The Champions League is without doubt the biggest event in club soccer and it rarely fails to deliver the entertainment fans demand and last year was arguably one of the best tournaments ever.
In the end, English sides dominated the latter stages with Liverpool, who staged a remarkable comeback to eliminate Barcelona in the semi-final, and Tottenham facing off in a final that saw the Reds triumph 1-0 to clinch their sixth European title.
Away from the finalists, the other big story was Dutch side Ajax who warmed the heart of every neutral as they shocked European giants Real Madrid and Juventus.
Now the draw, which took place in Monaco, for this seasons group stage has been made. Let’s have a look what the 2019/20 Champions League has in store.
GROUP A – PSG, Real Madrid, Club Brugge, Galatasaray
One of the biggest ties to come out the hat is Paris Saint Germain versus Real Madrid but their presence in the group isn’t good news for Brugge, who finished second in the Juliper Pro League last year, or Galatasaray who look set for a two way fight for third place.
You would expect Thomas Tuchel and Zinedine Zidane’s teams will have the beating of the other pair so expect top spot to be decided in their head to head games. Madrid and Zidane have enormous pedigree in the competition but they’re hardly in sparkling form and any slip ups could be fatal in their bid for first place.
PSG meanwhile are a little tough to judge with the transfer window still open; their front three of Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Neymar is frightening but it could be all change come the first game given the rumours surrounding Neymar. Either way, they’ll be a threat.
GROUP B – Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Olympiacos, Crvena Zvezda
The 2019 runner up Tottenham Hotspur and German Champions Bayern Munich look set to qualify from group B as they’ve been paired with Olympiacos and Crvena.
Spurs barely need an introduction after last season but they arguably have the best out and out striker in the world in Harry Kane and after scoring five times in last years tournament he’ll be hungry for more this time. The one weakness amongst Mauricio Pochettino’s men is strength in depth; if Kane goes missing for any reason they don’t have a direct replacement.
Crvena Zvezda might be seen as one of the whipping boys as they conceded 17 as they finished bottom of their group last time but don’t forget they beat Liverpool for their only win and managed a 0-0 draw with Napoli. They won’t trouble the top two for qualification themselves but they could have a big say in who wins the group.
Olympiacos will be another seen as a game for goal difference by the two big boys and they’d take your arm off for third place now; it will be one of them of Crvena.
Bayern are the other big team in this group and they are well and truly familiar with the later rounds; their round of 16 loss to Liverpool last year was their earliest exit in eight years. They finished top ahead of Ajax last season and with Robert Lewandowski leading the line it could be a straight battle between him and Kane as to which team bags top spot.
GROUP C – Man City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta
It’s fair to say Pep Guardiola will be satisfied with the draw facing his Man City side and they’ll be huge favourites to progress as group winners – their pressure will come later in the competition as they’ve yet to seriously challenge for the honour despite heavy investment.
Second spot for the knockout phase is wide open though with little to choose between the sides. Shakhtar, who have been paired with City at this stage in three consecutive seasons, are currently sitting pretty with five wins from five in the Ukrainian Premier League and have, on occasion, shown in the past they won’t simply roll over.
Dinamo Zagreb are perhaps the weakest on paper but they do have a creative spark in Dani Olmo, a former Barcelona youngster who already has three assists to his name from the qualifying rounds.
Atalanta complete the four and they could be the team to beat after Man City. Gian Piero Gasperini did a marvellous job last season as his side finished third in Serie A. Their goal scoring ability – and in particular Duvan Zapata – could prove the difference in the best of the rest battle.
GROUP D – Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow
The bookies odds will tell you Juve and Atletico will progress from group D and it’s tough to argue. The Old Lady didn’t make the very latter stages last season after losing a quarter final tie to Ajax – from whom they signed Matthijs de Ligt this summer – and they’ll expect to compete for the trophy this year. Any team with Cristiano Ronaldo in it has a chance as well; he’s proven time and time again he can win big games almost on his own.
Diego Simeone’s men will be watched with interest over the continent given the changes their squad underwent in the summer with Joao Felix, a £113m signing from Benfica, especially being put under the microscope. Given the way they’ve started the La Liga campaign they will be a tough nut to crack.
That leaves Leverkusen and Lokomotiv in a straight scrap for third place. The Russians finished last season second in their league and with a domestic cup in their cabinet but they’ve hardly hit the ground running this year and sit fourth with four wins, two draws and a defeat from seven. All things considered the attacking prowess of Leverkusen in Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey and Kevin Volland – assuming they hold on to them beyond the transfer deadline – should see them grab third.
