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UCL Group Stage 2020/21: The Verdict

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It has only been two months since Bayern Munich lifted the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League title and the group stage of a new season is almost upon us. The previous season saw the remaining Round of 16 fixtures being pushed to August as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak which halted the competition in March. Consequently, UEFA devised an interim solution to conclude the tournament in August. The European football governing body deployed a single-leg system effective from the quarter-finals of the 2019/20 season held in Lisbon.

However, with the improving situation and fans’ gradual return to the stadiums, UEFA has decided to opt for modus operandi for the 2020/21 season of the UEFA Champions League. The round of 16, quarter-finals, and semi-finals of the current campaign are all scheduled to be two-legged ties after 32 teams complete their round of six games in the group stage.

19 days after the draw occurred in Geneva, 32 biggest teams of Europe will fight over the course of next month and a half to progress to the knockout stages, starting October 20.

FootTheBall takes a look at each group, covering each team and who might eventually find their names in the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 draw for 2020/21 which is scheduled to take place on December 14.


Group A

(Bayern, Atletico, Lokomotiv Moscow, RB Salzburg)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Can Bayern retain their European crown this season? (Image courtesy: Twitter/@BayernGalaxy)

Euphoria is the word that tellingly describes Hansi Flick and Bayern Munich’s treble-winning campaign. The record German champions maintained a clean slate as they surpassed every barrier in their journey to claim the Holy Grail in Lisbon. While their dominance in the group stage of the 2019/20 season heralded the return of the UEFA Champions League trophy to the Allianz Arena, their eight-two mauling of Barcelona left their doubters in awe.

Enter 2020/21 season and Bayern Munich will play their first match against Atletico Madrid. Donning the red and white stripes, from the capital city of Spain – Atleti are arguably the only team capable of challenging FC Barcelona and Real Madrid for the La Liga title. Nonetheless, Atletico have ostensibly taken their foot off the gas at the European stage since the 2016/17 season. Diego Simeone’s men have failed to qualify beyond the Round of 16 in the past three seasons.

Atletico Madrid previously shared the group with Bayern in the 2016/17 season where the Spanish giants finished first with 15 points. Atletico’s current domestic campaign has seen mixed results so far. They have amassed eight points in four games albeit remaining unbeaten. Simeone did a decent job to bolster Atletico’s attack. Los Rojiblancos have found the net eight times in four La Liga matches. The addition of Luis Suarez is bound to give them more steel in the attack. However, the departure of Thomas Partey to Arsenal is a major loss to Diego Simone and only time will tell if Lucas Torreira can fill his shoes, pairing up with Koke in the heart of midfield.

The remaining two clubs – RB Salzburg and Lokomotiv Moscow will have to toil hard to seal progression to the knockout stages.

The 2020/21 season will feature three Russian teams in the group stage for the first time with Lokomotiv appearing for the third consecutive season. Marko Nikolic favours a defensive approach with most of Lokomotiv’s attacks relying on counterattacks. Loko were shown the exit door from the group stages in the preceding two seasons with one victory in each campaign.

RB Salzburg, on the other hand, are a surprise package as Jesse Marsch remains at the helm for his second consecutive season with the Austrian champions. Salzburg, an attacking machine, gave Liverpool and Napoli a tough fight last season as they scored 16 goals in their group, accumulating seven points in the process. Erling Haaland and Hwang Hee-chan’s departure hardly seem to have any impact on Marsch’s young guns. Patson Daka remains their number one marksman with 20-year old Sekou Koita joining the ranks.

Bayern Munich remain the clear favourites to top their group. There were initial concerns for Bayern’s wafer-thin squad which saw them struggling against TSG Hoffenheim and Hertha BSC. Hasan Salihamidzic’s deadline day coup of Marc Roca, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Bouna Sarr, and Douglas Costa has created a strong cushion on the bench for Hansi Flick.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

FC Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid


Group B

(Gladbach, Real Madrid, Inter, Shakhtar)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Antonio Conte has one of the best squads at his disposal (Image courtesy: Twitter/@bet365)

Real Madrid are one of the most feared teams in Europe and their record in the past decade sums that pretty well. The Galacticos have been crowned European champions on four occasions in the last ten years. However, the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo was a major blow to the current La Liga champions. Their survival in the group stage is never really a doubt although the past two seasons saw them crashing out in the Round of 16.

