The draw for the Champions League group stage is always a slightly weird event. On the one hand, it’s a draw for a major football tournament, and beyond the pomposity, there is never not a sense of anticipation–and perhaps especially this season after the delayed and curtailed conclusion to last season’s competition.
Here, laid out before us, in the glass bowls and the plastic spheres, as UEFA bureaucrats mingle with well-turned out former stars, are the working of the fates, every unscrewing and carefully intoned name pregnant with delicious possibility. And on the other hand, there’s the knowledge that, even after the rejigging of the seeding to favor champions over just the biggest teams, this is all just the prelude to 96 games that will almost certainly just lead to the richest two sides in each group going through to the last 16 when the real business begins.
That said, the compressed calendar may add an element of randomness. The winner, almost certainly will be from one of Europe’s big four leagues, unless Paris Saint-Germain suddenly starts living up to the salaries it pays, but in such unusual times perhaps one of the giants will falter. And besides, after the failure of a Spanish side to reach the semifinals last season for the first time since 2007, it’s possible that the power relationship is shifting, and that the age of La Liga domination is coming to an end.
Here’s a closer look at the draw for the 2020-21 group stage and picks for the top two teams that will advance to the knockout rounds:
Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg, Lokomotiv Moscow
The defending champion, Bayern, faces Atletico Madrid, the side that eliminated the Germans from the Champions League in the semifinals in 2016, but far more relevant than the second team in the group is the third, and Bayern will be relatively content with its draw.
Bayern last season became the first team to lift the Champions League by winning every single game, which even in the curtailed format was a remarkable achievement. Its high line makes it seem vulnerable, but no side had really exposed Bayern until last weekend, when Hoffenheim won, 4-1, to end a 32-game unbeaten run and raise doubts about the depth of Bayern’s squad.
But this remains a profoundly gifted attacking side. A year on from its major splurge, Atletico should be more coherent this season and Luis Suarez, diminished as he has looked in the past year or two at Barcelona, adds edge to its attack.
Having finally reached the Champions League group stage for the first time under Red Bull’s ownership last season, Salzburg impressed under the hard-pressing American coach Jesse Marsch, scoring 16 goals in the group stage. It has notably lost Erling Haaland, Takumi Minamino and Hwang Hee-chan since then, though. The group is completed by last season’s Russian runner-up, Lokomotiv Moscow, which has sold forward Aleksei Miranchuk to Atalanta.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach
Winning these days is one of those things that Real Madrid just does. It rarely seems to have to play well or go through any of the usual processes to get there. Zinedine Zidane’s reign has been undeniably successful, but the football has tended to be solid rather than spectacular, and Madrid was badly exposed by Manchester City’s pressing in the last 16 last season. That could make this group a little trickier than it might have liked, given the three other sides are all pressing teams.
Antonio Conte’s Inter, which has scored nine and conceded five in winning its opening two league games of the season, has added Achraf Hakimi, Aleksandar Kolarov and Arturo Vidal to the side that lost in the Europa League final last season. It beat Shakhtar Donetsk in the semifinals, and the Ukrainian champion seems to have taken the defeat rather hard. It has struggled at the start of this domestic season, in which it finds itself seriously challenged for the first time in four years.
Marco Rose’s Borussia Mönchengladbach took fourth place in the Bundesliga last season, but it has won neither of its opening fixtures this season.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Inter Milan, Real Madrid
Porto, Manchester City, Olympiakos, Marseille
Sheikh Mansour’s (footballing) aim when he transformed Manchester City into Barcelona By The Irwell was to win the Champions League. By the time of the final in Istanbul next year, it will have been 10 years since Pep Guardiola last won it. There are major questions now about whether he is any longer at the forefront of counterpressing, or whether his methods have been surpassed by Jurgen Klopp and the German school. This season has begun as the last one ended, with City’s vulnerability to players able to run in behind the back four being brutally exposed. This group, though, should hold few terrors.
The sole remaining Portuguese representative, Porto, has, so far, not had its squad ravaged by sales, although it’s possible some players, most notably left back Alex Telles, may go by the time the window shuts.
OlympiaKos, which last season won back the Greek title after a two-year hiatus, and Andre Villas-Boas’s improving Marseille make up the quartet.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Manchester City, Porto
Liverpool, Ajax, Atalanta, Midtyjlland
Had Liverpool not won the Premier League title last season to end a 30-year wait, a lot more would probably have been made of a Champions League exit that, frankly, remains baffling. It was weirdly lethargic at Atletico Madrid, which exposed it to the sort of freakish defeat it then suffered in the second leg. But none of that changes the fact that Liverpool is a brilliant team playing very near the top of its game.
