Champions League Group H Analysis: Ajax, Chelsea, Valencia, Lille
With Chelsea, Valencia, Ajax, and Lille, Group H is stacked with sides that have immense attacking units but can be questioned at the back. Not many things are accurately predictable before a ball has been kicked, but expect plenty of entertaining fixtures from this group.
A couple of these sides have never faced each other so it'll be a group of firsts as well. Lille have never faced Chelsea or Ajax, and the English and Dutch sides have never met in competitive games.
This may be one of the most exciting groups in the Champions League this season, and difficult to predict. All sides more or less have an equal shot of progressing out of this group.
4-time Champions League/European Cup winners (1971, 1972, 1973, 1995).
They won the league last season and made it to the semi-finals in the Champions League as well. They were famously thwarted by Lucas Moura after being on the brink of the Champions League finals. Despite having lost two players who were at the heart of this team in Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, Erik ten Hag will be confident of qualification from the group.
Player to Watch: Dusan Tadic
Champions League Winners in 2012.
Chelsea finished third in the league and won the Europa League last season under Maurizio Sarri. This season they have made an imperfect, yet exciting start. They lost their talisman for so many seasons, Eden Hazard, in the summer and have had to deal with a transfer ban imposed upon them as well. Another icon for them Frank Lampard now sits in the dugout and his side has displayed an attacking fervour and frailty at the back that could cost them.
Player to Watch: Mason Mount
Two-time European Cup finalists (2000, 2001).
Valencia are perhaps the most volatile side in this group. They won the Copa Del Rey last season, their first trophy since 2008. They also made it to the semi-finals of the Europa League but succumbed to Unai Emery's Arsenal. However, they achieved all of this under their previous boss Marcelino, whose Valencia exit is steeped in controversy at the moment. Albert Celades who has taken over began his campaign with a 5-2 loss at the Nou Camp to Barcelona.
Player to Watch: Rodrigo
Champions League Round of 16 in 2007.
Christophe Galtier has put together a unit at Lille that finished second in Ligue 1 last season. Having let go of Nicolas Pepe in the summer, they have brought in plenty of able replacements, but their indiscipline at the start of this season has cost them a couple of results which mean they're fifth in the table after 5 games but only off the top by 3 points.
Player to Watch: Jonathan Ikone
Looking at the league starts for all four of the teams involved, Valencia have had the worst start to their campaign. Their boss Marcelino was sacked after the first three games that saw them get four points; which was arguably a bit of an overreaction. Marcelino has since said that he was let go as punishment for winning the Copa Del Rey last season, despite being dissuaded from doing so by the club management.
Whatever the reason may be, the club will go on. But Celades may take a while to get the kind of football from these players that Marcelino managed to inspire last season. it's still a good group of players who fought hard against Barcelona over the weekend and will do so again when they face Chelsea midweek. Over the course of the next few months though, they may not be able to sustain a challenge for the top two spots.
Despite the 4-0 mauling by Manchester United at the start of the season, Chelsea have recovered well. They're forming an attack that's keen and direct. With Callum Hudson-Odoi on the mend and in contention for Chelsea once again, they may be an even bigger attacking threat. The problem area for them is the defence. With N'Golo Kante still on the treatment table, the midfield struggles in defensive transition leaving the back four exposed. Given the attacking threat of their three opponents in the group, Chelsea are going to have to outscore everyone to make it past the group stages.
The favourites to make it out of the group in many other seasons may have been Chelsea, but Ajax must be the top dogs this season. Their performance in last season's Champions League aside, they have found excellent replacements to their departed players in Lisandro Martinez and Razvan Marin. Although the midfield still has it's chinks, we can fully prepare to see the similar sight of flowing attacks from Ajax regardless of their opponents.
Lille will be expected to finish bottom of this group, perhaps rightly so. They may do so in the end but Gaultier's side will not go down without a fight. The final result will be a close fought one and Lille can be expected to scalp some big results in this group.
Granted that Valencia's weekend 5-2 drubbing was at the hands of an extremely talented Barcelona side, but their managerial change came at the wrong time for them. The players who were elated to be working with Marcelino will continue to give it their all under Celades as well, but they're well-matched in Chelsea, Ajax, and Lille.
The Dutch Champions are the most settled side of the four and can be expected to have a good campaign this season as well. Chelsea are the most likely to join them in the next round as they have enough in the tank with young players and many of the older ones now returning from injury to boost the squad. The primary concern for the Londoners will be the health of N'Golo Kante, who can make all the difference for this side when he's back to full fitness.
Lille will surprise many this campaign, perhaps, not in terms of making the Champions League knockout phase, but they may clinch the Europa League spot. Valencia missing out on third place may be a big call, but with their dip in form and Lille on the up, it could be a very likely outcome.
Top spot: Ajax
Europa League place: Lille