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Champions League: Tightest group stage in years

As Real Madrid look for a fourth straight crown, Juventus bringing Cristiano Ronaldo on board precisely for this tournament, and English clubs led by Manchester City aim to end their drought, this season could get straight to business from the very onset

Champions League: Tightest group stage in years

Thursday night’s UEFA Champions League draw has resulted in at least two pools that could be dubbed Groups of Death, with other pools also producing exhilarating matchups. One group features four former finalists who haven’t won the competition yet, while another pool has 11 European Cups between the contestants.

As Real Madrid look for a fourth straight crown, Juventus bringing Cristiano Ronaldo on board precisely for this tournament, and English clubs led by Manchester City aim to end their drought, this season could get straight to business from the very onset.

Group A: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Club Brugge

Atletico Madrid would be confident that this really could be the year where they do a lot of damage domestically and in Europe, especially after successfully keeping hold of Antoine Griezmann and signing Thomas Lemar. They’d be favourites to top the group, after having failed to qualify to the knockout stages last year.

Dortmund look good early on domestically, and will likely go head to head with last year’s semifinalist Monaco for the second position in the league. Club Brugge, in all likelihood, would finish at the bottom of a group that features one of the many three-way battles early on this season.

Group B: Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV Eindhoven, Internazionale

Three traditional European heavyweights and Spurs – on paper and pedigree this is the tightest group of the lot. Lionel Messi said Barca can’t go another season without winning the Champions League – especially since they’ve had to watch Real Madrid pick up a hat-trick of them. Even so, while Barca should go through the group as leaders, their chances of winning it all are based on their main rivals weakening and not the Catalan side necessarily being any stronger than last season.

Spurs managed to navigate through a similarly tough group last year, and should be confident so this year round as well, as they look to establish themselves among the European elite. Both Inter and PSV are giants of the competition, but the current Spurs should have enough to outdo them.

Group C: PSG, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star Belgrade

Sandwiched between last year’s runners-up and the side that has winning the Champions League on top of its agenda, are Serie A runners-up Napoli, who could have been this year’s dark horse. That billing could be put to the test in a pool, which along with Group B, is the toughest of the lot.

With Neymar Jr and World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe, PSG would consider themselves one of the favourites for the tournament. After a perfect start domestically, Mohamed Salah led Liverpool would feel no reason why they can’t repeat their exploits from last season. Managed by Champions League veteran Carlo Ancelotti, Napoli would aim pretty high as well. This group is an absolute humdinger, with Red Star Belgrade hoping to play spoilers wherever they might get a chance.

Group D: Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray

This is yet another tightly contested pool, even if it mightn’t have the biggest of names in the mix. While other pools have tight three-way matchups for progress, this one has a true four-way competition, with each of the sides believing they could qualify into the Round of 16.

As Russian, Portuguese and Turkish champions feature in the pool, the former two would be hoping to qualify with the feel good factor under Yuri Semin very much there for Moscow. 2004 champions Porto are always there or thereabouts in the latter stages. Even though Schalke come from the toughest league of the lot, they might struggle to compete on the continent if their priority lies domestically.

Group E: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens

Bayern, Benfica and Ajax are veterans of the European Cup, with the latter returning to the tournament after a four year gap. Munich under Niko Kovac might eye the title now that there are no real clear cut favourites to win the Champions League.

Benfica and Ajax would battle it out for second place. The Dutch side is on the up, having edged out Dynamo Kyiv, with the Portuguese team also having come through the playoffs having beaten PAOK.

AEK might not be too optimistic of qualifying out of the group – even for the Europa League – but after ending Olympiakos’ hegemony domestically, they’d look to leave their mark on Europe as well.

Group F: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim

Even in what is probably one of only two relatively straightforward groups, there is a potential matchup between two Champions League regulars to finish second, and a German side looking to translate its domestic form in Europe.

Despite Manchester City sweeping the Premier League last year, the failure in Europe – especially being knocked out by fellow English side Liverpool – would continue to sting Pep Guardiola’s side. Despite his exploits with Barcelona – where he won everything – and Bayern Munich – where he couldn’t win the Champions League – Guardiola’s pedigree on the continent is still under scrutiny owing to lack of European successes.

Meanwhile, in the potential faceoff with Lyon, Shakhtar should be confident of going through the group, as Hoffenheim look to get a result here and there.

Group G: Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen

Similar to Group F, this pool too features an overwhelming favourite and two European regulars who would be contesting for the second spot. Madrid are looking to make it four Champions League wins on the bounce, without Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo. And while the Portuguese’s transfer to Juventus might’ve made Real lesser favourites than they have been in recent years, they’re still in the uuper tier of sides that can win it all.

Meanwhile, even though Roma would struggle to repeat last year’s semifinal finish, they would be confident of qualifying from this group. However, CSKA would give the Italians a run for their money, as Plzen look for trophy scalps.

 Group H: Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys

Having completed his transfer to Juventus, Cristiano Ronaldo will be returning to Manchester United – a club in complete contrast to how it was with him a decade ago. Jose Mourinho’s side have lost two of their first three league matches, and the season has all the making of an implosion at Old Trafford.

Valencia finished fourth in La Liga, but now have strengthened their ranks with the likes of Michy Batshuayi, Denis Cheryshev, Kevin Gameiro, and Geoffrey Kondogbia to prepare for the Champions League.

Hoping to win it all, Juventus would be the clear favourites in this tight group, with Valencia and United going head to head for the runners-up position.

K Shahid

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