UEFA Champions League 2019/2020 – Group Stage Expectations
The Group Stage for the 2019/2020 UEFA Champions League (UCL) is all set with play starting next Tuesday September 17th. As a reminder tteams automatically qualify as follows: UCL and Eurpopa League winners, the top four in the Spanish, English, Italian and German leagues; France and Russia’s top two; and the domestic champions in Portugal, Ukraine, Belgium and Turkey. As is often the case there are some overlaps. This year for instance Liverpool won the UCL and Chelsea won the Europa League and they both finished in the top four of the EPL. So those spots went down the UEFA roster to the Austrian Champion Salzburg and the third place French team Lyon. Those equate to 26 spots.
The remaining six spots were determined by a set of qualifying matches held over the summer to get us to 32.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
So there are eight groups of four teams each. Each team in a group plays a home and home series with the other three teams. The top two eams advance based on the final group standings in points. In many cases tiebreakers are needed as teams end up tied in points. For this season the tiebreakers are as follows:
1) Points in head-to-head matches among tied teams;
2) Goal differences in head-to-head matches among tied teams;
3) Goals scored in head-to-head matches among tied teams;
4) Away goals scored in head-to-head matches among tied teams;
5) If more than two teams are tied, and after applying all head-to-head criteria above, a subset of teams are still tied, all head-to-head criteria above are reapplied exclusively to this subset of teams;
6) Goal difference in all group matches;
7) Goals scored in all group matches;
8) Away goals scored in all group matches;
9) Wins in all group matches;
10) Away wins in all group matches;
11) Disciplinary points (red card = 3 points, yellow card = 1 point, expulsion for two yellow cards in one match = 3 points);
12) UEFA Club Coefficient (Club rankings based upon a set of statistics UEFA uses to calculate rankings)
What this long list of tiebreakers means is that there is going to be two teams that advance from each group based upon the round robin play. No additional playoff game will be needed no matter how far down the tiebreaker criteria they have to use. Group Stage play will be completed on Wednesday December 11th and the Round of 16 draw held on December 16th. UCL then takes a hiatus until sometime in February.
Enough of the background lets dive into the groups and see how they look and what to expect.
Paris Saint Germain (France), Real Madrid (Spain), Club Brugge (Belgium) and Galatsaray (Turkey)
Clearly PSG and Real Madrid are the odds on favorites to advance. PSG is loaded with firepower with the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymay, Edinson Cavani, and Angel Di Maria. The will score goals in bunches. The only question nagging at PSG fans is what’s going to happen with Neymay. Unhappy at PSG and has requested a transfer. Lots of speculation that he would be moved during the window earlier this month but it didn’t happen. Will he get moved in January and how will this mess affect his play?
And PSG isn’t the only loaded team in this group. Here’s the middle of the field from back to front for Real Madrid – Thibaut Courtois, Sergio Ramos, Luke Modric (2018 FIFA Player of the Year), and Eden Hazard. Toss in a few other names you may have heard of like Gareth Bale, Isco, Casemiro, Karim Benzema, James Rodirquez, Marcello, Toni Kroos…..well you get the idea. They are just stacked.
Now that doesn’t mean that Club Brugge and Galatsaray don’t have players capable of playing at this level. They most certainly do. But they don’t have the star power or depth to likely challenge the two front runners. But then that’s why they play the games.
USMNT Fan Alert: keep an eye on Club Brugge. Their backup keeper is Etahn Horvath and he may see some action if fitness or form becomes an issue for starter Simon Mignolet.
Bayern Munich (Germany), Tottenham (England), Olympiacos (Greece), and Crevena Zverda (Serbia)
Well lets just get to the bottom line. Bayern and Tottenham will advance and it would be a major surprise to see either of the other two make much noise. Bayern and Tottenham are both in the top 10 according to oddsmakers to win the UCL. Olympiakos is 25,000-1 and Red Belgade is 50,000-1. So if you have a $100 bill just lying around….well never mind save our money.
Bayern has one of the best if not the best keepers in the world in Manuel Neuer. Keepers like him can keep teams winning even when they are not playing well. And not playing well is a rarity for this German side loaded with attacking talent led by scoring machine Robert Lewandowski. That guy seems to score at will. Currently second in the league and already at a +8 goal differential in a mere three games. Lewandowski is leading the league with six goals in those three games. The guy is just really, really good.
Tottenam on the other hand has not started their season all that well currently sitting in 9th in the EPL. They haven’t played poorly but they haven’t played well either. But as the long season for both EPL and UCL continue look for them to move up the ranks. The middle of their lineup is just too good to stay down for long. With Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Deli Alli, and Heung-Min Son they should advance. But they better start playing better or they won’t make much noise in the Round of 16.
