My favorite time of year – College Football on weekends, European soccer season is in full swing and now The Champions League is Back on Fox!! The UCL Group Stages kick off Tues with Barcelona vs Juventus at 2:45 pm on Fox Sport 2, with Man U vs Basel on FS1 and Chelsea hosting Qarabag on Fox Indiana. Wed gives us a GROUP OF DEATH match with Tottenham vs Dortmund (Christian Pulisic) at 2:45 pm FS1, defending Champs Real Madrid vs Apoel on FS2, and Liverpool vs Sevilla on Fox Soccer Indiana & ESPN3. Set those recorders or plan the late lunch. Let me know if anyone wants to gather to watch the 2:45 pm games at a pub close by.
Champions League Starts Tues/Wed
Carmel High School is hosting a Youth Soccer Night On Wednesday, September 13th as the top 5 Ranked CHS Girl’s teams play Warren Central. Admission is FREE for the Carmel FC and Carmel Dad’s Club players with a uniform on. Parents pay just $5 for entry to both the 5 pm JV and 7 pm Varsity game at Murray Stadium at CHS. CFC players please wear your Yellow Jersey’s with White pants (no cleats).
GAMES ON TV
Tues Sept 12 Champions League
2:45 pm Fox Sport 1 Manchester United v Basel
2:45 pm Fox Sport 2 Barcelona v Juventus
2:45 Fox Sport Ind? Chelsea vs Qarabag
Wed Sept 13 Champions League
2:45 pm Fox Sport 1 Tottenham Hotspur v Borussia Dortmund
2:45 pm Fox Sport 2 Real Madrid vs APOEL
2:45 Fox Sport Ind? Liverpool v Sevilla ESPN3
Sun, Sept 17
8:30 am NBCSN Chelsea vs Arsenal
9:30 am FS1 Beyern Leverkusen vs Freiburg
11 am NBCSN Man U vs Everton
12noon FS2 Dortmund (Pulisic) vs Koln
1 pm ESPN NY Red Bulls vs Philly Union (Bedoya)
4 pm my Indy TV Edmonton vs Indy 11
Tues, Sept 19
2:45 pm ESPN3 Leicester City vs Liverpool (League Cup)
7:30 pm Fox Sport 1 USA Ladies team vs New Zealand (at Cincy tix Avail)
Real Madrid beware: Juve, Man City, PSG, Barca & Atleti after UCL crown
Real Madrid are the team to beat in the Champions League. Zinedine Zidane’s men have won the tournament two times in a row, making it 12 in total, as they once again swept all before them last season.Ahead of the competition restarting, here’s a look at five contenders who look best equipped to end Real’s dominance.
- Juventus:They may have lost Leonardo Bonucci to arch rivals AC Milan but it would be foolish to suppose Juventus are not a major contender this time around. While Bonucci’s absence is inconvenient, the bulk of a team that was uncompromising at both ends last season is back and they have enough world class talent elsewhere to make amends.
That was evident on the second match day of the Serie A season when Paulo Dybala’s hat trick helped them to a comeback 4-2 win at Genoa. With Blaise Matuidi and Douglas Costa on board, Juventus have greater depth in other key areas now, adding to a squad that is rich in Champions League pedigree.There is also the argument that greater competition domestically, even if it comes from Bonucci and Milan, may help them. Their experience in last season’s final was a humbling one but it is still hard to find an outfit better equipped to put up a fight against Real than the Bianconeri.
- Manchester City:At some point you sense it will click for City in Europe and they look far better equipped for an assault on the Champions League than during last season’s ultimately disappointing campaign.
The addition of two players who were so influential for the Monaco team that beat them, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva, is a significant reason. With Kyle Walker also on board they now have the kind of energetic, attacking full-backs a convincing challenge demands.It is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola falling short for much longer. With Gabriel Jesus rapidly emerging as a top class alternative to Sergio Aguero, there is depth in key areas too. The only department of genuine concern is centre-back, where a creaking Vincent Kompany may be relied upon too heavily. Guardiola would at least have January to sort that out. City should progress comfortably enough through their group and a run at the last four looks possible.
- Paris-Saint Germain:Was Neymar the final piece in PSG’s Champions League jigsaw? That is the intention, but too many doubts remain to unreservedly suggest they are the team best placed to end Real’s run of success.Dani Alves, who was instrumental for Juventus in the latter stages of last season’s competition, should prove as useful to their European prospects as his compatriot and PSG can certainly be fancied to end a barren spell of 23 years without a semifinal place.Kylian Mbappe adds another option to a thrilling front line but you wonder whether they have Champions League-winning depth in other, equally important, areas of the team. Matuidi was let go for a remarkably low fee in today’s market and with squad option Grzegorz Krychowiak having also departed, they look light in the centre of the park.There are also doubts about their central defensive reserves and while PSG should beat the majority of sides they meet in Europe, against the canniest opposition they may fall just short.
