Every year 32 team executives in Europe gather round and put their fate into 4 pools. They also put their faith into 32 balls. Now this could be only two things. A fertility clinic or a UEFA Champion’s League Draw. It’s not a calm event. People get nervous from the moment the first team is pulled to the last one. It’s actually quite comical. Because nothing really matters until all 32 teams are drawn. You might as well just check Twitter and move on. But people do care. So now, let’s look at the stuff that matters.
Group A: PSG, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmo.
You have to feel really bad for Malmo for catching this group because they will get absolutely dismantled. Shakhtar have been known to surprise team from time to time, but with recent selling off of players (due to Ukraine not being the most attractive destination right now) and no set home stadium it’s hard to see them gather enough consistency to make it through.
Ultimate, this group comes down to Real and PSG as everyone expects. Real is under new management and Benitez is a chronic under-performer. I want to say he doesn’t have enough to squeeze even the star studded Galacticos past the french force led by the greatest Swede of all time. It’s still too close to call and will come down to games between the two giants, and with David Luiz’ positional awareness of “what’s defending?” Real can easily ping them on the counter. It will be an interesting watch.
To Advance: Real, PSG
Group B: PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, VfL Wolfsburg
Serge: I have absolutely zero clue as to how United does it, but they do manage to get some of the easiest groups there are years and years on. In most cases, I’d call this Manchester’s way and move on. This team however has one legitimate attacking threat, a questionable defence and uncertainty in net. With the EPL a priority, it’s hard to see where United will fit in their UCL chase this year. That being said. They still have Juan Mata, Bastian the German and Morgan Schneiderlin patrolling the middle and covering the adequacy (or lack thereof) of his defenders. Also, Memphis Depay is exceptional at football.
The back of the chase will be a very tight affair as well, and with Wolfsburg just missing out on some players, they lose their perceived advantage. I still think the German side is tactically aware and talented enough to see off CSKA (who have also been picked bare by the transfer window) and PSV.
To Advance: Manchester United, VfL Wolfsburg
Group C: Atletico Madrid, SL Benfica, Galatasaray, Astana
Cam: Real Madrid’s cross-town rivals could have fared much worse in the new seeding system, but they managed to avoid Bayern Munich, Chelsea, or Juventus to end up in Group C alongside Lisbon’s SL Benfica, Istanbul’s Galatasaray, and Kazakhstan’s Astana (Central Asia is definitely not part of Europe, but that’s a conversation for another day). Despite the loss of a few key figures this summer – notably Joao Miranda, Arda Turan, and Mario Mandzukic – Atleti have bought well, bringing Filipe Luis back from Chelsea and adding Luciano Vietto and Jackson Martinez to Antoine Griezmann to create one of the most devastating front lines in Europe. They’re well drilled, well organized, tough as nails, and Diego Simeone is a coaching legend.
While Benfica managed to avoid the fleecing of their top players that usually happens every summer, they do have to contend with manager Jorge Jesus bolting to Sporting Lisbon. Despite that, they’re probably strong enough to get through the group. I have a soft spot for Galatasaray, and the Turk Telekom Arena remains one of the most intimidating away trips in the Champions League, but it will take a lot of luck at the Vicente Calderon and the Estadio da Luz to advance to the knockout rounds.
This is Astana’s first appearance in the Group Stages of the Champions League. It’s a romantic footballing story, and a really really long plane to the Kazakh capital, but they’re also basically guaranteed to be cannon fodder.
To Advance: Atletico and Benfica
Group D: Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach
Cam: Now this is a proper Group of DeathTM: last season’s defeated finalists, the Premier League runners up, the Europa League champions of the last two seasons, and a Monchengladbach team that has consistently punched above its financial weight despite losing Marco Reus and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in the last three seasons. It promises to be a lot of fun.
Juventus have shed a lot of their core – Andrea Pirlo to the MLS Retirement Home, Arturo Vidal to Bayern Munich, Carlos Tevez to Boca Juniors in Argentina, and Fernando Llorente to Sevilla. They managed to retain Paul Pogba – Europe’s answer to The Brow – picked up a number of good players at relative bargains (Mario Mandzukic from Atleti, Sami Khedira from Real Madrid, and wunderkind Paolo Dybala from Palermo) and Gianluigi Buffon will presumably keep his reflexes sharp and his defenders well-organized well into the 22nd century. They’ve retooled somewhat from last season, but they’re still a formidable opponent.
Manchester City, meanwhile, have bought like a club that is determined to go deep in the Champions League: Nicolas Otamendi – along with Mr. Shakira the best defender in La Liga last season – and Raheem Stirling have injected solidity and creativity into the squad, and Sergio Aguero has started the Premier League season looking like a cross between Lionel Messi and Ultron. With Juventus having to retool around a new midfield spine, you have to feel that this is the year Manchester City finally justify their absurd transfer spending in the European leagues.
