Champions League Roundup: Group Stage

(Photo Courtesy of A Different League)

With this year’s Champions League group stage play at the halftime interval, Sean Coots and Zac Hirschbeck examine the current standings, share their thoughts on the results to date, and offer up their predictions for which two teams they believe will emerge from each four-team group.

Zac: Sean!

With the Bills and Sabres floundering through disheartening stretches, is there a better time to talk a little football?

While we plan to discuss all the Premier League happenings thus far this season in the weeks to come, let’s first catch up by talking a little Champions League football.

This year’s 32 qualifiers have each played their first three games against each team in their group, and as a result, the field has begun to weed out some of the competition’s pretenders from the contenders.

Beginning with Group A, the results have been entirely unsurprising. PSG and Real Madrid currently sit tied atop the group with 7 points apiece. They’ve each coasted to victories against Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk, and the two European powerhouses drew one another 0-0 this past week at the Parc des Princes in Paris. Both teams have yet to concede so far, and both clubs also boast incredible offensive firepower. Cristiano Ronaldo has already scored a competition-best 5 goals so far.

The only thing left to decide in Group A is who emerges as the top seed. From my end, you have to like Madrid’s chances a bit more simply due to the fact that they’ll play their French counterparts at home the second time around.

Since I have to imagine you’d agree that Real and PSG seem very likely to advance out of Group A, let’s instead talk about how far you see each club advancing in this year’s competition.

The Parisians have lost in the quarterfinals in each of the last three seasons (twice to Barcelona, once to Chelsea). Can they get over that hump and make a run into the semifinals or even the finals?

On the other side, Real has featured in the last five Champions League semifinals. However, while nearly every other club in the world might applaud that sort of success, Madrid has actually fired two coaches in that same five-year span. With eyes only for the top prize, can Real win the competition just as they did two years ago?

 

Sean: Hi Zac.

There’s never been a better time to talk football, or anything, for that matter, to get my mind off E.J.’s wretched performance against the Jags.

I tend to agree that Real hold the advantage to winning Group A at home versus PSG, and the rest of the games should be simple for both teams. I think this could be the year that PSG reaches that elusive semifinal, but only if the draw is kind to them. The addition of Di Maria was important, but I feel they lack something in the center of the park to reach a final. Madrid, however, have the class but maybe not the cohesion. It’s still largely the same team that won two years ago (with the exception of Di Maria), but they haven’t shown me the same inspired form that squad had. Realistically, probably another quarterfinal flop for the Parisians and a semifinal showing for Real.

Now Group B, in opposite fashion to Group A, is completely wide open. Wolfsburg, even without the talismanic De Bruyne, sits atop the group with 6 points. Manchester United and CSKA Moskva, following their recent draw in Russia, are both on 4 points apiece, while PSV rounds out the group a point behind.

It really is a difficult group to call. What I will note is that the home sides in this evenly matched group have a combined five wins and one tie. Wolfsburg may lead Group B, but they must travel for two of their three remaining games. United and PSV have the good fortune of two home games left to play, and that advantage will be vital.

My prediction? I hope you don’t sense any bias here, but United squeaks through at the top with some gritty (and likely uninspiring) performances, while Wolfsburg hang on after a crucial away result. I do like PSV’s style of play – especially in the absence of big-money talent – and it would be a shame if they cannot advance.

What are your thoughts on Group B? Do you think Bas Dost and Wolfsburg can stay at the top, or is the creative loss of De Bruyne going to cause them struggles away from home? I just hope Hector Moreno stops breaking people’s legs.

 

Zac: Your point about the home field advantage and the corresponding remaining fixtures certainly does provide hope for your beloved Red Devils moving forward. Plus, while much has been made about their lack of a consistent goal-scoring punch, I like United’s team.

Chris Smalling has raised his game to arguably become one of the world’s top center backs. De Gea, despite his soap opera of a summer, remains among the worlds best at goalkeeper. And young Anthony Martial’s impressive start to the campaign has casted aside doubts regarding the hefty fee that was paid to acquire him from Monaco in the dying days of August.