- Barcelona:Every time the Last Rites are read on Barcelona, they come back punching. That was certainly the case in the stunning round of 16 comeback against PSG last season, the difference this time being that the man who tilted the balance has swapped sides. The loss of Neymar cast a shadow over Barca’s summer but it would be a fool who ruled them out of contention even if there is an air of transition under Ernesto Valverde.Lionel Messi shows few signs of slowing up and there remains star quality throughout the squad. A lot hangs, though, on the quick integration of Ousmane Dembele — a thrilling talent who, nonetheless, did not deliver weekly for Borussia Dortmund last term and is not yet at Neymar’s level.He should get there eventually; whether Barcelona can reach their former heights is doubtful but it would be rash to rule them out as a Champions League contender.
- Atletico Madrid:We are wise enough these days never to write Atletico off but the obvious questions will linger. How smoothly will they adapt to life at their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium, both domestically and on those big European nights? Can a tight-knit squad muster up the energy and will required by Diego Simeone yet again? Will they be able to ride out their summer transfer ban and, if necessary, use January to add a little extra sparkle?
In truth they could do with that now, as Chelsea and Roma will be fiendish group stage opponents, but it would be a surprise if they missed out and Simeone has worked enough wonders with Atletico to merit being bunched among the main challengers once again.Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.
Barcelona, Juventus ready to renew Champions League rivalry
Barcelona and Juventus will renew their recent rivalry when they meet at the Camp Nou in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.The two sides will be meeting in the competition for the third time in the last four years. Barcelona won their fifth and most recent Champions League title when they defeated Juventus in the final in 2015, while Juventus knocked Barcelona out of the competition in the quarterfinals last season.This will be Barcelona’s 22nd appearance in the competition, which matches Real Madrid and Porto for the most all-time, and their 14th consecutive appearance — second only to Real Madrid. Barcelona have, however, won their group on 18 occasions, a Champions League record.They enter with a 21-game unbeaten streak at home in the competition, dating to a loss to Bayern Munich in the second leg of the semifinals on May 1, 2013. That run includes 19 victories and two draws — one of which was against Juventus in the quarterfinals last season.According to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), Barcelona enter with a 96 percent chance of advancing beyond Group D, while Juventus have an 86 percent chance of doing so.The runners-up to Real Madrid last season, Juventus went unbeaten away from home in the Champions League, with the draw against Barcelona in the quarterfinals marking the only time they failed to win a game. They did not concede a goal for 690 minutes, the second-longest run behind only Arsenal in 2005-06, and kept six clean sheets during that span.Currently atop the Serie A table, Juventus have scored 10 goals through their first three games, marking the first time they have done so since 1981. Paulo Dybala, who has scored five of those goals, and Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi are the joint top scorers in Serie A this season. The two are second only to Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani, who have each scored seven goals.Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has also scored five goals, including a hat trick in a 5-0 victory over Espanyol in the Catalan derby on Saturday. Messi, though, has not scored in any of his three games against Juventus.Follow ESPN Stats & Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo
Five ways Sevilla can stun Liverpool in Champions League matchday one
Liverpool begin their Champions League campaign at home to Sevilla on Wednesday in a match between the two sides who will expect to compete for the top spot in Group E. Jurgen Klopp’s side have made a solid start to the season, but there are still reasons to believe that Sevilla will be capable of causing them problems at Anfield.
- Sevilla were victorious last time they met
The last time Liverpool and Sevilla met was in the final of the 2015-16 Europa League in Basel. Liverpool took a one-goal lead into the break, but Sevilla came on strong in the second half, equalising quickly through Kevin Gameiro before a double from captain Coke powered them to victory.There has been significant player and staff turnover in the 16 months since that encounter. Sevilla have twice changed coach, while just three of their starting XI in Basel are likely to be involved on Wednesday. But those who do remain at least know that they are capable of beating a Liverpool side coached by Klopp.In five attempts, Sevilla are yet to record a victory away to an English club in European competition, but equally, Liverpool have a particularly unconvincing history at home to Spanish sides. Their record reads five wins, six draws and five defeats.
- They will press as much as they are pressed
Liverpool are noted for their intense pressing, but that is also a strong characteristic of sides led by Sevilla coach Eduardo Berizzo. His aggressive, rotating, man-marking system is borrowed from his mentor Marcelo Bielsa and was key in the strong cup runs that his Celta Vigo side managed in domestic and European competition last season.Sevilla will not be passive opponents, and as a result, Wednesday’s match is likely to be a fast and frantic affair. Both sides will seek to win the ball back high up the pitch and then transition swiftly into shooting positions.
