The usual suspects are forming an orderly queue in the list of favourites to lift this seasons UCL Trophy in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul come May 30th 2020.
Some of those favourites have spent big, like Real Madrid, some wish they had spent bigger as Barcelona waited on Neymar but hedged their bets with the better bet that is Antoine Griezmann. Liverpool kept their cheque book under lock and key and welcomed back The Ox, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to supplement an already formidable squad and Tottenham prised the cheque book out of Daniel Levi`s vice-like grip. Chelsea are unlikely to win the UCL and Frank Lampard will be hoping for as long a run in the competition as possible to give his fledgling Blues a real taster of what they could expect if they stay at Stamford Bridge.
Manchester City are the team I am struggling to fathom out before European action starts in earnest. They are capable of winning the ultimate club prize but every season that passes without the `Big Eared Cup` taking up that space reserved for it in the Etihad trophy room is a season closer to them losing their most prized possession – Pep.
And then there`s Paris St Germain. I think the euro has finally dropped, don`t panic Boris, that keeping top talent happy and at their best when they only play against quality opposition on European nights is a recipe for, well, not reaching European Finals.
Failing to reach European Finals is not an accusation that can be levelled at Atletico Madrid, the only club to reach three UCL Final without winning. How they will cope without Antoine Griezmann will be critical to their chances. Juventus are another club that has come so near yet finished so far away from being crowned Europe`s best. Twice finalists in very recent years, 2015 and 2017, they found Iberia`s best too much to handle so they will need very little motivation under Maurizio Sarri who would seem better suited to Latin football than the hubris of the Premier League.
While the tiresome rhetoric about Neymar dominated the closing stages of the European transfer window it also proved a bit of a smoke-screen over the bigger question, that of PSG`s failure to convert Qatar Sports` Investment into UCL success. The two games against the rebuilding project that is Real Madrid may prove the most important in PSG history, the recent fiscally buoyant history I mean as the money people may see a better investment target elsewhere. The French club should progress with Real but observers will be making careful notes on how both sides perform before the knock-out phase kicks in.
Mauro Icardi was a big loan signing when he joined from Inter Milan just the window was closing.
Real Madrid continue to confuse, whether you are Gareth Bale or simply a football fan. Zinedine Zidane seems to have made up with Bale but I can`t help but wonder if the shadow of `The Special One`, still out of work, hangs over ZZ and Real`s obsession with their `personal property`, the UCL trophy.
Club Brugge pushed Genk hard for the Belgian title last season only to fall two points short in the play-offs while Galatasaray won the Turkish League last season but only by 2 points from Basaksehir who have been runners-up twice in the last two seasons. Ryan Babel is Galatasaray`s best known player and can still turn a game at the age of 32. I say best known player but he has been usurped by Radamel Falcao, just arrived from Monaco. If he turns up against Real and PSG then maybe the Turkish side will gatecrash the next phase. And right on deadline Brighton striker Florin Andone joined Galatasaray on a season-long loan.
Real and PSG to progress
Red Star Belgrade
A tough group whichever perspective you choose. Bayern are trying to keep up with RB Leipzig who are themselves busting a gut to break into the top two after last season`s third place finish. Bayern have spent big but whether or not it is wisely remains to be seen.
Benjamin Pavard won the World Cup with France and should provide class at right back. Lucas Hernandez was a team mate of Pavard in the French side that lifted the World Cup and after a schooling with Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid once he recovers from knee surgery should help provide BM with much needed defensive solidarity.
Spurs spent big in the summer but more importantly have held on to Christian Eriksen. Tough though this group appears Tottenham`s players, many with youth on their side, have learnt from the experience gained in recent seasons not least reaching the Final in May.
I think Spurs and Bayern will progress but the banana skin for both sides may well be Red Star Belgrade. Not a top team by normal standards but they have a good home record and a near fanatical home crowd that can unsettle any visiting side and a pitch that is not Premier or Bundesliga quality.
Olympiacos are entering their 19th UCL campaign so have plenty of group experience and reached the last 32 in 2018-19 so the other teams will be wary of what they face with them.
Tottenham and Bayern Munich to go through
The consensus of opinion seems to be that if Pep Guardiola himself had drawn this group up he could not have selected a more favourable one
No surprise then that Manchester City were immediately installed as favourites win the Champions` League. There`s little doubt City are capable but for a squad that possesses so much European savvy and is so dominant in the Premier League, Liverpool excepted, it remains a mystery why their mind-set in the UCL is deficient. It`s looking like the only area of the City side that needs a massive tweak is in the centre of defence. Laporte is out for a long time, Kompany has gone and Stones` absence leaves Otamendi – heaven help us- as the only recognised centre back. Maybe its a time for radical rethinking; Kyle Walker in the middle of a back three and change the formation. Just a thought, Pep.
Shakhtar have won the Ukrainian League three years in a row and their FA Cup four years running but it is 10 years since their one European triumph, the UEFA Cup.
In 2018-19 Dinamo Zagreb qualified for the knock-out phase making it the first time in 49 years they reached that stage of playing winter European competition. The club holds the record of most Croatian League titles, 21, 11 in a row up to 2016-17 when they were pipped by two points, by Rijeka so it`s fair to say they are the dominant force in Croatian football and the whole world knows about Croatian football.
