Champions League Preview, Part Two
After we previewed the first half of the Champions League group stage in part one, here’s what you can expect from groups E to H.
Group E – AEK Athens, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Benfica,
It’s a new season and a new manager, but Bayern have still started the Bundesliga with their usual complete domination. Three wins out of three with nine scored and two conceded suggests nothing of note has changed under new boss Niko Kovac, though the arguably declining quality of the Bundesliga suggests tougher tests await in this competition. Bayern still have the depth to rotate heavily, and should be able to get out of this group without breaking a sweat.
Ajax have started the Eredivisie brightly, though there remains a sense that Erik ten Hag’s side are not as strong as the 2016-17 edition managed by Peter Bosz. The club continue to play the possession heavy 4-3-3 one would expect, though the ball may be harder to come by here than in domestic competitions. Obviously all eyes are on Frenkie de Jong, back in central midfield after an extended stint as a centre back, but Hakim Ziyech’s creative passing also remains a delight. Ajax didn’t make it into the group stages last year, but it’s not especially obvious that this is a stronger team a year later, though this relatively kind group could see them through.
Benfica have started well in this year’s Portuguese Primeira Liga, surely wanting to do better than last year’s embarrassing Champions League group stage exit in which they lost all their games and scored only one goal. The team do have some good attacking talent. Andrija Zivkovic (whom StatsBomb has covered before) is developing into an excellent creative midfielder, though Pizzi has so far taken his role in the side this and is doing very well. Rui Vitoria, now in his fourth season managing the Lisbon side, will have to improve significantly on last year’s aforementioned horrendous showing, but it is not clear that this team is significantly different.
Greek football is in something of a rut, with the Super League unable to avoid the country’s wider economic problems, and no club has made it out of the Champions League group stages since Olympiacos did so in 2013-14. AEK, making their return to the tournament proper after over a decade away, don’t look especially likely to change this, having won last year’s domestic league by 3 points in no great style. Unless things improve financially, it seems like we will have to wait a long time before Greek football can seriously compete in Europe again.
To go through: Bayern, Ajax (at a push)
Group F – Hoffenheim, Lyon, Manchester City, Shakhtar
Manchester City, the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Champions League, have started this year in the same blistering form as the last. Their expected goal difference per game of +2.6 is by far the best in the Premier League so far this season, with left back Benjamin Mendy giving them an additional threat compared to Fabian Delph’s industrious inverted full back work last year. With Pep Guardiola continually reshaping this side in his own image, City are about as dominant as any team can be at the moment, and should be heavy favourites to finish first in Group F.
Julian Nagelsmann continues to overachieve at Hoffenheim (though not for much longer, as he has agreed to move to RB Leipzig next season). Nagelsmann has continually been able to cope with the loss of key players at the club, and his high risk, high reward approach has been effective in the Bundesliga. There is the risk, of course, of a result like the 6-3 defeat to Liverpool in last year’s Champions League play off round, especially with strong teams in the group, though there is no reason to think they won’t put up a good fight for second place.
Lyon have started the season strongly, and for a side best known for high profile attacking talents, it is the defence (best expected goals against in Ligue 1 so far) that is proving formidable. The team have been more aggressive, with StatsBomb’s high press rating giving them a big jump to 48.49 compared to 43.76 last year. As for the famous attackers themselves, Nabil Fekir is showing himself to be an all around threat of shot involvement, ball progression and elite pressing work, while Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore remain excellent pacey options. This is a team stacked with young talent, and they may just have the edge over Hoffenheim for second place.
While the Ukrainian Premier League probably isn’t watched by many people outside of Ukraine, Shakhtar are possibly a better side than you think, having comfortably finished ahead of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in last season’s group stages. Euro Club Index actually has them as the 15th best side in Europe, ahead of teams like Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. The side is in something of a retooling phase, having sold Brazilian stars Fred and Bernard to England and replaced them with youngsters out of the Brasileirao, so they may not be so strong this year. Still, it would be a mistake to assume they will finish fourth and take a number of bruisings.
