Champions League Group Stage: Europe’s Best Impress and Falter

Until recently, the FIFA World Cup has been the premier soccer tournament in the world. The best players, the best teams, and the most memorable moments all make up the illustrious history of the World Cup. That was until the early 2000s, when a new tournament began to gain traction. Over the past decade, the UEFA Champions League has, according to some pundits, surpassed the World Cup as the tournament with highest quality of soccer on the planet. Because players no longer compete in their domestic leagues, both the chemistry and the quality of play at the national level have declined. Top players from around the world join European clubs, with the best players going to the richest clubs with the most accolades, rather than to their local clubs.

To qualify for the Champions League, teams must perform well in their domestic league, either winning it, or placing in the top four, depending on the league. This format ensures that the best players in each league are playing each other at least once per year. Therefore, the Champions League stands out from the World Cup as it allows top players to consistently challenge other greats, whereas the format of the World Cup only allows this every four years. The Champions League has a similar setup to the World Cup, consisting of eight groups with four teams in each group. Each team plays the other teams in its group twice, and the top two teams progress while the third place team is placed in Europe’s second tier tournament, the Europa League.

In the 2018 season, every team has only played once, which makes it difficult to predict how successful teams will be within their groups and throughout the tournament. However, some teams’ opening performances were very positive and signalled the start of potentially victorious campaigns, while other results were quite worrisome.

Of particular note is Group B, labeled the “group of death” for good reason. The group consists of Barcelona, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven, and Tottenham Hotspur. Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Tottenham are some of the largest clubs in the world, meaning their rosters are full of extremely skilled and expensive players. Barcelona has an especially strong roster headlined by perhaps the greatest player ever, Lionel Messi. Messi started the Champions League in style, scoring three goals as Barcelona beat PSV Eindhoven 4-0.

The coveted Champions League trophy has evaded Barcelona over the last few years, but Messi, while addressing the Barcelona crowd prior to the Joan Gamper Trophy clash in August, made his intentions clear: “Although last year we won La Liga and the Copa del Rey, we all got stung in the Champions League. … We promise that we will do everything possible so that this beautiful cup returns to the Camp Nou again.”

With Barcelona penciled in as favorites to win the group, the real competition will be between Inter Milan and Tottenham for second place. When these teams met on Wednesday, Tottenham conceded two goals in the final five minutes to lose 2-1. They are scheduled to meet again on November 26, and, although a lot can happen before that date, Tottenham have recently looked off. Many attribute this to the fatigue of their top player, Harry Kane, who played deep into the World Cup as England’s captain. Likewise, Inter Milan have underperformed in their domestic league, only winning three of their first six matches.

Prior to the start of the tournament, most groups looked straightforward with the favorites expected to take their usual place atop the groups and dominate. However, after some major upsets of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, this may not be the case.

In Group C, Paris Saint Germain, the reigning French champions, lost their opening game to Liverpool 2-1. Despite losing, the scoreline was kind to PSG as the result did not reflect the nature of the match. Liverpool dominated the game and, had they been more clinical in their finishing, could have easily scored two or three more goals. PSG, on the other hand, failed to impress, accentuating the lack of competition in their domestic league, Ligue 1. With PSG at the bottom of the group, and Napoli drawing their first match against Serbian club Red Star Belgrade, the group remains open enough for PSG to climb back up.

The biggest upset of the round came in Group F, a group consisting of Lyon, Hoffenheim, Shakhtar Donetsk, and reigning English champions, Manchester City. Lyon scored two early goals and held on to beat Manchester City in Manchester. To put this result into context, Manchester City lost only three games at home last season in all competitions. The performance against Lyon was particularly troubling for City fans, as the team has failed to impress in Europe in previous seasons despite continued domestic success. Although City will likely rebound and go on to the knockout stages along with either Lyon or Shakhtar, their European campaign is not off to a good start, and a few more losses could see them competing in the Europa League.

The other big names in football have not disappointed. Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich each won their opening games by at least two goals. Despite their struggles in the Premier League, Manchester United looked particularly good in their 3-0 win over Swiss side Young Boys. United fans will hope to win Group H, but with perennial European challenger and Group H foe Juventus adding Cristiano Ronaldo to their roster, this may prove to be a challenge.

Having won the last three Champions Leagues and four of the last five, Real Madrid will hope to continue to set records with another title, although this will likely be very difficult as star striker, Ronaldo, and head coach, Zinedine Zidane, moved on in the summer.

The Round of 16 matchups will be finalized in December and the first matches will be played in February. As for realistic title contenders, Manchester United’s depth and consistency will likely cost them and result in an early exit, leaving the English hopes’ with Liverpool, who have won every game this season. With expensive summer signings Naby Keita and Alisson Becker already integrated into the team and performing at a high level, the 2018 finalists are a force to be reckoned with.

As for other big names, PSG will likely pull it together and make it through the group stage, only to lose in first round of the knockout stages to a more disciplined team. Bayern Munich will likely go far, but their aging squad will eventually fall, while Atletico Madrid will go further, but ultimately be undone by a more skilled team. Real Madrid and Juventus should make it to the semifinals, but my hope lies in Barcelona. With Messi getting older and young players such as Ousmane Dembele and Nelson Semedo improving, this may be their golden chance. Additionally, the chemistry between new signings, Philippe Coutinho and Malcolm, will continue to improve as will their defense. If all key players remain healthy, I see Messi making good on his promise and bringing the trophy back to Barcelona.

 

Francis Eddy Harvey

Francis Eddy Harvey '21 is from Pittsburgh, PA. This is his second year as sports writer for the Phoenix. Francis is pre-med, majoring in Economics, and is on the Men’s Soccer Team. In his free time, he enjoys rooting for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Steelers, and Pirates.

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