Champions League Group B preview: Bayern Munich to top, Tottenham to finish runners-up

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I like what I see: Niko Kovac.

The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest for Champions League glory.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to make an early impact, there’s reason to be thrilled about the start of this season’s tournament.

We take a look at all the groups and make a prediction on the final standings. Here is Group B …

Bayern Munich (Germany)

Lewandowski

Manager: Niko Kovac

The Bavarians have been one of the most consistent teams in the Champions League in the 21st century. The last time they failed to make the knockouts was back in the 2002/03 edition when they did not win a single game in a group that also comprised Deportivo La Coruna, Lens and AC Milan.

Bayern were last crowned champions in the 2012/13 season after defeating rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final. Ever since, they have been bested by Spanish clubs, being eliminated by Atletico Madrid and Barcelona once and three times by Real Madrid. Last season they were sent packing in the last-16 by eventual champions Liverpool.

Bayern were active in the transfer market, roping in Lucas Hernandez, Philippe Coutinho, Benjamin Pavard and Ivan Perisic among others. Expect them to be a force to be reckoned with yet again. The tie against Spurs could be the decisive one in the group. Bayern are also much more consistent against weaker opposition than Spurs are and this could help their case.

Key player: Robert Lewandowski

Tottenham (England)

Son Heung-min and Harry Kane

Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

The runners-up of the 2018/19 season of the Champions League will look to better their performance last season and go all the way at Istanbul.

The North London side reinforced their weakest area from last season; the midfield. Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele were roped in to add depth in the centre of the park. While the former is slowly being eased into the starting line-up, the latter is already standing out as a key figure.

Spurs have not had a rosy start to their Premier League campaign, winning just one of their four games and are ninth in the table. But they have been resolute with their approach to European games in the past, as evidenced by how they qualified from a group that included Barcelona, Inter Milan, and PSV Eindhoven last season.

It’s only recently that the North London side have established themselves as regulars in the Champions League. This will be their fourth consecutive appearance in Europe’s top competition.

Spurs are an unpredictable side; they have the potential to shock the absolute best of Europe but can also falter in simpler games. Their performance against Olympiacos and Red Star Belgrade could determine whether they will win the group, given Bayern rarely slip against these teams.

Key Player: Harry Kane

Olympiacos (Greece)

FBL-EUR-C1-OLYMPIAKOS-BARCELONA

Manager: Pedro Martins

Having qualified to the group stage by making it through three rounds, Olympiacos will be an interesting team to watch. The Greek side finished second in the league last season and had to defeat Viktoria Plzen, Istanbul Basaksehir and Krasnodar to make it to the last-32.

That they conceded just one goal and scored 13 in the six games shows that there is no room for complacency from the big teams in this group. The last time they featured in the competition (2017/18), Olympiacos famously held Barcelona to a goal-less draw at home.

The Greek side usually features in the Europa League and a berth in the last-32 of the competition following a third-place finish in the group stage will be a good result. But the long-term injury to star player Konstantinos Fortounis is a concern.

Key player: Mady Camara

Red Star Belgrade (Serbia)

Red Star

Manager: Vladan Milojevic

Last season, Red Star Belgrade managed something very few teams in the Champions League and Premier league did – inflict defeat on eventual European Champions Liverpool. Sadly, that was their only win of the group stages as they finished fourth.

The Serbian side edged Sudava Marijampole and HJK Helsinki by one-goal margins in the first two qualification rounds, before defeating Copenhagen on penalties and Young Boys on away goals to qualify for the main event. That they made it to the group stages two years in a row says a lot about their conviction.

Belgrade are undoubtedly the minnows of the group but they could complicate matters by surprising a big team in front of their intimidating home crowd. The Serbian side did so last season and Liverpool would surely acknowledge their ability to spring a surprise.

Key player: Milan Pavkov

Prediction:

1. Bayern Munich

2. Tottenham

3. Olympiacos

4. Red Star Belgrade

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James and Choupo-Moting can seize moment as depleted PSG and Real Madrid clash

Andy West 17/09/2019
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Real Madrid travel to face Paris Saint-Germain in a high-profile kick-off to Champions League Group A, and both managers have been forced into tactical reshuffles after being confronted by a long list of absentees.

Realistically, Thomas Tuchel and Zinedine Zidane should see their teams advance to the next stage irrespective of Wednesday night’s outcome, but pride and a sense of positivity will be at stake in a game which provides plenty of talking points.

Here are three of them.

Navas seeking sweet revenge?

KeylorNavasPSG (1)

This fixture’s most hotly-anticipated individual outing will have to wait for the return match, with Neymar unable to face Madrid – the club which reportedly considered signing him in the summer transfer market – due to a suspension incurred after his social media criticism of the officiating during his team’s exit against Manchester United in last season’s competition.

There is, however, still a personal battle to savour, albeit from a distance of 100 metres, as Keylor Navas takes on his former club and the man who usurped him in the starting position at the Bernabeu, Thibaut Courtois.

Navas was an undisputed starter for Los Blancos for three seasons, winning back-to-back-to-back Champions League titles and becoming a firm favourite of Zidane, who was reportedly highly reluctant to allow the Costa Rican to lose his place to big-money signing Courtois but caved in to pressure from the boardroom.