Manchester City (England), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), and Atalanta (Italy)
No surprise here. Man City advances. They are the pretournament favorites to win it all and with a lineup that has Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Sergio Aguero its no wonder. They sit second in the EPL right now but are leading the league in scoring. Opposing coaches lose sleep at night trying to figure out how to keep them from scoring. Almost none are succesful. They should win the group.
Now it gets a bit more interesting. Both Shakhtar and Dinamo are decent clubs and will fight it out for second in the group. Keep an eye on Dani Olmo and Bruno Petkovic for Dinamo. They can score from all over the field. Shakhtar is currently leading the Ukranian league and is undefeated in six matches. Yes its the Ukrainian league and not one of the big four but they do now how to win.
Ok were you paying attention? if so you were asking wait a minute what about Atalanta? And you’d be correct! They are the second best team in this group, but not by much. If Shakhtar and Dinamo don’t beat up each other too badly they may make a run at second. But going in it sure looks like Atalanta. For a couple of reasons. First off Atalanta plays in the much tougher Italian league. That experience is much better in preparing a team for the level of play necessary to compete in the UCL. In their first two league matches Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have each scored twice. If they combine well during the group stage they will likely challenge for second.
While this is Man City’s group to win its could be interesting to see how second shakes out as this is one of the weaker groups making it easier for a lesser known team to advance.
Jueventus (Itlay), Atletico (Spain), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), and Lokomotiv Moskva (Russia)
This is an interesting group. Two strong teams and a third that is pretty solid. Juventus is the class of the group with stars such as Cristiano Ronalod, Paulo Dybala, and Ganzalo Higuain. Early on in the Italian Serie A they are tied for first. It would be a bit of a shock if they didn’t advance. Atletico is led by the two ends of the field with Vitolo at attacking midfielder and Jan Oblak in the nets. They are currently sitting in first in the Spanish La Liga having allowed only two goals in the first three matches.
But don’t look past Leverkusen. They won four of their last five matches last year to move up to 4th in the Bundesliga and they sit 4th so far this year. They are led by keeper Lukas Hradecky, one of the best in Germany. They aren’t one of the more well known clubs in Europe but they have quietly built a pretty strong side. About the best that Lokomotiv can hope to do is to steal a point or two away from Juventus and Atletico. If they do that it could open the door for Leverkusen to advance.
Liverpool (England), Napoli (Italy), Salzburg (Austria), and Genk (Belgium)
There were two happy camps when this group was drawn. First and foremost defending champions Liverpool. They drew a decent side in Napoli but certainly not one of the Euro powers, and two minnows in Salzburg and Genk. Napoli was happy to have drawn the two minnows.
Liverpool won last year. They are in first in the EPL having outscored their opponents 12-3. Already a +9 goal differential. Oh but maybe they have played a bunch of weak EPL teams? Well they did drub Arsenal 3-1. The Reds are just another of those stacked Euro teams. Defense? A good keeper in Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk who is probably the best defender on the planet. Midfield? Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, two of the game’s best. Attack? Mo Salah who has led or tied for the lead in goals scored the last two EPL campaigns. One of the top favorites to win the UCL they should waltz through to the Round of 16.
For Napoli its the proverbial good news bad news. The good news is that they open at home. The bad news is that its against Liverpool. The only worse draw would have been to open on the road at Liverpool. Still Napoli played Liverpool tough last season having been paired with them in the group stage. In fact Napoli almost scored a late game winner in the final match but a stellar save by Alisson allowed Liverpool to move on with Napoli going home. So these two clubs know each other well and should provide some quality soccer. Napoli will be happy with at least a draw.
Neither Salzburg or Genk have a very realistic shot at advancing. Stranger things have happened but this would rank right up there. Liverpool and Napoli are just better and deeper across the board.
Barcelona (Spain). Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Internationale (Italy), and Slavia Praha (Czech Republic)
No better place to start than the bottom line. This is the 2019/2020 Group of Death. Look at where these teams currently stand in their respective domestic leagues. Eighth, fifth, first, and first. And it also a bit out of context. Barcelona is not the eighth best team in La Liga. But they started the season with a number of injuries, not the least of which is Lionel Messi. Barcelona is the second odds on favorite to win this year’s UCL behind only Man City. Marc-Andre Ter Steggen in goal, Gerard Pigue and Jordi Alba on the backline, a midfield with Sergio Busguets, Segio Roberto, and Frenkie de Jong and then the attack. When you have players the caliber of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Carlos Perez, and Anssumane Fati yikes. Most clubs would love to have their bench for their starters! Messi should be back relatively soon and once he rounds into form look for them to rocket up the La Liga standings. Now IF Messi continues to have injury issues then Barcelona is an entirely different team having won only once in the last eight games he has missed due to injury.
