Champions League: What to look out for
The Champions League is nearly upon us, with 32 teams looking to make it to Istanbul on 30th May next year. We picked out five of our football writers to give their predictions for the season ahead.
Favourites – Liverpool
Who better to pick as the favourites to win the European Cup than the team currently holding it. A section of fans seemed frustrated with a lack of transfer activity over the summer and a lack of new faces in the squad, but Jurgen Klopp will know his side already have enough to retain their crown. With their habit of seeing out two & three goal wins on a consistent basis they have the perfect recipe for success in European ties, especially with a defence that’ll offer nothing to opponents. The only thing standing in their way is complacency, and a bit of luck.
Surprise Team – Napoli
In Carlo Ancelotti, ‘I Partenopei’ have a manager bread in European success, having won this competition three times, but a team who have yet to make their mark in the competition. Failure to progress from last year’s group could be forgiven with PSG and Liverpool in their way, but this year there can be no excuses. Their key players, like Kalidou Koulibaly and Lorenzo Insigne, are still at the club but they need to shore up the defence if they have any aspirations, having let in seven goals already in Serie A.
Breakthrough player – Tanguy Ndombele (Tottenham Hotspur)
It could be argued that Ndombele made his name for the first time in last year’s Champions League, impressing against Manchester City and Barcelona whilst at Lyon. However his new side, Tottenham Hotspur, were thrilling in reaching in the final but missing in one key area; midfield. This is where the elegant Frenchman slots in perfectly, with a strong core built around him who have already proved their credentials in this competition.
Match to watch out for – Chelsea vs Ajax
Both teams can describe themselves as in a transition period despite being favourites to progress through their group. Chelsea, faced with a transfer ban, have bedded in youngsters like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, while Ajax have to adjust to life without Frenkie De Jong and Mathijas De Ligt, two players who were key in last year’s run to the semi-finals.
Between them they have scored 30 goals in their respective leagues so far, with neither looking the strongest at the back. Expect no sitting back in this meeting.
Favourites – Real Madrid
Although the Spanish giants were disappointing last season, both in the Champions League and La Liga, recruiting players such as Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and Eder Militao has no doubt improved their already strong squad. Joined with PSG in group A, Zinedine Zidane has the perfect stage set to regain Madrid’s European crown from Liverpool.
Surprise Team- Leipzig
Having drawn 1-1 to Bayern Munich at the weekend to regain top spot in the Bundesliga, RB Leipzig could be on course to surprise us all in Europe this season, recreating Ajax’s surprise run last year. The club impressively kept hold of in-demand striker Timo Werner and joined by Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen, they could easily top an unpredictable group G.
Breakthrough Player – Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan)
A name not known to many, but the 22-year-old Argentinian joined Inter from Racing Club Last summer for £12.6 million and has made a name for himself under Antonio Conte’s new regime. In an Argentina team packed full of attacking talent, Martinez has bagged 12 goals in his first 14 games and contributed 9 goals in his breakthrough season for Inter so this could be the season the striker makes a name for himself in Europe, playing alongside Romelu Lukaku.
Match to look out for – Juventus vs Atletico
When the draw was made this clash stood out to me the most as these two teams both pride themselves on their well-built defence. Juventus splashed out on Dutch prodigy Matthijs De Ligt during the summer, forcing Ajax’s hand with a world-record £76.95 million, as well as recruiting midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot on free transfers. Atletico, as always, are a threat in Europe and with the world’s most expensive teenager, Joao Felix, spearheading their attack after losing Antione Griezmann to Barcelona, Diego Simeone’s men will certainly put up a strong fight for the top spot in group D.
Favourites – Manchester City
The Champions League is the trophy Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are desperate to win, so much so that they probably would have swapped last season’s Treble for a first European crown. Expect them to prioritise the competition this season. A lot depends on the fitness of Aymeric Laporte, although the defender should return from injury ahead of the crucial knockout stage run. City will top an easy group even with the shaky partnership of John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, while we all know of their unprecedented strength in depth in midfield and attack. The return of Kevin de Bruyne is also a huge boost to City’s chances.
Surprise team – Chelsea
Ok, I know this is Frank Lampard’s first season of European football, I know players such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have never played at this level before, and I know they are conceding goals for fun at the moment, but I like Chelsea’s chances of at least reaching the quarterfinals. They have a winnable group, featuring Lille, Valencia and Ajax, and for all the team’s youth and inexperience, this is a squad who went all the way in the Europa League last season and has N’Golo Kante. They would need a favourable knockout draw, but it can happen – remember City draw Schlake in the round of 16 and Liverpool got Porto in the quarter-finals last season.
