Europe’s most prestigious football competition is officially underway. One of the most eventful summer transfer windows in European history has changed the landscape of the game (Granada is in second place in La Liga?), and the Champions League title is still within all 32 group stage clubs’ grasp.
Group stage predictions, who’s going to the round of 16?
Group A: PSG, Club Brugge, Galatasaray, Real Madrid
Spencer Golanka: PSG (1st), Real Madrid (2nd)
Jack Whaley: PSG (1st), Real Madrid (2nd)
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: PSG (1st), Real Madrid (2nd)
Chanun Ong: PSG (1st), Real Madrid (2nd)
Group B: Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham Hotspur, Olympiacos
SG: Bayern Munich (1st), Tottenham Hotspur (2nd)
JW: Bayern Munich (1st), Tottenham Hotspur (2nd)
JKS: Bayern Munich (1st), Red Star Belgrade (2nd)
CO: Bayern Munich (1st), Tottenham Hotspur (2nd)
Group C: Manchester City, Dinamo Zagreb, Shakhtar Donetsk, Atalanta
SG: Manchester City (1st), Atalanta (2nd)
JW: Manchester City (1st), Atalanta (2nd)
JKS: Manchester City (1st), Shakhtar Donetsk (2nd)
CO: Manchester City (1st), Atalanta (2nd)
Group D: Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Lokomotiv Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen
SG: Atlético Madrid (1st), Juventus (2nd)
JW: Atlético Madrid (1st), Juventus (2nd)
JKS: Juventus (1st), Atlético Madrid (2nd)
CO: Atletico Madrid (1st), Juventus (2nd)
Group E: Red Bull Salzburg, Napoli, Liverpool, Genk
SG: Napoli (1st), Liverpool (2nd)
JW: Liverpool (1st), Napoli (2nd)
JKS: Liverpool (1st), Red Bull Salzburg (2nd)
CO: Liverpool (1st), Napoli (2nd)
Group F: Slavia Praha, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund
SG: Barcelona (1st), Dortmund (2nd)
JW: Dortmund (1st), Barcelona (2nd)
JKS: Inter Milan (1st), Barcelona (2nd)
CO: Barcelona (1st), Inter Milan (2nd)
Group G: RB Leipzig, Zenit St. Petersburg, Olympique Lyonnais, Benfica
SG: Benfica (1st), Lyonnais (2nd)
JW: RB Leipzig (1st), Lyonnais (2nd)
JKS: RB Leipzig (1st), Zenit St. Petersburg (2nd)
CO: RB Leipzig (1st), Benfica (2nd)
Group H: Ajax, Valencia, Chelsea, LOSC
SG: Valencia (1st), Ajax (2nd)
JW: Ajax (1st), Valencia (2nd)
JKS: Ajax (1st), Chelsea (2nd)
CO: Ajax (1st), Chelsea (2nd)
Champions League winner: Who will hoist the trophy in May (that’s a long seven months)?
SG: I think this is Juventus’ year. Adding Matthijs De Ligt in the offseason from Ajax, Juve have the most balanced, deep and talented squad in world football. (Cristiano) Ronaldo will be Ronaldo, the Juve defense will be stout as ever, and they will avenge their 2017 loss to Real Madrid to be crowned champions for the first time since 1996.
JW: The traditionally strong German club Bayern Munich is looking as good as ever this year, after holding together most of its squad from last season. Although last year Bayern was bounced out in the round of 16, manager Niko Kovač will have his goal set on Europe’s top trophy this time around, after winning the Bundesliga last year in his first season managing the club.
JKS: After years of relatively simple, easy-to-predict tournaments, 2019-20 feels different. This feels wide open. The giants are still awaking from their summer slumber, and a slew of challengers are eager and ready to fight for the crown. This is the year Manchester City breaks through to the finals, but it still won’t be enough. Neymar seems to be upping the ante with PSG after returning to the fold. If that proves to be true, the Parisians will win the new money UEFA Champions League Final.
CO: With Real Madrid relegated to the second tier of Champions League contenders, the new Galácticos are here, perhaps to stay. Pep Guardiola leads a Manchester City side armed with one of the most free-scoring attacks in football — a smorgasbord of world-class wingers and strikers supplied by one brilliant Belgian, Kevin De Bruyne. If their defense can stay consistent at a continental level, the trophy will come to the Etihad this year.
Dark Horse(s): Who is 2019’s Ajax? Who do you see upsetting this apple cart?
SG: I think Napoli can surprise a lot of people. The Stadio San Paolo is one of the hardest places to play in Europe, and Napoli has a dense, experienced squad that can beat any team on their day. Liverpool has already dropped points in Naples, and I plan on a few more quality teams doing the same.
JW: Dortmund is going to go further than people are expecting this season, as the club added Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt in the summer transfer window, two young prospects that are sure to help the black and yellow. I can see Dortmund going as far as the semifinals this year if everything is clicking for them.
JKS: Beyond the obvious (Ajax could have another great year) lies Inter Milan. The Nerazzurri have remade themselves in the offseason. Antonio Conte now leads a side full of experience and legitimate stars, headlined by Diego Godín and the former Manchester United player Romelu Lukaku along with this year’s soon-to-be great comeback story, Alexis Sánchez. Inter have all the right ingredients to return to the spotlight.
CO: The Spurs were looking reasonable until Tottenham coughed up seven goals at home to Bayern Munich and put their readiness to take on Europe again in major doubt. One outfit to keep an eye on is Bayern’s domestic rivals RB Leipzig, whose 32-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann leads an equally youthful team that includes striker Timo Werner.
Players to watch: Who is essential? Who is a breakout? Which players should fans be following?
SG: Mohamed Salah for Liverpool. The Egyptian King’s performances late in the tournament will literally determine where Liverpool will finish when all is said and done. My breakout player is none other than Chelsea forward and American product Christian Pulisic. I think the other teams in the group suit his play well, and when he gets the opportunity, he will take full advantage. One player to watch: Lionel Messi. I don’t really need to explain any further.
JW: The name that everyone has been talking about, 16-year-old Ansu Fati of Barcelona is the breakout player to watch in the Champions League this year. Messi will be coming back soon, but with Fati’s play recently, he’s still a player set to have a breakout year. The main player I’d be looking out for, though, is Raheem Sterling. After an amazing 2019 season with Manchester City, Sterling will be looking to prove himself for Guardiola’s side once again.
JKS: Erling Braut Håland is the young gun to be aware of, his breakout performance against Genk is only a sign of what is to come, and he may find himself on a bigger stage than Red Bull Salzburg’s come next season. But who should we really be watching? Neymar. A summer of drama has ended and the Brazilian is still in Paris. If he commits to a course of action, whether that is staying or departing, PSG could rally and break their quarterfinal funk. But if he waits in the strange state of pseudodeparture, it could be too much to overcome for an overdue PSG squad.
CO: 19-year-old Benfica product João Félix arrived at Atlético Madrid as a replacement for Antoine Griezmann, but a hefty €126 million price tag has left some Colchoneros scratching their heads. Atlético has taken a huge gamble on the promise of the next Kylian Mbappé, but Félix will need to earn Diego Simeone’s trust during his debut season at the Wanda Metropolitano. A slightly more proven Portuguese will also be one to watch — after Ronaldo bore the weight of Juventus’s Champions League hopes last year, all eyes will be on him as he looks to outrun both his own age and his opposition.