On August 25th, the draw for the 24th edition of the modern Champions League took place. As usual, it was a drab affair, filled with smartly-dressed coaches, players, and executives closely scrutinizing little plastic soccer balls stuffed with the names of some of the biggest, and most ambitious, clubs in all of Europe. Of course, it was just a precursor to what is the most competitive club soccer tournament in the world, in which victory is sweeter than every tournament except for the World Cup, that starts in just a couple hours. So which team will pull off a victory in this year’s tournament? Will Real Madrid be the first repeat champions since 1990, or will rivals FC Barcelona knock them off? Will English giants Arsenal finally find some European success, or will their kryptonite, Bayern Munich, hoist the trophy? Will PSG make their breakthrough, or will Juventus prevail? Or will it be one of the underdogs that comes out a winner? Here’s my prediction of what will happen in this year’s UCL:
As much as I would love to see my beloved Arsenal place first in the group to avoid another round-of-16 loss, I have a lot of respect for PSG manager Unai Emery, and think that his astuteness in-game, combined with the dearth of talent he has at his disposal in the midfield, will allow the Parisians to trump the Gunners for first place in the group. Arsene Wenger’s team should feel relatively safe in second place, though- Basel is still the toast of Switzerland, but doesn’t have the game-changers (Mohamed Salah, Breel Embolo) that it used to, and Ludogorets will have to overcome some unbelievable odds to make some real noise in this tournament.
Napoli lost its best player, Gonzalo Higuain, to Italian rivals Juventus, and that will greatly damage their prospects of being a true contender. But the Blues, who are led by Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, have enough firepower to stay ahead of their Portugese rivals, who have a fantastic team spirit but lost their stars Renato Sanchez and Nicolas Gaitan. Besiktas are fronted by the wily Ricardo Quaresma and the underrated Oğuzhan Özyakup- their tough style of play could cause some problems for Benfica, but ultimately, I think that the Black Eagles don’t have enough depth to move on. Kyiv have one true stud in Andriy Yarmolenko but not much else- they’ll work hard, but will drop out of European competition without much of a whimper.
This will be the best group, by far. Celtic have bulked up by adding Brendan Rodgers and long striker Moussa Dembele to the fold, but they still won’t come close to matching the talent that is in the group. Barca and Man City are pretty evenly matched on paper, and they both have strikers that have been on fire (Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero), fleet wingers (Neymar and Raheem Sterling), and some stars capable of producing magic (Lionel Messi and David Silva). In the end, though, I think that Barca’s depth, combined with what I believe will be a strong desire from Luis Enrique to upstage his mentor’s return to Catalonia, will allow the Blaugrana to top the group with the Citizens tight on their tails. ‘Gladbach is a dangerous team- I wouldn’t be surprised if they upset one of the top two teams and moved on to the knock-out stages, but on paper, I don’t think it’s super plausible.
Bayern are blessed with the deepest squad in all of football- any player that is from Germany, has played in Germany, or is an elite superstar has the potential to be reeled in by the Bavarian giants- and the immense talent that comes from this depth will propel them to the top of the group. Atletico is in the midst of a slight change in its roster makeup and hasn’t looked super sharp to start the season, but Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann should pick them team up enough to avoid the Russian champs, Rostov, and move on to the knockout round. As for the Dutch giants PSV, led by two De Jongs (Siem and Luuk), as well as Mexican star Andres Guardado, they are a good team, but better suited for the Europa League than this group. Seeing Rostov move on would be a great treat for the country, and fans of the underdog, but their European inexperience will see them out quietly.
Spurs landed themselves in a fairly tricky group- Leverkusen are a better team than people realize, CSKA is perhaps the most talented team in Russia, and AS Monaco add a rejuvenated Radamel Falcao to a team that knocked North London rivals Arsenal out of the knockout stages a mere two years ago. That being said, Mauricio Pochettino has built a deep and dynamic squad which should have enough within them to top the group. I see the Germans, led by Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, placing second on goal differential over CSKA, who have a solid team headlined by captain Igor Akinfeev, but the Russians have struggled in virtually every European competition as of late, and while this squad is exceptionally talented, I expect them to blow at least one game to cost them a place in the knockout round. As for Monaco, I really like them, but outside of Joao Moutinho, I don’t think that anyone in their midfield can really match up to the other teams in their group.
