, this issue goes much deeper than the mere fact that a team has a minimum of six big matches in the front half of what is also their country league season. Its much about the draw they got in UCL and equally important as to when their UCL matches fall within their respective league. Lets look at Liverpool as an example. Liverpool finished as the runner up in UCL last season and is among a handful of favorites this time around, as well as a favorite to finish near the top in the English Premier League (EPL). Liverpool got a pretty tough draw into Group C along with Paris Saint Germain and Napoli. Only Red Star is considered one of the weaker teams. So already they have drawn a tough group. As you would like to see though if you are a Liverpool fan, is that they drew their toughest opponent, PSG, at home for the first match. That is just about perfect. Or is it? This is where next level analysis is really needed. Their second UCL match is then away at Napoli on October 3rd. But sandwich around these UCL matches are some pretty tough EPL matches as well.
Here is Liverpool’s upcoming schedule:
September 15th at Tottenham (EPL)
September 18th home against PSG (UCL)
September 22nd home against Southampton (EPL)
October 3rd at Napoli (UCL)
October 7th home against Manchester City (EPL)
That is one brutal stretch of games. All on top of the fact that this week is an international window so most of these players are off playing with their respective national teams in either friendlies or the UEFA Nations League. The bottom line is that there is just no way Liverpool can put their starting XI out there for all these matches. Just not possible. So what does manager Jurgen Klopp do? What is most important to him and the club ownership? Do they favor UCL over EPL? Do they favor EPL over UCL? Or do they want a middle of the road approach? This isn’t to say that they can’t put out strong sides for both leagues. They certainly can. But at some point Klopp with have to decide which basket he wants to put his best eggs in. We may have a hint come next Saturday when he sends out his lineup for the Tottenham match. One this is a certainty. We will not see the same starting XI for both Tottenahm and PSG. Not on two days rest after coming off a FIFA window!
So lets break down the groups and see just how UCL looks this year. We’ll list each team in the group,, their respective league, as well as their expected odds to advance to the Round of 16.
Atletico Madrid (ESP)(81%)
Borussia Dortmund (GER)(57%)
Club Brugge (BEL)(36%)
This is an interesting, albeit pretty straightforward, group. Atletico is the class of the group but it also contains another very capable side in Dortmund. And both Club Brugge and Monaco are decent enough that on any given day they can catch teams by surprise. The interesting thing about this group is how different it would have looked had French superstar Antoine Griezmann had decided to transfer last winter. He was linked to both Liverpool and Barcelona but decided to stay with Atletico. Good thing for their fans as had he left they would have lost a critical player. So this group bears watching and not the least is to see some of Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. A player who should be featured on the US Mens National Team for many years. Easy to forget that he just turns 20 on the day of their first UCL match vs Club Brugge!
Inter Milan (ITA)(37%)
I can hear it already. Seriously, another Messi picture? I get it but y’all just been to get used to it. He is still one of the top several players on the planet and will be seen in this style a lot during this UCL season. Barcelona is atop the Spanish league having won all three matches to date and Messi has scored a measly four goals. Barcelona is the preseason favorite to win the whole thing coming in at 6-1. They are deep. They are talented. And they have a great manager in Ernesto Valverde. But the really bad news for Barcelona opponents is the way they are playing. For years, they were all about ball control (and they are still good at it). They just kept possession and passed, and passed, and passed. The logic being the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball and if you have it for long enough sooner or later you would score. That wasn’t and isn’t bad logic at all. But somewhere along the way it seemed to become almost too much about passing the ball around forgetting that the ultimate goal was to score. With players like Lionel Messi they still scored and won plenty. But here comes the bad news. They have now also developed a tremendous ability to counter attack. No longer so one dimensional and it will be interesting to see how this works out for them.
Tottenham, led by World Cup Golden Boot winner, Harry Kane will show well. They are a cohesive team and should advance although they will get pushed by Inter Milan. Don’t expect the Dutch side, PSV, to make much noise. But with three top clubs this is one of several “Groups of Death.”
Red Star (SRB)(9%)
Its the unfortunate thing about sports. Ultimately somebody wins and somebody losses. And in last years final it was Liverpool on the losing end of things. Liverpool played a great match, especially the first half keeping Real Madrid off the scoresheet. But in the second half Real took a step forward and Liverpool just couldn’t hang. But they now have that past them. They have made it through the league and to the final and have felt the pressure and are better for it. Led by Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah they should make a deep run again this year. That’s the good news.The bad news is that they got a very tough draw. Sure they got one of the weakest sides in the entire league (Red Star) but there two very tough teams in this group with them. PSG is loaded with talent and are very deep with such stars as Kylian Mybappe and Edinson Cavani. Then there is Napoli who have Dries Mertens and David Ospina. Both of these sides will push Liverpool. None of the three big teams can afford slips or they could be going home. The second of this years “Groups of Death” and this one might be the toughest of all?
Schalke 04 (GER)(55%)
Group D is one of the weaker groups of the event. But that makes it one of the more interesting in that while, Porto is the best side on paper, any of the four teams could advance to the knockout stages. But Porto has one big thing in its favor and that is pictured above. While he 37 years old, Iker Casillas is still a top notch keeper. One or two big time saves in the Group Stage can make a huge difference to advancing or going home. Schalke 04 is another interesting team if for no other reason than they have another of the young upcoming stars on the USMNT in midfielder Weston McKennie who turned 20 just over a month ago. Schalke has started poorly in the Bundesliga but one has to think they will turn that around. Galatsaray are a bit of an unknown. Not from a team perspective but from a players perspective. They don’t have a roster with a number of well known starts (outisde of Turkey) but they do play as a tight knot side and could make enough of a run to get to the Group of 16. But even if they do advance thats probably as far as their team play could carry them. They just don’t have the talent to go at the next level. Lokomotive have started as a very mediocre side in the Russian Premier League and that doesn’t translate well to the UCL.
