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UEFA Champions League: A review on the most abnormal tournament so far

With the 2019/20 season only finishing on 23rd August – thanks to COVID-19 – the new season of the UEFA Champions League is starting this week. Bayern Munchen exceeded all the expectations last season, as they won their sixth trophy, having beaten Paris Saint Germain in the final.

By Nikos Papanikolaou

The effects of the pandemic have brought a new reality to our lives, and this is having an impact on the Champions Leagues as well. UEFA is keen to allow fans back to the stands – if the epidemiological authorities of each country allow it – and five substitutions during the game will be allowed for the remainder of the season. Consequently, the number of players allowed on the match sheet will be increased to 23.

Group A

In the first group, there is Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Red Bull Salzburg, and Lokomotiv Moscow. Bayern and Atletico are the two teams who will fight for the top of the group, while Salzburg and Lokomotiv will battle for the third place, which leads to UEFA Europa League.

Bayern has Leroy Sané and Douglas Costa, while Thiago and Coutinho have left the club. Atletico Madrid will have Álvaro Morata, Luis Suárez, and Yannick Carrasco in their roster, and everyone’s been waiting on how the team’s midfield will be after Thomas Partey’s transfer to Arsenal.

Salzburg scored 16 goals in the group stage last season – mostly because of Erling Braut Haaland who was later sold to Borussia Dortmund. They are in the first place in the Austrian Bundesliga, but the Champions League will be a completely different story. Lokomotiv Moscow is currently 4th in the Russian Premier League, but the selling of Aleksey Miranchuk to Atalanta will be proven crucial.

Group B

Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donestk are the teams in Group B. Real Madrid and Inter are the obvious favourites for the first two place of the group, while Gladbach and Shakhtar will fight for a Europa League qualification.

Real Madrid has Martin Odegaard back from his loan to Real Sociedad, while Bale left the team to join Tottenham for a season-long loan, and James Rodrigues is now an Everton player. Inter Milan is still trying to forget last’s season Europa League lost final, and this season the team looks inconsistent at the moment.

Antonio Conte has Achraf Hakimi, Aleksander Kolarov and Arturo Vidal during the summer’s transfer period, but they are currently lying on the 6th place of Serie A at the moment. Gladbach is an excellent team, they love the pressing style of game, and Marco Rose’s team has a steady presence in Europe during the last years. Shakhtar will be a mystery – as it always is. There were seasons when the team played excellent football, and some other when anyone could beat them. They are coming from a lost Europa League semi-final against Inter, where they lost 5-0.

Group C

Manchester City, Porto, Olympique De Marseille, and Olympiakos make up Group C. Manchester City finished behind Liverpool on the Premier League’s last season. Despite their Champions League campaign seemed promising after they eliminated Real Madrid on the round of 16, they lost 1-3 to Lyon on the quarter-finals, and they waved goodbye to their hopes on winning the trophy. Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and Ferran Torres arrived in the team during the summer’s transfer period, while Leroy Sane, David Silva, and Nicolas Otamendi left the squad.

Porto is currently in the 2nd place in Primeira Liga in Portugal. During summer’s transfer period, Vincent Aboubakar, Fabio Silva and Alex Telles left Sergio Conceicao’s team. However, they managed to get Mallang Sarr, Felipe Anderson and Marko Grujić from Chelsea, West Ham, and Liverpool respectively.

Marseille finished at the second place of Ligue 1 last season, and they manage to return to the Champions League. Bouna Sarr left the team for Bayern Munchen, but Marseille managed to get Michaël Cuisance, Pape Gueye, and Yuto Nagatomo. They are currently at the sixth place of Ligue 1, with 12 points in 7 matches.

Finally, Olympiakos won last season’s Greek Superleague, and they reached Round of 16 on Europa League when Wolves eliminated them. Konstantinos Tsimikas and Omar Elabdelaoui left the team last summer, while Rafinha, Jose Holebas, Ruben Vinagre, Yan M’Villa, and Bruma joined Olympiakos.

Group D

Liverpool, Ajax, Atalanta, and Midtjylland are the team in the fourth group. Liverpool is coming from an unforgettable season, as they won the Premier League after 30 years of waiting. This season has already been harsh to the reds as they lost by 7-2 from Aston Villa, and they drew 2-2 with Everton – a game in which Virgil Van Dijk was seriously injured and will probably miss the rest of the season. Liverpool got Thiago from Bayern Munchen, Diogo Jota from Wolves, and Konstantinos Tsimikas from Olympiakos. However, the players who will be in the spotlight again will be the usual suspects; Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, and Roberto Firmino. Jurgen Klopp doesn’t seem keen to change the team which won the Champions League on 2019 and – of course – the Premier League last season.

Ajax is in a transitional period after having sold Donny Van De Beek, Frenkie De Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, and Hakim Ziyech – key players on their great 2018-2019 season when they reached the Champions League semi-finals. They do have a young team with the support of some more experienced players, such as  Daley Blind, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Dušan Tadić. Atalanta is a joy to watch, as Josip Iličić, Alejandro Gómez, Luis Muriel are pulling strings in this season as well. Gian Piero Gasperini likes the attacking football, something that is reflecting on Atalanta’s games. Last year they managed to reach Champions League quarter-finals, where they were beaten from Paris Saint Germain by 2-1.