It has played Ajax only once before in major competition: when Rinus Michels’s side eliminated Bill Shankly’s side in 1966-67 after a famous 5-1 win on the Amsterdam fog. A repeat is unlikely. This is not the Ajax that reached the semifinal two years ago, Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and Sergiño Dest having joined the exodus. A greater threat may be Atalanta, which has survived relatively unscathed after reaching the quarterfinals last season, with the sale of fullback Timothy Castagne to Leicester the only major departure.
The minnow is the Danish champion Midtjylland, which qualified with a remarkable late comeback in its playoff against Slavia Prague.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Liverpool, Atalanta
Sevilla, Chelsea, Krasnodar, Rennes
After a spending spree of more than $250 million, there will be expectations on Chelsea, but the raft of new signings are still bedding in, and there’s been little evidence yet that any of the defensive issues that so dogged them last season have been resolved. But this is just about as kind a group as Frank Lampard could have hoped for.
Sevilla finished fourth in Spain last season but owes its place in Pot One to yet another Europa League title, its sixth in 15 years. Ever Banega and Sergio Rico have both left, replaced by Ivan Rakitic and Yassine Boundou. Under Julen Lopetegui, it is certainly organized and capable of upsetting wealthier opponents, but it comes under the category of awkward rather than daunting.
Rennes may be the second-lowest ranked side remaining, but it finished third in France last year and currently leads Ligue 1. Krasnodar, third in Russia last season, beat PAOK in a playoff to reach the group stage for the first time.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Chelsea, Sevilla
Zenit Saint Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio, Club Brugge
Group F may be the most even, even if Borussia Dortmund will be a clear favorite to progress. Lucien Favre’s side remains what it was last season: young, vibrant and fun to watch, committed to an attacking approach that makes them a danger to everybody–including themselves.
Under its former midfielder, Sergei Semak, Zenit retained the Russian title in convincing fashion last season and sits level on points at the top of the table again this season, driven by the strike tandem of Russian veteran Artem Dzyuba and Iran international Sardar Azmoun.
Lazio, which started last season in Serie A so well before faltering after lockdown to finish fourth, was hammered by Atalanta last weekend but could be a threat if it can rediscover last season’s form, while Belgian champion Club Brugge gave some indication of its capacity with a draw at Real Madrid last season.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Dortmund, Zenit
Juventus, Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev, Ferencvaros
The headliner is the meeting of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two most decorated scorers in the history of the competition and the two individual icons whose success has constantly been measured against one another. Juventus was drawn with Barcelona in a repeat of the 2015 final, won by Barça, and a rematch of the 2017 quarterfinal, won by Juventus. This, though, feels like another age.
Apparently bored of perpetually winning Serie A and desperate for European success, Juventus last year replaced Max Allegri with Maurizio Sarri. A year on, the desperate tossing of the dice in the hope of something better has seen Andrea Pirlo appointed as coach, despite his complete lack of appropriate experience. Nobody has a clue how it will play out.
Nobody, meanwhile, is quite sure what to expect from Barcelona this season, as it begins a much-needed transition under Ronald Koeman. Its signing of Dest means the potential for a showdown between U.S. internationals: Dest vs. Juve’s Weston McKennie.
Neither giant will feel entirely confident of progression given the presence in the group of a resurgent Dynamo Kiev. Its position as the highest-ranked side in Pot Three may owe more to historical record than recent performance, but it has a new lease on life under the veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu and it beat both AZ Alkmaar and Gent impressively to reach this stage.
Hungarian champion Ferencvaros, the lowest ranked side left in the competition, completes the group.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: Barcelona, Juventus
PSG, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Istanbul Basaksehir
Group H is by some margin the most immediately intriguing group–a Group of Death if there is one–featuring two of last season’s semifinalists, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig, as well as the third-wealthiest club in the world by revenue.
Last season, PSG came closer finally to winning the Champions League than ever before but already that achievement is fading, with a recognition that its draw was very kind. Defeats in the opening two league games of the season amid some key absences probably won’t prevent PSG winning the French title, but they have again highlighted the flaws and oddities of the club.
Leipzig, meanwhile, surely won’t be as passive against PSG as it was in that semifinal, when the occasion seemed to get to a side unaccustomed to the heights at which it stood. Leipzig has lost Timo Werner to Chelsea, but it has added attacking reinforcements in the form of Alexander Sorloth and Hwang.
United would have hoped for a more straightforward draw. A stuttering start to the season has reawakened all the old doubts. Maybe it wasn’t so easy as just bringing in Bruno Fernandes after all. That said, United eliminated PSG in the last 16 the season before last, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tends to be at his most effective as a coach when he can set his side up to sit deep and counter.
Istanbul Basaksehir, a side with recognizable veterans such as Rafael, Demba Ba and Martin Skrtel, won its first Turkish title last season, but is without a point in three games in the new campaign.
PICKS TO GO THROUGH: PSG, Leipzig
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