Bayern Munich (GER)(91%)
Bleh is about what there is to say about this group. Bayern is the runaway favorite. In fact, at the moment Poland is playing Italy and the Poles just scored on a wonderful cross from Robert Lewandowski. Bayern has started out the Bundesliga just like last year. Two matches. Two wins. Six goals scored. The little bit of interest should be the battle for second in the group between Ajax and Benfica. Both sides have some talent and could move forward. The problem is that’s where it ends. Both of them are 6-1 dogs to advance out of the Round of 16 even if they make it. They just don’t have the ponies to run with the big guys.And Athens, should they shock these sides and advance are a 25-1 dog to move on further. Not happening.
Manchester City (ENG)(91%)
This group is really interesting once you get past Man City. They are just like Bayern Munich in Group E, prohibitive favorites to win the group. As one of the richest clubs in the world they are loaded with talent all over the field and deep. As I wrote in the EPL preview they are so deep that their second XI would be strong enough to finish in the top five or so in the EPL. When you line up with a center of the field with the likes of Claudio Bravo or Ederson Moraes in goal, Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany on defense, Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, and David Silva in midfield, and Sergio Aguero at striker how do you beat them? The simple answer is that you generally don’t. The one slight break in the Man City armor is that DeBruyne is hurt and is likely to miss three months which would keep him out for all of the Group Stage. But Man City is deep enough that they should survive and have him back fully fit for the Round of 16.
Now this is where this group is quite interesting. There is very little separation between the other three teams and any of of them could advance. Lyon will go as far the as the combination play between midfielder Martin Terrier and forwards Bertrand Traore and Memphis Depay takes them. When working well together they are a very dangerous trio. Shaktar will do like they have done for years and that is rely on a bunch of Brazilians to round of there side. They have no fewer than eight Brazilians on their roster this season! For whatever reason, they have historically been a first stop in Europe for a lot of players from Brazil. Then there is Hoffenheim. They are led by striker Adam Szalai who has tallied three goals in the seasons first two Bundesliga matches. And Hoffenheim had a respectable 3-1 loss to Bayern. Whichever of these three teams manages to advance, don’t look for them to move further.
Real Madrid (ESP)(94%)
A dud of a group (now that I said that lets get a good laugh in December). Real Madrid has won the last three UCL titles. Yes they lost Cristiano Ronaldo and that is a big loss. But they are loaded and many feel they will actually play better as a team instead of always looking for him. They have Navas and Cuortois in the net. Most teams would be thrilled to have one keeper of that quality. To have two is just sick. Then a defense that is really stacked and I mean stacked. Sergio Ramos, Carvajal, Nacho, Marcello. Then midfield. Luke Modric just won the UEFA Player of the Year and it was well deserved. But don’t mark him too closely less you forget about Kroos, Casemiro, Isco, Valverder, etc etc etc. Oh and up top. A couple you may have heard of in Benzema and Bale. Ronaldo who?
The the second best team in the group is Roma. Another one of those teams with solid players across the board even if they don’t have any household names. Sometimes that works well. So far this league season they have scored five goals. By five different players. That is a good recipe for success. But then there is a fairly decent drop off to Moscow and and even bigger drop down to Pizen. Don’t think there will be any surprises in this group.
Manchester United (ENG)(50%)
Young Boys (SUI)(30%)
The last group is also one of the three “Groups of Death” and its pretty close as to whether this or Group C are the toughest. While Juventus is a pretty strong favorite to move forward the next three teams are separated by a mere 20% and the Young Boys are the highest rated fourth seed.
This group features a big time homecoming with Cristiano Ronaldo getting back to the field at Old Trafford. Only its not in a Man U jersey this time but a Juventus one. While Ronaldo is expected to do great things for Juventus he has yet to score in their first three league matches. But they have won all three and perhaps the other teams have focused a bit too much on stopping Ronaldo and forgetting they have some other capable strikers such as Mario Mandzukic and Miralem Pjanic. Or perhaps Ronaldo is saving himself for the UCL and a sixth title?
Manchester United fans were certainly hoping for a better draw than they got. Not sure they could have gotten a worse draw and they way they have been playing gives plenty of concerns. Not the least has been their defensive woes to start the EPL. If they don’t fix that one issue alone they will be going home after the Group Stage. But then Valencia has not started their season on an upbeat note either. They only have two draws to show for their first three matches and sit well down the table in the La Liga. The good news for Valencia is that the draw gave them their first game at home. The bad news is that is against Juventus and they are likley going to start in a hole. All this makes the first Young Boys match the one to keep an eye on. They open at home against Man U. If they can hold serve they can put themselves in a great position potentially three points ahead of both Man U and Valencia. However, the Young Boys best ever finish in a tournament outside Switzerland was a semi-final European Cup finish clear back in 1959. I suspect most of you weren’t even born yet!
So there it is. Will we seem some shocking results come December? Who knows but its going to be some very high class soccer over the next nine months.
Right now I’d put my money on Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Liverpool, of Real Madrid. Tune in and see how it goes!