In addition to those three young stars, United’s squad is littered with veteran talent that has played at the highest level, both domestically and internationally. That experience should prove valuable during their remaining three fixtures.

For the other qualifying spot, I’ll go with Wolfsburg to cling to their current two-point cushion and advance. I was tempted to pick CSKA due to my joy in watching the pace and power of Seydou Doumbia and Ahmed Musa up front, but the Germans, even without beloved ginger KDB, possess enough quality to take the necessary points from their remaining games.

Similarly to Group B, it seems that the top two spots in Group C remain very much in doubt. As it stands now, Atlético Madrid and Benfica are tied at 6 points; Galatasaray is sitting on 4 points, and the Kazakhstan-based FC Astana has 1 point.

I think this group finishes slightly different from the way it stands now. Atlético is not far off from the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Diego Simeone’s side will prove a tough out throughout the entire competition. Between Benfica and Galatasaray, I’ll choose the Turks over the Portuguese side. Veterans Wesley Sneijder and Lukas Podolski will help overcome a Benfica team that has struggled out of the gates domestically.

Do you see it going a different way Sean? Perhaps I have it wrong in my belief in Galatasaray over Benfica? And what’s going on in Group D?

 

Sean: I’m glad to see I’m not the only one with some faith in United.

Atletico has the quality and, more importantly, the organization to advance deep into the knockout stages. Antoine Griezmann has started the campaign well and while Jackson Martinez has not lit the pitch afire thus far, his quality around the goal cannot be discounted. With a strong defensive and midfield core, they are on the odds-on favorite to win Group C.

I think that I will disagree on who finishes second in this group, and it most certainly will not be Astana, though they are the first Central Asian team to qualify for the group stages. Benfica, with their storied history and previous successes in Europe, will prevail, along with their two point cushion and home advantage versus Galatasaray. That match will likely decide second place, and Benfica will be desperate to avenge their recent loss in Turkey.

Group D is a fun one from the neutral standpoint; last year’s finalists Juventus, Premier League moneymen Manchester City, Europa League Champions Sevilla, and resurgent Borussia Monchengladbach form what is arguably the toughest group in the competition. Juve have started their campaign well to lead the group, though City have shown flashes of a squad that could finally make a run in Europe. Not to be discounted, Sevilla are a strong team with a highly creative group of midfielders led by Ever Banega. Unfortunately for Monchengladbach, their miserable start domestically bled into their Champions League form, leaving them wallowing with only a point to their name.

I’m very much looking forward to the Juve-City match in Turin. It has the potential to decide first place in a difficult group, and the reverse fixture was an exciting affair that was decided by a late Alvaro Morata strike. I think Juventus wins this one at home, especially if they slip up in their next game in Germany, which is a distinct possibility. City must travel to Sevilla for their next match, and I wonder whether they can manufacture a result in Spain. Kevin De Bruyne will be the key, as he has been domestically in the past few weeks; if he can find the back of the net, they’ll get a result.

So who advances? Juventus in first. Sevilla in second. I believe City will struggle in both remaining away matches, and Sevilla has the good fortune of getting the Sky Blues and the Old Lady at home. And I won’t deny that it will feel good to see our “noisy neighbors” sulking in Manchester while the Red Devils push into the knockout stages.

What do you think of my predictions? Can City get a vital result away at either Sevilla or Juventus? Will Monchengladbach surprise us all and claim a few scalps? They’ve been in fine form under interim manager Andre Schubert. And what are your thoughts on Barcelona and Group E?

(Photo Courtesy of The Mirror)

(Photo Courtesy of The Mirror)

Zac: For four consecutive years Manchester City has been dealt a miserable group stage draw. In 2012-13, they had to play Real and Dortmund. In 2013-14, they drew Bayern, and had to make the difficult trip to CSKA Moscow. While they managed to finish second, they drew Barcelona in the Round of 16 and lost. A year ago they followed an almost identical path. Despite a tough draw (Bayern, Roma, CSKA Moscow), they once again managed to finish second, only to draw Barcelona in the Round of 16 and lose once again. This year, as you already spoke to, they’ve drawn what is arguably the toughest group of them all.

