Champions League 2020/21 Preview
After claiming Europe’s top prize back in August, Bayern Munich now have to defend their crown against 31 opponents in the upcoming Champions League season. A few of our football writers have made their predictions ahead of the action on Tuesday night, citing potential winners and teams/players to look out for this year.
Favourites – Bayern Munich
It seems easy – and perhaps a bit naïve – to select last years’ winners as the favourites for a second successive title, but it’s honestly hard to see a way in which this Bayern team has regressed from last season.
Granted, they’ve lost Thiago, one of the best midfielders in last season’s competitions, to Liverpool, and I had considered the Premier League champions for this predictions, but after Virgil van Dijk’s unfortunate and potentially season-ending injury, I’m less confident in their ability to batter back Europe’s elite attackers as convincingly.
Despite Thiago’s departure, Bayern have a deep well of talented midfielders to be able to fill the Spaniard’s boots – Joshua Kimmich, Javi Martinez and the newly-signed Marc Roca can play deeper and provide cover, while the likes of Leon Goretzka, Corentin Tolisso and the ever-prolific Thomas Muller will be able to provide service to the best striker in world football, Robert Lewandowski. With Serge Gnabry continuing his development into one of Europe’s best wide men, Leroy Sane’s arrival from Manchester City gives Bayern yet another incredible attacking outlet to terrorise Champions League defences.
Wednesday night’s group stage clash with Atletico Madrid should provide a clear idea of how Bayern plan to defend their European crown and should they get off to a winning start, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go all the way.
Surprise Team – RB Leipzig
Again, a bit of a strange shout, considering how well the German club did in the competition last season. However, with the group they’ve been drawn into, facing Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Istanbul Basaksehir, their road to the knockout stages isn’t exactly clear. Despite that, I have faith in Leipzig to get through to the knockouts and could throw up some surprise results throughout their time in the competition.
One big reason that they could almost be written off right away is due to the departure of Timo Werner, with their all-time top goal scorer joining Chelsea in the summer for £47 million. Losing a striker who scored 34 goals in all competitions last season is always going to be a struggle to deal with, but with the focal point of Leipzig’s attack gone, the rest of Julian Nagelsmann’s young squad will be hungry and desperate to prove themselves, especially on the biggest stage.
The squad itself will be coming into this year’s competition more experienced and more prepared for the challenges that European competition brings, with players like Dayot Upamecano, Dani Olmo, and Tyler Adams already displaying themselves as some of the top talents in world football.
With the club currently sitting top of the Bundesliga table without having lost a game, Nagelsmann will be keen to keep that form going into Europe. He’ll be excitedly anticipating the chance to prove to the wider world that Leipzig have the potential to become a real contender in Europe for years to come and this could be the season that we first see the project become somewhat of a reality.
Breakthrough Player – Eduardo Camavinga (Rennes)
This 17-year-old midfielder has a lot of people talking. Camavinga became the first player under the age of 18 to receive three senior France call-ups since the first World War, over a century ago. Over the last few weeks, he grabbed a goal in his first trip away with France and was rubbing shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo, swapping shirts with the Portuguese icon in a 0-0 draw between their two nations.
It’s difficult to be able to nail Camavinga down to a single position. He has been deployed as a metronome at the base of Rennes’ midfield, dictating the play and spraying passes across the pitch. He’s acted as the defensive anchor ahead of the defence, breaking up the play somewhat surprisingly, with his lean frame somewhat subverting expectations. His nimble feet and the graceful way he carries the ball allows him to stroll further up the pitch and have a more direct impact on Rennes’ attacking play. His versatility has been a massive factor in his development and was quite possibly why manager Julien Stéphan handed him a debut at the age of 16 years (and one month) old. With this skillset, Camavinga has brought about inevitable comparisons to the likes of Paul Pogba and with the entirety of his career ahead of him, he certainly has the potential to reach the highest of heights that football has to offer.