The midfield can compete
The energy of Liverpool’s midfield can often see them overrun opponents, but Sevilla have the necessary power in that zone to match them. Guido Pizarro and Steven N’Zonzi are two tall midfielders whose languid gaits mask their underlying physical prowess; they are capable of going toe-to-toe with their Anfield counterparts.N’Zonzi expected to leave Sevilla during the summer transfer window, with Pizarro (whom Berizzo previously wanted to sign at Celta Vigo) was presumably brought in as his replacement. But with no offers forthcoming, they now look set to form a potent partnership in the centre of midfield.Pizarro missed the weekend win over Eibar with a chipped tooth but will be back in action on Wednesday and raring to go ahead of the biggest challenge of his short European career to date.
- Ever Banega can organise
Ever Banega is another player who will arrive at Anfield well-rested after missing the weekend match through suspension. He returned to Sevilla this summer after a patchy year at Inter Milan and has immediately reestablished himself as the organiser of their play.A master of small spaces who consistently raises his level in high-intensity encounters, he was excellent against Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final and will again be a key presence in ensuring the smooth transition of the ball into the attacking third.If Banega is on song, Sevilla should be, too.
- They have pace in attack
Liverpool’s press is effective in terms of limiting shooting opportunities, but when teams are able to break through it, the chances they create are usually high-quality ones. Pace in behind causes them particular problems, and Sevilla have a number of rapid forwards capable of exploiting that weakness.Luis Muriel was Sevilla’s big-ticket summer signing, and while his finishing has so far let him down, his pace and power regularly get him into good positions. He, too, will be fresh for Wednesday’s encounter after paperwork issues held up his return from Colombia at the end of the international break.But he is far from the only such threat in a Sevilla attack that also features the direct pace of Jesus Navas, the clever movement of Wissam Ben Yedder and the incisive dribbling of Joaquin Correa. Nolito isn’t as quick, but he has his own qualities. Chances will come, and if Sevilla can take advantage, they have every chance of causing an upset.
Lukaku and Rashford’s big UCL opportunity for Manchester United
When Jose Mourinho was drawing up a list of targets ahead of the summer transfer window, one thing he looked at was Champions League experience.Nemanja Matic had it. So did Victor Lindelof. But Romelu Lukaku didn’t and so Alvaro Morata, who did, was also considered.In the end, Mourinho picked Lukaku, deciding it was easier to make the transition from Premier League to Champions League than La Liga to Premier League.After all, the main objective this season, whether Mourinho will admit it publicly or not, is to win the title.Still, that will be briefly forgotten this week when the Champions League returns to Old Trafford for the first time since November 2015.The talk will be about Mourinho’s record — two wins with Porto and Inter Milan plus eight semifinal appearances — and whether or not United can win it.The bookmakers think they can. United are among the favourites behind only Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Barcelona. You can get longer odds on Juventus, who have reached two of the last three finals.It is perhaps to be expected that United are so well fancied despite failing to qualify in two of the past three seasons. Mourinho’s history in the competition is part of it. So, too, the fact he has spent nearly £150 million to improve a team that won a European trophy last season.But, then, in other ways it is curious. Not least because United’s two main goal-scorers, Lukaku and Marcus Rashford, are yet to prove themselves in Europe’s top club competition.Rashford has never played a Champions League fixture. Lukaku’s experience extends to a handful of qualifiers with Anderlecht when he was a teenager. Yet both will be expected to score the goals to get United out of a group that also includes Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow.It might seem like a straightforward draw, but it has not escaped Mourinho’s attention that United finished third in Group C behind Basel and Benfica in 2011 and failed to get out of a group that included CSKA Moscow in 2015.It raises the question about whether Champions League experience matters. Paul Ince says it does. “It is highly unusual these days for a £75 million striker not to have had previous experience,” the former United midfielder said of Lukaku.”If he wants to be considered world class, this is the stage where he has to prove himself.”Sir Alex Ferguson, though, would probably tell you otherwise.He spent £12.6 million on Dwight Yorke in 1998 despite the striker’s previous European experience amounting to two goals in seven games for Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup.But it didn’t stop Yorke scoring eight goals in 11 games in his first season in the Champions League, including three in the knockout rounds, on his way to winning it in 1999.Wayne Rooney had never played a European club fixture before scoring a hat trick for United against Fenerbahce in the Champions League on his debut. That said, he had just scored four goals for England at Euro 2004.Rashford has already scored on his United debut, European debut, Premier League debut, League Cup debut and England debut. It would be no surprise to see him do it again on his Champions League debut.The bookies don’t think experience matters and Lukaku is among the favourites to score the most goals in this Champions League this season alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski and Neymar.The Belgian is a better bet, they reckon, than established Champions League strikers Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema.But here lies the debate about Lukaku, in particular.There is little doubt about his ability to score in volume. Detractors call it being a “flat-track bully”. But it is his impact in the big games that draws the most attention. He scored 15 goals in 57 games against the Premier League’s top six for West Brom and Everton — almost a goal every four games.You can argue that, with better players around him, that should change but we will not know for sure until United play Liverpool at Anfield on Oct. 14.In Lukaku’s defence, he has already scored against European champions Real Madrid in the Super Cup this season, albeit in a 2-1 defeat.United’s staff say Lukaku genuinely believes he will, one day, become the best striker in the world. But even he has admitted he will have to perform in the Champions League before everyone believes it.”It’s difficult to compare at the moment,” he said. “They have the Champions League platform to show themselves. Those are the top games where I need to show people I belong to them too.”He is set to get his first chance this week.Rob is ESPN FC’s Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.