Unlike you Sean, I believe City emerges from this group, be it first or second. While Sevilla certainly boasts an interesting collection of quality (Banega, Konoplyanka, Llorente, Immobile, N’Zonzi), I don’t believe that they’ll overcome the three-point gap that currently stands between them and the Sky Blues.

I believe that City will overcome their struggles of years past and make a little bit of noise in this year’s competition. They’ve splashed the cash yet again to re-infuse their squad with world-class talent (KDB, Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi), and those additions will continue to provide the club with a staggering amount of depth. The impending return of David Silva (possibly this weekend) and Sergio Aguero (week-to-week) will give City every opportunity to hold steady in second, and perhaps even top Juve for the first spot.

While I think the Italian giants do manage to advance out of the group along with City, it’s difficult to imagine them replicating the same magical run that took them all the way to the final a season ago. Though the steadily solid backline has seemingly remained unchanged for the past five years, the loss of Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez has left them lacking in both industry and offensive firepower. While Juve will hope some of the new additions can begin to soften the blow caused by their former stars’ departure, Paul Pogba remains a joy to watch. As a United fan, is there any part of you that wants to punch Sir Alex in the face for letting him leave? And how long will it be until Pogba becomes the next $100 million player?

As far as Group E goes, Barcelona will finish on top. Even with three games remaining, that is less of a prediction and more of a statement. After winning the competition a year ago, Barcelona’s squad remains largely unchanged. They still boast the best player in the world (Messi), the best attacking trio in the world (Messi, Neymar, and Suarez), and arguably the best team in the world. Surprisingly enough, Barcelona has relied more upon a strong defense thus far. While their peers have given up 7, 8, and 8 goals to date, Barca have only conceded twice in three games played.

The battle for the second spot will be an interesting one to watch. Behind the leaders’ 7 points, Leverkusen has 4 points, Belarusian side BATE Borisov has 3 points, and Roma has 2 points. With apologies to the Belarusian hopefuls, I think the second qualifying spot will belong to Leverkusen or Roma. These sides played to a thrilling 4-4 draw in Germany last week, with Admir Mehmedi scoring an 86th-minute equalizer to earn the home side a point.

While Leverkusen play a truly fascinating brand of football, I’ll pick the more talented side, which I believe to be Roma, to finish second. The two sides matchup this week in Italy will likely play a defining role in determining who advances out of the group, and I believe Roma’s impressive domestic form (top of Serie A), and the recent play of Miralem Pjanic will help the Italians take a vital three points.

You see it a different way Sean? Are Barcelona favorites to repeat as champions of Europe? And what’s the outlook in Group F? Can Arsenal build off of its fantastic result against Bayern?

 

Sean: There is a definitely a part of me that wanted to punch SAF in the face for the way he handled the Pogba situation, and another part of me that wanted to sock him for leaving his successor with an aging squad with little in the way of young and exciting talent, but then I remember the 26 years of unparalleled success and forgive him. But in all seriousness, letting Pogba go was possibly the greatest mistake that Sir Alex made during his tenure. I believe Pogba will leave Juventus this summer – likely for PSG or Barcelona – and it will be for an absurd fee. If it’s not $100 million, it will be close.

And on the topic of Barcelona, I agree that they will win Group E, even if they miss Lionel Messi for a few more games. They are arguably the best team in the world, and the other clubs in their group are simply not at the same level. Roma, regardless of their domestic form, have struggled in Europe the past two seasons and Leverkusen do not have the talent or experience to challenge the Catalonians. BATE – as fun as it may be to root for the underdog – have shown that they are minnows at this stage. I predict Leverkusen to advance if they can draw in Italy, but that will be a tall task for the Germans.