Zinedine Zidane is now leading a revolution at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Young players like Vinicius Junior, Martin Odegaard, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde, and Marco Asensio are emerging in the new wave of Zizou’s Los Blancos. The bigger question, nonetheless, remains unanswered. How will Real Madrid deal with their aging defense and midfield? The Spanish giants were seemingly shy in the 2020 summer transfer window having spent a fortune last season. We are yet to see Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic in their best form for Real Madrid. Unfortunately, time is not on their side as Inter Milan and Borussia Monchengladbach have recharged their batteries and are hungry to taste success in Europe.

Antonio Conte has built a spine-chilling squad. The former Chelsea manager has some of the finest European talents at his disposal. The depth of Inter’s bench is one of their major strengths. Conte can play different combinations of midfield structure with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Arturo Vidal, Achraf Hakimi, Ivan Perisic, Nicolo Barella, Stefano Sensi, and Radja Nainggolan. The decision to create a solid bench comes at the back of Inter’s failure to qualify for the Round of 16 in the last two seasons and Conte missing the Scudetto by one point in the preceding campaign. The master of the 3-5-2 is now looking to march with his cavalry to conquer Europe once again. Inter Milan’s current domestic campaign is not convincing though. Conte’s men have won only two of their opening four Serie A games and recently lost the Milan derby by two-one. While Conte has the perfect recipe for bludgeoning the opposition with his attacking tactics, he needs to find a quick solution to conceal the gaps in his defense.

Much like Conte, Marco Rose has also turned things around for the Foals. The former RB Salzburg tactician got Borussia Monchengladbach back in the UEFA Champions League in his first season in charge as their head coach. His arrival coincided with new signings like Stefan Lainer, Breel Embolo, Marcus Thuram, and Ramy Bensebaini. They are now the backbone of Rose’s regular eleven alongside Yann Sommer, Alassane Plea, Jonas Hofmann, and Denis Zakaria. Rose’s pragmatic approach and a carefully designed possession-based methodology have made Gladbach one of the toughest teams to play against in the Bundesliga. They were the third-best defensive teams in the Bundesliga last season and ranked number four in terms of the number of goals scored.

Last, but not the least – Shakhtar Donetsk will feature in the UEFA Champions League group stage for the fourth season running. Shakhtar were previously a part of the group featuring Real Madrid in the 2015/16 season wherein the Ukrainian champions lost five games. They currently trail Dynamo Kyiv by two points in their domestic league and Luis Castro will need luck on his side to progress to the knockout round when going head-to-head against Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Borussia Monchengladbach.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

Inter Milan and Real Madrid CF


Group C

(City, Marseille, Porto, Olympiacos)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
This might be Sergio Aguero’s last chance to deliver the Champions League trophy to the Cityzens (Image courtesy: Twitter/@AJE_Sport)

The two-time European champion with FC Barcelona was brought in by the mega-rich Cityzens in the year 2016 with their eyes set on the biggest prize – the UEFA Champions League trophy. Currently in his fifth season as Manchester City’s head coach and Pep Guardiola is yet to present City Football Group with the European Cup. After escaping the jaws of the FFP, Manchester City were once again seen shopping in the summer transfer window with a heavy investment in the defensive department. There are, however, dark clouds looming over the Etihad Stadium, in the mould of a cluttered fixture list, international games, and Covid-19. Marred by injuries and illness, Pep and co. are currently placed tenth in the Premier League table with seven points in four games. Nonetheless, stressing on qualification to the next round of the UEFA Champions League would be the last thing on Guardiola’s mind – as they have been doing consistently since his appointment.

Marseille, FC Porto, and Olympiacos will probably vie for the second spot.

Once considered as the next Jose Mourinho, he endured a difficult time in the Premier League – Andre Villas-Boas will now guide Olympique Marseille in the UEFA Champions League this season. Marseille finished as the runners up in Ligue 1 during 2019/20 after the season was brought to a stop due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Phoceans return to the biggest stage in Europe after six years. However, Villas-Boas’s former employer stands in his way to reach the knockout stages.

If there is any man who can get Porto through to the Round of 16, it is their current boss – Sergio Conceicao. He ended Porto’s five-year wait for the domestic title during his first season in charge as their head coach in the 2017/18 season. While Porto could not make it to the UEFA Champions League last season, Conceicao guided them to an aggregate four-three victory over AS Roma in the 2018/19 campaign which saw them reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015.