Champions League group stages: How do the teams match up?
The Champions League group stages begin on Tuesday. Here is a look at all the groups.
Prediction: 1. Man United, 2. Benfica, 3. CSKA Moscow, 4. FC Basel
MAN UNITED (Rob Dawson)
Definition of success: United should be one of the teams looking to win the Champions League, but after missing out in two of the last three years, realistic expectations may be a little lower. Jose Mourinho has built up the strength of their group but United should qualify comfortably. After that, it can become a bit of a lottery and they have a manager who specialises in finding a way to win tight games in Europe, so the signs are good.
Key player: Romelu Lukaku. The one downside to signing the Belgian from Everton is that he has not been tested in the Champions League. If he scores goals then United will do well. His doubters say the 24-year-old struggles to perform in the big games but the Champions League — especially the knockout rounds — offers him a chance to put that right.
Manager’s approach: Mourinho knows what he’s doing in the Champions League. He has got enough attacking players to have a go at teams, but he may be a bit more cautious away from home if they get to the knockout rounds. After winning the competition with Porto and Inter Milan, he will not care if United are not immediately among the favourites this season.
Predicted finish in group: First. Anything less would raise some eyebrows.
BENFICA (Tom Kundert)
Definition of success: In his two seasons in charge, Rui Vitoria has led the Eagles to the quarterfinals and round of 16 stage of the Champions League, as well as winning the league on both occasions, so the bar is set high. That said, the loss of three key players in the summer — Ederson, Victor Lindelof and Nelson Semedo — means another run to the quarterfinals would be an excellent achievement.
Key player: Ljubomir Fejsa. The Serbian holding midfielder has accumulated an incredible nine championship winning medals in nine consecutive seasons in three different countries. Fejsa’s powerful and fantastically consistent performance levels are all the more remarkable given that brittle fitness rarely allows him to play more than four consecutive games.
Manager’s approach: Benfica have bludgeoned modest opponents into submission on a regular basis since Vitoria has been at the helm, but he adopts a more reactive approach in the big matches at home and in Europe. It has led to accusations of an overly conservative game plan, but the results speak for themselves.
Predicted finish: Second. Benfica should target the runners-up spot behind Manchester United.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
CSKA Moscow: After going 43 games without a clean sheet in the Champions League, dating back to 2006, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has finally ended the nightmare and hasn’t conceded a single goal in four qualifying fixtures. But he’ll need to continue that form in the group stage.
FC Basel: Hugely experienced in the tournament, they possess a deep squad and made an intriguing coaching change, promoting the promising former Swiss international Raphael Wicky from the Under-21 team, in April. But it’s a tough ask.
Prediction: 1. PSG, 2. Bayern Munich, 3. Celtic, 4. Anderlecht
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN (Jonathan Johnson)
Definition of success: After the big-money signing of Neymar from Barcelona and the arrival of Kylian Mbappe on loan from Monaco, PSG have never looked better equipped to embark upon a deep Champions League run. Redemption after last year’s failure to reach even the quarterfinals will be the minimum target for coach Unai Emery and his players this season, while a semifinal berth or better will be what the French capital outfit’s Qatari paymasters are demanding. A spot in the last four — for the first time in the Qatari era — will be represent success. It would also illustrate progress on the pitch for the first time in a long while.
Key player: Neymar. Despite the presence of fellow summer signing Mbappe alongside him in attack and Marco Verratti in midfield, there is no doubt that PSG’s key man is now Neymar. Les Parisiens‘ hopes of going beyond the quarterfinals will lie largely with him and the Brazilian superstar appears primed to deliver after finally being handed the keys to his own team after years in Lionel Messi’s shadow with Barca.
Manager’s approach: Emery is likely to continue with the possession-based 4-3-3 formation that he has started this campaign with, which he also favoured for most of last term. However, with so much depth in attack now, the Spaniard can afford to experiment with other systems and perhaps switch to his preferred 4-2-3-1 after his failure to implement it last season because it was undermined by the dressing room. Considering how many seemingly peripheral attacking figures would likely favour this change, it is not unrealistic to think that PSG could start out with a totally different style to the one they will finish with in this year’s continental edition.
Predicted finish: First. PSG fans will remember how notoriously slow Carlo Ancelotti’s teams are to hit their stride, so the Ligue 1 giants will be confident of bettering Bayern Munich and their former Italian tactician over two group stage fixtures.
