Champions League Group H preview: Ajax to finish on top, Chelsea to follow

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off next week.

The Group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams which will feature in the last-16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave a mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be thrilled about the Champions League right from match-day one.

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

Ajax (Netherlands)

Dusan Tadic

Manager: Erik ten Hag

The neutrals’ darlings from last season are favourites to top what looks like a tricky Group F. A young Ajax side exceeded expectations and made it to the semi-final last season. The Dutch side became the first team to defeat Real Madrid in a knockout European tie in over three years before they dominated a strong Juventus side.

One of the few teams to have won a European treble, Ajax will give it another go after falling short by just two games last season. But unlike last season, the Dutch champions have been drawn in a group where the teams from pots three and four can produce an upset.

Ajax lost two of their best players Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong to Juventus and Barcelona respectively over the summer. Unlike last season, Ajax will have to carry the burden of expectation.

However, the Dutch champions prize their ability to replenish lost talent. They signed Quincy Promes, Edson Alvarez among other players who can go a long way to nullifying the departures.

Ajax have had to defeat PAOK and APOEL on their route to the group stages this season. Given the dynamics of the other teams in the group, Ten Hag’s men should secure the top spot.

Key player: Dusan Tadic

Chelsea (England)

tammy abraham

Manager: Frank Lampard

Chelsea qualified for the Champions League as the winners of the Europa League after they beat London rivals Arsenal in the final. They also finished third in the Premier League but the Europa League title earned them a pot one draw.

The London side has been forced to field a young squad this season due to their ongoing transfer ban. It’s too early to take a call on whether this has proved to be a blessing or a curse but their performance in the Champions League could provide us with an answer four months from now.

The defending Europa League champions who last won the Champions League in the 2011/12 season have seen the emergence of several young players such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount. The injured Callum Hudson-Odoi too can cause trouble to the opposition once he gets going. These players provide a reason to believe that Chelsea could go a long way in the tournament despite the lack of experience.

Although Ajax are favourites to top the group based on their performance in the competition from last season, Chelsea could claim that spot if they are in the right dynamics going into the key fixtures. The 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in the Premier League opener came as a massive setback but the Blues have recovered well to draw level on points with Spurs, United and Arsenal.

Chelsea must ensure they don’t drop points against Lille, stay unbeaten against Valencia and accumulate as many points as possible from Ajax.

Key player: Tammy Abraham

Valencia (Spain)

Dani Parejo celebrates his goal.

Manager: Albert Celades

After a disappointing start to their 2018/19 season, Valencia managed a spectacular comeback to finish in the top-four in La Liga and qualify for the Champions League. However, Marcelino, the manager who made it all happe,n was sacked last week and Valencia’s 5-2 defeat against Barcelona evidenced that Albert Celades has a lot of work to do.

Valencia qualified to the Champions League group stages five times in the last decade but made it to the knockouts just twice. They were knocked out in the last-16 by Schalke in the 2010/11 season and Paris Saint-Germain two seasons later.

Los Che roped in a proven La Liga striker Maxi Gomez and Barcelona shot-stopper Jasper Cillessen but had to let go of Santi Mina and Neto. Theh quality of players, though, is the least of their problems.

The management has been a mess, the dismissal of Marcelino was uncalled for and the appointment of Celades was rushed. Valencia could face the ripple effects of these acts in the Champions League. No coach would want his second game at a club to be an important Champions League clash just two days after being thumped by Barcelona.

However, the Spanish side has all the quality to upset the two favourites. Valencia are unpredictable and a clear picture should arrive a few weeks into Celades’ tenure. But they only have an outside chance to make the top-two.

Key player: Dani Parejo

LOSC Lille (France)

Lille

Manager: Christophe Galtier

Unlikely entrants into the Champions League, Lille experienced a drastic reversal in fortune after they finished second in Ligue 1 after surviving relegation  the previous season. This meant that they were eligible for their first Champions League group stage appearance since the 2012/13 season.

The French side have made it past the group stage of the Champions League only once in their history. They finished above AEK Athens and Anderlecht to finish second behind AC Milan. But Manchester United knocked them out of the competition in the last-16 stage with a 2-0 aggregate win.

Lille must not be hugely optimistic about their chances of finishing in the top-two. Nicolas Pepe and Rafael Leao – two of their best players from last season – have left the club. In replacement, they signed Timothy Weah, Renato Sanches and other youngsters who could fill their boots.