Next in line, the Greek champions – Olympiacos is a familiar face in the UEFA Champions League group stages in the past decade. The last time when Olympiacos were included in a roster with a French and a Portuguese club, they qualified to the Round of 16. It was the 2013/14 season where the Thrylos surprisingly featured in Group C of the UEFA Champions League.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

Manchester City FC and FC Porto


Group D

(Liverpool, Atalanta, Ajax, Midtjylland)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Liverpool will need to up their game in the UEFA Champions League this season (Image courtesy: Twitter/@Thiago6)

Probably the most enthralling fixtures are expected from this group. The 2019 UEFA Champions League winners, Liverpool FC, will have a tough time dealing with Atalanta BC and AFC Ajax.

Akin to Jurgen Klopp’s impact on Liverpool, Gian Piero Gasperini has transformed Atalanta into one of the most revered attacking teams in Europe since his appointment as their head coach in 2016. La Dea was in dreamland last season. Atalanta qualified for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history. Not only did they qualify but removed the “underdog” tag with aplomb as Atalanta reached the quarter-finals where they lost by a slender two-one margin against Paris Saint-Germain. Gasperini has maintained the momentum in the current campaign. Atalanta have played four Serie A games – winning three and scoring 14 goals in the process.

As for Ajax, they will now appear in the group stages for a third straight year. Erik ten Hag was a godsend to this Amsterdam club who led Ajax to the UEFA Champions League group stage after his first season. 2018/19 season saw Ajax reaching the semi-finals as they nearly missed out on booking a date for the finale with Liverpool, having lost on away goals after a three-all aggregate stalemate with Tottenham. They were no more an enigma after Liverpool lifted the crown in 2019 which led to a number of key players leaving the Johan Cruyff Arena. Erik ten Hag still looks adamant to challenge for the Eredivisie title with the new signing, Antony, churning goals from the right-wing.

FC Midtjylland – a club that may look like a minnow stuck in this “group of death” could be a surprise package. Europa League was particularly their only destination with the club failing to make it to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League since the club’s inception. The legend has it – using analytics and data modeling, the current Danish champions made it to the Champions League group stages for the first time in their history. A few of their key players include Pione Sisto, Anders Dreyer, Sory Kaba, and Evander.

So, Liverpool – no matter how dominant they have been over the past few years – will need to tussle to make it through this group. The English champions are looking vulnerable this season, having dropped five points in the opening five games of the Premier League season. Virgil Van Dijk’s injury during the Merseyside derby has left Klopp in a dilemma as the Dutch centre-back, reportedly, shall not play a further part in the current season.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

Liverpool FC and Atalanta BC


Group E

(Chelsea, Rennes, Sevilla, Krasnodar)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Chelsea’s new boys will feel the heat when they fight for the ultimate glory this season (Image courtesy: Twitter/@SiPhillipsSport)

With both Sevilla and Chelsea having won the Europa League in the past two seasons, they surely aim to make it big on the UEFA Champions League stage now.

With Frank Lampard and his newly assembled Chelsea squad consisting of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, and Thiago Silva, hopes are high for sure. Fans also look forward to the team providing them redemption following their seven-one defeat to Bayern in the last season’s Round of 16.

Sevilla, on the other hand, finished their previous campaign by lifting the Europa League trophy after a three-two victory over Inter Milan. As the new season took off, they began the La Liga on a high note but dropped five points in their last two league games.

Moving on to Stade Rennais FC, their performance has been above average lately. They finished last season in the third position and are currently two points below the first position, level on points with Paris Saint-Germain. They are yet to lose a game in this season. Their 17-year-old forward, Eduardo Camavinga is one of the most exciting young players to look out for this season.

Lastly, FC Krasnodar from Russia has qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time in their history. They will face Rennes at home in their opening clash.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

Chelsea FC and Sevilla FC


Group F

(Dortmund, Zenit, Lazio, Club Brugge)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Erling Haaland, Giovanni Reyna, and Marco Reus (Image courtesy: Twitter/@ErlingHaaland)

Appearing consistently in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League for the past five years now, Borussia Dortmund have only failed once to qualify for the Round of 16 in that timeframe. Der BVB are sitting level on points with Bayern Munich in the current Bundesliga campaign. Lucien Favre will be buoyed to have kept Jadon Sancho in his cavalry. The English winger will be a major threat alongside Erling Haaland, Giovanni Reyna, and Jude Bellingham.

Lazio are ostensibly the only team looking to challenge Dortmund for the top spot in this group. Lazio gave Juventus a tough fight for the Serie A title last season. They have, however, seemingly lost their stride this season and have already conceded eight goals in four league games. Ciro Immobile shall, without a doubt, be their go-to man as they continue to surge ahead looking for goals.

