2018/19 Champions League Analysis: Group B

2018/19 Champions League Analysis: Group B
Simon Winter
Simon Winter
September 11, 2018
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Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.

UEFA Champions League 2018/19 Group B has been labelled the tournament’s “Group of Death” and glancing at the teams that make up the section, it’s easy to see why.

A highly motivated Barcelona side, eager to break Spanish rivals Real Madrid’s cycle of Champions League domination, are favourites to win the group and their biggest challenge for top spot is expected to be provided by the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur.

The 2017/18 Champions League felt like a breakout tournament for Tottenham, who showed in their performances against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Group Stage and against Juventus in the Last 16 , that they were a force to be reckoned with on the continent.

Internazionale, back on this stage for the first time since 2012, are the Group’s dark horses, while Dutch champions PSV will be quietly confident of bloodying a few Champions League noses themselves. Wherever you look, there are interesting angles and fascinating permutations in Group B, arguably making it the most exciting section in the early stages of the competition.

Champions League Group B

Fixtures:

18th September 2018

Barcelona vs PSV Eindhoven (Nou Camp, Barcelona)

Internazionale vs Tottenham Hotspur  (San Siro, Milan)

3rd October 2018

Tottenham Hotspur vs Barcelona (Wembley Stadium, London)

PSV Eindhoven vs Internazionale (Philips Stadion, Eindhoven)

24th October 2018

PSV Eindhoven vs Tottenham Hotpsur (Philips Stadion, Eindhoven)

Barcelona vs Internazionale (Nou Camp, Barcelona)

6th November

Tottenham Hotspur vs PSV Eindhoven (Wembley Stadium, London)

Internazionale vs Barcelona  (San Siro, Milan)

28th November

PSV Eindhoven vs Barcelona (Philips Stadion, Eindhoven)

Tottenham Hotspur vs Internazionale (Wembley Stadium, London)

11th December

Barcelona vs Tottenham Hotspur (Nou Camp, Barcelona)

Internazionale vs PSV Eindhoven  (San Siro, Milan)

Barcelona

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How did they qualify?

Barcelona won La Liga last season, finishing 14 points ahead of fellow Champions League competitor Atlético Madrid in second place.

Best Champions League season:

Barcelona have won the Champions League 5 times in total (1992, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015). They were beaten finalists on 3 occasions (1961, 1986, 1994).

Overview:

Barcelona have won the La Liga title in three of the last four seasons, but their domestic success has shone a little less brightly due to arch-rivals Real Madrid’s dominance on the continent.

The Catalonian’s ability to reach the latter rounds of the Champions League is almost peerlessly consistent (they have made to the Quarter Finals or better in each of the last eleven seasons), however, their record of one UCL title in seven seasons is a poor return when you consider the caliber of  the player Los Cules have had during that period.

Barcelona’s last eight exit to Roma in 2017/18 was their third successive exit from the Champions League at that stage and the pressure on Barca this season, to not just improve, but to win the tournament outright next June.

There is more than enough quality at the Nou Camp to pull the Champions League trophy from Real Madrid’s grasp, however, with Andres Iniesta gone and several other of their established stars inching past thirty, Barcelona are on the cusp of a major transitional period.

Strengths:

Even without the incomparable Andres Iniesta, Barcelona still have a spine of proven, world-class performers. They have a collection of ball retention experts in midfield and a front line that can obliterate any defence on the planet given half a chance.

Weaknesses:

It’s hard to identify many weaknesses in such a well-rounded Barcelona team, though they are quite susceptible to conceding from set pieces. Four of the six goals they shipped in last season’s Champions League were conceded from set pieces.

Key Players:

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Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi is the second highest scorer in Champions League history behind arch nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo. The Argentinean genius remains one of the finest players to caress a ball and one of the most unstoppable forces in sport.

Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets must feel a little lonely anchoring a Barcelona midfield without Xavi and Iniesta. The last remnant of that famous La Masia trio has had new playmates in the middle of the pitch in Ivan Rakitic, Philippe Coutinho and most recently Arturo Vidal, though Busquets remains the most vital component of the Barcelona possession machine.

Statistics:

  • Barcelona have only lost 1 Champions League home match since October 2009. That’s 1 defeat in 49 games.
  • Barcelona lost just 1 of their 10 Champions League fixtures last season.
  • Last season, Barcelona failed to score in successive Group matches for the first time since 2002.

Fixture Analysis

The fixture schedule has been a little unkind to Barcelona, mixing tough looking La Liga fixtures with the majority of their Champions League commitments.

Barcelona’s trip to play Spurs at Wembley promises to be their toughest fixture in Group B and the game comes after a tricky La Liga home match with Athletic Club and directly before a stern test away to Valencia.

On Match Day 4, their home match against Inter comes sandwiched between two more Nou Camp fixtures against Sevilla and an El Clasico meeting with Real Madrid.

Similarly, their match in the Netherlands against Dutch champions PSV adds to an already difficult week that sees them play away to Atlético Madrid in the Spanish capital.

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur Spurs Vertonghen Lucas Moura

How did they qualify?

Tottenham Hotspur finished 3rd in the English Premier League.

Best Champions League season:

Tottenham Hotspur’s deepest run in the Champions League was in the 2010/11 season. That year, they reached the Quarter Finals before being ousted 5-0 over two legs by Real Madrid.

In the old format European Cup in the 1961/62, Tottenham reached the Semi Finals, where they lost out to eventual winners Benfica.

Overview:

Tottenham Hotspur enter the 2018/19 Champions League aiming to qualify from the Group Stage for just the 3rd time since the competition underwent modernisation in the early 90s.

Of course, this season will only be Spurs’ 4th time competing in the revamped Champions League and just their 5th campaign of involvement at this level overall. Tottenham may fall short in terms of experience, but they can consider themselves among equals in terms of ability.

Nine members of Tottenham’s current squad were involved in the Semi Finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which illustrates just how strong a group of players manager Mauricio Pochettino is working with.

But while Spurs’ ranks are undeniably swelled with gifted footballers – their coach is the real ace in the pack. Through his tactical methodology and motivational techniques, Pochettino is able to extract maximum commitment along with every drop of talent from his players.

In last season’s competition, Spurs looked like a team playing comfortably among top level peers. They played eight games in total, and six of those were double headers against Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Juventus. Spurs were beaten just once, losing out in the second leg of the Last 16 at home to Juventus.

Strengths:

Spurs are meticulously prepared, extremely aggressive without the ball and ruthless in attack. Tottenham have a hard-coded team ethos, where each member of the starting XI works tirelessly and with unyielding commitment.

Weaknesses:

Domestically at least, cracks can develop in Spurs’ mentality when games are starting to turn against them. Sometimes their can heads go and their aggression can spill over into frustration and petulance.

Key Players:

Tottenham Hotspur Spurs Harry Kane

Harry Kane

Tottenham’s number ten and talisman, Harry Kane, is one of the most well-rounded centre forwards in world football. Kane can punish teams from a number of angles – he can strike brilliantly off both feet and is also a threat in the air. Kane was top goalscorer at the 2018 World Cup and he scored 7 times in 7 Champions League appearances last season.

Christian Eriksen

Danish international Christian Eriksen is Tottenham’s covert creative genius. The 26-year old is quiet and unassuming on the pitch, drifting silently in the spaces between midfield and attack. Eriksen is one of the world’s best players in his position and he has the skill set to unlock any defence.

Statistics:

  • Tottenham lost just 1 of their 8 Champions League fixtures last season
  • Tottenham have lost just 1 of their last 7 Champions League away games
  • Tottenham have only kept 2 clean sheets in their last 11 Champions League games. Both clean sheets were secured against Cypriot side APOEL.