Key player: Renato Sanches

Prediction:

1. Ajax

2. Chelsea

3. Valencia

4. Lille

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Champions League Group G preview: RB Leipzig in first, Lyon runners-up

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off next week.

The Group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams which will feature in the last-16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave a mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be thrilled about the Champions League right from match-day one.

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

RB Leipzig

Timo Werner

Manager: Julian Nagelsmann

Founded in 2009, the Leipzig-based side sprang to prominence about eight years later. RB Leipzig first featured in a European tournament when they qualified for the group stage in the 2017/18 season. Drawn alongside Monaco, Besiktas and Porto, the German side finished third and qualify for the last-32 of the Europa League.

Leipzig surprised Napoli and Zenit Saint Petersburg before bowing out against Marseille in the quarter-final. This run remains their best-ever in a European competition.

Last season, Leipzig had to go through three rounds of qualifying ties before making it to the group stage of the Europa League. They did not make it to the knockouts but made the best of the situation by focusing on the Bundesliga and managing a top-three finish.

The fast-growing German club has now enjoyed a favourable draw and are tipped to finish on top. Leipzig roped in the likes of Ademola Lookman, Patrik Schick, Christopher Nkunku, Ethan Ampadu among others. But manager Julian Nagelsmann could prove to be their best signing of the summer.

The former Hoffenheim coach should be able to lead his side to a top-two finish. Anything less will be an underachievement.

Key player: Timo Werner

Lyon (France)

Memphis

Manager: Sylvinho

The French side will kick off their Champions League campaign with an aim to better their previous campaign when they were eliminated from the competition in the last-16 by a Lionel Messi-led Barcelona.

Lyon grabbed the headlines last season when they became the only team that English treble winners Manchester City did not beat. Sylvinho’s men will hope to replicate those results and finish in the top-two – a feat they are capable of.

Lyon’s impressive show from the group stage of the Champions League last season caused them to lose some of their key players to bigger clubs. Tanguy Ndomeble switched to the white side of north London, while Ferland Mendy and Nabil Fekir joined Real Madrid and Real Betis respectively.

Although the French side also recorded key arrivals in Thiago Mendes, Joachim Andersen and highly-rated Arsenal academy graduate Jeff Reine-Adelaide, it remains to be seen if the current crop of players can challenge the best of Europe.

Lyon are favourites for the runners-up spot but must be wary of an unpredictable Benfica and a challenging away trip to Russia.

Key player: Memphis Depay

Benfica (Portugal)

Alex Grimaldo

Manager: Bruno Lage

Benfica will fancy their chances of making it out of the group for the first time after two seasons, having been drawn in a relatively unpredictable group.

The successive European Cups in 1960 and 1961 have remained Benfica’s biggest achievements in Europe. Recently, they made it to the final of the Europa League in the 2012/13 and the 2013/14 season but lost to Chelsea and Sevilla, respectively.

In the Champions League, the Portuguese side has failed to breach the quarter-final after reaching the stage in the 2005/06, 2011/12 and 2015/16 seasons. They defeated fellow Group G side Zenit in the last-16 in the 2015/16 edition before being edged by Bayern Munich.

Joao Felix was Benfica’s breakout star last season. The forward fetched the club €126 million and has shone for Atletico Madrid so far. The Portuguese champions have not missed him much in the league, given they have accumulated 12 points of a possible 15 so far.

However, they could find a missing piece in the puzzle when they attempt to muscle out the best Europe has to offer.

Last season, Benfica finished behind Bayern and Ajax to qualify for the last-32 of the Europa League but they have a good chance of making the top-two this time.

Key player: Alex Grimaldo

Zenit Saint Petersburg

Zenit

Manager: Sergei Semak

The Russian champions have qualified for the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since the 2015/16 season when they were knocked out by Benfica in the last-16.

Zenit have been regular faces in the Europa League and peaked when they made the quarter-final in the 2014/15 season. They held the fort impressively against eventual champions Sevilla before bowing out to the smallest of margins.

The Russian giants have now been knocked out of the Europa League in the last-16 stage for two consecutive seasons. In the 2017/18 edition, RB Leipzig edged Zenit 3-2 on aggregate.

Despite being drawn from pot one, Zenit are least likely to finish in the top two. But inspired performances at home could propel them close to their objective and fetch them a berth in the last-32 of the Europa League.

Key player: Malcom

Prediction

1. RB Leipzig

2. Lyon

3. Benfica

4. Zenit

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Champions League Group F preview: Barcelona to win group, Borussia Dortmund in second

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off next week.