Zenit have now been featuring in the UEFA Champions League every now and then albeit they were not seen in the group stage for three consecutive seasons since 2016/17. Their return in the previous campaign saw them failing to qualify for the Round of 16 by one point. The Russian side faces Club Brugge in their opening encounter at home on Tuesday.

Club Brugge, too, have struggled to gain a foothold in Europe’s top-flight competition. They have never qualified beyond the group stage. Hans Vanaken is their clutch player who can play a crucial role in Philippe Clement’s hopes for survival.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

Borussia Dortmund and SS Lazio


Group G

(Barcelona, Juventus, Dynamo Kyiv, Ferencvaros)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will meet once again on the biggest stage (Image courtesy: Twitter/@PurelyFootball)

Oh well, Barcelona and Juventus are in the same group!

Dynamo Kyiv and Ferencvaros are definitely looking for the panic button right now.

The Old Lady from Turin is still in search of a European crown since 1996. Juventus, despite having made it to two finals in the last six seasons, have failed to win the competition. With Cristiano Ronaldo on their side, however, hope shines brighter. Ronaldo is the all-time top goalscorer with 130 goals and a five-time winner of the Champions League. Under their new manager, Andrea Pirlo, Juventus surely look to power through the group stage.

The only force stopping Juventus is another European juggernaut that has been longing for success on the biggest stage – FC Barcelona.

After shocking exits in the UEFA Champions League in the past five years, Barcelona begin every campaign with great hope. With the club having recently faced a huge turmoil around Lionel Messi’s exit, the new coach Ronald Koeman is under even greater pressure to make things happen on the big stage. Barcelona’s humiliating eight-two defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in the previous campaign further adds to the pressure on Koeman. The Catalans cannot sweep this loss under the carpet and need to work hard to prove themselves in the UEFA Champions League once again.

As the two clubs compete on October 28, we shall also witness a clash of the two best football players – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Dynamo Kyiv are back in the Champions League group stage after three seasons. Despite their shaky Champions League record and tough competition in Group G, Kyiv will aim to reach the Europa League Round of 32 with a third-place finish.

For this, they shall race with the Hungarian champions, Ferencvaros.

The most decorated club in the history of Hungarian football will feature in the UEFA Champions League group stage after 25 years. Although qualification to the Round of 16 might not be a possibility, Serhiy Rebrov has already made a name for himself in Ferencvaros’s history books after just over two years in charge as their head coach.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

FC Barcelona and Juventus FC


Group H

(PSG, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Istanbul Basaksehir)

Who will make it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21?
Can PSG avenge their defeat from the 2018/19 season? (Image courtesy: Twitter/@raphnelson_abah)

Yet another group of death.

Paris Saint-Germain, having lost the finals last season, step into the UEFA Champions League setting high standards for themselves, once again. Despite billions of dollars’ worth of investment, PSG have never won the competition. With Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe, PSG boast one of Europe’s fiercest attacks. Their hunger for European glory further makes them strong contenders.

Moving on to Manchester United, the dust needs to settle before one can comment on their current form. The Red Devils have won two and lost the remaining of their four opening Premier League games this season. The experts have pointed their fingers at various issues encapsulating Manchester United. Nonetheless, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains under fire this season. Ironically, PSG might be the reason for his sacking – the club he defeated in his first year as interim coach to earn a permanent offer – should the Norwegian fail to qualify for the next round.  However, one cannot doubt the quality of their squad. With new signings including Donny Van de Beek and Edinson Cavani, the team may be able to pull off a miracle.

RB Leipzig is perhaps the most interesting side in this group.

Despite their young squad, they made it a long way in 2020 – reaching the semi-finals, where they were beaten by none other than PSG. The Red Bulls scored ten goals in their group last season, securing the first spot with 11 points.

Their 33-year-old manager, Julian Nagelsmann, is a new age tactician and boasts impeccable statistics. Leipzig are currently at the top of the Bundesliga table and look to retain their form. One cannot simply write Leipzig off for they can put up another staggering performance and steal qualification from under the nose of PSG or Manchester United.

After wrapping up their first Super Lig title last season, Istanbul Basaksehir secured their first-ever qualification to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League under Okan Buruk’s tutelage. While they stand a low chance to progress to the Round of 16, it is yet to be seen how Istanbul Basaksehir will treat their opponents at Fatih Terim Stadium. The Turkish champions have lost only two league games at home since the start of the 2019/20 season.

Who stands the best chance to progress to the Round of 16?

Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig


(Featured Image: Twitter/@ChampionsLeague)

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