To go through: Manchester City, Lyon
Group G – CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Roma, Viktoria Plzen
After an era of huge success defined by continuity, it has been a summer of change for Real Madrid. Having obviously sold Cristiano Ronaldo (he’s not bad, you know) and replaced man manager Zinedine Zidane with more of a tactical philosophy coach in Julen Lopetegui, the reigning European champions are in the process of transitioning to a more conventional Spanish tiki-taka style. Thus far, Real have picked up decent results in La Liga without much in the way of scintillating football, and one suspects the new approach might not be as suited to this competition as the Zidane era system. Still, they will be strong favourites to top this group, and rightly so.
Roma were able to put together a terrific run to the semi finals in last year’s Champions League but were not nearly as impressive in Serie A, where they finished 18 points behind perennial champions Juventus. Once again, sporting director Monchi has overseen a lot of turnover to the squad, with young wide forward Justin Kluivert the standout name of the newcomers. The new look Roma has had a slow start domestically, with just 5 points from 4 games, and this will need to change fairly promptly in order to make it through this group, though the squad is surely talented enough to do it.
CSKA Moscow, last season’s Russian Premier League runners up have had a mixed start to the season, picking up 12 points from 7 games and sitting in 5th place in a 16 team division. With Aleksandr Golovin the only really significant loss to last season’s side, it is not especially clear what the issue is at the moment. Since CSKA failed to get out of an even weaker group last season, there isn’t great hope that this year will be different. A Europa League run may be their best hope of having any significant impact in Europe.
Czech First League champions Viktoria Plzen are likely to only really be a threat to taking the third place position that moves the teams into the Europa League. Czech football hasn’t seen a side reach the knockout stages of the Champions League since Sparta Prague in 2003-04 and it’s hard to imagine this changing. All but one of the players in this squad are Czech citizens, yet only four Viktoria Plzen players made it into the most recent Czech Republic national team squad, showing how little valued domestic football is in the country. It remains a great shame that teams from smaller nations cannot challenge for European competitions, and Plzen are likely to keep this trend going.
To go through: Real Madrid, Roma
Group H – Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys
Juventus remain totally at ease in Serie A, winning all of their first four games and currently topping the table. It goes without saying that Cristiano Ronaldo is the big addition to the side and he is, you know, good at football. Expect manager Max Allegri to approach this competition the same way he usually does, looking to defend deep and seal close wins with an excellent ability to both defend leads and come back from behind. This is a relatively tough group but they should be able to make it through without too much trouble.
Manchester United are, shall we say, experiencing some turbulence at the moment. After getting good results with fairly unremarkable numbers through the magic of David De Gea, things are regressing to the mean quite quickly. Mourinho’s team are still able to win a lot of Premier League games against weaker sides just by shear talent, but it doesn’t feel like more difficult Champions League ties are necessarily the Portuguese manager’s forte anymore. They have a reasonable chance of making it into the knockout stages, but a deep European run should likely not be expected.
Current Valencia boss Marcelino has successfully brought Champions League football back to the Mestalla without playing the most exciting stuff. Playing a fairly low block 4-4-2, the club made it to 4th place while beating expected goals, though Marcelino overperformed in this regard at Villarreal so there may be more sustainability than one would think. The club were able to bring back last year’s star loanee Goncalo Guedes on a permanent deal while adding Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi, so there is some genuine firepower in the side. The betting markets expect Juventus and Manchester United to make it out of this group, but it would not be a shock to see Valencia usurp the Premier League team.
Swiss Super League winners BSC Young Boys make up what is something of a nightmare group for them. The Bern club have never made it out of the group stages since the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League, and this squad of mostly Swiss players does not seem hugely likely to break new ground.
To go through: Juventus, Manchester United (though don’t be surprised if Valencia manage it)
Header image courtesy of the Press Assciation