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Where the Intrigue and Surprises Loom in the 2018-19 Champions League Group Stage

The Champions League group stage has become somewhat of a formality for the powers across Europe, but this season's draw yielded some intriguing matchups and a treacherous path for some of the favorites.

The UEFA Champions League group stage has increasingly come to feel like a throat-clearing exercise before the real business gets underway with the knockout stage in February, but this season's draw has thrown up a handful of potentially intriguing groups that could test some of the big sides. In two cases, for instance, at least one team from the top four leagues in Europe–Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A–is guaranteed to go out, while PSG, Lyon and Monaco will look to increase that tally.

Here's our group-by-group analysis of who the favorites are and where the shocks may come as the road to the June 1 final at Atletico Madrid's Estadio Wanda Metropolitano kicks off this week (teams listed in pot order from last month's group draw):


Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Club Brugge

This is a group that brings together three clubs who in recent years have challenged the very elite, only then to see their prime assets picked off by bigger clubs.

Meanwhile, all four sides have lost in Champions League or European Cup finals, with only Dortmund in 1997 having won the competition. For Club Brugge, the Belgian champion, it feels like that process of losing players has already begun, with Anthony Limbombe and Abdoulay Diaby leaving over the summer. Monaco still hasn’t recovered from the exodus that followed its Champions League semifinal the season before last, with Joao Moutinho, Thomas Lemar, Fabinho and Rachid Ghezzal all leaving in the summer. Although it was still able to finish second in Ligue 1 last season, the start of this campaign has been a struggle, with five league games yielding just one win.

That leaves the way clear for Dortmund, its midfield refreshed by the addition of Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney, and for Atletico, which pulled off a major coup by hanging on to Antoine Griezmann and also bringing in Lemar and Nikola Kalinic.

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Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan

Mark van Bommel’s managerial career has gotten off to an exceptional start with PSV, with five league games so far bringing five wins and 21 goals, but his first experience of European coaching could hardly be trickier. Even so, all three of the other teams in the group will probably feel they have something to prove.

Barcelona was dominant domestically last season, but looked extremely flaky in Europe. After Chelsea had exposed its defensive vulnerabilities in the last 16, it lost to Roma in the quarterfinal despite winning the first leg 4-1. Inter has had another summer of spending, adding Radja Nainggolan, Kwadwo Asamoah and Stefan De Vrij, but has yet really to show that there is much cohesion in the squad.

Tottenham, meanwhile, bought nobody over the summer, raising concerns that the new stadium is a drain on resources. That it has a bright, young squad is undeniable, but sooner or later it needs to deliver or players will begin to leave. Last season, when it lost to Juventus in the round of 16 having seemingly been in control of the series, still feels like a missed opportunity.

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PSG, Napoli, Liverpool, Crvena Zvezda

That the two highest scorers from last season’s group stage, PSG and Liverpool, have been drawn together offers some intrigue, but it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that this would have been a more taxing group last season, when Napoli was still on the rise under Maurizio Sarri rather than slowing deflating under Carlo Ancelotti.

Narrow wins over Lazio and Milan had raised hopes that Napoli could get over the loss of not only its manager but also Jorginho, but a 3-0 defeat at Sampdoria rather undermined that.

Elsewhere, Liverpool looks like a stronger squad now than it did last season when it reached the final, having addressed its goalkeeping issues by bringing in Alisson and bolstering the midfield with Naby Keita and Fabinho. PSG still looks like a top-heavy squad in thrall to Neymar, capable of thrashing weaker opposition but without the discipline or balance to take on the very best. Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), after a remarkable playoff win over Red Bull Salzburg, is in the group stage for the first time in 26 years.

