Thursday evening saw another host of footballing superstars take to the stage in a lengthy and drawn out ceremony that’s become typical of UEFA. Lucy Bronze took home the gold as she won the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year, while Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk won the men’s accolade for his reinvention of the Liverpool back line.
The main event, however, was the annual Champions League Group Stage draw.
The 32 qualified teams were pulled out of the metaphorical hat in suitably dramatic fashion, and included 4 Premier League entrants, 9 previous Champions League winners, and 16 finalists. Between them, these 32 teams have lifted the Champions League 43 times, and this season European heavyweights such as Manchester City, PSG, Atletico Madrid, and Tottenham Hotspur will be hoping to become the 23rd winner of this most sought after of trophies.
The 2019/20 Champions League group stage kicks off on Tuesday 17th September, but what are some of the key stories that the draw threw up?
Remember, you can find all the latest news, predictions and betting tips on our Champions League homepage.
Liverpool ease into trophy defence
Understandably, being the top seed in the Champions League draw should grant you an easier route into the knockout stages, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.
Fortunately for Jurgen Klopp’s soon-to-be travel wearied squad, Group E is looking like a rather easy one as far as Champions League groups go. Napoli, who they faced in the group stages last season, will present the biggest threat to them, while the likes of RB Salzburg and Genk are expected to be the whipping boys of the group.
Even Napoli won’t pose too much of a threat for the top spot. The Italians’ European pedigree is lacking somewhat – They have only made it out of the group stages on 2 occasions and have only won 17 Champions League games in their history. By comparison, Liverpool have won 15 in the last 2 seasons alone. It is worth noting that 1 of these 17 victories came at home to Liverpool last season.
For Salzburg, this will be their first foray into the group stages since 1994, whilst Genk are in the Champions League for the first time since the 2011/12 campaign.
Manchester City make themselves at home in Ukraine
Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk must be getting sick of the sight of Etihad Airways flying into Donetsk International Airport.
For the 3rd season on the bounce, Shakhtar find themselves facing the prospect of 2 ties with bookies’ favourites Manchester City. It was actually fairly respectable when these 2 sides met in 2017/18, with The Citizens winning 2-0 at the Etihad before losing in Ukraine. Last season, however, didn’t go quite so positively. They were thrashed 6-0 in Manchester and well beaten 3-0 back in Donetsk, finishing 3rd in the group despite not losing any of their other 4 group stage fixtures.
Elsewhere in the group, Croatian kingpins Dinamo Zagreb face a tough challenge to get out of the group, while Serie A side Atalanta are gearing up for their first ever Champions League campaign.
And yes, that is another extraordinarily easy group for Pep Guardiola’s sky blue world-beaters.
Group oF Death
You could almost hear the groans from the Czech Republic capital as their name was read aloud. Slavia Prague – Group F.
That’ll be the same group as 3 previous winners of the competition. Great for ticket revenues, not so great for Slavia Prague’s chances of progressing anywhere in Europe past December.
Barcelona are the group favourites as they look to make amends for last seasons cataclysmic collapse at Anfield, while an extremely strong looking Borussia Dortmund set mouths watering next before an ever-strengthening Inter Milan side were thrown into the mix.
For Slavia Prague, this is their first Champions League group stage campaign since 2007. They were thrashed 7-0 by Arsenal that season, and we wouldn’t rule out a similar scoreline on the cards for them over the next few months.
For us neutrals, Barcelona’s 2 clashes with the notoriously attacking Borussia Dortmund look like key fixtures in the group stages, so keep an eye out for them!
The Return of Zidane
Zinedine Zidane may have only been in management for 3 full seasons, but that hasn’t stopped the French icon from becoming one of the most successful managers in Champions League history.
He became the first manager to win 3 consecutive Champions League titles after taking over Real Madrid in 2016 before abruptly leaving the club at the end of May 2018. What followed was a season of epic failure for Real Madrid, with their plight becoming so bad that Zidane was convinced to return to the helm under 10 months after he resigned.
Real Madrid were already out of the Champions League by that point, with Ajax foregoing all Bernabeu traditions with a 4-1 thumping of the reigning champions. Zidane will now look to continue his Champions League success, although he’ll have to do so without Cristiano Ronaldo.
As far as the group stages go, progression shouldn’t be an issue for Los Blancos, although PSG will provide tough competition for the top spot. That being said, Zidane has won 25 of his 39 Champions League matches as a manager, including beating PSG both home and away.
Group of the Young Guns
Group H is perhaps one of the most intriguing of the lot, containing 2 previous winners and 3 finalists, although strangely enough the only person to have previously won the Champions League with their current club is Chelsea boss Frank Lampard. The only player to have experienced lifting the trophy is Pedro, who got his hands on the silverware 3 times whilst at Barcelona.
Nevertheless, this is shaping up to be an exciting group to watch, not least because of the prospect of youth talent shining through. Chelsea’s summer transfer ban has forced Lampard into promoting some of The Blues’ extensive young players into the starting lineup, with some of their most promising prospects being Mason Mount (20) and Callum Hudson-Odoi (18). Not only that, but Kepa, Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma, Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic all make up a youthful squad to choose from.
Last season’s star performers Ajax may have lost 2 key figures during the summer, but it’s not like the Eredivisie giants are short of talent. The Amsterdam academy is a conveyor belt of world-class talent, and their current flock still contains starlets such as David Neres, Donny van de Beek, Andre Onana, Noussair Mazraoui, Razvan Marin and Edson Alvarez. No doubt they’ll throw some more stars of the future into the mix as well.
Valencia’s star striker may be the comparatively veteran Rodrigo, but their ranks also contain a host of sub-25 players destined for success. Jose Gaya and Mouctar Diakhaby slot into the back line, while Carlos Soler, Goncalo Guedes and Ferran Torres battle it out to start on the flanks. 18-year-old Kang-in Lee is one to watch as well.
Ligue 1 surprise package Lille pocketed a cool £80m for Nicolas Pepe over the summer, but they have youth talent coming out of their ears at the moment. Renato Sanches was brought in as he looks to revitalise his career, and they will also call upon the sub-25 squad of goalkeeper Mike Maignan, full back Zeki Celik, midfielders Xeka, Thiago Maia, and Boubakary Soumare, and attackers Jonathan Bamba, Jonathan Ikone, Yusuf Yazici, Victor Osimhen, Luiz Araujo, and Timothy Weah. It’s a dazzling array of talent for the French club, and seeing them on the biggest stage is an exciting prospect.
Champions League Group Favourites Acca at 58/1
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