Though the 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League concluded just three months ago, the 2019-2020 campaign begins this week with the first games of the group stage. All over Europe, the top soccer clubs are gearing up for the grueling nine month tournament with club soccer’s ultimate trophy on the line. With last year’s tournament hosting some of the most exciting matches in recent memory, like the semi-final victories of Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC, soccer fans from all over the world are no doubt eagerly waiting for more Champions League action, expecting goals, drama, and the best of the beautiful game.
Each Champions League tournament has a group stage and knockout stage. In the former, there are eight groups of four teams selected from different pots. Teams can be from either Pot 1, Pot 2, Pot 3, or Pot 4. Typically, the teams who won their domestic league last season are in Pot 1 while high placing teams are in Pot 2. Pot 3 and Pot 4 are usually reserved for teams that qualified through other means. Each team will play each other twice in the group stage and the top two teams will advance to the Round of 16, or the first round of the knockout stage.
This year, the group stage is packed full of great matches. Group A consists of Real Madrid (ESP), Paris Saint Germain (FRA), Galatasaray (TUR), and Club Brugge (BEL). Real Madrid and PSG are some of the wealthiest clubs in the world with two very different stories when it comes to the Champions League. Madrid, before last year’s campaign, won three straight Champions Leagues and still had the most trophies in the tournament’s history. PSG, on the other hand, has spent hundreds of millions of euros in each of the last seven years just to fall apart before the semi-finals. It is expected, however, that Real Madrid and PSG will comfortably get out of Group A and onto the knockout stage, leaving Galatasary and Club Brugge eliminated.
Group B has Bayern Munich (GER), Tottenham Hotspur (ENG), Olympiacos (GRC), and Red Star Belgrade (SER). Bayern Munich, like PSG, is a big-spending, old club that hasn’t had too much success in the knockout rounds of the Champions League since 2012-2013, when they won the entire tournament. Tottenham Hotspur impressed many by making a miraculous run to the finals of last year’s Champions League before losing to fellow English side Liverpool. Tottenham are not one of the biggest spenders on the block, but have a strong collection of players, a brand new stadium in London, and an excellent coach. Although most think Bayern and Tottenham will advance, Olympiacos has shown a good run of form recently and could cause problems for the two bigger clubs.
Group C consists of Manchester City (ENG), Atalanta (ITA), Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR), and Dinamo Zagreb (CRO). Manchester City, one of the richest clubs in the world and two-time defending Premier League champions, should not have much trouble winning this group. Atalanta, Donetsk, and Zagreb, on the other hand, will have to slug it out for second place and a ticket into the knockout rounds. City, although having the most expensive team in the world based on transfer market valuation of players, has also struggled in the Champions League. Since their explosion on the scene in 2013, City have not made it to the semi-finals of the competition. They lost in spectacular fashion to extreme underdogs Tottenham last season in one of the best matches of the entire competition.
Group D, which may be this year’s group of death, has Juventus (ITA), Atlético Madrid (ESP), Bayer Leverkusen (GER), and Lokomotiv Moscow (RUS). Competition amongst these teams will fierce. Juventus and their star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, have pushed for Champions League glory in the past few years but never won the competition. Atletico has a similar story; they fell to Real Madrid twice in the finals in 2014 and 2016. Ronaldo has been the bane of Atletico’s existence for some time now, scoring 22 goals against them when he was with Real Madrid as well as three in last year’s competition when Juventus came back to stun Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16. Bayer Leverkusen are not to be underestimated: they’ve performed well in a very competitive German Bundesliga. Lokomotiv Moscow really got the tough luck of the entire Champions League draw by being in a group with these three teams.
Group E contains Liverpool (ENG), Napoli (ITA), Red Bull (RUS), and Genk (BEL). Last year’s winners, Liverpool, are expected to continue their strong run of form into this year’s champions league campaign after winning their first five matches of England’s Premier League. Napoli, who were knocked out in the group stage last year by Liverpool and PSG, are out for revenge and should challenge Liverpool for the group. Red Bull and Genk, as are most Pot 3 and Pot 4 teams, are somewhat of an afterthought, but as it is the Champions League, anything can happen.
Group F consists of Barcelona (ESP), Borussia Dortmund (GER), Inter Milan (ITA), and Slavia Praha (CZE). This is another contender for the title of “Group of Death”, seeing as Barcelona, Dortmund, and Inter Milan are some of the most well-established soccer clubs in Europe. However, Barcelona is a tier above Dortmund and Inter: the world’s best player in Lionel Messi is expected to lead the Spanish on a deep Champions League run after collapsing to Liverpool in the semifinals last year. Slavia Praha are not being given much of a chance by anyone: there’s even a funny clip of their own representatives laughing when their team’s name was drawn out of Pot 4 to join Group F. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjTkkOHy8dg)
Group G may be the weakest group of the lot: Benfica (POR), Lyon (FRA), RB Leipzig (GER), and Zenit (RUS) are all decent teams, but this will be a fun group to watch given how close the teams are to one another with respect to ability. However, don’t expect those that emerge from this group to make any noise in the knockout stage.
Group H consists of Chelsea (ENG), Ajax (NED), Valencia (ESP), and Lille OSC (FRA). Chelsea, despite the youth of the squad they have, should make it out of this group. Ajax and Valencia are dangerous teams, however, with the former making a run all the way to the semi-finals of last year’s tournament, knocking Real Madrid and Juventus on the way before falling to Tottenham.
Some upcoming matches to watch out for: Bayern Munich vs. Tottenham on October 1st and December 11th, the Liverpool vs. Napoli on November 27th, Dortmund vs. Inter on October 23rd and November 5th, Chelsea vs. Ajax on October 23rd and November 5th. Real Madrid vs. PSG on November 26th, Juventus vs. Atlético on November 26th, and Barcelona vs. Dortmund on November 27th.
The first round of group stage games have already been played and more games will continue next week, but as of now, 32 of the top teams across Europe have hopes of Champions League glory. Come December, that number will be reduced to sixteen. Keep your eyes as some of these matches roll around your calendar if you want to see the highest level of soccer there is. Champions League soccer brings out the best in teams and players alike. This year should be as enjoyable as all the ones that came before it.