Los Blancos will be looking to defend their title, and with their two stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, flying high after leading their teams to extraordinary performances in the European Championships, I expect them to be one of the major contenders. Ronaldo’s old club, Sporting, and the German giants Dortmund will be left two fight it out for the second spot. Both teams underwent some serious change in the transfer market- Sporting has upgraded their frontline by adding Joel Campbell and Bas Dost, but they lost their player of the year, Joao Maria, to Inter; Dortmund, meanwhile, have lost key cogs Mats Hummels and Henrikh Mkhitaryan while adding Ousmane Dembele and resigning Mario Gotze. In the end, I think that Dortmund’s fast paced style while be enough the Portuguese, and they’ll move on. Warsaw are far and away the best team in Poland, but they don’t have the talent or the depth to match up with some of the continent’s biggest teams.
The Portuguese giants lucked into having a fairly easy group, where their closest competitor is defending Premier League champions Leicester, who are making their debut in the tournament. The Hector Herrera-led squad should make it to the next round with ease. In my opinion, the Foxes should, too- a counterattacking style is perfect for the early stages of the Champions League, and I think that Claudio Ranieri’s team has more talent than Brugge, and therefore should be able to hold them off for the second spot in the group. Copenhagen, who seemingly make the tournament every year but never make much noise, won’t simply be placeholders this year- in an easy group, they have a chance to move on- but I can’t see them really taking advantage of that chance.
Despite losing one of their biggest names, midfielder Paul Pogba, the Old Lady has still managed to upgrade their squad, signing Miralem Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain from rivals Roma and Napoli, respectively, while also managing to snag young Croatian phenom Marko Pjaca. They will certainly be the toast of this group. Next up should be Sevilla, who have been better performers in the Europa League in recent years, but will manage to overcome the losses of Grzegorz Krychowiak and manager Unai Emery by relying on new signing Ganso and loanees Samir Nasri and Salvatore Sirigu to make it to the knockout stages. Lyon, led by the fleet Alexandre Lacazette, have struggled in Europe in recent years, so while they have the potential to top their Spanish rivals, I don’t see them doing it. Zagreb have a chance to advance if they can continue to make their home ground a fortress, but the rest of the group has too much talent for that to be a reality.
Strongest Group: Group C
I think that this is a tighter contest than people realize between Group C, which features Pep Guardiola’s return to his Catalan roots in Barcelona, and Group E, which is arguably deeper from top to bottom. That being said, overlooking a group that has two of the giants from Europe’s two biggest leagues, an up-and-coming German team, and the legendary Scottish champions, for the honor of being named strongest group would be just plain wrong.
Weakest Group: Group B
No offense to Benfica, who won the Portuguese championship last year over their arguably more talented rivals, Porto, but they are probably the weakest group winner there will be. Combine that with the facts that Napoli aren’t really a force to be reckoned with outside of Italy (and sometimes that isn’t even the case), Dynamo Kyiv aren’t as strong as they used to be, and Besiktas has never really performed in Europe… well, let’s just say this isn’t the best collection of teams in the tournament. Very impressive in their respective countries, but typically unable to translate that to European success; at least now they’ll all have a chance.
Dark Horse: Borussia Monchengladbach
They got placed in the toughest group of the draw, and will have to overcome the teams that I think are the champions-elect of the two toughest domestic leagues in the world in Barcelona and Manchester City, so their progression is unlikely. But if Andre Schubert’s team is able to pull an upset over one of those two giants, watch out. The Foals found form at the end of last season and seemed to have carried it over to this year, if their destruction of Young Boys is any indication, and their deep squad, led by the electric Thorgan Hazard, will be buzzing with confidence if they are able to move on. This confidence could enable them to knock off one of the game’s giants.
Champion: Bayern Munich
Having already picked Manchester City as the Premier League champion in my preview of the EPL, I was tempted to pick them to cast off their European burdens and when The Trophy with the Big Ears; their form thus far has been delectable, and Pep Guardiola has vast amounts of experience in the legendary championship. However, I expect Guardiola’s old club, Bayern, to walk away as champions- it seems like the German giants have a squad that is better suited for new manager Carlo Ancelotti’s style than it was for Guardiola’s, and they’ll have time to work out the kinks in the group stage, where only Atleti will give them problems. Once they figure it out, I expect Ancelotti to use all of Bayern’s incredibly deep and talented team to pull out the 6th Champions League title in club history.