The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off this week.
The group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams that will feature in the last 16 draw in December.
Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave an early mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be absolutely thrilled about the Champions League right from matchday one.
We take a look at all the groups and make a prediction on the final standings. Here is Group D …
Manager: Maurizio Sarri
Having qualified as Serie A champions, Juventus are the team to beat in what can shape into a very interesting group. The Bianconeri will look to make it past the group stage for the sixth consecutive time after last failing to do so in the 2013/14 season.
The exclusion of players such as Emre Can and Mario Mandzukic from Juve’s Champions League squad testifies to their immense quality in depth. The Italian giants boast one of the most well-rounded squads in Europe, a necessity when teams fight for more than one trophy throughout the season.
In Cristiano Ronaldo, Juve have one of the finest players to have played in this competition. The Portuguese forward won three consecutive Champions League titles with Real Madrid before being knocked out with his new team by Ajax last season.
Ronaldo has made it his onus to end the Old Lady’s long wait for a European title and the ageless wonder, 34, will hold the key against Atletico Madrid in what could be the contest that decides the group on opening night.
The former Real man has a special liking for playing against the team from the other half of Madrid, a team against which he has scored 25 goals and registered eight assists in 33 appearances across all competitions. He also dumped them out of last season’s competition with a hat-trick in Turin to seal an epic fightback for the Bianconeri, after they had lost the first leg of the last 16 2-0 in Madrid.
But the Turin side will be without the services of injured Douglas Costa, Miralem Pjanic and Danilo against the Spanish side. This could play a huge role in determining the result on Wednesday and subsequently the final standings.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Atletico Madrid (Spain)
Manager: Diego Simeone
The Spanish side established themselves as a familiar face in this competition earlier this decade and have never looked back. Although Los Rojiblancos won the Europa League three times in the last 10 years, they are yet to win a first Champions League title – despite twice losing finals to their hated city rivals Real.
Atleti will hope that this could be their year, having invested heavily and wisely in the transfer market during the summer. But Diego Simeone’s men must first finish in the top-two of a challenging group before they think of making it to the summit.
The 2018 Europa League winners boast incredible attacking talents in the exciting Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar, a solid midfield headed by Koke and a sturdy defence reinforced by the addition of former Espanyol defender Mario Hermoso. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world guarding the posts in Jan Oblak.
If Atletico build on their promising start in La Liga – where they won three of their first four games – and extrapolate it to the European stage, they should have absolutely no problem making it to the last 16. Although, Bayer Leverkusen are more than capable of spoiling the party.
Two seasons ago, the capital side was relegated to the Europa League after they failed to finish in the top two during the group stages. Two draws against Qarabag were majorly responsible for this unexpected failure. They should hence be wary of Lokomotiv Moscow and focus on getting all six points against the Russian side.
Key player: Joao Felix
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Manager: Peter Bosz
Bayer Leverkusen have returned to the Champions League after a two-year absence, one of which was spent in the Europa League. Bayer have barely made a sound in Europe’s top tier competition since they made a huge noise by reaching the 2002 final, where they lost 2-1 to Real Madrid.
The German side could spring a surprise against Atletico and Juventus though and complicate the group dynamic. The raw talent prevalent at Leverkusen makes a fair case as to why the big guns must consider them equals.
In Kai Havertz, Leverkusen have one of the finest attacking talents in the world who could take Europe by storm this season. Leon Bailey, Kerem Demirbay and Chile star Charles Aranguiz are some of the other players who could help put the Bundesliga side on the European map again by eliminating one of the two big guns in the group.
Atletico were on the right side of a 4-2 win in the last 16 when Leverkusen last featured in this competition two years ago. Revenge will be on their minds as they look to shock the Spanish – and Italian – giants.
Key-player: Kai Havertz
Manager: Yuri Semin
Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow will feature in the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since they were knocked out in the last 16 by Monaco in the 2003/04 season, on their way to the final. The Russians’ best result on the European stage arrived between 1997 and 1999 when they made two consecutive semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup (equivalent to the Europa League). But Lokomotiv have failed to breach the last 32 of the Europa League since.
Interestingly, their current manager Yuri Semin was at the helm when they made it to the semis on those two occasions at the end of the 90s. He was also their manager when they first qualified for a European competition way back in the 1993/94 season.
Lokomotiv are considered the fodder of this group but they will look to make a statement during their home games. Russia always makes for a challenging away trip and sturdy performances at home could enable them to play spoilsport against the bigger clubs.
Key player: Joao Mario
2. Atletico Madrid
3. Bayer Leverkusen
4. Lokomotiv Moscow
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