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Showcase of the champions

Patriot analyses the groups of this year’s Champions League and predicts who is most likely to qualify based on the strengths of the teams involved

The football season started last month when all the domestic leagues in Europe including the likes of the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga began. But according to fans, the European action truly begins when the Continental action kicks off with the start of the much-awaited UEFA Champions League. This is the tournament where 32 of the best teams from all over Europe come together and face each other to be crowned the best in the continent.

This year too, the tournament kicked off its first phase on September 17, with the first round of matches already over. Everyone is now looking forward to see who will lift the cup on May 31, 2020 in Istanbul.

Patriot takes a look at all the eight groups, and analyses who can qualify for the next round, and be an inch closer to European glory.

Group A

Paris St-Germain after investing millions of dollars on players in the transfer market, have completely owned the French Ligue 1 winning the domestic league for five straight years, without any major competition. What they have lacked however, is major success at the Champions League. The French heavyweights have never managed to go past the Round of 16. This year however, they would like to turn their future around.

With stars like Neymar Jr, Kylian Mbappe, Marco Verratti and Thiago Silva already in the mix, the Parisians have reinforced two of the major loopholes in their team, with the acquisitions of Keylor Navas and Idrissa Gueye. Navas is three time UCL winning goalkeeper, and a huge upgrade over Alphons Areloa, their previous keeper. Gueye, on the other hand provides the stability on the midfield that they lacked.

The other heavyweight in the group, Real Madrid, is having a sort of slump in form recently, ever since the departure of Zinedine Zidane as manager last season, and also the huge loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. Last year, they were knocked out of the Champions League by Ajax, and performed poorly in the league finishing third behind Barcelona and Athletico Madrid.

This year, there have been a lot of changes in Los Blacos’ ranks. Zidane, a three time Champions League winning manager is back with the team, and they have signed star man Eden Hazard, as a replacement for Ronaldo. Whether the 13 time Champions League winners can reach their previous glory however, remains to be seen.

The other two teams in the group, Club Brugge from Belgium and Turkey’s Galatasarray, are however no match for the other two heavyweights. So, predicting the top two teams from the group is quite easy, unless both these teams cause some major upset.

Most likely to qualify: Paris St Germain, Real Madrid

Group B

Bayern Munich are in the midst of a major transition phase with the likes of Ribery and Robben leaving the club, Thomas Mueller reaching the twilight of his career, and also the departure of Mats Hummels to Dortmund. The German champions now are heavily dependent on youth with the likes of Benjamin Pavard and Kinsley Coman in their mix. They have also brought in Mateo Kovacic and Phillipe Coutinho on loan this summer and now they look to seal their fourth Champions League this season under manager Nico Kovac.

What Bayern possesses is the mixture of youth and experience in their quad, which could prove to be an exciting combination and a sight to behold in the Champions League.

Following Bayern, the other contender from this group is last year’s runners up — Tottenham Hotspurs have been witness to a huge resurgence under the guidance of manager Mauricio Pochettino, and players like Harry Kane, Delle Alli and Son heung Min have established themselves as proper superstars. Spurs, this year, have not had a great start to the league, and have also drawn their first match against a weaker team in Olympiacos. But despite a shaky start, the team, with additional players like Lo Celso and Dembele in their mix can go on and repeat what they did last season, or perhaps go one step ahead.

The other wo teams, Greece’s Olympiacos and Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade are nowhere close to the level of Bayern or Spurs.

Most likely to qualify: Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspurs

Group C

This group is likely to be dominated by one team and one team only – the mighty Manchester City. Under pep Guardiola, City is currently one of the best teams in the world, with even the reseRve bench consisting of world class players like Joao Cancelo, Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus. With crazy depth in squad, and the first team consisting of world beaters from Ederson in goal,

De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes in midfield, to Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling in the forward line, the Citizens are sure to qualify and look to win their elusive maiden CL trophy, after being knocked out of the semifinals for two consecutive years.

The other spot however, looks like a fight between Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb. Italian minnows Atalanta had a wonderful season in the Serie A last season wherein they finished above league giants AS Roma, but their dream run is likely to end against much stronger European opponents.

Most likely to qualify: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk

Group D

Italian champions Juventus are now one of the strongest teams in the world, with their star player being the great Cristiano Ronaldo. In addition to their already strong team, new manager Maurizio Sarri has already brought in excellent signings like Aaron Ramsey and Matthijs De Ligt in their mix. So, a solid defence with De Ligt, Chiellini, a great midfield with Ramsey and Matuidi, and a forward line with the likes of Ronaldo and Dybala, are sure to progress deeper as the league reaches its final stages.

Athletico Madrid have a totally new squad this season with crucial departures like Diego Godin and Rodri and Antoinne Griezmann. But, in contrast thEy have brought in some brilliant players from other teams including the likes of Kieran Trippier, Felipe and Marcos Llorente. But the marquee signing has been the 150 million euro arrival of wonderkid Joao Felix from Benfica. The Portuguese is sure to impact Diego Simeone’s
sides fortunes in the tournament this time. Having been runners up on two previous occasions, Los Rojoblancos will be looking to win their maiden title this time.