Group F has been a fun one, to say the least. Bayern Munich is probably the most in-form team in Europe at the moment, and Olympiacos are perfect domestically. Arsenal’s questionable form has been surprising, given their domestic success to start the campaign. Not to be overshadowed, Dinamo Zagreb showed great resilience in their victory at home versus Arsenal.

The Gunners find themselves in desperate need of a result in Munich to have some hope of advancing. They will not win there, and I expect a comfortable Bayern victory and an impressive home performance. Arsenal’s European form in the past few years has surprised me. I feel their style is more suited to success in the Champions League than in England, but Arsene Wenger has struggled to find victory in this competition in the past few years. I believe they have a real chance at winning the Premier League this season (provided they can stay healthy), and I think that taking 6 points from their remaining three matches is certainly possible. Olympiacos, however, will make qualification very difficult for Arsenal if they can win this week. I think the Gunners will crash out, which will help their domestic campaign, with the Greeks advancing behind Bayern from Group F.

What do you think about Arsenal’s European form the past few seasons? With four successive Round of 16 failures, can they find a formula to break the skid?

Group G also has some major talking points, mostly centered on Jose Mourinho and Chelsea. There are many issues, including a drop in offensive output and the poor form of last year’s deadly triumvirate of Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, but it has been the defense that has been particularly woeful. Do you think they can reverse their fortunes, or is The Chosen One on his way out of Stamford Bridge?

Zac: Much like our beloved Buffalo Bills’ propensity to shoot themselves in the foot year after year, Arsenal also seems to follow similar patterns of annual disappoint. The Gunners make a yearly habit of appearing to be legitimate domestic title contenders, and perhaps even players in Europe, only to routinely come up short in both competitions. More often than not, Arsenal’s struggles have come down to injury troubles. Without the same levels of investment in the transfer window as some of their English and European peers, the Gunners’ lack of depth is usually exposed at the most inopportune of times. However, perhaps sadly for me, my blind optimism extends to Arsenal this year.

While recent injuries (Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin) and long term absences (Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta) have once again left the Gunners short of available options, unlike past seasons, Arsenal still possesses top quality throughout the squad, and a more tactically sound approach.

That top quality begins with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Both Ozil and Alexis boast the kind of ability that can swing any fixture in their team’s favor, and while it’s surely a difficult ask away against Bayern, I think the Gunners are capable of taking a least a point from their trip to Germany. Part of that belief stems from the growth of their manager as well. Wenger has already demonstrated his growing willingness to sacrifice possession in favor of defensive, counterattacking football against top clubs. I think he adopts a similarly successful approach at the Allianz Arena.

Regardless of the result against Bayern, like you, I too believe that Arsenal remain very capable of still advancing out of the group with victories against Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb. Unlike you however, I’m not nearly as confident that the Greek champions will send the Gunners out prior to the Round of 16. I believe in Arsenal. At least enough to get to the Round of 16, draw a tough matchup because of their second-place group stage finish, and barely lose on away goals.

Oh Chelsea.

While my Blues fandom has fluctuated in years past with the re-arrival and departure of Didier Drogba (who has been filthy in the MLS since joining the Montreal Impact), I sincerely hope that Roman Abramovich doesn’t sack Mourinho. While the results have been truly pitiful thus far, Mourinho remains one of the top managers in football. Though some may not take kindly to his defensive, pragmatic, results-oriented approach, there is no denying his long track record of success. Plus, after winning the Premier League, and crashing out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 without actually losing a game (8 games played – 4 wins, 4 draws, lost on away goals to PSG) a year ago, Mourinho at least deserves the chance to steer Chelsea out of their current mess.

Simply put, I still think Chelsea advances out of their group. While the necessary points obtained may not come as a product of beautiful, free-flowing football, I believe the Blues still remain superior to their Group G peers (Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, M. Tel-Aviv). I also think Porto, who currently sits atop the group with 7 points, advances. The Portuguese squad possess depth at all positions, and Vincent Aboubakar has proved a very capable successor to the departed Jackson Martinez.

