Champions League group stage

The Champions League is nothing new in terms of content in my time writing for the Lawrentian. Europe’s most prestigious club trophy is up for grabs once again in 2022-23, with many of the same big names vying to write their names in history, while some smaller sides look to belong among the big boys. To review: the tournament consists of eight groups of four teams each, with each team made to play each of the other three sides in their group twice: home and away. At the end of the group stage, first and second place from each group progress into the round of 16, where a knockout-style tournament begins to crown the best side in Europe. With the group stage draw finally complete, I’d like to take some time to predict who I think will make it into the round of 16 from each group. 

Group A consists of Liverpool, Ajax, Napoli and Rangers. This group is perhaps the dream group of stadium enthusiasts. Annfield, the Johan Cruyff Arena, the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona, and Ibrox are among some of the most unique and world famous football grounds in the world. And this isn’t without reason, for these are four of the world’s most storied clubs as well, which leads this group to be particularly intriguing. The battle will be for second place in reality, as Liverpool are comfortably one of the best two to three sides in Europe these days; at the time of writing, they’ve just beaten Bournemouth 9-0 to tie the all-time record highest win in Premier League history. Rangers are on the other end of the scale. While they are a very interesting side these days and boast some quality players like James Tavernier, they are also still largely a Championship level side with players like John Lundstram starting week in, week out. Ajax will battle Napoli for second place, and in the end, I give Napoli the edge. Both sides are in transition, but Ajax more so as they have just lost their manager as well as starting center back, striker, left back, right back, goalkeeper and backup striker. Meanwhile, Napoli are flying high atop Serie A and may have discovered the next world-class talent in the form of Georgian sensation Kvicha Kvaratshkelia who has just scored a brilliant brace against Monza in only his second start for the club. My final prediction is as follows: 1. Liverpool ,2. Napoli, 3. Ajax and 4. Rangers.

Group B consists of Porto, Atletico de Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, and Club Brugge. Atletico are the clear favorites here, as they have the best track record in the competition as well as star names like Jan Oblak, Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann. However, their recent record is not as flattering as one may expect. Since the 2019-20 season, they have exited in the quarter finals, round of 16, and quarter finals again. In that same time, less-fancied Porto have made the quarter finals once as well, and always pose a threat to bigger sides. They are my picks to finish first and second, while I believe Leverkusen will struggle on their return to the big time. They have lost their first three matches of the Bundesliga season, and I think this slump will hurt their confidence in the Champions League. Furthermore, the UCL is a competition that favors recent experience in coping with the pressure. Porto and Atletico UCL regulars, while Leverkusen are not in recent years. Even Brugge, despite their lack of quality players in comparison to the best teams in Europe, make the UCL group stage on a regular basis these days. In the end, Atletico and manager Diego Simeone will have just enough quality to scrape top spot despite poor recent form, while experience will carry Porto to a comfortable second. Brugge will pick up some surprising wins, perhaps one each against Leverkusen and Porto, and finish third, while Leverkusen will finish bottom. My final prediction is as follows: 1. Atletico de Madrid, 2. Porto, 3. Club Brugge and 4. Bayer Leverkusen

Group C consists of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Viktoria Plzen. This season’s group of death. Bayern, Barcelona, and Inter are three of the most historic sides in Europe, and all three boast improved squads this season. I expect Bayern to be at their machine-like best, while Barcelona’s mix of youth and experience promises to excite, even if they still sit precariously close to bankruptcy. Inter made the knockout phase last season, and with the return of Romelu Lukaku, they look to be a tough prospect as well. Plzen, on the other hand, we may as well overlook here. No disrespect to the Czech champions but they simply aren’t on the same planet as these other sides. For me, Bayern top the group, as they are simply the most well-rounded side. Sadio Mane is scoring goals at a Lewandowski-esque rate, Joshua Kimmich is one of the best midfielders in the world, and they boast frightening wide talents like Sane, Gnabry, and Coman. Unless Manuel Neuer has a shocker, the Germans win the group. The battle, then, is for second and third. I believe Inter will pip Barcelona to the last spot in the round of 16 on the basis of their defense. Barcelona has an incredible midfield and attack, but their backline remains a problematic combination of aging stars and under-experienced youth. Ronald Araujo will be great one day, but simply isn’t yet. Meanwhile, Pique and Jordi Alba needed to be replaced years ago. Inter remain strong at the back with De Vrij and Skriniar, while Lukaku and Lautauro Martinez will be able to match Lewandowski’s goal output. Add the fact that Inter’s squad has more experience playing together than all of Barcelona’s new signings, and this prediction makes sense. My final prediction is as follows: 1. Bayern Munich, 2. Inter Milan, 3. Barcelona and 4. Viktoria Plzen

Group D consists of Eintracht Frankfurt, Tottenham Hotspur, Sporting CP, and Olympique Marseille. Predicting this group is very easy in one regard, and very difficult in another. Spurs should top it easily, as on paper they are by far the best side and have the best manager. The battle for second, however, looks tougher to call. Frankfurt won the Europa League last season, beating teams like Barcelona along the way; however their best player, Filip Kostic, has left for Juventus. They brought in Mario Götze, but he is far from the player he promised to be a decade ago and looks more like a squad option. Further, they lack quality up front, and thus promise to struggle to score. Marseille look more promising with a plethora of attacking talent like Payet, Alexis Sanchez and Cengiz Under, while the midfield is stacked with the likes of Guendouzi and Veretout. However, the French team always struggle in Europe, as proved by their inability to register a single point until the final group match a few seasons ago. Sporting look down and out. They had two star players last season in the form of Pedro Goncalves and Matheus Nunez, but now the latter has left, and once again I fail to see where the goals will come from in this Sporting side without a quality goal scoring striker. They may have made the knockout round last season, but I don’t foresee that becoming a trend. My final prediction is as follows: 1. Tottenham Hotspur, 2. Olympique Marseille, 3. Eintracht Frankfurt and 4. Sporting CP

Group E consists of AC Milan, Chelsea, RB Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb. This group is very straight forward, with an obvious gap in quality between Milan and Chelsea as compared to Salzburg and Dinamo. The Italian champions Milan boast former winners like Olivier Giroud, as well as one of the most defensively sound sides in the competition behind manager Stefano Pioli’s rigid defensive systems. Mike Maignan is one of the best and most underrated keepers in Europe, while the attack has great balance and flow with players like Ante Rebic and Rafael Leao. Chelsea, however disjointed they may be in the league at the moment, still have too much quality not to top the group. New additions Koulibaly and Sterling have bolstered the attack and defense, while the spine of the 2020-21 team that won the UCL remains in players like keeper Edouard Mendy, midfielder N’golo Kante, and striker Kai Havertz. Elsewhere, Salzburg are always a threat on the counterattack, but never have enough in defense to do much damage, and Zagreb lack the start quality to be a force in Europe. My final prediction is as follows: 1. Chelsea, 2. AC Milan, 3. RB Salzburg and 4. Dinamo Zagreb.