Sevilla are the team that throws a wrench into things: their comeback from 4-1 down to draw against Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup attests to their quality, and Unai Emery is a gifted tactician who has finally gelled with an extremely smart group of players. They’re dangerous enough to take points from either of Juve or City. Monchengladbach are an unconventional Bundesliga team – in that they actually defend fairly well – but they have struggled in Europe in the past and it’s conceivable that they do so again this year.
The balance between these teams is ultimately going to come down to injuries: if Sergio Aguero goes down with a muscle tear (as he has done on multiple occasions in the last three seasons), if Sami Khedira can’t get consistently healthy, or if Yaya Toure’s return to form proves temporary, then all bets are off. It will be very close, and it will be decided on very fine margins.
To Advance: Manchester City and Juventus. Sevilla to put up a superb fight and (barely) slot back into the Europa League
Group E: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Roma, BATE Borisov
Cam: Barcelona are going to be weird this year. Their squad is hilariously thin until the registration ban expires in January (when Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal are finally allowed to play), but they still have, position for position, the strongest starting XI in Europe – Messi, Neymar, and Suarez are a footballing Hydra that leaves defenders waking up at night screaming. Bayer are a really, really fun team to watch – no non-Marcelo Bielsa team plays at a more high-pace, high-pressure, absurdly-fun-to-watch style than them – and have been consistently good for the last three seasons.
I feel like AS Roma, on paper, are a better team than Bayer, simply given the genius of Kevin Strootman and the fact that Francesco Totti doesn’t age, but they’ve proven so inconsistent over the last two seasons – starting like a Ferrari and then spending the whole of February and March conceding last-minute equalizers to bottom-feeder teams – that it’s equally conceivable that they fall into the Europa League knockout rounds again.
Whatever the Russian for “this is gonna hurt” is, that’s my assessment of BATE Borisov’s chances in this group. Slaughter.
To Advance: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen
Group F: Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb
Serge: There is an ancient prophecy that foretells the tale of Arsenal and Bayern meeting at some point during every year of the Champion’s League. It is a tale that still holds true today. (Aside from Cam: I think it’s actually written into the UEFA Constitution at this point)
The German side are the clear favourites here, with a favourably weak domestic league as well as a wealth of talent and one of the greatest managers in the game today. Arsenal, still have to be favourites for the second spot, but with the Arsene Wenger still devoid of an understanding about how the transfer market works, they will be stretched thin and injured by about game 3 of the group stage. Through a combination of magic, efficiency and whatever it is they inject into Alexis Sanchez, the Gunners will make it to the knockout round as they always do.
To Advance: Bayern Munich, Arsenal
Group G: Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi Tel-Aviv
This is an interesting group that pits Jose against one of his old clubs and one of the up and coming clubs in Europe. Chelsea have looked worse for wear this season, but with the addition of Pedro and rumoured acquisition of Pogba (which I hate because I really wanted to like Pogba for at least one more year) this team should have no problem securing this group. The only issue is pace that both Kiev and Porto offer up front which can peg the notably slow defensive unit anchored by John Terry. Expect Zouma to catch a few UCL matches to make sure the Blues stick around for the next round.
Dynamo have been somewhat of an enigma, but have in fact delivered good results when it comes to the Europa League last year. They have one of the more coveted wings in Europe right now in Yarmolenko and unless someone pries him away he should provide the creativity and spark up front. Porto have been consistent as well and it should really come down to their encounters between each other. The patriot in me wants to say Kiev, and so I will for the drama.
To advance: Chelsea, Dynamo Kiev.
Group H: Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Lyon, Gent
Oh it feels good to have Valencia back where they belong! Los Che lost their best defender (Otamendi) to Manchester City, and their starting goalkeeper is out until November with a torn ACL, but they’ve solidified their first team squad and, while inconsistent, should be good enough to get out of this group between Nuno’s superb managerial skills and their tendency to come out guns-blazing and score two goals in the opening twenty minutes. I feel like Zenit will probably take 2nd, but my sheer hatred of their fans – a gang of fascist scum who demanded that the club stop buying black footballers and routinely throw racist abuse at their best player – means that any judgement of the Gazsprom-owned club is necessarily biased. I hope Lyon beat them, but I just can’t see it happening given the resources at Zenit’s disposal.
To Advance: Valencia, Zenit. It pains me to say that second one, but there we go.
Final Thought from Cam
Paolo Maldini is an immaculate human being. He 1) is a magnificently handsome statue of a man. Despite being 47 (really really old in Footballer Years) he still looks like he was chiseled from Roman marble by Michelangelo himself; 2) speaks near-flawless English and probably several other languages because he’s Paolo Maldini; 3) started in eight European Cup finals (EIGHT!!!!!), winning five of them in 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, and 2007. He is one of the 2 or 3 best defenders of all time, and is an unfairly perfect human being.