Champions League draw yields great matchups, top-heavy groups
- Thursday's Champions League draw pits powers together, while first-timer Leicester drew a favorable path. None of the recent European powers should have much to fear, though.
This was the second year that the Champions League group stage draw put reigning champions in Pot 1, and if the day began with everyone wondering who surprise Premier League champion Leicester City would draw, it ended with some mouth-watering ties to look forward to in the opening round of the tournament.
Among them, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City was drawn against his former club Barcelona, while holder Real Madrid faces its 2013 semifinal conqueror, Borussia Dortmund. There were no glaring groups of death to emanate from the bowls in Monaco, and the majority of the groups are rather top-heavy, but there will still be some memorable matches on the way.
Here is a breakdown of each group, along with picks for the top two spots and who will advance to the knockout stage:
PSG, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets
Overview: Top seed Paris Saint-Germain sacked coach Laurent Blanc as a result of his side’s toothless quarterfinal defeat to Manchester City. In his place has come back-to-back Europa League winner Unai Emery, and already the difference is apparent. PSG now plays a faster, more direct, and riskier brand of attacking football. With Ligue 1 as good as in the bag, Europe is once again the priority for PSG. The French champion now seems closer to winning this trophy than Arsenal, which is in the group stage for a 19th straight season. FC Basel, whose former players Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny are now Gunners (Xhaka's brother, Taulant, is still there), could prove to be a dangerous Pot 3 side and may push for a knockout berth.
Match to watch: PSG vs. Arsenal, Sept. 13
The group kicks off with a familiar trip for coach Arsene Wenger, who has turned down offers to coach the French capital side on more than one occasion. The French side will be favored, but Wenger will want to cause an upset.
Tipped to progress: PSG, Arsenal
Benfica, Napoli, Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas
Overview: One of the most open groups to come out of the draw, with top seed Benfica stumbling early in the league and fourth seed Besiktas among the strongest out of the pot. It will mark an early return for Anderson Talisca, on loan to Besiktas from Benfica.
Napoli’s challenge will be to make the next round, with Polish pair Arkadiusz Milik and Piotr Zelinski likely to play important roles. Napoli is also trying to sign Eliaquim Mangala on loan from Manchester City. Dynamo Kiev has sold Miguel Veloso and Aleksandr Dragovic but kept onto Andriy Yarmolenko and has won its first five games of the season. Could it be a surprise contender for the next round?
Match to watch: Napoli vs. Benfica, Sept. 28
Maurizio Sarri has worked wonders as Napoli boss, but how he copes with the Champions League remains an intriguing proposition. The home tie against top seed Benfica could be decisive, and Napoli should have enough to get out of the group.
Tipped to progress: Napoli, Dynamo Kiev
Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchengladbach, Celtic
Overview: Is this the hardest group of the lot? If not, it might be the most passionate, save for City fans whose relationship with this competition, and UEFA in general, remains muted. Barcelona is one of the favorites to win the trophy, deservedly so if it strengthens its squad with the likely signing of Paco Alcacer this week to lighten the load of its three-man, Messi-Neymar-Suarez machine.
Monchengladbach is a dangerous dark horse, having coasted through its qualifier against Young Boys, courtesy of Thorgan Hazard and Raffael hat tricks, and the matchups pose a second straight year of challenges–Gladbach drew Man City, Juventus and Sevilla last season. From Pot 4, Celtic and coach Brendan Rodgers will have a tough task.
Match to watch: Barcelona vs. Manchester City, Oct. 19
This marks a return to Barcelona for Pep Guardiola, new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and City executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain. Barcelona beat City comfortably last season, but this will be a fine opportunity to see how far the English side has progressed under its Catalan coach.
Tipped to progress: Barcelona, Manchester City
Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, PSV Eindhoven, Rostov
Overview: Atletico beat Bayern in last season’s semifinal, and this group pits two genuine title hopefuls against each other. Both sides have bought smartly in the summer, with Renato Sanches and Mats Hummels now at Bayern–coached by European Cup specialist Carlo Ancelotti–while Atletico has brought in Kevin Gamiero and Nico Gaitan, among others.