Fixture Analysis

Tottenham must negotiate a tough Premiership fixture at home to last year’s beaten Champions League finalists Liverpool before their first Group B contest against Inter Milan.

Spurs face the prospect of 4 Premier League away games directly before mid-week Champions League commitments during the Group Stage too.

UCL Match Day 3’s fixture away at PSV is preceded by a tricky trip across London to play West Ham. After their match in the Netherlands, Spurs come home to a date with Premier League champions Manchester City.

Spurs potentially crucial Match Day 5 meeting with Inter at home is bookended by a meeting with Chelsea on the weekend before and a North London derby at Arsenal the weekend after.

Inter Milan

Mauro Icardi in action for Inter Milan in Serie A

How did they qualify?

Inter Milan finished 4th in Serie A last season, edging out Lazio in 5th thanks to their superior head-to-head record against them in 2017/18.

Best Champions League season:

Inter Milan have won the European Cup/Champions League on 3 separate occasions (1964, 1965, 2010). They finished as runners up twice (1967, 1972).

Overview:

Inter Milan are back on the Champions League stage for the first time since 2011/12 this year, after they scraped in to the competition’s Group Stage ahead of Serie A rivals Lazio.

The Biancocelesti actually won more games and scored twenty-three more goals than Inter over the course of the 2017/18 season, but after finishing level on seventy-two points, the teams were separated by their head-to-head record and not goal difference as per Serie A rules.

Inter Milan’s squad has undergone some major renovations since the end of last season, with the number of players transferred out reaching double figures and the number on incoming transfers just as high.

Over the summer, Inter were able to bring the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Lautaro Martinez, Sime Vrsaljko, Stefan De Vrij and Kwadwo Asamoah to the club for relatively modest fees – the latter two, De Vrij and Asamoah, cost nothing at all after their contracts at Lazio and Juventus expired.

In fact, Inter were able to strengthen their team in a number of key areas while simultaneously posting a profit for their transfer window business. Naturally, with so many changes to their playing staff, it could take some time for this new-look Inter Milan side to click.

Strengths:

Inter Milan’s team has a star-studded look to it this season and on paper at least, they look well stocked in each position. Their attack has yet to fully take shape, though there is excitement about the potential partnership of Argentinean striking duo Mauro Icardi and Lautaro Martinez. Their midfield options also look interesting with Radja Nainggolan, Marcelon Brozoivc, Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva among others set for key roles.

Weaknesses:

Tactically, Inter Milan Coach Luciano Spalletti is still searching for the best way to set up his new-look team. Spalletti has already tried out three separate formations this season and the Champions League is not the place for tactical experimentation. Inter need to settle on a structure soon or they will be found out when the Group games get under way.

Key Players:

Mauro Icardi

Mauro Icardi scored an incredible 43.9% of Inter Milan’s Serie A goals last season – it’s no wonder they are close to tying him down to a new long-term contract with a hefty bump in pay. Inter will hope to be a little less reliant on his goals this season, but if the Italians are to make it out of Group B, they will need Icardi to continue banging them in.

World Cup 2018 Ivan Perisic Man United

Ivan Perisic

Croatian international and beaten World Cup finalist Ivan Perisic is an outstanding footballer. The 29-year old can play anywhere across the front line and can even fill in with ease as a wing-back. His tactical flexibility and consistency makes him one of the first names on the Inter Milan team sheet.

Statistics:

  • Inter Milan have lost 4 of their last 6 Champions League home games.
  • Inter Milan have lost just 3 of their last 22 home matches in all competitions.
  • Inter Milan have only kept 1 clean sheet so far this season.

Fixture Analysis

Inter Milan play at home in Serie A directly before 5 of their 6 mid-week Champions League fixtures. Conversely, they will play away from home domestically after 5 of their 6 Group B matches.