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Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray

This is probably the weakest group but also probably the most open group, and it contains perhaps the most romantic story of this season’s competition, that of Yuri Semin and Lokomotiv. When Moscow’s fourth club appointed him, for the fourth time, in August 2016, few expected much. Semin was 69, and his previous managerial job had ended with Anzhi Makhachkala sitting at the bottom of the table. It seemed a sentimental decision, giving an aging favorite one last job. Two years later, he led Lokomotiv to its first league title since 2004–and he had also been in charge then. Fedor Smolov, Benedikt Howedes and Eder have all arrived, and Grzegorz Krychowiak was signed on loan, but this is still far from a star-packed squad. Lok hasn’t started the Russian domestic season particularly well either, but the basic virtues of organization and collective effort that won the title last season could be enough to get through a group comprising sides about which there are major doubts.

Porto has had its usual hectic summer of transfer activity, Schalke has started the season badly and Galatasaray was hammered 4-0 at Trabzonspor at the beginning of September.

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Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens

Bayern Munich’s problem for some time now has been a lack of competition in the Bundesliga–it’s won three out of three games this season, scoring three goals in each game–and it’s unlikely its Champions League group will pose much of a challenge either. There has been some trimming of the squad, while Leon Goetzka has arrived from Schalke, but more significant is the new coach, Niko Kovac, and his insistence on physical fitness. Given Germany’s underperformance at the World Cup, and the desire on the part of a number of players to make some amends, this could be a steelier Bayern than for some time.

The battle for second looks like a tight one. AEK won its first Greek championship in 24 years last season, and did moderately well in the Europa League, progressing through the group stage before losing on away goals to Dynamo Kyiv. Ajax has made significant signings, bringing in Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind after fnishing second in the Netherlands last season, but Benfica’s European experience, even with the familiar Portuguese churn of players, should see it go through.

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Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim

Manchester City has not been at its best so far this season, and there’s no doubt that the injury to Kevin De Bruyne will damage it, but equally there’s a sense that, in Europe at least, its season doesn’t really begin until February anyway. It would be misleading to suggest that there is pressure on Pep Guardiola to win the Champions League having not been beyond the semifinal since 2011, but there is an expectation that he should win it with City at some point.

Shakhtar was the first team to beat City last season. It has held on to its highly rated manager Paulo Fonseca, but lost Fred, Bernard and Facundo Ferreyra over the summer. Thoughts that Lyon might be building again after bringing in Moussa Demeble from Celtic and Jason Denayer from City, have been hit by defeats already this season to Nice and Reims. Hoffenheim, led by 31-year-old managing dynamo Julian Nagelsmann, is in the group stage for the first time, having been eliminated in the playoffs last season by Liverpool.

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Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen

That Real Madrid is a defending three-time champion, and that it has won four of the last five Champions League titles, makes little sense. In that five-year period, it has won the domestic league only once, and there have been various stages of each season when it has looked spent. Yet again and again, at the key moments, Madrid has been able to assert itself. This year, it will have to do it without Zinedine Zidane and, perhaps more significantly, without Cristiano Ronaldo, whose capacity to weigh in with big goals in big games is remarkable. The group stage, anyway, should be more straightforward than last year, when it finished second behind Tottenham.

Roma reached the semifinal last season, but without Nainggolan and Alisson, it is not the side it was. CSKA, the Russian runner-up last season, has won just two of its first six games this time round, and has lost both Pontus Wernbloom and Bebars Natcho. Viktoria Plzen has largely been able to keep together the side that won it its fifth Czech title last season.

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Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys

The big story, clearly, is Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, but that brings together two other storylines. First, Juve’s signing of the 33-year-old. Given Juve has won the last seven Serie A titles, the investment is a fairly obvious effort to try to bring the Champions League to Turin for the first time since 1996. Whether one player, however prolific a goalscorer, can have such an impact is one of the fascinations of this season, particularly given the fact his start in Italy has not yet convinced–a brace Sunday vs. Sassuolo notwithstanding.

Then there is United, caught in the grips of the latest Jose Mourinho psychodrama, from which there is no obvious comfortable escape. Young Boys, having ended Basel’s domination in Switzerland, at least shouldn’t be too taxing an opponent; but Valnecia, managed by Marcelino and having brought in Goncalo Guedes, Michy Batshuayi, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Denis Cheryshev and Kevin Gameiro, may be, despite a difficult start to the Spanish season.