Group-by-group assessment of Champions League draw
An assessment of the eight groups in the Champions League following the draw in Monte Carlo on Thursday:
GROUP A (BENFICA, MANCHESTER UNITED, BASEL, CSKA MOSCOW)
Jose Mourinho can be happy with how Manchester United’s return after a one-year absence shapes, and his own quest to be the first person to coach three different clubs to European glory. Benfica is a consistent performer in the second tier of Europe’s elite; Basel has been weakened by persistent sales of top players since eliminating United in the 2011 groups; and CSKA Moscow finished last in a group that included United in 2015. After such a powerful start to the English Premier League, the three-time European champion should start group favorite.
GROUP B (BAYERN MUNICH, PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN, ANDERLECHT, CELTIC)
Neymar made it his big goal to win the Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain after securing his world-record transfer from Barcelona for 222 million euros ($262 million) last month, and advancing to the knockout stage should be a formality for his new team. The Brazil forward’s first European campaign with PSG will take him to five-time champion Bayern, whose coach Carlo Ancelotti used to manage the French club. Celtic is never an easy team to visit, but the Scottish champion is likely fighting it out with Anderlecht for third place.
GROUP C (CHELSEA, ATLETICO MADRID, ROMA, QARABAG)
Qarabag is the first Azerbaijani team to reach this stage and its reward is one of the most competitive groups. Atletico Madrid has reached the final twice in the past three years, losing both times to Real Madrid, while Chelsea is the current English champion and 2012 European champion. Chelsea and Atletico could be in negotiations over the next few months regarding the sale of Diego Costa, the Chelsea striker who is estranged in his native Brazil and wants to join former club Atletico.
GROUP D (JUVENTUS, BARCELONA, OLYMPIAKOS, SPORTING)
It will be a major surprise if Juventus and Barcelona, European champions a combined seven times, fail to qualify from the group. They met in the 2015 final, with Barca’s prolific front three of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez inspiring a 3-1 win in Berlin. Neymar, of course, is no longer around. Juventus lost last season’s final, too, to Real Madrid and hasn’t won the Champions League since 1996. Olympiakos and Sporting are regular qualifiers but rarely advance.
GROUP E (SPARTAK MOSCOW, SEVILLA, LIVERPOOL, MARIBOR)
Five-time European champion Liverpool came through the playoffs and gets a chance to avenge its loss to Sevilla in the 2016 Europa League final, which denied the English team a place in last season’s Champions League. Spartak, which won the Russian Premier League, is in the group stage for the first time since 2010-11, while Slovenian team Maribor is the big outsider in its third attempt to reach the knockout stage. This will likely be considered the weakest of the eight groups.
GROUP F (SHAKHTAR DONETSK, MANCHESTER CITY, NAPOLI, FEYENOORD)
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City avoided tougher options by being drawn into top-seeded Shakhtar’s group. The Ukrainian champion is always fighting against the disadvantage of not playing a real home game in three years due to the conflict involving pro-Russian separatists around its home city. Still, Napoli was one of the more difficult opponents for City from the third-seeded teams and eased past Nice in the playoffs round. Feyenoord returns to the group stage after a 15-year absence and is likely in for a learning experience.
GROUP G (MONACO, PORTO, BESIKTAS, LEIPZIG)
Monaco, last season’s surprise semifinalist, comes up against Porto in a rematch of the 2004 final won by the Portuguese team. Leipzig didn’t even exist then — the club was created in 2009 — and is a newcomer at this level, but the Bundesliga runner-up was the team from the fourth seeds that most of the continent’s heavyweights wanted to avoid. Monaco won its group as a fourth-seeded team last season, which is something Leipzig can cling to in a group which might be the hardest to predict.
GROUP H (REAL MADRID, BORUSSIA DORTMUND, TOTTENHAM, APOEL)
Real Madrid has won the Champions League three times in the past four years, and is looking to become the first team since Bayern Munich (1974-76) to be European champion in three straight years. Madrid’s path to the knockout stage may yet be smoothed by its fierce rival Barcelona, who is reportedly close to signing one of Borussia Dortmund’s star players, Ousmane Dembele. Tottenham will be hoping for better results at its temporary home of Wembley Stadium, where the English team lost two of its three group games last season. APOEL famously reached the quarterfinals in 2012 against the odds.
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