Navas certainly will not feel that he has anything to prove to Zidane, but he would certainly relish the chance to send a hefty reminder of his shot-stopping talents to Madrid club president Florentino Perez, and the PSG stopper’s motivation to keep out his former teammates could not be higher.

Can Choupo-Moting seize his moment?

ChoupoMotingPSG (1)

Neymar isn’t the only high-profile absentee for the hosts, with fellow superstar forwards Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani also out through injury and deadline day signing Mauro Icardi a doubt after only playing 27 minutes of football this season.

Cameroon forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting – who has started the campaign with three goals in as many games – is therefore likely to lead the line against a Madrid defence also missing some familiar faces with Marcelo injured and Sergio Ramos banned for deliberately earning a red card in the first leg of his team’s tie against Ajax last season.

Nacho is also suspended, so Zidane will give a full debut to summer signing Eder Militao, who suffered a shaky half-hour from the bench as Madrid held on to a nervy 3-2 home victory at home to Levante on Saturday afternoon.

The lack of familiarity between Eder and central defensive partner Raphael Varane, who have played just those 30 minutes together, could provide an opening for PSG to exploit – especially with Ferland Mendy only making his second competitive appearance for the club at left-back.

After spending the 2017/18 season with Stoke City following three years with Schalke, Choupo-Moting could never have dreamed that he would be starting for PSG against Real Madrid in the Champions League. But considering the raft of absentees in the opposition back line, this could be his moment to truly shine.

James back in the limelight…or back on the bench?

One highly positive aspect of Madrid’s 3-2 victory over Levante was a bright and influential display from James Rodriguez. Like teammate Gareth Bale – who is also expected to start in Paris on Wednesday – James was expected to leave the club in the summer after being designated persona non grata by Zidane.

But no suitable bids were made and the Colombian playmaker was forced to stay put. And now, with Luka Modric, Isco and Marco Asensio all missing through injury, James has been thrust into the starting line-up and is playing very much as though he is determined to make up for lost time.

However, his place in the starting XI is by no means guaranteed because Zidane hinted that big summer signing Eden Hazard is set to start for the first time after recovering from injury and making his debut from the bench against Levante.

Bale, James, Hazard, Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez are battling for three places in the starting line-up, and Zidane’s long-term preference is thought to be positioning the Belgian in the centre of the field behind Karim Benzema. As that is exactly where James played on Saturday, he could well be forced back onto the bench just when he appeared to be finding his old form.

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Atletico Madrid v Juventus talking points: Cristiano Ronaldo returns, but it's Joao Felix time

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Juventus eliminated Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round-of-16 last season and the two sides lock horns again in their first battle of the new campaign.

Cristiano Ronaldo returns to the Spanish capital where he enjoyed extraordinary success with Atletico’s crosstown rivals, Real. But it may well be a new Portugal star in Joao Felix who makes an impact in the continental competition’s first round of fixtures.

Here, we look at the talking points ahead of this intriguing clash at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on Wednesday:

BOY WONDER

Felix made just one appearance in last season’s Champions League before Benfica were relegated to the Europa League where he impressed.

So effectively, this is the Portuguese starlet’s first real campaign among the European elite and expectations couldn’t be higher.

As if a price tag of €126 million didn’t place enough pressure on the 19-year-old, his excellent start for Los Rojiblancos has only raised the bar. Fortunately, Felix appears to be one of those rare talents unfazed by the overwhelming scrutiny that can come from being branded as one of football’s budding superstars.

Kylian Mbappe, for example, thrived under the European floodlights with Monaco two years ago and hasn’t looked back since. More recently, Matthijs de Ligt enjoyed a sensational first Champions League campaign last term as the then Ajax captain inspired his side to the brink of the final.

Now it’s Felix’s turn to prove his prodigious talent on the grandest stage.

Joao Felix

Joao Felix

YET TO HIT THEIR STRIDE

Atletico will take comfort from sitting above La Liga rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona in the standings even at this early stage.

New signings Felix and Kieran Trippier in particular have hit the ground running, but an influx of new players was always going to bring a transitional period.

That was evident even before their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Real Sociedad over the weekend. Diego Simeone’s side had to come back from two-goals down to defeat Eibar 3-2 at home before the international break. This side is still a work in progress.

To a certain extent, the same can be said about Juventus. Maurizio Sarri’s specific 4-3-3 system requires a bedding in process and the Italian champions are coming off a disappointing result of their own after a goalless stalemate against Fiorentina.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo is yet to come into his own this season.

Juventus

DEPLETED JUVE

Compounding Juventus’ concerns is a growing injury list. Jan Oblak will most likely be the key absentee for Atletico after taking a boot to the face from Nacho Monreal on Saturday, but the Bianconeri will be missing a whole host of players.

Giorgio Chiellini is a long-term absentee but injuries to Douglas Costa, Miralem Pjanic and Danilo against Fiorentina have hit Sarri’s side hard. With Mattia De Sciglio already sidelined, Danilo’s absence may force Juan Cuadrado to operate as a makeshift right-back.

Should Pjanic also be unavailable for the encounter, Juventus will lose a key player in facilitating Sarri’s possession oriented style.

Juventus injuries

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