Dutch champion PSV has not had its normal summer fire sale but is unlikely to repeat last season’s European heroics, while tournament debutant FC Rostov, which beat Ajax in qualifying, could make it into the Europa League spots.
Match to watch: Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid, Dec. 6
It figures to be a straight shootout between these two powerhouses for the top spot in the group, and it could well come down to the final matchday. The winner should get the easier draw in the knockout round.
Tipped to progress: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid
CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham, Monaco
Overview: How could we forget the craziness of last season’s European ties involving Bayer Leverkusen? It beat BATE 4-1, drew 4-4 with Roma and in the return game lost it 3-2. And it managed to draw with Barcelona along the way. Expect more goals and drama from Roger Schmidt’s highly entertaining side, who could progress from a group that contains one of the weaker Pot 1 sides in CSKA Moscow. Spurs, playing group matches at Wembley Stadium, will fancy itself to qualify, while Monaco will be happy to use this stage to showcase the talents of tomorrow’s stars like Thomas Lemar and Kevin Mbappe.
Match to watch: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Tottenham, Oct. 18
Schmidt against Mauricio Pochettino: the chances are that in three or four years, these two men could be leading Bayern and Barcelona. This might show why: they both demand high-tempo and attacking football. It will be great to watch, unless you’re a defender.
Tipped to progress: Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham
Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon, Legia Warsaw
Overview: This is not an easy group for the reigning champion, which faces a highly motivated and well-organized Dortmund side looking to make a big impact under Thomas Tuchel, and a Sporting side that is a much tougher proposition with the charismatic Jorge Jesus at the helm. Madrid might drop points along the way, and Dortmund could push it close for top spot–and might even take it–too.
Match to watch: Sporting vs. Real Madrid, Nov. 22
This will be all about Cristiano Ronaldo, back at the club where he began his career. He may not celebrate when he scores, but then again…
Tipped to progress: Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid
Leicester, FC Porto, Club Brugge, FC Copenhagen
Overview: No one said Leicester was lucky to win the Premier League but given the caliber of teams the English champion avoided in this draw, fate was on its side in Monaco. It drew arguably the weakest sides from Pots 2 and 3 and has every chance of making it to the next round. As for who might join it, FC Porto, who destroyed Roma 3-0 in qualifying away from home this week, will consider this a great chance to top the group. Brugge and Copenhagen will be fighting it out for third and a place in the Europa League knockout stage.
Match to watch: Leicester vs. FC Porto, Sept. 27
With no marquee European name in Leicester’s group, this will be the biggest team to grace the King Power Stadium in the group stage. The normally raucous arena will be in full voice for the Portuguese visitors. The Leicester faithful may not get the result they want, but their side should still go through.
Tipped to progress: FC Porto, Leicester City
Juventus, Sevilla, Lyon, Dinamo Zagreb
Overview: This is the season that five-time reigning Italian champion has gone all in to win the Champions League. It has spent the money it earned from the Paul Pogba sale to sign Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, and maintained the back four that was so impenetrable last season. Its biggest challenge will come from three-time reigning Europa League champion Sevilla, a hugely watchable side under ex-Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli. Sevilla could go deep in this competition if it clicks.
Lyon has so far held on to most of its star assets this summer, but the next seven days could determine its level in this group. Dinamo is often the afterthought, but the revenue from qualification at least will keep it dominant in Croatia.
Match to watch: Juventus vs. Sevilla, Sept. 14
This is the real test for Sampaoli–and it comes immediately–to work out a way of beating one of Europe’s strongest sides. Sevilla’s individual components are not as strong as Juventus’s, but Sampaoli is expert at making teams greater than the sum of their parts. Let the games begin!
Tipped to progress: Juventus, Sevilla