BAYERN MUNICH (Mark Lovell)
Definition of success: Last season’s quarterfinal exit to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid side proved no disgrace, taking the eventual champions all the way to extra-time in the Bernabeu. However, following the agony of three consecutive semifinal defeats under Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti was hired to improve on the Catalan’s record. He needs to reach the semifinals or his time in Munich might be prematurely cut short.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski. Bayern’s top scorer was sorely missed in the last season’s quarterfinal first leg and was not 100 percent for the return either. Still bereft of a backup striker, Bayern need Lewandowski to stay fit and firing if they are to go deep in the competition. PSG and Bayern will fill the top two group places anyway, leaving Celtic and Anderlecht to battle it out for Europa League glory.
Manager’s approach: Chasing his third win, Ancelotti knows how to get the job done in Europe’s top club competition and he will be especially keen to get one over his former employers at PSG. The Italian’s sides are not as easy on the eye as his predecessor and it has been a tough watch of late with a series of stale performances. Whatever system he employs, 4-3-3 or his favoured 4-2-3-1, if everyone is fit there’s unlikely to be a spot available for the only remaining Bavarian — Thomas Muller.
Predicted finish: Second. Finishing top of the group ahead of PSG would be welcome, but it’s far from a must these days. Real Madrid finished second in their group last season behind Borussia Dortmund and still went on to seal the trophy with plenty in hand.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Celtic: Brendan Rodgers knows his team much better in his second season, and the results a year ago were positive anyway as they went an entire league season unbeaten and drew twice against Manchester City in Europe. If Kieran Tierney and Leigh Griffiths continue to progress, more surprises could be ahead.
Anderlecht: The Belgian champions started the season in disastrous fashion and life without Youri Tielemans (now at Monaco) looks tough, but they still can turn things around.
Prediction: 1. Atletico Madrid, 2. Chelsea, 3. AS Roma, 4. FK Qarabag
ATLETICO MADRID (Joe Walker)
Definition of success: After heartache in two of the last four finals and elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in each of the last four seasons, success could be defined as merely knocking out their city rivals — even if Los Rojiblancos are then immediately dumped out in the next round themselves. However, Diego Simeone has high standards and his definition of success will be one thing: lifting the trophy. Realistically, another semifinal appearance would be significant.
Key player: Saul Niguez. It would be easy to say Antoine Griezmann here, however Saul is perhaps even more important for Atleti than the Frenchman. The top-scoring Spaniard in the competition over the last three years, it is more often than not Saul — rather than Griezmann — is the man that rises to the occasion when Atletico need a hero. He is the driving force of this side from the middle of the park and will be pivotal for years to come.
Manager’s approach: Simeone puts the collective above all. He demands 100 percent from every player and insists on defending from the front. His Atleti are most comfortable without the ball and love to play on the counter, yet have shown themselves to be more than capable when up against a low defensive block as they are likely to encounter with Maribor. He had an impeccable home record at the Vicente Calderon in the Champions League and will be hoping to carry that over to the new Wanda Metropolitano.
Predicted finish: First. While Chelsea and Roma pose significant threats, Simeone and Atleti are old hands at this. They finished top of a group containing Bayern Munich last season and should have enough cunning and nous to do likewise this time round — provided they can turn the Metropolitano into a fortress.
CHELSEA (Liam Twomey)
Definition of success: Chelsea won this competition with a less talented team in 2012, but no one at Stamford Bridge expects such glory this time around — particularly with Real Madrid looking so imperious. Regaining credibility on the elite European stage is the priority, and a solid run to the quarterfinals would do just fine.
Key player: Eden Hazard. With mercurial talisman Diego Costa out of the Champions League squad and seemingly on his way out of the door, Hazard is now Chelsea’s most reliable matchwinner, as well as the team’s most talented player. When it comes to finding a way through top defences, the Belgian is Antonio Conte’s best hope.
Manager’s approach: Conte has gained a reputation for underachievement in the Champions League, but there is no logical reason why that should continue. Chelsea are a well-drilled team with a good balance between defence and attack and in Conte, they have a coach with the knowledge to counteract most types of opponent.
Predicted finish: Second. Chelsea to just slip behind Atletico Madrid in top spot, and it might even come down to goal difference between two similar and evenly-matched teams.
ROMA (Terry Daley)
Definition of success: Just getting out of a very tough group would be a success for a Roma team that is in transition and with a new coach — Eusebio Di Francesco — who is making his managerial Champions League debut. Should his talented team click and finish above either Chelsea or Atletico, they have the players to cause some damage in the knockout stages
Key player: Patrik Schick. With the team settling into a new system its hard to pick out one key man, as neither Roma’s attack nor defence look fully settled. Record signing Schick has been brought in to add flair to a staid forward line and how he fits alongside the in-form Edin Dzeko will be crucial as the group stage unfolds.
