- Last season did offer up a few surprises along the way to Real Madrid's third straight Champions League title, but the clear and growing divide among the 32 teams often devalues the group stage–though intrigue follows the chief contenders.
Last season, at least by recent standards, the group stage of the UEFA Champions League was wildly unpredictable. There was Benfica crashing out to Basel, there was Shakhtar edging out Napoli, Roma edging by Atletico Madrid and Besiktas ousting Monaco and RB Leipzig. And if that doesn’t sound like a roller-coaster of thrills and spills, it was at least better than the previous season, when the only club to put out a team richer than itself was Bayer Leverkusen finishing above Tottenham.
And that is the problem the Champions League has. Although its latter stages can genuinely be regarded as the pinnacle of the game, the group stage often feels like an extended clearing of the throat. What, after all, did it benefit Paris Saint-Germain last season to break the goal-scoring record in the group stage when it was well beaten by Real Madrid in the last 16?
But that’s not to say there are not intriguing storylines whose prologues should emerge over the next few months. PSG, for instance, has to find a way to convert its domination of the French league into something with sufficient structure to thrive in Europe, getting the best out of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe while preserving a measure of control through midfield and defense. It has a tough group, facing last season’s losing finalist Liverpool, which looks stronger this season after resolving its goalkeeping issues and adding depth in midfield. There will also be a reunion with PSG's former manager Carlo Ancelotti, now at Napoli.
Facing a similar problem in a slightly different form is Juventus. After winning the scudetto in each of the past seven seasons, Juve has signed Cristiano Ronaldo as part of a fairly clear initiative to improve on its two finals in the past four years and win the Champions League. The major story from that group is the return of Ronaldo to Old Trafford, where he'll face his former team, Manchester United, and his former manager, (at Real Madrid), Jose Mourinho. Mourinho’s mood will not have been improved by a draw that pits United with an improving Valencia and Young Boys, who won the Swiss title last season for the first time since 1986.
Then there’s the question of what happens to Real Madrid without both Ronaldo and the coach who brought three titles in the past three years, Zinedine Zidane. It’s perhaps unwise to read too much into the defeat in the Super Cup to Atletico, particularly when Madrid has followed that up with two straight wins in the league, but there are questions this season where previously there were none. Zidane was never a coach for controlling games, but he did have a happy knack of making the right substitutions at the right time and of giving his team of stars sufficient freedom to find a way to win even in games in which they appeared to be in danger of being outplayed. Julen Lopetegui is a coach much more concerned with systems and imposing a structure. Roma, CSKA, and Viktoria Plzen make up a challenging but not overly testing group.
Barcelona seems increasingly to have moved away from its philosophy-driven approach over the past couple of years and, after two underwhelming years in Europe when, like so many of the superclubs, it struggled defensively, it could do with reasserting itself. Its group is brutally tough, with Tottenham, PSV and Inter Milan.
Bayern Munich, similarly, feels like a club with a point to prove. It, too, is stuck on that familiar superclub mezzanine: too good for its domestic league, which it has won in each of the last six seasons, but not quite good enough in Europe. Its last title, in 2013, seems like another age now. The draw has been kind to Niko Kovac’s side, pitting it against Ajax, Benfica and AEK Athens.
Then there’s the English challenge. Liverpool and Tottenham both have tough groups, United seems locked in an enduring Mourinho psychodrama, while Manchester City is a side that feels as though it needs to win the trophy. Pep Guardiola hasn’t won the Champions League since 2011, and what began as a quirky wait for another title is becoming to appear like a pattern. Could it be that his idealistic approach overwhelms most sides but is too vulnerable against the very best to bring the biggest trophy of all? Certainly Man City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour, will expect the Champions League trophy at some point.
Shakhtar was the first side to beat City last season, albeit in a dead rubber, but it has suffered major departures. Lyon and Hoffenheim make up a relatively straightforward group.
The intrigue and questions remain in the Champions League. Time will tell if the financial imbalances that separate the annual contenders from the field across Europe will prevent the surprise factor from joining them.