By Brian Beard | 28th AUG 2021
If I was a betting man I would have placed a few coins on Manchester City being drawn in the same UEFA Champions League group as Paris Saint-Germain, of well, there`s always the lottery. But I wouldn`t even hazard a guess at the odds I would have got for Barcelona and Bayern Munich being paired together.
The post-Covid world of European football threatens to be a completely new world, nearly, to what it was pre-pandemic. I expect a good showing from rising teams like Atalanta – yes, them again and RB Leipzig. However I think there is one huge common factor connecting all members of the super elite triumvirate from which the 2022 winners will emerge; PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City – MONEY, and lots of it. Ordinarily the top club ensemble would include Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and, perhaps Manchester United. Unfortunately for Spain La Liga is so poor now, on every level.
They have lost Messi due to financial constraints, not to mention the club debts now topping one billion euros. Ironically it is the financial climate that has seen one of the trio with bottomless pockets, PSG, benefit from a posse of mouth-watering free-signings, Messi being the most prominent. I make the French club runaway favourites for winning the UCL trophy and the main reason for that is their vastly experienced squad, not to mention the odd UCL, World Cup or European Championship winners` medal.
I think Chelsea will be PSG`s main rival for the crown with the main reason being Manchester City`s lack of a cutting edge which would put them in as only third favourites. It is a cutting edge, and a proven one at that, the Stamford Bridge outfit has invested £97 million in with Romelu Lukaku. The lack of a similar end product may come back to haunt Pep Guardiola.
Of the Spanish trio I expect Atletico Madrid to make the biggest impact because I think Diego Simeone`s team are more grounded.
Bayern Munich should be capable of reaching the last four but I think their focus will be on returning the club to their former pre-eminence in the Bundesliga despite the threat of Borussia Dortmund, with or without Erling Haaland, and RB Leipzig. Those two teams are competent, resourceful and play expansive football and are more than capable of providing Germany`s best showing.
I expect Atalanta to continue their impressive rise up the ranks of rated European sides. They are exciting to watch and their `you score three and we`ll score four` approach has won them many friends, me included.
Liverpool have all the credentials for a creditable showing in this season`s UCL but will struggle unless FSG dig a bit deeper and provide Jurgen Klopp with the necessary to buy at least one goal- scoring midfielder, unless he converts Firmino. Liverpool also need another centre back who is 60% as good as van Dijk if they are to reach the UCL Final.
Manchester United have acquired Varane and there is no doubt he is a quality player and, arguably, better than the man he will partner at the heart of United`s defence. But if the quality of attacking players available to OGS is to be likened to finely-tuned valves on a racing engine that COULD be the United team Ole needs a solid engine block and transmission base that a truly world-class leader would provide. And Bruno Fernandes it aint.
If City and PSG don`t run away with this group then something serious is wrong. However, I think Leipzig will fancy their chances against the big two as much as they will not fancy their games with the Bundesliga outfit. I think the key to the top two is who, out of PSG and City, do best against RB and more to the point how City handle a very good German side.
City or RB Leipzig and PSG to qualify.
Wow, Liverpool did not deserve this grouping. I take Atletico and Liverpool to go through but Milan, with the ageless Zlat the Terrible and Olivier Giroud could be the team that has a big say on the top two. It could be very tight and go down to the wire and if that is the case Liverpool may just edge out the Serie A side
At the time of the UCL draw Sporting and Benfica were neck and neck, unbeaten, in Primeira Liga, after three games and along with Dortmund must be favourites to progress. But Ajax are always capable of causing an upset so the two sides, from Portugal and Germany will need to be at their best if they are to avoid dropping into the Europa League.
Sporting and Dortmund to progress
One of those stories you couldn`t make up centres on FC Sherriff Tiraspol, a team from a country that does not exist, being drawn with Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk. Sherriff play in the Moldovan National Division but they are located in a `breakaway state named Transnistria – honest- that is not recognised internationally.
Well, except for three other countries, also not recognised by the international community; Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia – keep up. I think the last words on a team that must be the outsidest, I know that`s not a word, of outsiders to ever compete at European football`s top table must be the following fact: Tramsnistria`s economy is frequently described as dependent on contraband and gun running. But that`s another story.
Real will be a different prospect under the wily Ancelotti and a sign of his acumen is the way he has embraced Gareth Bale back into the Bernabeu fold. Inter have a star-studded squad with the kind of UCL experience that can bear fruit all the way to the final, especially with the impetus of Italy`s Euro triumph.
I can`t see any other outcome than Real and Inter progressing.
Bayern Munich and Barcelona should top the group but will be fully aware that either of the other two teams, Benfica and Kyiv, are more than capable of throwing the cat amongst the pigeons. That said Benfica are probably more likely to fancy their chances of splitting the big two.
I think status quo will be maintained and Bayern and Barca will top the group. I mean, after the draw put PSG and Manchester City together you have to think at some point Messi will face Barca.
Top two should be Bayern and Barcelona
I read somewhere that someone had asked `why do Manchester United always seem to get the easiest group of all English teams`. POINT OF ORDER – look up last season`s Europa League Final!!!!!!
Atalanta will have their day sooner or later and Young Boys will be no push over. So IF United are to progress their mind set will have to be right, in every game, not always the case with the Reds. Otherwise they could end up dropping into the Europa League again.
Villareal may not have had the best of starts in La Liga so far but on the European stage they harbour optimistic hopes of closing in on the status of their more illustrious fellow La Liga compatriot.
Shock! Atalanta and Villarreal to progress
Lille`s toppling of PSG in Ligue 1 last season was on a par with, if not better than, Leicester City winning the Premier League. And I expect them to relish to UCL challenge ahead. I expect them to progress with Sevilla, most neutrals` favourite Spanish side outside Madrid and Barcelona.
Sevilla are past-masters of winning European trophies and are making slow but steady progress towards achieving a similar standing in the UCL.
I am expecting Lille and Sevilla to progress with no real interference from Saltzburg or Wolfsburg.
Lille and Sevilla to top the group
The games between Chelsea and Juventus offer much promise so I hope we are not disappointed. Thomas Tuchel hit the ground running with silverware aplenty since he arrived at Stamford Bridge while Juve have reappointed their former coach Massimiliano Allegri after sacking legend Andrea Pirlo. De javu it might be and that is what Juve fans will be hoping for as Allegri`s Juventu side won five consecutive Serie A titles. He also took them to two UCL Finals.
I cannot see beyond the big two, whether Ronaldo is at Juventus or not, for the top two places to complete what promises to be a fantastic knock-out phase.
Group H top two, Chelsea and Juventus.
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association