The other team of the group, Midtjylland is a question mark. They won the Danish Superliga last season, and for the first time in their history reached the Champions League group stage this season. They won Slavia Prague 4-1 on the second game of the playoffs, and they have already succeeded just by being on the group.

Group E

In group E, there is Chelsea, Sevilla, Krasnodar, and Rennais. In Frank Lampard’s first season as Chelsea‘s manager, the team finished in the fourth place in Premier League – behind Manchester United, Manchester City, and Liverpool. In Champions League, they were knocked out by Bayern Munich.  Last year, Lampard invested in young players such as Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic, and Fikayo Tomori amongst others. Last summer, Lampard brought some very significant players to Stamford Bridge to improve the squad. Kai Havertz, Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, and Hakim Ziyech will play an essential role in the Chelsea that Lampard and Abramovich are dreaming.

Sevilla won last season’s Europa League, and they will be the second strongest team in the group. They have lost Éver Banega, Sergio Rico and Sergio Reguilón, but no one is expecting them to have any problem with Krasnodar and Rennais.

Krasnodar entered the group stage for the first time in their history after beating PAOK in playoffs. They have a decent team with players such as Remy Cabella. Marcus Berg and Tonny Vilhena, however, they are only eighth in the Russian Premier League this season. Rennais finished in the third place of last season’s Ligue 1, but they still are the second-lowest-ranked team left in the competition. They made some really useful additions as Dalbert, Daniele Rugani and Jeremy Doku joined the club. Edouard Mendy is a gap under the goalpost, and Raphinha’s transfer will cost to the squad’s creativity.

Group F

Borussia Dortmund, Zenit St Petersburg, Lazio, and Club Brugge make up this group. Dortmund‘s young and extremely talented team will be a joy to watch, as Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham, and Giovanni Reyna will be in the spotlight. Zenit St Petersburg – who have won two Russian league titles in a row – has some quality players such as Malcom, Artem Dzyuba and the Iran international Sardar Azmoun. They are currently in the first place of the Russian Premier League. Lazio has the Golden Boot winner Ciro Immobile, who is expected to score many goals this season as well.  Sergej Milinković-Savić, Joaquín Correa, and Luis Alberto will assist him in Lazio’s return on the Champions League’s group stage after 13 years.

The Belgian champions Club Brugge will not be strong enough to survive the group stage. Charles De Ketelaere, Simon Mignolet, and Éder Balanta will try their best, but it seems almost impossible to be strong enough to contend the other three clubs of the group.

Group G

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will meet again in Group G, as Barcelona, Juventus, Dynamo Kyiv and Ferencvaros were drawn together. Barcelona – after the Messi outburst last summer – is in a transitional season. Ronald Koeman is the new manager, as the team lost many essential players such as Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitić, Arturo Vidal, Nélson Semedo, Rafinha, and Arthur. They managed to get Miralem Pjanić, Sergiño Dest, and Francisco Trincão. Still, it is obvious that the club is in an awkward position after last summer and everything depends – once again – on Messi, who is not happy at the club at the moment.

Juventus, on the other hand, is having an excellent season so far, with Andrea Pirlo on the wheel. Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Matthijs de Ligt, and Federico Bernardeschi will have the help of Arthur, Weston McKennie, Álvaro Morata, and Federico Chiesa who joined the team last summer. Dynamo Kyiv – with Mirce Lusescu as manager – beat Gent to enter the group stage.

It is the favourite for the third place, as Ferencvaros – the lowest-ranked side left in the competition – will probably just enjoy the experience of being in the group stage for the first time in the club’s history.

Group H

Lastly, group H will bring together Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain, along with Red Bull Leipzig and Basaksehir from Turkey. Manchester United, which is not in the best condition, got Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, and Edison Cavani, but once again the weight on the creative part of the game will be on Bruno Fernandes’s back. Ole Gunnar Solskjær needs to improve Red Devils, who are currently in the 14th place of the Premier League.

Paris Saint-Germain needs to regroup after last season’s lost Champions League final. The squad is the same – except Rafinha’s arrival and Thiago Silva’s departure – as Thomas Tuchel will once again lean on Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María, and Mauro Icardi for this season.

RB Leipzig was one of the surprises of last season’s Champions League, as they reached the semi-finals. Alexander Sørloth, Justin Kluivert, and Angeliño are the new faces in the team, as Julian Nagelsmann also has Jean-Kévin Augustin, Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku, and Dayot Upamecano on his roster.

Istanbul Basaksehir is expected to finish in the last place of the group, even if the team has players such as Nacer Chadli, Demba Ba, Gaël Clichy, Gökhan İnler, and Martin Škrtel. In their domestic league, they are not doing well as they are currently third from the bottom, with only four points in five matches.

The final will take place at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium, in 29/5/2021, which had been due to stage the 2020 decider. It is the same stadium where the 2005 UEFA Champions League final took place when Liverpool equalised Milan to 3-3 from 3-0 down to win the game on penalties – a night that is now known as the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.