Manager’s approach: Di Francesco loves to play attacking, high-pressing football that puts the opposition on the back foot, and if Roma are going to get any joy out the four matches with Chelsea and Atletico, he will have to hope his side adapt quickly to his 4-3-3 system — or adapt his ideas to the players he has.
Predicted finish: Third. Should the teething problems with Di Francesco’s system be overcome there’s no reason why Roma can’t qualify, but as it stands third is most likely.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Qarabag: The Azerbaijani side’s national pride makes them especially motivated, since they can’t play in the city of Agdam, and brilliant coach Gurban Gurbanov (who has been with them since 2008) brings stability and continuity. But they are against much bigger fish.
Prediction: 1. Juventus, 2. Barcelona, 3. Olympiakos, 4. Sporting CP
JUVENTUS: (Mina Rzouki)
Definition of success: After reaching the final twice in three years, Juventus will be expected to win their group and reach the latter stages of the competition, perhaps even finally win it. A side that has long boasted balance and tactical brilliance, Juve have yet to produce a performance worthy of their name in the final, often capitulating at the last hurdle. Only winning the elusive trophy will appease the disheartened fans who dream of success.
Key player: Paulo Dybala. The Argentine’s technique, vision and football IQ has many referring to him as the next Lionel Messi. Few players in the world can make the impact he can and ever since Juventus handed him the No.10 jersey, the player has delighted with his intensity and brilliance, ensuring wins for a side that is yet to recover its fluidity.
Manager’s approach: Having strengthened the attack, Juventus may lose a little balance but will be more effective and efficient going forward. Massimiliano Allegri has always played with a little caution and he’ll be keen to address the defensive problems, but if Juventus are to reach the latter stages, the coach will need to ensure they are as tactically versatile as ever, playing the balanced game required to beat the very best.
Predicted finish: First. Juve will go head-to-head with Barcelona for top spot, but this season they have nothing to fear from the Catalans and should have the edge.
BARCELONA (Sam Marsden)
Definition of success: Despite a general lack of satisfaction with how the transfer window closed and the state of the midfield, only winning the Champions League will be considered a success. In difference to previous seasons, though, a semifinal or final defeat may not be considered the end of the world depending on the circumstances.
Key player: Ousmane Dembele. The warnings not to put too much pressure on Dembele — who at just 20 is the world’s second most expensive player — by comparing him to Neymar are completely fair. However, how quickly he settles into his new life at Camp Nou will play a big part in how Barca’s season unfolds. Hitting the ground running would ease the Messi-dependence.
Manager’s approach: New coach Ernesto Valverde has remained cool during what has been a turbulent summer. On the pitch, he doesn’t quite seem to have found what he’s looking for yet, though. Therefore, the Champions League group stages may be used for tinkering. Messi on the right or through the middle? Another pivot alongside Sergio Busquets? 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
Predicted finish: Second. With so many doubts, Barca will want to prove a point, which they’ll try to make by beating Juventus to top spot.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Olympiakos: The Greek champions lack stability due to frequent coach and squad changes, but the atmosphere at their home stadium is always hostile towards visitors, and one can expect former Chelsea midfielder Marko Marin to shine on the big stage at long last.
Sporting Lisbon: Gelson Martins proved that he is capable of becoming a major star last season, while the Lions managed to keep William Carvalho and made some interesting acquisitions this summer, especially the Argentina international Marcos Acuna.
Prediction: 1. Liverpool, 2. Sevilla, 3. Spartak Moscow, 4. NK Maribor
LIVERPOOL (Glenn Price)
Definition of success: Liverpool are back in the Champions League for only the third time in the last nine seasons. They have failed to get out of the group stages in their last two attempts in the competition, so reaching the knockout rounds is their first achievable aim. The five-time winners should be aiming higher though and, as a club that has an illustrious history in Europe, Liverpool should be eyeing up the quarterfinals.
Key player: Sadio Mane. This will be his first taste of European football with Liverpool, and it provides the Senegal winger with the opportunity to star on the biggest stage of all. Mane is becoming Liverpool’s main man, and his pace and matchwinning ability will be crucial to the Reds’ Champions League campaign.
Manager’s approach: Liverpool have shown they can beat any team on any given day under Jurgen Klopp’s management. Klopp also has pedigree on the European stage, guiding Borussia Dortmund to the Champions League final in 2013 and reaching the Europa League final during his first season at Anfield. His energetic, attacking style of play will be a welcome return to the UCL this season.
Predicted finish: First. Despite tricky trips to Spartak Moscow and Sevilla, this is winnable group, and Liverpool should be looking to secure a first-placed finish.
SEVILLA (Nick Dorrington)
Definition of success: Sevilla were very disappointed with their elimination at the hands of Leicester in last season’s round of 16. They will be aiming to go at least one round further this time after solid investment in their squad over the summer.
Key player: Ever Banega. The midfielder has returned to the south of Spain after a patchy year at Inter Milan and has slotted back in seamlessly at the Sanchez Pizjuan. With his quick feet and incisive passing, he will dictate the rhythm of Sevilla’s play from the centre of midfield.