Inter Milan’s Match Day 3 trip to play Barcelona comes a few days after the Derby della Madonnina against city rivals AC Milan. After they finish with Barca in the Nou Camp, Inter face a date with Lazio in the Italian capital.

Inter Milan face another double dose of tough away games in November when their trip to play Tottenham at Wembley is followed by a game at Roma a few days later. Similarly, their last Group B match at home to PSV is preceded by a meeting with Serie A champions Juventus in Turin.

PSV Eindhoven

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How did they qualify?

PSV Eindhoven won the 2017/18 Eredivise title. The Dutch champions then had to come through a double-legged play-off against Belarus side BATE Borisov. PSV won 6-2 on aggregate.

Best Champions League season:

PSV Eindhoven won the European Cup in 1988, beating Benfica in the Final on penalties. In the new-format Champions League, PSV reached the Semi Finals of the 2004/05 competition, where they were beaten by Milan over two legs.

Overview:

PSV won the 2017/18 Eredivisie by four points last season ahead of traditional rivals and fellow Champions League competitors Ajax last season, to clinch their 3rd title in four years.

However, the manager who masterminded that trio of Eredivisie championship wins, Phillip Cocu, left to join Turkish outfit Fenerbache over the summer. PSV opted to appoint club legend Mark van Bommel as their new boss after the former Dutch international had impressed as coach of the club’s youth team.

Fresh from a role assisting Australia Head Coach and Father-in-law Bert van Marwijk at the World Cup, van Bommell has hit the ground running as PSV manager. The Dutch Super Cup was lost to Feyenoord on penalties in his first game in charge, though the Boeren have won six on the spin since, playing some fabulous football along the way.

PSV scored thirteen times in their first three home matches this season and van Bommel has had little trouble in helping the team maintain their superb form at the Philips Stadion in the early throes of the new campaign. PSV’s record now stands at one defeat in thirty five competitive matches on their own turf.

Strengths:

PSV’s stunning home form is unquestionably impressive. Their ability to churn out results and performances at the Philips Stadion will be put to the test in Group B, but any team that is used to winning at home should provide tricky opposition.

PSV’s biggest threat comes from their youthful, energetic attacking play. In fact, most of their team are relatively fresh-faced. Plenty of their players will be looking to enhance their reputations against some bigger names in the Champions League and that makes PSV a dangerous proposition.

Weaknesses:

PSV’s squad falls short in terms of top-level experience. Mark van Bommel will hope that the impetuousness of youth can make up for that, though his young side might find it tough to match the cleverness of their more seasoned opponents.

Key Players:

Lozano Mexico

Hirving Lozano

The Golden Boy of Mexican football, Hirving Lozano, was PSV’s top scorer during the title winning Eredsivie campaign last season. Combining trickery with blistering pace and an eye for goal, Lozano is PSV’s star-man and their biggest game changer.

Steven Bergwijn

Operating on the opposite flank to Lozano, is exciting Dutch prospect Steven Bergwijn. The 20-year old has bags of pace and a box of tricks that can routinely leave defenders looking foolish.  Bergwijn is on the cusp of making the Dutch senior squad after excelling at U21 level and a good performance or two in the Champions League Group Stage should catapult him further towards stardom.

Statistics:

  • PSV have lost just 1 of their last 35 home matches in all competitions.
  • PSV didn’t win any of their 6 matches the last time they reached the Champions League Group Stage (2016/17).
  • PSV have won just 3 of their last 19 Champions League away fixtures.

Fixture Analysis

PSV are scheduled to play away from home in the Eredivisie directly after 4 of their Champions League Group B matches. They play at home four times directly before 4 mid-week European matches however.

After PSV take on Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Match Day 1 of Group B, they return to the Netherlands to take on arch rivals Ajax at the Philips Stadion.

Following the return match against Barcelona on Dutch soil on November 28th, PSV must gather themselves to take on Feyenoord in Rotterdam a few days later.

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