The highest finishing Serie A position in its 111 year history, 3rd in 2018-19, earned Atalanta a first-ever entry into the Champions` League. They did have in their ranks the cast-iron presence of former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel but his contract was cancelled after just one game. The boost given Atalanta by finishing above the Milan giants last season will help the club that has only been top-flight since 2011 extra incentive to enjoy their debut.
Manchester City and Shakhtar to progress but keep an eye on Atalanta
On the face of it Juventus and Atletico should progress because, pound for pound, they are better sides with better players. The two giants are serial runners-up in the UCL but the edge must be with Juve having Cristiano Ronaldo, a serial winner of the UCL, still the best at what he does. It will be interesting to see how Aaron Ramsey does in the team now that he is unshackled from his Arsenal stay.
Bayer Leverkusen are still striving to make the break through at the top of the Bundesliga but despite a 4th place finish last season they were still a massive 20 points behind Champions Bayern Munich.
The last two seasons have seen a dramatic improvement in Lokomotiv Moscow`s domestic performances. League champions in 2018, for only a third time ever they finished second last campaign to make it into the UCL for this coming campaign.
Atletico Madrid may have lost Griezmann but they still have arguably one of the best managers and motivators in world football. I wonder if Senor Simeone will still be at the helm next season if Atletico don`t finally lift the UCL title come May. Eight players in and 10 out shows the club mean business. No Griezmann but in his stead comes Portuguese `wunderkid` Joao Felix, arguably the best prospect in world football a 19. At 24 and grabbing a platform on which to prove a point is midfielder Marcos Llorente, a summer capture from city rivals Real.
Juventus and Atletico Madrid to qualify
Jurgen Klopp may have played down Liverpool`s chances of retaining their UCL crown but this group should prove no great hardship for the holders. Napoli, under the canny stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti, should progress with Liverpool and the two games between the sides could turn out to be ones for the purists to savour. Napoli`s already potent firepower of Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens has been supplemented by the acquisition of Fernando Llorente. All three should be manageable by the best centre back in world football, Virgil van Dijk and watch out for the resurgent Anfield duo of Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. No wonder the cheque book stayed in the drawer.
Salzburg qualify for the UCL for the first time automatically and it`s the first time since 1994-95 they have appeared in the group stage. They have monopolised their domestic league title in recent years winning eight of the last nine so they know about winning. Sound bet for Europa League.
Some observers may be thinking, Genk, who are they? Well, they are the team that surprised many by winning the Belgian League last season, ahead of the likes of perennial winners Anderlecht, who finished 12 points adrift, and Standard Liege, 10 points behind. Genk should push Salzburg hard for third place in the group.
Liverpool and Napoli to progress
Poor old Slavia Prague. What have they done to deserve being thrown in with second favourites Barcelona, vastly improved Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan. At least Chinese owners Sinobo will be smiling all the way to the bank. The Prague players will have to regard this group as a very steep learning curve as they are unlikely to finish any higher than fourth.
Inter Milan, after a disappointing last season in Serie A have boosted their playing roster with a couple of decent acquisitions, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. They have in Diego Godin one of the VERY BEST defenders in world football and the manager is none too shabby either, Antonio Conte.
The two games between Inter and Dortmund should decide who accompanies Barcelona into the next phase even though Neymar has chosen to stay with PSG.
Barcelona and, if you push me, Dortmund, to qualify
Zenit St Petersburg
This is the most open group of all and as such should make for some exciting encounters but, as always, not losing the first group game, preferably winning, is a massive bonus.
RB Leipzig are my shout to win the group or at least qualify along with Benfica who wrote the book when it comes to Champions League experience and is second in the all time list of qualification for Europe`s premier club competition, 38 times, twice winners in the days of Eusebio.
They have won five of the last six Portuguese domestic titles but have yet to translate domestic silverware into European titles.
Lyon finished 3rd last season in Ligue 1 but are struggling to improve on a sluggish start to the current campaign and are unlikely to progress.
In 2018 Zenit astounded the football world with an incredible comeback in the Europa League. After losing the first leg to Dynamo Minsk, 4-0, they smashed eight goals in during the home 2nd leg to win 8-1, 8-5 on aggregate. Their last two goals cam in the 120th minute. Not a team to be underestimated.
RB Leipzig and Benfica to progress
A very tricky group for Chelsea to negotiate and one where the lack of European experience may well prove troublesome. That said, minus of course one E Hazard, the same squad that won the Europa League to qualify for this competition should ensure progress. But that progress may have to come on the shirt tails of last seasons semi-finalists Ajax. They may have lost a number of key players but the production line continues to produce and a usual, solid start to the Eredivisie shows the momentum continues in Amsterdam.
Valencia have made an appalling start to their domestic programme and languished in mid-table when the draw was made. They have their work cut out to break out of the group while Lille are languishing in exactly the same position as Valencia. Either of these two would consider Europa League entry a bonus because they are not going to pass Chelsea or Ajax.
Chelsea and Ajax to go through
By Brian Beard