Lokomotiv Moscow from Russia and Bayer Leverkeusen are both very good sides, but there are very low chances of them causing an upset against the other two major teams.

Most likely to qualify: Juventus, Athletico Madrid

Group E

This is the group where last year’s champions Liverpool have been slotted in. The Reds from Merseyside have enjoyed a fantastic run in the last two years under the stewardship of Jurgenn Klopp, winning their sixth Champions League title last season. Liverpool have one of the most talented squads in Europe, with the vicious front line of Firmino, Salah and Mane and the defensive wall at the back, Virgil Van Dijk, undoubtedly the best defender in Europe right now. In the EPL, Liverpool has won the first five matches on the trot, and would here be looking for their second consecutive UCL trophy.

But the Reds were beaten in their first group game by Italian side Napoli, that too by a big scoreline of 3-0. Napoli are being coached by 2-time Champions League winning boss Carlo Ancelotti, and have the likes of Hirving Lozano and Kostas manolas among their mix. Still, their great win over the Reds have hugely developed their chances of doing well in the UCL.

Red Bull Salzburg have somewhat been the story of the first round in the Champions League so far. They have beaten Norwegian side Genk, and that too by six goals. This included a hattrick on debut by 19-year-old Erlig Braut Haland, who became the third player after Yusef Yakubu and Wayne Rooney to do so. With Haland setting all eyes of big clubs on him now, Salzburg have every possibility to upset one of the top teams and go ahead to the next round.

Most likely to qualify: Liverpool, Napoli

Group F

Barcelona are undoubtedly and traditionally one of the hardest teams to beat in the Champion League, and this year too they would be looking to show their dominance. They have already added to their squad with the arrival of Antoinne Griezmann and with Lionel Messi injured, they have found a new young prodigy in Ansu Fati, who has been grabbing headlines with his superlative performances. One of the best teams in the world, Barca after their heartbreak semifinal defeat in the last campaign, would be hoping to win another UCL to add to their trophy cabinet.

Borussia Dortmund, are one of the most exciting teams in the Champions League, and are currently in their best form since the departure of Jurgenn Klopp. Marco Reus has experience a resurgence after injury, and their team is being led by sensational performances from England’s Jadon Sancho. They have already secured a draw vs Barca, and will be looking to stamp their mark on Europe this season.

Inter Milan have been experiencing a resurgence of sorts after the arrival of high profile manager Antonio Conte in their ranks. They have also brought in star players like Diego Godin, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez among their mix, and will be looking to rejuvenate their past glory, and once again be one of the sides of Europe.

This three-way competition among three top clubs of Europe make this group the hardest to predict. It can be said that this is one of toughest groups, or as experts say the ‘group of death’.

The other team, Czech champions Slavia Praha have already had a draw vs Inter, but it looks extremely tough for them to qualify from this group

Most likely to qualify: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund

Group G

This group can be termed as the group of underdogs, with all four teams not considered among Europe’s elite clubs.

RB Leipzig from Germany are the toughest team to beat in this group. They are already in the top position in the German Bundesliga table, ahead of Bayern and Dortmund, and are one of the success stories of this decade, reaching heights of glory from being a third division side even a few years ago. Leipzig have already won their match vs Benfica, and look the most likely to emerge group winners.

Russian champions Zenit St Petersberg too boast of a formidable team with players like Malcolm and Brainslav Ivanovic and the “Iranian Messi” Sardar Azmoun among their mix.

French heavyweights Lyon too are a side to beat, but this year they are without their star player Nabi Fekir, who transferred to Real Betis this summer. However, they do boast some big names like Moussa Dembele and Memphis Depay in their squad.

Portugese champions Benfica are the fourth team in the group, but they look the least likely to qualify, especially after losing their star man Joao Felix to Atheltico Madrid

Most likely to qualify: RB Leipzig, Lyon

Group H

By virtue of being the Europa League champions last season, Chelsea managed to qualify for this year’s Champions League. The Blues had a torrid summer this time, with FIFA imposing a two year transfer ban on them, which meant that they couldn’t strengthen their squad in the summer.

The London giants, have brought in club legend Frank Lampard as their manager, and in the short time he has been in charge he has managed to hand game time to youngsters like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, who have taken the opportunities with open arms. But their lack of squad depth, and inexperienced players in the Champions League, will affect their performance in the tournament.

Dutch champions Ajax had an outstanding last season, with them reaching the semifinals beating Real Madrid and Juventus on the way, and narrowly losing to Tottenham in the semis. Though the team has parted ways with two of last season’s best players, Frenkie De jong and Matthigs De Ligt, they still boast of incredibly talented players who can repeat last season’s heroics this time as well.

The other two teams, Spain’s Valencia and France’s Lille had a resurgence of sorts in their respective leagues. Lille had an outstanding season finishing second in the Ligue 1 table, while Valencia finished fourth in La Liga, thus managing a place in Europe. Both teams have the capability to beat the top two teams, and especially with Chelsea’s on and off form, any of these two can make the cut in the next round.

Most likely to qualify: Ajax, Chelsea