Champions League Preview: Group A
A group containing the Europa League winners, former champions, once runners up and almighty underdog, was the first to be drawn in this year’s Champions League draw. Gregor Kerr takes a look at Group A in the UEFA Champions League.
For a team renowned as a consistent challenger for the trophy, it was surprising to see Atleti trip up at the group stage hurdle last season. With a 3rd place finish in a group consisting of Chelsea and Roma, they did however drop into the Europa League, and won convincingly as favourites.
However, manager Diego Simeone sensed that changes were required for his aging squad, with the departures of club captain Gabi, Fernando Torres and Kevin Gamiero being replaced with the youth and hunger of Rodri, Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins.
Their first foray into Europe this season came with victory, turning over city rivals Real Madrid 4-2 in the UEFA Super Cup. If they can produce such a result against a team of Real’s calibre consistently, then they have as strong a chance as anybody this season.
With the final being played in their new stadium, Wanda Metropolitano, it would be the perfect homecoming if they could reach their third Champions League final in five years.
The Germans have tried but failed to build on their European success under Jurgen Klopp, since reaching the final in 2013, but the formula just hasn’t been right. Whether it be through a poor choice of management, e.g. Peter Bosz, or a failure to replace star players.
The Dortmund philosophy of buying young players, combined with experienced heads, was maintained under new manager Lucien Favre, as Paco Alcacer and Marius Wolf will be partnered with World Cup stars such as Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney.
Much of their success, or failure, could be pinned down to the fitness of Marco Reus. Persisting cruciate ligaments injuries has meant that Dortmund fans have seen nowhere near the best of the Germany forward, but having started all three games this season his luck could be changing.
A club with a philosophy similar to Dortmund, the Ligue 1 side have taken steps over the last year toreplace a ‘golden generation’ featuring Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Benjamin Mendy. Their relentless pressing style resulting in an attacking onslaught which brought them to the semi-finals in 2017, as well as pipping Paris Saint Germain to a league title.
Last season, they failed to match, or come within any distance of equalling that achievement, crashing out of a relatively easy group without a single win. Their start to this year’s Ligue 1 campaign hints that such a run could surface again, with just four points from as many games.
Russia’s star player at the World Cup this summer, Alexsander Golovin could be considered a coup after moving to the Principality, but a failure to replace the outgoings of Fabinho and Thomas Lemar leaves a gaping hole in terms of quality throughout the squad. Several low-fee domestic signings could prove to be the next wave of talent, but as for now they will struggle further.
The awkwardly built Stade Louis II however has proved a leveller in many meetings over the years, where Monaco lost just one in 26 ties throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. A small home crowd of 18,000 is dwarfed by most European regulars, perhaps it is the views of the harbours that leaves opponents distracted,
Without doubt the underdogs of Group A, the Belgian champions are more recognised for their recent forays into the Europa League, or then UEFA Cup. A journey to the quarter-finals in 2015, where they lost narrowly to Dnipro, is their most recent European success.
Those of a certain age may remember them as once European Cup finalists. Without doubt their finest achievement, a Wembley crowd of over 90,000 saw a Kenny Daglish goal resign them to defeat in the final against Liverpool.
They will be drawing on the experience from a number of internationals, such as Holland-capped captain Ruud Vormer, and the recently called-up Belgian midfielder Hans Vanaken.
Days of that kind are resigned to the past for Brugge now, but with the potential vulnerability of Monaco and Dortmund there may be an opportunity to sneak into second place. They will hope to at least better their last group stage efforts, failing to record a single point in 2016.