Rennes themselves have a fairly difficult Champions League group to navigate, facing Krasnodar in their opening fixture, with Sevilla and Chelsea, who brought Edouard Mendy to London from Rennes themselves. If they are to get through to the knockout stages, Camavinga will have to play a big part in all six fixtures, which could be a lot of pressure for a normal 17-year-old but with the career he’s had so far, it’s clear that he’s anything but normal.
Match of the Group Stages – Barcelona vs Juventus (Group G)
There really wasn’t any other option. After Cristiano Ronaldo departed Real Madrid for Juventus in the summer of 2018, many feared we would never see a clash between the two greatest players of the modern era again. This year’s Champions League provides us with this opportunity, as Ronaldo’s Juventus are set to travel to Spain to face off against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona.
The two teams have been drawn as Group G’s heavy hitters, with Dynamo Kiev and Ferencvaros most likely playing between themselves for third place and the Europa League knockouts, so there are real implications in these two fixtures for how the rest of the competition pans out. Both Juve and Barca will be looking to win the Champions League, with it potentially being Messi’s last chance to do in the iconic red and blue shirt. For Ronaldo, it’s a chance for him to lead Juventus to the pinnacle of European football for the first time since 1996.
Personal rivalries between Ronaldo and Messi may come into play, but for a neutral, it’s perhaps the last time we’ll ever seen these two icons battle it out, so we should really just strap in and enjoy it. Who knows, these two meetings might help Messi to decide his next club after his contract runs out next summer…
Favourites – Paris Saint Germain
Last year’s finalists finally managed to get past the mental barrier of choking in the round of 16 every season. I believe that excellent run to the final, accompanied by Kylian Mbappe’s continued development into one of the best footballers on the planet, will give the French side massive confidence in this year’s competition.
While other potential victors in this year’s Champions League have lost key players – Bayern Munich sold Thiago to Liverpool, while Liverpool themselves look to be without Virgil Van Dijk for the rest of the season – PSG added strength of depth, with the likes of Rafinha, Danilo Pereira and Alessandro Florenzi joining Thomas Tuchel’s side. The French champions look poised to have another excellent Champions league season and are ready to go one step further than they managed last time.
Surprise Team – Rennes
Sticking with the French theme for this answer – Rennes had their struggles in their Europa League campaign last season, but there’s reason to believe that they’ll have better fortunes in the big brother competition this time around.
Julien Stéphan’s side have the luxury of being able to play their football without any pressure or expectations. Chelsea and Sevilla are both European heavyweights, sure, but they both have a number of significant weaknesses that can be exploited. Rennes have an exciting squad and boast one of the most promising young players in world football. Speaking of whom…
Breakthrough Player – Eduardo Camavinga
Rennes’ 17-year-old central midfielder looks set to be the next global superstar that France have produced. At such a young age, Camavinga has already been capped by his national team and is the key man for his club, wearing the number 10 on his back without any sense of pressure or anxiety.
Blessed with natural athletic and technical ability, Camavinga can play any role through the middle of the park and will be relied upon heavily in Rennes’ campaign to reach the knockout stages – making this the perfect opportunity for the teenager to announce himself to the world.
Match of the Group Stages – Liverpool vs Atalanta (Group D)
Why is this the best match in this season’s group stages? Simple.
Liverpool score a lot of goals. Liverpool also concede a lot of goals.
Atalanta score a lot of goals. Atalanta also concede a lot of goals.
Liverpool are looking likely to be without Virgil Van Dijk for the rest of the season. Joel Matip and Joe Gomez have never played a game in a centre back partnership.
Two lots of the hipsters’ pick fixture? Yes please.
Favourites – Manchester City
It has to be. Right? Surely this year… right? In all seriousness, Manchester City do have a very good chance of securing the trophy they have been longing for these past years. With some defensive improvements over the summer, City have strengthened the area that has held them back in recent times. The defensive issues were laid bare in the defeat to Lyon in last season’s quarter finals.
