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UEFA Champions League 2018/19: Bold Predictions for the Group Stages

Andy Mukolo
ANALYST
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621   //    01 Sep 2018, 02:45 IST

Liverpool v S.S.C Napoli - Pre Season Friendly
Napoli boss Carlo Ancelotti is one of the most successful managers in Champions League history.

Chief among the reasons Russia 2018 will go down as the best FIFA World Cup tournament in recent years isn't far-fetched - a very large percentage of our predictions went in an entirely opposite direction from the cold hard reality that unfolded in the host country.

While the likes of Croatia, Belgium, England and Team Russia lifted themselves beyond expectations, The Trident of Germany, Spain and Argentina fell horribly short and are probably still recovering from the shock.

FIFA World Cups are FIFA World Cups, and the UEFA Champions League is the UEFA Champions League, but perhaps, the Gods of the beautiful game will be kind enough to give us a Champions League version of the Russia 2018 thriller?

The 2018/19 Champions League group stage draw witnessed the return of Inter Milan, Valencia, Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray as well as Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, tournament regulars who have traced their way back to the big stage.

Group A, B, C and H are the groups to watch. The stakes are very high. There'll be a lot of competition and bloodshed for first, second and even third spot, but the other groups are in it too and could end up producing the team that eventually triumphs in Wanda Metropolitano come May 2019.

Don't rule out anything, the spirit of Russia 2018 is still upon us, and perhaps, we could be witnessing a repeat of the 2003/04 edition when FC Porto left us all dumbfounded.

So, with eyes closed, fingers crossed and no strings attached, we take a look at the badges and colours we could be seeing in the knock-out stages if things go south en route Atletico Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano.

Group A

Borussia Dortmund v Benfica - International Champions Cup 2018
Christian Pulisic will be key to BVB's Champions League hopes this season.

I see what you're thinking, even a 10-year-old on the streets of Madrid sees it too. Atletico Madrid tops the group while Borussia Dortmund and AS Monaco slug it out for second-place. Besides, the UEFA Super Cup winners have the honours of hosting this year's final and are believed to be one of the favourites this season.

On paper, it does seem a naturally logical conclusion, but alternatively, it's possible that Atletico Madrid crashes out of the group stages for the second successive season, leaving AS Monaco as group winners and Borussia Dortmund following closely behind.

You can't change the past, but you can learn from it. Football has given us enough twists to help us understand things won't always go as expected.

B is For Death

FC Internazionale v Torino FC - Serie A
Mauro Icardi will be making his Champions League debut with Inter. Expect the unexpected.

By unanimous decision, this is the undisputed group of death. But it's still unclear who's dying and who's making it to the next round.

Barcelona vs Inter Milan, Barcelona vs Tottenham, Inter Milan vs Tottenham. Nothing but goosebumps. Camp Nou, San Siro and Wembley will be home to some of the most eagerly anticipated Champions League group stage fixtures this season, but it is the group standing after these tantalizing fixtures that will be the cherry on the cake.

Luciano Spalletti's side may look like they're not ready for Champions League football, but therein lies the element of surprise that could shake up Group B.

Following AS Roma's historic comeback against Barcelona last season, some of us are beginning to believe the real surprise will be Barcelona finishing third and joining the likes of Chelsea and AC Milan in the Europa League.

This is in no way inspired by one of Nostradamus's prophecies, but as Serie A makes it return to the top, Inter Milan can top the group in a remarkable twist of fortunes, with Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham finishing second, just above Barcelona.

Besides, the last time Tottenham faced Spanish opposition in the Champions League, they triumphed 3-1 at Wembley, against REAL MADRID.

Group C

Liverpool v S.S.C Napoli - Pre Season Friendly
Carlo Ancelotti could be rolling back the glory years as S.S.C Napoli boss

Is it mere coincidence that PSG, Napoli, Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade are locked in a closet in the same neighbourhood as the group of death?

Random? Natural design?

Under Maurizio Sarri, Napoli came closest to ending Juve's domestic monopoly. The Partenopei have regained their world-class status and perhaps, through Carlo Ancelotti's guidance, can become the dark horses of the 2018/19 Champions League campaign.

Gianluigi Buffon will be joining forces with Neymar in what could be his last shot at winning Europe's most coveted trophy. Les Parisiens were disappointing against Real Madrid last season, but as they look to dream again under Thomas Tuchel, it is the acid test of outclassing Liverpool and Napoli that will give them sleepless nights as the season unfolds.

Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool had quite the campaign last season. But truth be told, they had it easy in the Group stages. As the Merseyside Red attempt to continue their upward trajectory in the Klopp era, they will have it at the back of their minds that PSG and Napoli won't be as easy as Sevilla, Spartak Moscow or Maribor.

Verdict:

Napoli and Liverpool go through. PSG finish third and settle for Europa League football. Maribor will just be Maribor, but perhaps, the Gods will use the Slovenians as a banana skin causing a few upsets here and there? We'll see.

Group G, G is For Giallorossi

AS Roma v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg
AS Roma were the dark horses last season

Roma topped last season's group of death. The Giallorossi finished top a class that had Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, and their remarkable group stage performance set the tone for a memorable campaign that took us all by surprise.

Real Madrid need no introduction, they remain strong favourites. But post-Ronaldo, post-Zidane, it's unclear how Los Merengues will carry on without key components of their revered European puzzle.

Julen Lopetegui didn't get the opportunity to prove himself with the Spain National team, but with Real Madrid, the Asteasu-born tactician has a real chance to leave a footprint on the sands of European football.

Verdict:

Eusebio di Francesco's AS Roma finish as group winners. Real Madrid finishes second, while CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen battle for Europa League spot.

Group H

Juventus v SS Lazio - Serie A
Cristiano Ronaldo has become synonymous with the UEFA Champions League.

It's going to be a homecoming group stage for Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba, and whether or not both players will be the lucky charm for Juventus and Manchester United remains to be seen.

The season has barely started, but Manchester United's early struggles suggest Jose Mourinho's third season implosion is hovering over the Theatre of Dreams. Either United get their sh*t together and rise above or everyone sinks and drowns with the Portuguese.

Juventus have come closest to ending the Real Madrid/Barcelona Champions League duopoly. Two heartbreaking finals in three seasons is a five-dimensional illustration of jinx, but now the Bianconeri have Cristiano Ronaldo in their corner, a man whose name is synonymous with the competition.

Don't sleep on Valencia though. The La Liga outfit is another side that could emerge from the group stages as dark horses.

At the end of the day, Juventus should easily top Group H, but Manchester United may have to compete for second-place with a resurgent Valencia.

Elsewhere, logic suggests FC Porto and Galatasaray, Bayern and Benfica, Manchester City and Hoffenheim will take top spots in Group D, E and F respectively, but then, we neutrals are always open to surprises.

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Andy Mukolo
ANALYST
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