GROUP E – Liverpool, Genk, Salzburg, Napoli
The reigning champions will be reasonably satisfied with the draw handed to them albeit with Napoli a real challenger for top spot – as per last year when Napoli actually beat Liverpool to finish first. Jurgen Klopp will approach the competition exactly like last year, which will be with a high press and electric counter attacking. Throw into that they’ve got the UEFA goalkeeper and Player of the Year in their ranks in Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again.
Napoli will be a hot second pick to progress as well. Carlo Ancelotti has again continued to build on the groundwork his predecessor Maurizio Sarri had laid and players like Dries Mertens and club record signing Hirving Lozano are capable of winning any game. If Napoli manage to land Mauro Icardi ahead of the deadline as well then that’s another impressive string to their bow.
Salzburg are the first of two Red Bull sides in the Champions League and, although they act as an almost feeder club to their German sibling, they waltzed to the league title in Austria last season and after five matches of this they’ve collected maximum points and bagged 22 goals in the process meaning out of form Belgian Champions Genk would be punching well above their weight for anything but fourth place.
GROUP F – Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague
Who is envious of Slavia Prague right now? Nobody else from the Champions League draw, that’s for sure. The Czech side might be undefeated in the domestic season having played seven matches but trips to Dortmund, Inter and Barca hardly promise much of a points return.
Dortmund ran Bayern close in the Bundesliga title race last year and have flown out of the traps this campaign with two convincing wins. In Jadon Sancho they have one of Europe’s hottest talents and he’ll be looking to deliver on the biggest stage. That said, he’s far from their only player with star quality.
Inter only just qualified for the Champions League through their Serie A finish last year but are under the tutelage of Antonio Conte now and he knows how to get results. The addition of Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku and loan signing Alexis Sanchez could prove a masterstroke in the offensive positions from the former Juve coach whilst they don’t come much better – in quality or experience – than Diego Godin at the back.
And then there is Barca. Barcelona were part of one of the greatest ever ties in last seasons competition as Liverpool overturned a three goal deficit to reach the final; needless to say Barca will not want a repeat of that. With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in their ranks they are a mouth watering watch but put Antoine Griezmann and, Midfielder of the Year, Frenkie De Jong into the mix as well and they’ll take some stopping.
One thing for sure, at least one big name is going home early doors from group F.
GROUP G – Zenit, Benfica, Lyon, Leipzig
Could group G contain this years dark horse? Quite possibly.
Benfica edged Porto out for the Primeria Liga title last season and Portugal is rarely an easy place to visit but the hole left from Joao Felix might prove too big to fill but a decent start to the competition could quite easily see them through to the knockout rounds.
Zenit are another side that will be looking to bank points in their home fixtures given the atmosphere their fans generate and if Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba get chances, they will take them.
Our picks to get through the group though are Lyon and Leipzig, the other Red Bull side. Lyon progressed through the group last year before ultimately getting thrashed by Barcelona despite holding them in the first leg and Memphis Depay will again be looked upon as their talisman.
Leipzig are well backed financially and get stronger and stronger. They finished third in the Bundesliga last season and have won two from two already this season. We expect Leipzig to be the team to beat in this group and, if they live up to that expectation, you can bet Timo Werner will be a huge part of it having been involved in 29 goals in 37 games last term.
GROUP H – Chelsea, Ajax, Valencia, Lille
The final group is the group of the unknown. Last season Ajax were a scintillating throwback to ‘total soccer’ but this year they’re fighting two aspects; one, they will no longer have the element of surprise and, two, their best players have been ripped away by the biggest sides in Europe. They may well progress from the group but don’t expect lightning to strike twice.
Chelsea, who won the Europa League last year, are under a transfer embargo and have lost their star man in Eden Hazard. Academy graduate Mason Mount has started the season well and it’s plausible the Blues youngsters will use Ajax’s performance from last season as inspiration. Like Ajax, Frank Lampard could quite easily get his team through the group phase but how deep they go remains to be seen.
Lille put in a valiant effort in 2018/19 season as they finished runner up in Ligue 1 but, like others in group H, their better players – none more so than Nicolas Pepe who joined Arsenal – have moved on. Players like Renato Sanches and Timothy Weah have come in but can they fill the boots vacated. We’re not convinced but a top two finish could well be on the cards.
Completing our round up is Valencia, who finished fourth in La Liga last time out. Although it’s only two games old they’re yet to get going with one point from six available.
This group is arguably the toughest group to predict as any side could beat the others on their day but the Spanish side could be up against it the most.
There you have it, the group stage is set and two things can be guaranteed. We will see some enthralling games and there will be shocks aplenty.
Will Liverpool retain their title? Can Zidane regain his crown? Will Messi or Ronaldo shine brighter than ever before? It’s fair to say we’ll enjoy finding out.