Breakthrough player – Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
Can you really call the world’s third most expensive player a ‘breakthrough’? 19-year-old Joao Felix did play in the group stage of the Champions League for Benfica last season, but it was after their elimination that he really kicked on, leading to his £113 million move to Atletico Madrid. Felix seems to have settled well in Spain and I for one can’t wait to see what he can produce in the competition this season.
Match to look out for – Tottenham vs. Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich were miles short of Liverpool in their round of 16 defeat last season and are under pressure to prove that they are still Champions League contenders. Spurs, however, will want to prove last season’s run to the final wasn’t a fluke and will see this as a chance to take charge of Group B.
After Maurizio Sarri tasted European success with Chelsea last season, he’ll be keen to get his hands on a Champion’s League winners medal as well. His Juventus side have only strengthened in the transfer window, bringing Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot in for free and signing the best young defender in the world, Matthijs de Ligt.
Should the Italian giants make it out of a difficult group consisting of Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow, they stand in good stead to win their first Champions League title since 1996.
Surprise Team – Chelsea
The Blues are going through a renaissance period this season, with club legend Frank Lampard at the helm. The team is the youngest it’s been this millennium, with Lampard putting his faith in the products of the club’s youth academy. Players like Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham are consistent starters for the London club, and Lampard hasn’t been afraid to switch things up in terms of formations. Chelsea have absolutely nothing to lose this season, and will look to surprise the people who wrote them off due to their transfer ban. Lampard produced European miracles for Chelsea as a player – who’s to say he can’t do the same as a manager?
Breakthrough Player – Houssem Aouar (Lyon)
The 21 year old French midfielder has been putting in a string of consistent performances for Lyon over the past couple of seasons, and has attracted interest from the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool. Aouar has been at Lyon for his entire career, first making his first team debut in February 2017 in the Europa League. A playmaker with a keen eye for goal, Aouar is adept with both feet and has completed 87% of his attempted passes this season. With strikers in the form of Memphis Depay and Moussa Dembele in front of him, Aouar will be able to rack up assists and pull the strings for Lyon this season.
Match to look out for- Real Madrid vs PSG
Champions League nights at the Santiago Bernabeu are something special, and there is no doubt that there will be fireworks when PSG make their way to Madrid. The reception that Neymar will receive will be an interesting talking point, considering he was rumoured to leave PSG for Real in the summer transfer window.
A match that will see superstars such as Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric face off against Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi and Edinson Cavani, the match has all the makings of a European classic.
Favourites – Manchester City
With Pep Guardiola in charge anything is possible. Man City have dominated the Premier League for the past two seasons and even secured a historic domestic treble last season. It’s the trophy that City has never won and now it seems that all of their focus will be on it. Even after winning the League with 98 points last season, Man City still spent over £100 million on improving their squad. It seems that this is now Man City’s golden generation and if they are ever going to win the Champions League it will need to be sooner rather than later.
Surprise Team – RB Leipzig
Although Leipzig is a very ‘new’ team they have gone through the leagues in Germany and are now top of the Bundesliga. Manager Julian Nagelsmann plays a very attacking style of football in a 3-1-4-2 formation that many teams will not know how to counter. In a group with Lyon, Zenit and Benfica I feel they will qualify with ease and their confidence will grow and grow.
Breakthrough Player – Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen)
Havertz broke onto the season for Leverkusen last season scoring 17 goals in 34 appearances from midfield. The 20 year old has just moved from strength to strength, even getting called up to the German squad.
Someone with a clear eye for goal and the ability to find a pass in the final third means that he will flourish in the UCL this season. Even Marco Reus has spoken highly of Havertz, hoping that he will one day join him at Dortmund.
Match to look out for: Olympiacos vs Spurs
Spurs may have made it all the way to the final last season however it is clear that they are not favourites this time around. Olympiacos currently top their domestic league meaning they are full of confidence. In a group that also features FC Bayern Munich and FK Crvena Zvezda it seems that Olympiacos and Spurs will be battling for second spot making this game all the more important to get off to a winning start as although it is the first game, it may already decide who qualifies for the knockouts.