One team not sad about Messi being out is Dortmund. They host Barcelona next week in their first UCL fixture. Certainly they wouldn’t shy away from playing a full strength Barca but injuries are part of the game and why you need deep talented rosters in UCL. Dortmund is one of the top money clubs in the world and have talent across the board led by striker Paco Alcacer who has four goals already in the Bundesliga. But perhaps their most important player is Jadon Sancho. The young star has tallied two goals this season but an impressive 17 assist since the start of last season. Most assits by a player over that time in ANY of the big Euro leagues. And he is only 19 years old.
Inter Milan are atop the Serie A thus far. A good team last year they went after some top flight talent this summer bringing in Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, and Diego Godin. They will be a factor in this seasons Serie A and UCL. In fact so far in the domestic league Lukaku has scored twice in their two matches.
Slavia Praha will likely be going home early. No shame in that they are just overmatched at the UCL level and especially in this stacked group.
USMNT Fan Alert: Youngster Gio Reyna, son of former US star Claudio Reyna, plays midfield for Dortmund. If he continues to progress he could see playing time.
Leipzig (Germany), Benfica (Portugal), Lyon (France), and Zenit (Russia)
Another interesting group with three quality teams capable of winning the group or at least advancing. Leipzig game on big time last season finishing in third in the Budesliga and they are currently atop the table. Striker Timo Werner has put five in the net already this season and will terrorize opposing defenses in both the Bundesliga and UCL. And one of their best players, midfileder Tyler Adams, hasn’t seen the field yet this year due to a nagging injury.
Benfica and Lyon are both excellent clubs and probably just slightly below Leipzig in talent. Lyon will rely on the attacking duo of Memphis Depay and Moussa Dembele while Benfica will look toward to midfielder Pizzi and his scoring ability. Both of these teams have the overall ability to advance and maybe even challenge Leipzig for the group.
Zenit is an ok club from Saint Petersburg but likely don’t have the horsepower to make much noise. But they are in first place in the Russian Premier League and Artem Dzyuba can score so he’s one to watch
USMNT Fan Alert: This group features a kid who will see plenty of playing time. Once back from injury Tyler Adams will be a mainstay at the dmid position for Leipzig. Once he cracked the starting lineup after a midseason transfer last year from NY Red Bulls he turned a lot of heads. He’s really good.
Chelsea (England), Ajax (Netherlands), Valencia (Spain), and Lille (France)
A group to play close attention to for US fans as there are no less than four Americans who could see action! Right off the bat, of course, are the clear group favorites in Chelsea. A loaded English team that has, thus far, not been playing very well. They sit well down the table in the EPL having only tallied five points in their first four league matches. They have shown some flashes of excellence but more flashes of weak play. With names in the lineup like Christian Pulisic, Emerson, Jorghino, and Michy Batshuayi you look for more than they have been showing. They host Velencia next week. Hopefully they will have a better showing.
And speaking of Valencia, they look to be similar to past years. Solid defense but trouble scoring. They have only allowed two goals in their first three league matches but they have only scored three themselves. Forwards Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo have not scored yet in their three league matches. That won’t cut it even with a really strong defense.
Then there is the most famous club from the Netherlands, Ajax. They surprised many fans and experts alike last season winning the Dutch league with a very young roster. And they sit second so far this season. They shocked the soccer world during UCL last year. In the Round of 16 they lost at home in the first leg 2-1 to Real Madrid and were written off. Then in a stunning upset they bet Real Madrid on the road 4-1 to advance.They went on to beat Juventus in the quarter finals before falling to Tottenham in the semis. Is there more Ajax magic coming?
Lastly there is the French side Lille led by forward Victor Osimhen. Lille are like most lesser known clubs in the UCL. No real superstars or well known players but just a bunch of solid all around talent. But the good news for their fans is that they drew a relatively weak group especially they way Chelsea has started so who knows how they will do?
USMNT Fan Alert: This group has the potential to have the most US players of all of them. Most all fans know Pulisic is in here but there are three more of our guys who will play to varying amounts. First off is Sergino Dest, an outside back for Ajax. He has been starting for Ajax and played in both of the recent US friendlies. And at only 18 he showed some solid promise. Now the potential bad news. Although he has played for the U17 and U20 World Cups last week was the first time he has played for the full senior team so he is to cap tied to the US yet. He is a dual citizen and is also being eyed by the Dutch. Hopefully he will get cap tied in the Nations League matches next month. Also on Ajax, is U20 WC teammate Alex Mendez. He probably won’t see much if anytime this season but watch for him. He has a rocket left foot and is very good on free kicks. Lastly there is Lille’s Tim Weah. Tim has already played numerous times for the US and would probably have been in for the recent friendlies except for a minor injury. He will see time in UCL for sure.
So the games begin next week and like last season, here in the states games will be found on TNT. Sit back and enjoy the best soccer on the planet!
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.