With this being the final year in Pep Guardiola’s contract at City, what better way to go out than by winning the trophy he was brought to the club to secure? Perhaps instead of falling to his knees with his hands on his head, he will ride off into the sunset with his third UCL trophy.
Surprise Team – Chelsea
Although Chelsea do not seem like the team to surprise viewers, they are not exactly the favourites for the tournament either. A very busy transfer window for Frank Lampard’s side means they now look to be one of the strongest teams in the English Premier League.
Chelsea also have quite a favourable group in which it seems very likely they will finish top. Perhaps this could be the season they once again bring home the UEFA Champions League title. It would be sure to take away a lot of pressure on Lampard’s shoulders.
Breakthrough Player – Ansu Fati (Barcelona)
Perhaps this is cheating, as Ansu Fati really burst onto the scene last season. However, this will be the campaign where he truly makes his mark. The 17-year-old recently made his debut for the Spanish national team and was also named the ‘Player of the Month’ in La Liga for September.
Most of the attention will still be on Lionel Messi, in what looks to be his final season at Barcelona, therefore, the onus will be on Fati to show the world exactly how talented and special a player he is. It has been a while since the La Masia academy produced a top-class player – perhaps this will be the season where Messi finally passes the torch to his young successor. We do love a good storyline in football.
Match of the Group Stages – Ajax vs Liverpool (Group D)
Although both sides are now missing some key players, this is sure to be a fantastic match. Both teams play very exciting free flowing football. For any neutral, this is sure to be one of the best matches to watch during the group stages.
This match will also be a huge indication of how Liverpool will cope following the injury to Virgil Van Dijk. It will also be interesting to see how Ajax fair after losing Hakim Ziyech, Sergiño Dest and Donny van de Beek in the summer. A special mention must also be given to Atalanta who are also in this group, as they too play very exciting free flowing football. Regardless of who you support, pay attention to Group D.
Favourites – Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich come into this campaign after winning the Champions League last season. They looked unstoppable and although teams will be keen to topple the German giants this year, they’ll be equally keen to avoid a match against Hans-Dieter Flick’s side.
The way in which this Bayern side has been transformed under Flick’s management is nothing short of remarkable. The level of this squad has surpassed that of the side that Pep Guardiola assembled, with Robert Lewandowski proving himself as one of the best – if not, the greatest – strikers in world football.
They are a side built on success and are driven by being the outright best team in this competition and any they compete in. Their winning habits and steely determination to get the job done under any circumstances will lead them to back-to-back Champions League titles. The only way that I can see this team failing will be down to their own self-belief and desire fading – suffice to say, I can’t see that happening any time soon.
Surprise Team – Atalanta
It’s quite controversial to say that Atalanta will be a surprising team in this competition, considering their performances in last season’s campaign. However, some have regarded last season as a bit of beginner’s luck for the Italian side, as they made their debut in the Champions League – something that I feel will work in their favour this time around.
After reaching the quarter finals last season, Gian Piero Gasperini’s squad will be looking to replicate, if not better, that this year. Having been drawn in Group D alongside Liverpool, Ajax, and Midtjylland, expect free-flowing attacking football to be present in every fixture. Atalanta will be a joy to watch and personally, I can see their results matching their playstyle.
Breakthrough Player – Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
Hear me out.
Yes, Joao Felix has had plenty of experience with this competition before. He became the fourth most expensive player of all time with his move from Benfica to Atletico Madrid back in 2019. It’s clear that Felix has made his initial breakthrough.
But that’s all it’s been so far. An announcement of his talent and potential. Felix hasn’t done much in Madrid to warrant any further attention past the price tag. However, this could be the season we see the 20-year-old at his very best.
With Luis Suarez joining the club from Barcelona, Felix has one of the best strikers in La Liga to learn from and partner up front. The Portuguese forward also has excellent service coming from midfield, with Marcos Llorente, Koke and Saul behind him. With the pressure of an enormous price tag and comparisons to greats like Cristiano Ronaldo, this season’s Champions League could be the moment where Joao Felix truly announces himself to the world and proves his doubters wrong.