The group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams which will feature in the last-16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave a mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be 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 F …

Barcelona (Spain)

Lionel Messi: still inspiring Barcelona.

Manager: Ernesto Valverde

The Spanish giants will look to shake off the 4-0 humiliation at Anfield from last season and make a fresh attempt at being crowned kings of Europe for the first time since they won the treble in the 2014/15 season. However, they have hardly been troubled in the early stages of the competition, having made it to the knockouts every season since 2004/05.

However, the Catalans must refrain from letting this record produce complacency ahead of the new campaign. They have been drawn alongside Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund – two dangerous opponents capable of making the top two.

Barcelona endured a disappointing start to their La Liga campaign, winning just two of their first four games. Injuries to star players Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele also hampered their chances in the opening games. Dembele will definitely be out but in rosier news, Messi is set for at least the bench – and then there’s the emergence of 16-year-old prodigy Ansu Fati.

Elsewhere, the Blaugrana have added players such as Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong to their ranks to ease the pressure on Messi in European fixtures. It remains to be seen if the players step up and confirm the Catalan side as favourites with a strong group stage show against some of the best teams in the competition.

Key player: Lionel Messi

Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

Jadon Sancho

Jadon Sancho

Manager: Lucien Favre

The finalists of the 2012/13 season were drawn into Group E from pot two but they could comfortably have taken up Bayern Munich’s spot had they not collapsed in horrific manner in the second half of last season. This slide also comprised conceding a Champions League quarter-final to Tottenham despite being favourites ahead of the last-16 clash.

Dortmund reacted to this disappointment with some clever business in the transfer market in which they roped in top Bundesliga players such as Thorgan Hazard, Mats Hummels and Julian Brandt. Retaining teen sensation Jadon Sancho despite foreign interest should also count as one of the brilliant bits of business ahead of the new season.

Dortmund have rarely faced any complications qualifying for the last-16 ever since they made the final. But this group could be the trickiest one they have ever faced. Although the German giants are still favourites to qualify as the runners-up, it could come to a coin toss between them and Inter.

Favre’s men must ensure no slip-ups against Slavia Prague and attempt to churn out as many points against Barcelona as possible.

Key player: Jadon Sancho

Inter Milan (Italy)

Lukaku

Manager: Antonio Conte

The three-time winners of the Champions League will play their second consecutive season in the competition after a six-year wait. The Serie A side was unlucky to be drawn alongside Barcelona and the eventual runners-up in Spurs last season and find themselves as the third-best side yet again.

Inter Milan experienced a steep decline after winning the treble in the 2009/10 season. They could only make the quarter-final in the following season, the last-16 in the next and failed to qualify for the Champions League in the next six years.

The Nerazzurri were one goal away from making the last-16 last year, with an away draw against PSV Eindhoven in the last match-day combining with Spurs’ draw against Barcelona sending them to the Europa League.

However, Inter will be optimistic about their chances this season and they have every reason to be so. They now have a new manager in Antonio Conte who can build them into a force to be reckoned with. They have also made some interesting summer signings including Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku – two players who endured a tough time at Manchester United but are still world-class players who can play a pivotal role in their campaign.

Conte’s men will hope to beat Dortmund and knock points off Barcelona in the home leg to strengthen their chances of a top-two finish. Finishing third and qualifying for the last-32 in the Europa League would not be a bad result either, given that is a competition better suited to their abilities.

Key Player: Romelu Lukaku

Slavia Prague (Czech Republic)

Slavia

Manager: Jindrich Trpisovsky

With all due respect, Czech club Slavia Prague are the fodder of the group and would consider it an achievement to garner more than three points. This will be Slavia Prague’s second season in the group stage of the Champions League but unfortunately, the draw has been harsh on them.

When Slavia last qualified for the main event in 2007/08, they finished above Steaua Bucuresti and below Arsenal, Sevilla to qualify for the last-32 of the Europa League. Jindrich Trpisovsky’s men will be delighted to match this result this season but that will require some inspirational performance, especially at home.

The Czech First League champions boast of a solid defence that kept two clean-sheets against CFR Cluj in the play-offs but they will now be up against some of the fiercest attacks in Europe. A third-place finish will be a tremendous achievement but Prague must not be disheartened if they finish last.

Key player: Ibrahim Traore

Prediction:

1. Barcelona

2. Borussia Dortmund

3. Inter Milan

4. Slavia Prague

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