Champions League Preview: Group F
Manchester City were electrifying last year, but if there was one sour note, it was their heavy exit at the Champions League quarter-final stage last season to Liverpool. Can they go one better this season? Gregor Kerr previews.
Last season was almost perfect for Pep Guardiola. His City side trail blazed and set records in the league that may never be matched, he picked up a domestic cup along the way. Though the one thing that alludes him, and has since his Barcelona days, is the European Cup.
The manner in which they collapsed away to Liverpool last year, despite a rally in the second leg, was alarming. His willingless to open up so much away to a dangerous opponent was considered naïve in many quarters.
If there is one thing that works for Pep though it is to persist. When naysayers claimed he couldn’t play his brand of football in England, he went on to prove them wrong, so you can exact the same stubbornness, or belief, the maintain this year.
Not much has changed squad-wise, with winger Riyad Mahrez arriving from Leicester City to provide another avenue of goals, and squad depth. Benjamin Mendy sat out last year’s European campaign, and his relentless energy, alongside an ability to cross the ball at ferocious pace, can add a dimension to City’s play that they may have missed last year.
A huge positive in the summer, which should give the Ligue 1 side hope, was fending off interest, notably from Liverpool, for their star attacker Nabil Fekir. His attacking trio with Memphis Depay and Mariano was a huge aspect in Lyon’s play last year, and even though the latter has departed for Real Madrid, as the old saying goes, “two out of three ain’t bad”.
Lyon have only just started clawing themselves back to the top table of European football, following what was undoubtable theit golden period in the previous decade. Seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles came between 2001 and 2008, with a run to the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition being perhaps the standout moment in 2009.
Their recent European form has been inconsistent, dropping into the Europa League knockout stages in 2017 and 2015, whilst finishing rock bottom of their group in 2016. This year looks their best bet to reach the round of 16 since 2012.
One of the real success stories in recent Bundesliga years, Die Kraichgauer had never made a single foray into European competition in their long history, even as far back as the 1990s they were simply an amateur side playing in the eight tier of German football, until considerable financial investor early in the 21st century.
Now, under the youthful vision of 31-year old manager Julian Nagelsmann, they prepare for their first foray into the Champions League group stages, having lost a play-off to Liverpool last season, and failing to escape their Europa League group.
Many quarters however have criticised the club’s policy, comparing it to that of RB Liepzig, Bayer Leverkusen and even the more local Gretna, with money being a huge factor in their success.
The squad itself may not possess any star names, but a strong collective of players has built a reliable side to call upon. Keep an eye out for English youngster Reiss Nelson, with the winger arriving on a season-long loan for Arsenal, and has already recorded his first Bundesliga goal.
Perhaps a club more renowned for producing excellent European star as oppose to making waves themselves, Shakhtar are a regular face in the group stages and quite often have reached the round of 16, even making it to the quarter-finals in 2011, losing out to Barcelona.
They caused a huge upset last year by inflicting Manchester City’s first defeat of the season, albeit having already qualified, central to that result and their league title win last season was Brazilian midfielder Fred, who has now left for City’s rivals Manchester United.
The current squad, and ones gone by, have had a heavy Brazilian influence. Attacker and captain Taison is perhaps the most notable, but Ukrakian national team goalkeeper, and club veteran Andriy Pyatov brings a wealth of experience.