Match of the Group Stages – Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid (Group A)
If one game were to show the quality that can be found in this competitions, it’s definitely the opening fixture in Group A. Two powerhouses coming head to head so early in the competition is always exciting, especially when you think of the potential battles between individual players looking to outdo their opposite number. Lewandowski vs Suarez, Neuer vs Oblak, Felix vs Gnabry – every area of the pitch is oozing with quality, making this game one of the most entertaining on the calendar.
This game just screams goals – I’m predicting at least five goals from this fixture. That being said, Diego Simeone is known for sitting in and frustrating attacking teams, so this could just as easily end with only one goal in the game, especially considering Bayern only scored one past PSG in last season’s final. Regardless, this game is an absolute must watch, due to the incredible talent that’s due to be showcased by both teams.
Favourites – Bayern Munich
As it almost always is, the holders are the favourites. Hans-Dieter Flick’s Bayern are arguably the most deserving European champions in history. The Bavarian giants won all eleven of their Champions League games last season and made a mockery of multiple European heavyweights on the way such as Barcelona (8-2 in the single-legged quarter final), Chelsea (7-1 on aggregate in the round of 16) and Red Star Belgrade (6-0 in the group stages). Tottenham Hotspur too (7-2 in London) – if they count.
Improvements to the squad have been made ahead of the new season. Their already stacked frontline, led by Robert Lewandowski (who netted 55 times last season), has been improved further by new summer arrivals Douglas Costa and Leroy Sane. Since beating Paris Saint-Germain in the final, Bayern have gone on to lift the DFL-Super Cup and UEFA Super Cup. Their incredible trophy streak shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
Surprise Team – Sevilla
Sevilla won their record sixth Europa League in August. The dark horses flexed their muscles by knocking out Roma, Wolves and Manchester United before defeating Antonio Conte’s rejuvenated Inter Milan in the final. The strength of opposition Sevilla brushed past shows that Julen Lopetegui’s men can take on Champions League level opposition. That was shown again as they took Bayern Munich to extra time in this season’s Super Cup.
Sevilla have been tipped as potential La Liga contenders this year, largely due to a weakened top three but that should not take anything away from the team itself. Despite not having typical goal-getting strikers in Luuk de Jong and Youssef El-Nesyri, Lopetegui has a tactically flexible squad that can sit deep or press high and likes to punish opponents with dangerous passes in behind the opposition, superb wing play and quick counter attacks.
Breakthrough Player – Mohammed Kudus (Ajax)
Ajax sold Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and Serginio Dest, among others, this summer and as always in Amsterdam, there are young players waiting to pounce on the first team positions left vacant. One such player is Mohammed Kudus. The 20-year-old was signed from Nordsjaelland for €9 million this summer and has incredible potential. He has already grabbed one goal and three assists in three Eredivisie games for his new club.
Kudus is primarily an attacking midfielder and the Ghana international seemingly has it all. He can skip round the most physical of defenders for fun, he can score with either foot, he can deliver inch-perfect assists, he can take penalties and, to the annoyance of his opponents, he’s full of flair. Fancy flicks and roulettes are to be expected from him. This is his first Champions League campaign, and it will not be his last.
Match of the Group Stages – Chelsea vs Rennes (Group E)
There are bigger games than this of course, however, there is something interesting about Group E. There is Sevilla who should qualify from through the group with at least 12 points. There is also Krasnodar, who are competing in the Champions League tournament proper for the first time and would be happy with just getting points on the board.
Rennes are also debutants in the Champions League this season but will be aiming higher than their Russian counterparts. They have an exciting side brimming with young talent and the French side will be eager to make the knockout rounds at the first attempt. Last season, Chelsea only narrowly qualified from their group by one point and with Frank Lampard’s new expensive additions still yet to gel, we could see them struggle to qualify again. That is what makes the ‘Edouard Mendy Derby’ interesting: The two games between them will shape who makes it through and who drops into the Europa League.