Manager’s approach: Eduardo Berizzo has been presented as a coach who will continue the style implemented by Jorge Sampaoli last season but there are some key differences. Berizzo prioritises forward momentum over control in possession and favours fixed over situational width in attack. The aggressive press will, however, remain.
Predicted finish: Second. With Spartak Moscow a relatively weak first seed, Sevilla are likely to compete with Liverpool to top the group, and they are certainly capable of doing so.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Spartak Moscow: Having celebrated a sensational title for the first time since 2001, the Russian giants will do their utmost to make a good impression on the big stage, and need Dutch star Quincy Promes to be in sparkling form if they are to stand a chance.
NK Maribor: The Slovenian champions’ main star is director of football Zlatko Zahovic, but while the current squad lacks top quality, they compensate for it with outstanding team spirit and a great atmosphere at the Ljudski Vrt stadium.
Prediction: 1. Man City, 2. Napoli, 3. Feyenoord, 4. Shakhtar Donetsk
MAN CITY (Jonathan Smith)
Definition of success: It’s too early in the Pep Guardiola revolution to put Manchester City among the favourites but they will want to progress beyond last season’s round of 16 finish. A place in the semifinals would constitute success and give a base to build on for a realistic challenge of winning the competition in the years to come.
Key player: David Silva. One of the few players in the squad to have experienced success on the international stage, Silva’s intelligence, creativity and courage to have the ball in difficult situations will be crucial in key matches. He becomes a natural leader on big European nights, driving his teammates forward against top opposition, just as his manager requires.
Manager’s approach: Guardiola won’t change his style; even if City come up against the biggest clubs he is determined to attack. It has it’s drawbacks, as seen in the 4-0 to defeat to Barcelona last season, but when they get it right, they are capable of beating anyone.
Predicted finish: First. It’s not the easiest group but City should be seen as having the most complete squad of the teams in it.
NAPOLI (Ben Gladwell)
Definition of success: Napoli are no longer a team just happy to have qualified for the Champions League, they are intent on becoming one of Europe’s most feared teams. They were close last season against Real, and advancing to the last eight will be considered as a minimum aim. The Serie A side are earning widespread acclaim for their attractive, attacking style of play and are set to win over even more fans this season.
Key player: Dries Mertens. Transformed into a centre forward by Maurizio Sarri, Mertens has ensured Napoli fans don’t miss Gonzalo Higuain. The Belgian playmaker honed his eye for goal in spectacular fashion, scoring 28 times in Serie A last season. The 30-year-old’s trickery and agility make him hard to mark, while Napoli’s three-pronged attack — him, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon — means opposition defenders cannot focus on just one and all three invariably get chances to score.
Manager’s approach: Sarri has formed a fearsome 4-3-3 formation which could almost be regarded as a 4-2-1-3 with Marek Hamsik in support of the front three. Attacking is always the objective and Napoli do this with a fast-paced, one-touch passing game which shares similarities with the Barcelona of the Guardiola era. There is no keeping possession for the sake of it and plenty of purpose to Napoli’s build-up play.
Predicted finish: Second. Manchester City and Napoli can be expected to walk away with Group F, with the main question being which of the two will finish first. The Azzurri can be expected to pick up nine points from their home games — including a win over City — and it may therefore come down to their meeting in Manchester to determine who tops the group. Both are in a different category to Shakhtar Donetsk and Feyenoord.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Feyenoord: The European Cup winners in 1970 consider themselves a top club, and the confidence under brilliant coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst is sky-high following their first title since 1999, even though Dirk Kuyt chose to retire.
Shakhtar Donetsk: They still can’t host home games in Donetsk due to security reasons, but Shakhtar won the double in their first season under the Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca and Darijo Srna, who has been at the club since 2003, is still calling the shots as the captain. They will be tricky.
Prediction: 1. AS Monaco, 2. FC Porto, 3. RB Leipzig, 4. Besiktas
MONACO (Ian Holyman)
Definition of success: Expectations raised by last season’s semifinal run have been tempered by key departures, such as Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Mbappe and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Then again, those players were little known when they arrived in the principality, and Monaco still possess a bona fide matchwinner in Radamel Falcao. All that means anything less than a round of 16 place would be a disappointment.
Key player: Falcao. The striker showed last season his thoroughbred pedigree remains intact despite his ill-fated moves to England. There’s no Mbappe or Silva, but the Colombia international still has a willing and able supporting cast, notably Thomas Lemar. At 31, it will require canny man-management from Leonardo Jardim to ensure he stays fit enough to be on the pitch when it matters most.
Manager’s approach: Jardim’s title-winning team has been shredded, and yet he has still begun the season in characteristic swashbuckling, successful style. In stark contrast to his understated demeanour, Jardim’s team only know one way to play: attack. And there is no reason to change a strategy that keeps on winning.
