The second half of the Champions League group stage kicks off tomorrow as clubs fight to keep their dreams of lifting the trophy alive…
It only seems a moment ago that Bayern Munich ended the longest season in history by beating Paris Saint-Germain in an empty Estadio du Luz in Lisbon and won their sixth Champions League title. There had actually already been two rounds of qualifying for the current tournament by the time the Bundesliga side lifted the famous trophy. But now the group stages have been decided for this season – and the real excitement begins all over again.
The bookmakers fancy Bayern to repeat last year’s triumph and become only the second club in the last 30 years to win back-to-back titles. Or will it finally be the year of Pep Guardiola and Manchester City – or can PSG go one better and win the competition that its wealthy owners cherish above all others?
There is a long way to go before a clear favourite emerges – and the twists and turns of the season will throw up more than one surprise along the way – but now we know the way the groups line up we have a little more of an idea of how things might go.
As in most years, the big clubs look likely to progress to the Round of 16. This may be the elite competition for European clubs but there is still a definite hierarchy when it comes to the Champions League. It is clear to see in most of the groups who will finish in the top two – but the final positions are crucial to who plays who in the knockout rounds.
Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Liverpool should win their groups without too much trouble. But with the other four groups looking like a fight between two very good teams, there could be some very interesting last 16 ties between some very big names.
The biggest battle looks to be in Group G, where Juventus and Barcelona should finish first and second. But whoever ends as the runner up can look forward to facing a side of the calibre of Bayern or Real Madrid in the next round. With the off-field problems continuing at Camp Nou, the Serie A side will probably feel like this is the year to face Barcelona. The prospect of a Barca vs. Man City clash in the Round of 16 is certainly enticing.
Elsewhere Paris Saint-Germain will play Manchester United once again and will be looking to finish top of a group that also contains RB Leipzig and relative minnows Istanbul Basaksehir. Mbappe, Neymar and the rest swept aside Real Madrid at the group stage last season and finally put their knock out round hoodoo behind them as they nearly went all the way. A similar start to this campaign could have the same effect this season.
Although all teams at this level should be considered to be some of the biggest in the world, it has been 16 years since one of the ‘smaller’ sides managed to defeat the cream of Europe and lift the trophy. Jose Mourinho’s Porto beat Monaco in the final that year and it is has looked unlikely that a club in what could be considered the second tier of teams could go on and win the Champions League in the majority of the seasons since.
But Atalanta proved last year – both domestically and in this tournament – that a well-thought out tactical system can go a very long way. The Italian club finished second in their group and then beat Valencia before losing out right at the end of their match with PSG in the quarter-finals. Could such a team do better this season?
The Bergamo club might be the best bet to repeat its own success from last season. Grouped with Liverpool, Ajax and Midtjylland, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side could conceivably qualify for the Round of 16 behind the Premier League champions, and would be a tough opponent for any of the big boys in the knock out stage. Their attacking style of play was used to great effect last season and the goals haven’t stopped in the early weeks of the Serie A season.
Another relatively smaller club that will be looking to do well in the group stage is Sevilla. The Spanish side won the Europa League for an unprecedented sixth time last season and have brought in an interesting group of players to bolster the squad ahead of this Champions League campaign. With Chelsea the biggest hurdle in finishing top of the group, the Spanish club will be hoping to use the first six games as a springboard to further success.
Over the last few years we have seen some real shocks and surprises in the Champions League. An incredibly exciting young Ajax side went all the way to the semi-finals in 2019 after dumping Real Madrid and Juventus out of the competition. Lyon repeated that feat last season, managing to embarrass Juventus again before knocking out Manchester City. Both those sides benefitted from relatively straightforward groups, so who looks like a candidate to be the dark horse this season?
Atletico Madrid and RB Leipzig both look a good bet to progress to the round of 16 but Borussia Dortmund might be the ones to keep a close eye on. The Bundesliga club pushed its way past Inter last season to finish second behind Barcelona but then came up against a Paris Saint-Germain team that were desperate to live up to their potential.
With Erling Haaland scoring goals like they are going out of fashion, the Bundesliga representatives must be fancied to do well against Zenit St Petersburg, Lazio and Club Brugge. There is a very real possibility that Dortmund could finish top of that group and with the attacking flair of Jadon Sancho, Giovanni Reyna and Julian Brandt to assist the towering Norwegian, there is no reason why this team should not be confident of a good run in the competition this season.
The Champions League history books tell us that it will be one of the super clubs that makes off with the grand prize once again, of course. It would hardly be a surprise if one of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid adds to their ever-expanding honours list. But this is the stage of the season when all 32 remaining clubs can dream of glory and lifting the Champions League trophy at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul in May next year. Fans across the world can also now get ready to enjoy six months of world-class football to find out just who does end up with the cup.
Five must-see matches
The 2020-21 Champions League group stage could be one of the best ever. Dan Roberts picks out five matches not to be missed…
Inter vs. Real Madrid, November 25
One of two heavyweight Serie A vs. La Liga fixtures in the group stage, 2010 winners Inter and 13-time champions Real Madrid are playing for first place in Group B. This second leg of a double-header will be one of the leading nights of the group phase.
Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain, December 2
Arguably the most impressive moment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure as Manchester United manager came in the comeback win over Paris Saint-Germain in the 2019-20 Champions League. The Norwegian is perennially under pressure as results fluctuate – could this tie be another landmark victory for the beleaguered boss?
Barcelona vs. Juventus, December 8
When the draw was made Group G took most of the attention as it brought together two of the most celebrated clubs in European football in Barcelona and Juventus. This is the final game of the group stage and the result could be crucial for both clubs’ chances this season.
RB Leipzig vs. Manchester United, December 8
This is another final game in the group stage – but it could be a winner takes all clash that sees one of these two dropping into the Europa League. PSG will be the favourites in this group, so this could be a real decider.
Ajax vs. Atalanta, December 9
Atalanta became everyone’s second favourite team last season as their free flowing, attacking style of football brought plenty of goals. Hopefully there will be more of the same this year – and this potentially decisive fixture could be one of the best of the lot.
By Dan Roberts