Another season and another galactical battle for club football’s most coveted prize is at the threshold. Notwithstanding its fierce demands, the competition has been a monopoly of three-time defending Champions Real Madrid in recent years. If you include Barcelona and Athletico Madrid, Spanish teams have dominated the entire European scene for the last decade. Spain has the last 5 titles with Bayern Munich being the last non-Spanish winner in 2013. So the rest of Europe has a lot to prove if we are to see a change at the very top of the European football ladder.
There have been changes for this season allocating half of the group stage spots to the top four sides in the top four leagues (as per rankings): Spain, England, Germany and Italy. This year Atletico Madrid will be the host for the final on June 1, 2019, at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
With best teams across the continent to pit against each other, the competitive fire was kindled by the draw for the group stages on Thursday. Here is the breakdown of the eight competing groups:
Group A: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Club Brugge
German club Dortmund will lock horns with Europa League winners, Atletico Madrid in Group A. The two will not be wary of a dangerous Monaco. The group wraps up with Belgian side Club Brugge. Diego Godin and Co. will be hoping for a romantic final date at their home ground come next May.
Dortmund and Madrid should move onto the round of 16 if they can avoid complacency and a serious bout of stage fright. Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco have the likes of Falcao and Golovin to hurt them if they do. Club Brugge will be hoping for some fairytale finishes of their own too.
Group B: Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan
Barcelona start as favourites in what is being dubbed as the ‘group of stadia’. English side Tottenham Hotspurs, Italian giants Inter Milan and reigning Dutch league champions and 1988 European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven close out the group. The group will also bring to the screen four of the grandest football stadiums in Europe. That is if Tottenham is still playing in the Wembley stadium by the time group stages roll into London.
Tottenham last faced Inter Milan in the 2010-11 group stage when certain Gareth Bale lit up San Siro with a stunning hattrick with Spurs losing 4-3 but after going 3-0 down. Inter have not been in the competition since having failed to qualify for seven seasons before the last one.
Group C: Paris St-Germain, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star Belgrade
Last season’s beaten finalists Liverpool have the ‘grpup of death’ to look forward to. Paris Saint-Germain of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe will provide the toughest challenge as Napoli will bring their own bag of tricks. 1991 European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade are the fourth ball in the Group C pot.
Two German coaches, Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) and his protégé at Borussia Dortmund Thomas Tuchel( PSG) will provide football’s version of the ‘master vs apprentice’. Carlo Ancelotti, who succeeded Chelsea-bound Maurizio Sarri at will also return to his old haunts at PSG. He won the French Ligue 1 with PSG in 2013.
Intriguingly, Liverpool last met Red Star Belgrade in 1973-74 the European Cup, losing both home and away. The Kopites will be not be hoping for an encore 45 years later.
Group D: Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray
Bundesliga runners-up Schalke, appearing in the competition after a hiatus of 4 years, will be the odd side in the ‘group of champions’. Russian champions Lokomotiv Moscow, Portuguese champions Porto and Turkish champions Galatasaray could make the group the most unpredictable group to call.
This group will also ensure that there will be some diverse competition in the knockout rounds and maybe a few upsets in the offing.
Group E: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens
German champions Bayern Munich are the favourites to romp away in Group E. On paper the groups brings a lot of history and past glories with European giants like Benfica and Ajax. But football is not played on paper. Greek side AEK Athens round up the group.
Bayern Munich saw a renaissance in their European fortunes at the start of the decade and would be hoping to break the Spanish dominance over the top prize. Benfica and Ajax will try to get their European resurrection kick started too.
Group F: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim
Premier League champions Manchester City are in Group F with French club Lyon, competition debutants Hoffenheim and Shakhtar Donetsk, who they meet in consecutive years.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola will have fond memories of defeating Lyon with Barcelona in the knockout round in 2008-09. The side went on to win the first of their two Champions League finals against Manchester United.
The luck of the draw has seldom been with City in their relatively young history in the competition but with an easy draw this time, Pep Guardiola will be aiming to make light work of the group stages. The club will be hopeful of bringing their maiden Champions League trophy to the Etihad. Last year, they were put to the sword by Liverpool in the quarters as they were handed a 5-1 on aggregate loss.
Historically, Group F, which has produced 40% the last 15 Champions League Champions since 2003-04.
Group G: Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen
3-time defending champions Real Madrid are in Group G with Italian side Roma, Russian perennials CSKA Moscow and Czech club Viktoria Plzen.
Madrid will have greater scrutiny on them this year as they go for the summit for a fourth consecutive title as their talismanic goalscorer Cristiano has left for pastures anew in Italy. They already have a 5year-consecutive streak, the very first five European Cups in the 50s with De Stefano and Puskas enthralling the Bernabeu.
Interestingly, Group G is the only group not to have produced a single winner in the last 15 seasons.
Group H: Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys
Old Trafford will save a reunion date with Cristiano Ronaldo, as reigning seven time-Serie A champions Juventus were drawn with Manchester United. The two sides share a history of iconic matches in the competition with the 1999 semifinals as the standout. Valencia and Young Boys are the other teams in Group H. The two stalwarts will be wary of Valencia, with their return to the group stage after three years.
Cristiano Ronaldo spent six years at United, winning the Champions League in 2008. He, of course, went on to win 3 more titles with Real Madrid as United have since been part of two losing finals. He scored in his last return to United when he gate-crashed the Old Trafford party, with Mourinho, in March 2013. The night saw the infamous and ridiculous red card given to Luis Nani of Manchester United. United midfielder Paul Pogba also gets a return to Juventus, where he won four consecutive Seria A titles.
José Mourinho will not be looking for his former star and compatriot to cause a further blow to his rocking boat at United. The two have a history of rancour and heartburn.
Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum hosted the draw followed by the ritualistic UEFA awards. This year, Luka Modric went home with the overall men's Player of the Year and the best midfielder trophies. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Keylor Navas made it a clean sweep for the Madrid club with best forward, defender and goalkeeper accolades.
David Beckham was inducted in hallowed company of Bobby Robson, Bobby Charlton, Eusébio and Johan Cruyff, by receiving the President’s award for his tremendous work for child welfare with UNICEF. Pernille Harder of Wolfsburg and Denmark won the 2017/18 UEFA Women's Player of the Year after coming in second last year.
On the occasion, UEFA tautologically reiterated that a third club cup competition, apart from the Champions League and Europa League, is definitely happening as they are “looking at a variety of options in this respect.”
Attending Moha Salah had to be content with a conciliatory pat on the shoulder from Ramos! Cristiano, seemingly prescient, gave the ceremony a miss. His agent, Jorge Mendes, tweeted that his client did not need an award as he won it on the pitch!
That is Champions League pandemonium for you and fans are already licking their lips. The actions start on 18 September, with Real Madrid v AS Roma and Liverpool v PSG among the matchday one clobber knockers.Published 01 Sep 2018, 02:25 IST