Champions League Preview, Part One
The thing about cup competitions is that they’re designed to be unpredictable. In theory.
Looking at the projections for this season’s Champions League on FiveThirtyEight, no team is seen as having a greater than 15% chance of winning the competition. It even gives us a 57% chance that a team that has not won the tournament this decade will lift the trophy in May. We genuinely could have an unfancied side win the whole thing.
Of course, we could also have two relatively unfancied sides make it to the semi-finals only for Real Madrid to win it again.
With the competition as always being played over two nights, we’ll break down the groups as they kick off. Here are Tuesday’s teams.
Group A - Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge, Monaco
Anyone who has watched this competition over the past five years knows what to expect from Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. There has been significant player turnover over the years but the core ideas remain the same. The team will be compact and deep without the ball, look to go 1-0 up and then be happy to eke out a narrow win. As effective as this approach is, they may have to accept that they’re not always going to be everyone’s first pick of sides to watch, but that won’t concern them.
Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco are also a known entity. The side have shown a fairly supernatural ability to score more than their expected goals, with last season’s 78 scored in Ligue 1 from 59.16 xG not even meeting the previous year’s incredible title winning overperformance. This side perhaps isn’t as strong as in previous years. They’ve sold some key players and largely replaced them with younger prospects. Their counter-attacking style still has the ability to excite, but Group A is largely well equipped to defend against that kind of attacking, so there may be difficulty in navigating a way out.
Borussia Dortmund have made the fairly dramatic move from the expansive high pressing style of the past decade to the opposite of that under Lucien Favre. Getting bodies behind the ball combined with patient build up play is now the way things are done. Results have been good so far, with 7 points from 3 games, though this might be unsustainable with 7 goals from just 2.98 xG. Favre’s status as the original xG warlock may raise eyebrows, but his work has generally been done on the defensive side of the ball. Dortmund’s fairly poor defence last year probably triggered this appointment, but it still is unclear what this new side will become.
Club Brugge are inevitably cast as the fourth placed team and it’s hard to find reasons to argue differently. Their Euro Club Index places them as the 68th best side in the continent, comparable to a midtable Premier League side. The problem teams from outside the top leagues often face in this competition is having to adjust stylistically to playing against clubs more likely to dominate games than themselves, and it seems as though Brugge will have the same trouble here.
To go through: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund
Group B - Barcelona, Inter, PSV, Tottenham
After a few years of fumbling around, Barcelona have finally made the squad improvements they needed. With last year’s key additions Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele now properly integrated into the starting eleven as well as this summer’s added depth, this looks a much more balanced team than last year’s “all Messi, all the time” edition. The bookmakers currently have Barcelona as second favourites and this may even be underrating them.
A test they rarely face, though, is a good side pressing them high, which is what one expects Tottenham will do. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have had some issues this year, with an increasingly concerning defence and a not quite firing Harry Kane. If Spurs are able to fix, or at least mitigate, these issues when they welcome Barcelona to Wembley in October, we could have a terrific contest to watch.
Inter under Luciano Spalletti have not always been the most exciting side in Serie A, with the club just about scraping to Champions League qualification over a much more interesting Lazio team. Inter are certainly capable of causing problems for any side in this group, but unless Spurs’ issues don’t get resolved at all, they may have to settle for a Europa League spot.
PSV traded manager Phillip Cocu for Mark van Bommel this summer seemingly without any hitch, as the Eredivisie champions currently sit at the top of the league with 15 points and somehow 21 goals from 5 games with only 3 conceded. The club managed to hold onto exciting young wingers Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn and they form a key part of the club’s game, with Van Bommel opting for a conventional Dutch style of an attacking 4-3-3. It’s possible that this will cause issues against higher quality sides, but PSV could be involved in some entertaining games nonetheless.
Group C - Liverpool, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Red Star
After merely achieving almost complete domestic dominance, it’s a new era for PSG under Thomas Tuchel. Tuchel is a known tactical tinkerer, with it likely that he will deploy the absurd attacking talent at his disposal in a number of ways depending on the profile of the opposition. With PSG’s previous European campaigns leaving something to be desired, it would be a surprise if this competition wasn’t his primary focus, andgetting out of the group stages is well less than the minimum requirement at this point.
The last time Thomas Tuchel faced Jurgen Klopp led to a thrilling spectacle as Liverpool beat Borussia Dortmund 5-4 on aggregate to go into the Europa League semi-finals. Liverpool are a much stronger side now than they were in 2016, with Klopp’s counter-pressing system not only getting the best out of the front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino but finally functioning in a defensive sense as well. The good news for Klopp is that his opponents in this group are likely to press and leave the space in behind that his system craves, and as such we could see Liverpool push PSG all the way for the top spot in this group.
After Napoli played some really unique football under Maurizio Sarri, it’s something of a return to normality with Carlo Ancelotti. Expect the Italian side to still attempt to dominate possession, but in less of an absolute clear structure, with a greater willingness to alter the core principles just for a one off game. Ancelotti obviously has an excellent record in this competition, and his greater flexibility could serve Napoli well in the knockout stages. Unfortunately for him, though, he has found himself in a very difficult group, with PSG and Liverpool perhaps too strong to stop.
As for Red Star, the Serbian SuperLiga champions have marked their return to this competition with a horrible group. Euro Club Index ranks them as the 73rd best side in Europe, between Southampton and Bournemouth, and it looks a tough ask for them to achieve something beyond fourth place.
To go through: Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool
Group D - Galatasaray, Lokomotiv, Porto, Schalke
Domenico Tedesco, a recent graduate of the long line of exciting young German managers to come out of nowhere, is perhaps the most interesting thing about this group. Tedesco’s Schalke were able to finish second in last year’s Bundesliga with a low possession style built on solid defensive work. Schalke have endured a very difficult start to the Bundesliga, but with only three games played, the assumption should probably be a return to their success of last season in this competition.
Portuguese Primeira Liga champions Porto were unceremoniously knocked out at the round of 16 last year with a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool and it is unclear whether or not they are better placed this time. With manager Sérgio Conceição and most of last year’s attacking talent remaining, this side should be capable of qualifying from the group, but beyond this it is unclear about how good Porto are against top opposition.
Lokomotiv were able to win last season’s Russian Premier League, but this year have found themselves in significant trouble domestically, sitting in the bottom half of the table with 9 points from 7 games. The Moscow club have made high profile international additions including Benedikt Höwedes and Grzegorz Krychowiak, though Höwedes has thus far only played 9 minutes of league football for Lokomotiv. With largely unremarkable expected goals numbers to match their poor results, there’s not a strong case to think that this side can cause Schalke or Porto any huge issues right now.
Last season’s Turkish Super Lig winners Galatasaray have kept the show on the road this year with 12 points from their first 5 league games, placing themselves at the top of the division on goal difference. That this has been done without last year’s Super Lig top scorer Bafétimbi Gomis is most pleasing, with new signings Henry Onyekuru and Emre Akbaba scoring two each in what looks like a more balanced side. It doesn’t seem especially likely that Galatasaray will follow last season’s Turkish entry Besiktas in making it out of the group, but nonetheless this is a capable team.
To go through: Schalke, Porto
We’ll be back with part two, focusing on groups E to H.