Do you agree Sean? Am I too optimistic in regards to my belief in Chelsea and Mourinho?

And in addition to talking a little about Group H, give me some general thoughts and predictions for the remainder of this year’s competition.

(Photo Courtesy of The Aspirer)

(Photo Courtesy of The Aspirer)

Sean: I agree that it is worth giving Jose Mourinho the time he needs to turn Chelsea around. They are struggling, but Group G is a favorable draw for the reigning EPL champions. Domestically, they face an uphill battle to qualify for Champions League football next season, but they will advance to the knockout stage in this year’s competition. They still have an incredibly talented squad and a reasonable amount of depth. And it must be Porto who joins them in the Round of 16; I expect they’ll finish top of the group. They’ve shown over the past few years that they are a force to be reckoned with in Europe.

Group H has thus far been dominated by Russian juggernauts Zenit, who boast a talented side with a menacing attack. Hulk is one of those rare talents who can turn a game in a single moment, and they will need his power in the knockout stages. They’ll finish atop the group, and Andre Villas-Boas will continue on his journey to redemption.

And who will join them? The easy answer is Valencia, as Gent is generally too small a club and Lyon have been dreadful in Europe (though they sit second in the table in Ligue 1). Valencia will advance in second, with the Spaniards riding the play of in-form striker Paco Alcacer, who may be moving to a larger club if rumors can be believed. This is a relatively weak group, and Zenit will need to re-evaluate themselves before the next round to ensure they are prepared for what will be another level of competition in the Round of 16.

I believe, as I said earlier, that Bayern is in scintillating form and should be considered among the favorites after disappointing exits the past two years. Douglas Costa has been an incredible acquisition, and Robert Lewandowski is one of the most in-form players in the world at the moment. Things could change before the end of the season, but I like Bayern to at least make the final.

The three Spanish giants will also (predictably) find success, and I think Barcelona holds the edge over their rivals from Madrid if Messi returns and can stay healthy. Their top-three of Suarez, Neymar and Messi is simply too creative and lethal in the penalty area (and Ivan Rakitic is world class in the center of the park). Depending on the draw, I could certainly see a Barca-Bayern final.

The last thing I’ll mention is the trend of early exits for English clubs in recent years. The Premier League is increasingly becoming a haven for athletic and sizeable players. Sure, it’s grown into the most entertaining domestic league there is, but it has not translated to European success. This year will be no different. I believed, at the start of the campaign, that Arsenal could make a run this season. That is now looking highly unlikely. Chelsea are struggling, and this will not be their year. United are still a club on the rebound, and lack the necessary quality in defense. City have the best chance, but I feel they will falter in the bigger matchups, as they have the past few seasons. Why are EPL clubs struggling in Europe? That’s the essential question and it requires a longer answer. But I do know that it will continue this year.

 

Zac: AVB! I had completely forgotten that the former Chelsea and Tottenham manager had taken his talents to Russia. While I think Zenit and Valencia are safe bets to advance out of Group H, it’s difficult to see either team advancing deep into the competition.

A Barca-Bayern final would certainly be an enthralling affair. A year ago the two clubs met in the semifinals, and Barca won 5-3 on aggregate. A rematch between the two sides would certainly be an inviting matchup. While the Spaniards may boast the world’s most lethal attacking trio, Bayern arguably possess the world’s deepest squad. If the two clubs met again, I think I’d lean toward picking Bayern to exact their revenge.

Real Madrid, PSG, Atletico Madrid, and Manchester City are the other teams to watch for me. All four clubs boast numerous top-class players that could propel their team to a victory against any other club in the world. While Bayern and Barca seem to be favorites, it’s certainly within reason to see someone else obtain a favorable draw, and make a similar run to the one Juventus made a year ago.

Though we’ve already seen some great football, the best is certainly yet to come.

 

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