Predicted finish: First. The group stage draw could have been kinder with RB Leipzig the team no-one wanted in pot four, but Jardim’s men should be classy and experienced enough to finish top.
PORTO (Tom Kundert)
Definition of success: After four trophyless years, a threadbare squad and with zero investment during the summer, this Porto side is a long way from the powerful team that competed with Europe’s finest in the not-too-distant past. Although drawn against clubs of similar standing, staying in the Champions League beyond Christmas would be praiseworthy.
Key player: Oliver Torres. When the creative midfielder is on his game, Porto are difficult to stop. The talented 22-year-old Spaniard allies wonderful vision, a sharp football mind and technical excellence, which allows him to distribute the ball quickly and effectively to keep Porto on the offensive.
Manager’s approach: A fiery, aggressive and fully committed winger for Portugal at the turn of the century, Sergio Conceicao has quickly instilled those very same traits into the club he served with such distinction as a player. In his successful coaching career to date, his teams have played only one way: on the front foot.
Predicted finish: Second. But they could run Monaco close as the French club deals with losing so many players.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Besiktas: Attack-minded coach Senol Gunes is never afraid of anyone and, having led Turkey to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, he is capable of going one better than the group stage exit they managed last season in the Champions League, especially as the Eagles are more experienced now.
RB Leipzig: They finished second in the Bundesliga in their first ever season in the top flight, so the sky is the limit for a team who have managed to keep all their stars, including Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner.
GROUP H – GROUP OF DEATH
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Dortmund, 3. Tottenham, 4. Apoel Nicosia
REAL MADRID (Dermot Corrigan)
Definition of success: As winners in each of the last two seasons, only lifting the trophy again would count as success for Real Madrid. Fans, pundits and players are full of confidence and there has been talk of matching the exploits of the 1950s and 1960s team, which won six European Cups in a decade. A group exit would be a disaster.
Key player: Sergio Ramos. While Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric are also irreplaceable, the season’s opening weeks have suggested skipper Ramos could be the team’s most important player. The squad is light on experienced centre-backs and Ramos’ charismatic leadership is also useful to maintain a focus, which wavered dramatically through the group stages last season.
Manager’s approach: Zinedine Zidane is likely to continue to rotate his squad, giving back up players minutes even before qualification is secured. This has the double effect of keeping stars like Ronaldo fresh for the final stages and shows confidence that youngsters like Marco Asensio can deliver.
Predicted finish: First. Dortmund showed greater consistency to top their group ahead of Madrid last season but you have to think the defending champions would right that wrong.
DORTMUND (Stephan Uersfeld)
Definition of success: Dortmund have been a constant in the knockout stages of Champions League in recent years. Sure, they did not qualify for the competition in 2015-16, but otherwise they have always made it past the group stage regardless of their opponents. A group stage exit would be regarded as nothing but a failure at the Westfalenstadion. Advancing to the quarterfinals appears to be the ceiling.
Key player: Mario Gotze. Having lost Dembele to Barcelona, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang needs a new feeder. United States international Christian Pulisic has shown that he can rise to the occasion, but new coach Peter Bosz will also look for experience which he hopes to find in Gotze. The midfielder is slowly returning to form and will be crucial for Dortmund with his qualities in the final third of the pitch.
Manager’s approach. Bosz has impressed and confused both his side and opponents with a variation of formations and in-game coaching, but the former Ajax boss banks on a high-pressing 4-3-3 formation. Dortmund have looked vulnerable and, at times, wide-open in defence when losing the ball, but have been able to close the gaps in their opening league games so far. Bosz has asked for patience to implement the new style at Champions League level, however, the club’s new system needs to work from the off.
Predicted finish: Second. Dortmund can gain an edge over Tottenham with their home form and finish the group as runners-up.
TOTTENHAM (Dan Kilpatrick)
Definition of success: Qualification would count as a huge success for Spurs, and a win in either game against Real Madrid would be a big statement, helping Mauricio Pochettino’s team to announce themselves in Europe. Even if they go out, competing well with Real and Dortmund could be seen as progress.
Key player: Harry Kane. With Dele Alli suspended for the first three matches, there will be even more pressure on Kane to fire Spurs to qualification. The club were not clinical enough in the Champions League last season and his finishing could be the difference in tight matches.
Manager’s approach: Pochettino is a league manager first and foremost, and he rested players for a must-win group game last season ahead of the visit to Chelsea. Spurs’ post-European league games are all easier this year, but they host Liverpool after visiting Real, so don’t be surprised if Pochettino rests players at the Bernabeu. In general, he never alters his approach based on the opposition, however.
Predicted finish: Third. The games against Dortmund, particularly at home, will be key but Real and the Germans should have too much quality and experience for Spurs.
– Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
APOEL: They reached the quarterfinals in the 2011-12 season, and know that another sensation is not out of question for a multinational squad which showed great form and spirit in the qualifiers.
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