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Save for the World Cup, the UEFA Champions League is the marquee event of the footballing world. It captures the attention of millions, becomes the talking point for so many, an object of pride, an immediate draw because of its status as European football’s fattest cash cow. There is always a certain buzz around the UCL, beginning right with the group stages — a place for Europe’s brightest talents to put themselves up in the shop window, and for the continent’s largest clubs to undertake the gruelling yet immensely glamorous task of trying to obtain the big-eared trophy which cements its stewards as the temporary kings of the club game.
Only a couple months removed from the mini-tournament held in Lisbon in August, the draw for the group stages took place on October 1, and The Edict’s Sports Team presents a quick low-down of what watchers can expect from the curtain-raiser of what promises to be another season of iconic moments and extraordinary humiliations at the hands of Bayern Munich.
Group A: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, FC Salzburg, Lokomotiv Moskow
Defending champions and treble winners, Bayern Munich have been drafted into a fairly comfortable group. The German outfit should top the group comfortably with Atletico Madrid qualifying alongside. The scope for an upset seems slim with the likes of Salzburg and Moskow not strengthening, but have rather lost key players. Salzburg, who exceeded expectations because of the likes of Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino last season, are without both players along with other stars. Lokomotiv have failed to make notable signings and have in fact lost the better Miranchuk brother. Atletico’s deadline day loss of Thomas Partey could hurt them this season, although Lucas Torreira might prove to be a nifty replacement. It will be exciting to see the best strikers of the last decade go head to head as well.
Group B: Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach
Real Madrid are always favourites to win this competition, and after last year’s upset, they would be looking to right their wrongs. Eden Hazard’s fitness would be crucial if they are to go all the way this year, but they should top the group regardless. Europa runners up, Inter Milan should also qualify to the second round for the first time since 2012 after forming an impressive squad under Conte. It will be interesting if the inventive Marco Rose can pip Shakhtar who reached the Europa Semifinals last season, for a third-place finish or even creep into the top 2. This group looks really unpredictable and boasts some exciting matchups.
Group C: Manchester City, FC Porto, Olympiakos, Olympique Marseille
As has been the trend in recent seasons, Manchester City have been handed a comfortable draw; it would certainly take something special to prevent a finish at the top. What would be interesting in this group is the competition for the second spot. Olympiakos attained new highs after knocking Arsenal out from the Europa League. Porto who seem to be favourites to finish second, have confirmed some exciting loan signings in Malang Sarr and Felipe Anderson; they have also seen notable departures with Alex Telles, Pereira and youngster Fabio Silva, all moving on. Villas-Boas’ Marseille will have their work cut out in the group stage and Bayern loanee Cuisance could be pivotal to that push.
Group D: Liverpool, Ajax, Atalanta, Midtjylland
The match-ups in this group promise to deliver some cracking games. The battle of wits between Jurgen Klopp and Gian Piero Gasperini will enrapture all football fans; the contrast between Liverpool’s press and La Dea’s seamless interplay promises to be as much a ballet recital as a game of football. Meanwhile, Ajax-Liverpool will see two of the most decorated teams in European football knock heads in a veritable clash of the titans, for the first time in nearly 60 years. Even the minnows of the group, Danish champions and CL debutants FC Midtjylland, will look to cause some upsets as their well-drilled, stingy backline will attempt to stifle the creative prowess of some of the more household names in their group.
Group E: Chelsea, Sevilla, Krasnodar, Rennes
Chelsea fans must be elated with the draw that has finally worked in their favour. Same goes for Europa League elites, Sevilla, who look likely to make it to the next round and not get bumped down to the competition they won last season. Rennes and Krasnodar, both in their inaugural Champions League season, will certainly have to work their socks off if they are to achieve anything from this group. In all likelihood, Chelsea and Sevilla should comfortably qualify for the knockouts with Rennes securing a Europa League spot. The battle for the top spot is one to keep your eye on, as this new look, youthful and star-studded Chelsea side face Sevilla, who are extremely capable of pulling off upsets.
Group F: Borussia Dortmund, Zenit St. Petersburg, Club Brugge, Lazio
Aside from Dortmund, the three other teams might have seen themselves as a thorn in the side of any of the traditional giants had they been drawn into the same group. However, being drawn into a relatively more even group ensures that the Russian-Belgian-Italian trio can make a justifiable rush for the second qualifying spot, something that otherwise might have seen a bridge too wide. While Dortmund are likely to have enough star power to finish on top, the team which finishes fourth might well only do so by a couple of points — it promises to be tight, and this group has the potential to be a sleeper pick for the most competitive one this time around.
Group G: FC Barcelona, Juventus, Dynamo Kyiv, Ferencvaros
The broadcasters of the Champions League must have been licking their chops after watching the Catalan giants being drawn in the same group as the Bianconeri, knowing that all eyes will be on this duel for the ages. On the lopside, one must feel for Kyiv and the Hungarian debutants, Ferencvaros; to be drawn into this group, overshadowed by the Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo spectacle, is arguably the worst-case scenario for either team. There are minor silver linings, however; they get to play against both these icons of the sport, albeit they are likely to get handily beaten. Add to the tale the B-plot of the Miralem Pjanic-Arthur Melo storyline, and the battle for the top of Group G promises to be the spiciest of these group stages.
Group H: Paris SG, RB Leipzig, Manchester United, Istanbul Basaksehir
The final group of our preview is one in which the primary storyline is that of questionable ownership and legacies, past and present — Leipzig didn’t exist before 2008, PSG were not the force they are today before 2011, and Basaksehir were only founded in 2014. With their bottomless financial capacity, the Parisians as last year’s finalists will be hoping to go just that step further this year around, while the belligerent youngsters of Leipzig and United will butt heads to try and grab the second qualifying spot in the group. This looks very close to being the group of death in this edition of the Champions League, likely leaving the Turkish surprise to bring up the rear.