So, just under 2 months after the last ones finished, we’re ready to go again. The qualifying is over, and we’re onto what (most consider) is the main event. So, here is all you need to know about the London teams and how we think they’ll fare in the upcoming Champions League and Europa League seasons.
At surface level, it looks as if Chelsea have got an easy draw for the group stage. Seeded in Pot 2, getting Sevilla as their side from Pot 1, featuring all the ‘Big Five’ league winners in Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and PSG, Sevilla were certainly one of the kinder options. Although, the Europa League champions will still prove a stiff test for Lampard’s blues, and have started the new La Liga season well under Julen Lopetegui who, despite his controversies as a figure, has certainly done a good job with Los Palanganas. Their trip to Krasnodar in Russia, one usually labelled as a cliché ‘tough place to go’, will have its ‘toughness’ diminished by the absence of a full crowd. That said, they pose a few tricky players, notably Swedish internationals Kristoffer Olsson and Viktor Claesson, but it should be 2 wins from 2 for Chelsea. Finally, their encounters against Rennes will be a fun affair, following the sale of Edouard Mendy from the French outfit to them. Rennes, at the time of writing, have the best record in France so far in the 2020/21 season, and rising star Eduardo Camavinga looks like the real deal. Despite a good transfer window from the Breton side, notably Daniele Rugani arriving from Juventus and Belgian youngster Jeremey Doku from Anderlecht, it’s similarly a matchup where Chelsea will be favourites. Chelsea can threaten anyone going forward, but whether their defensive weaknesses will be exposed is a key issue. Topping the group will be the aim.
The main question that will linger over Arsenal’s campaign is will they take it seriously. The indications are there that Arteta may place at least less of an emphasis on the Europa League than last year, where they bowed out to Olympiacos. They haven’t acquired their desired changes in personnel over the summer- their inability to secure the services of Houssem Aouar leaves midfield creativity almost entirely down to Dani Ceballos who is not a natural attacking player. The acquisition of Willian may temporarily alleviate these problems; the Brazilian created more chances than any Arsenal player last season. Whilst Willian’s age suggests his decline is imminent, attacking depth will be important.
This season in the group stage they’ve been drawn to Rapid Vienna, Molde and Dundalk, three sides who have all come down from Champions League qualifying into the Europa League. Rapid Vienna have some of Austria’s most exciting youth, notably Dalibor Velimirović, Leo Greiml and, most of all, Yusuf Demir who is blessed with an exceptional long range shot. Molde, Norwegian champions, came close to the Champions League group stage but just missed out in the playoff to Ferencváros. Meanwhile, Dundalk will likely have to play their home games at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin as their stadium doesn’t meet criteria. Even with second-string players Arsenal should comfortably win the group. Such a shame about the fans- Dublin, the Norwegian Coast and Vienna would be three cracking awaydays.
Having travelled to the outskirts of Europe with games against Plovdiv in Bulgaria and Skopje in North Macedonia, Tottenham qualified for the group stage after a 7-2 trouncing of Maccabi Haifa at home. For the group stage, they’ll travel to Bulgaria again to play Ludogorets, as well as playing last season’s surprise package LASK, and Royal Antwerp from Belgium, a club with previous ties to Manchester United. A mostly successful transfer window has seen the long-overdue problems at full-back addressed and the purchase of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton looks like good business. Adding forward depth will prove crucial but whether Carlos Vinicius can replicate his impressive form from Liga Nos is not yet clear. The return of Gareth Bale to North London has received the most attention, however, his potential on-pitch contribution is debatable.
In a similar vein to their North London rivals, Tottenham’s second string XI should be enough to top the group. Furthermore, their fans are missing out on three cracking awaydays off the beaten track (Linz, Sofia and Antwerp). However, José Mourinho is unlikely to take this competition lightly after winning it with Manchester United in 2017. Arguably the main reason Tottenham brought in the Portuguese was to end their 12-year trophy drought, and this is an excellent opportunity to do just that.
Champions League- Winner Predictions and Dark Horses
Predicting the winner of Europe’s elite competition is always hard but maybe this season even more so. Based on early season form, the reigning European champions, Bayern Munich, seem to have taken a step backwards. In their first three Bundesliga games, Hansi Flick’s side have conceded seven including four in a loss to Hoffenheim on matchday two. The Bavarians have been electric going forward since Niko Kovac was sacked a year ago. In 2019/20 Robert Lewandowski had arguably the best individual attacking season from a player not named Ronaldo or Messi in the last ten years. Serge Gnabry is one of the in-form wingers in world football and adding Leroy Sane to the opposite flank is an extremely exciting prospect. Despite their offensive prowess, the loss of Thiago Alcantara and their defensive liability will let them down this year.
Our pick for the Champions League winner is Liverpool. Summer arrivals Diogo Jota and Kostas Tsimikas have provided the Reds with much-needed depth in key areas. However, the key to Jurgen Klopp’s success will be Thiago’s switch to Merseyside. For all the praise Liverpool’s midfield has received over the last few years they have, on occasion, lacked deep creativity. There was probably no one better than the La Masia graduate to solve this issue given that his positional versatility makes him an ideal candidate for the Red’s all-action midfield.
A final between these two in Istanbul? Yes please.
As for dark horses, who else but Atalanta. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men were minutes away from the Champions League Semi-Finals last season and, were a second-leg played, perhaps could have overcome PSG. La Dea have, at the time of writing, started stronger than any other side in Europe this year. Rattling in the goals, including against fellow Italian Champions League competitors Lazio, they have scored at least four in every Serie A game so far and came close to the title in a record-breaking 2019/20 campaign. Whilst they are vulnerable defensively, their attacking system means they can beat anyone on their day. And what a story it would be for the bruised city of Bergamo.
Europa League- Winner Predictions and Dark Horses
It is arguably fruitless to pick the winner of the Europa League before the Round of 32 when the Champions League third-place teams from the Group Stage are added. Looking at the teams who are already in the competition, however, several stand out. Napoli are, on paper, probably the strongest side. Genaro Gattuso managed to mostly make up for a disappointing season last year by defeating Juventus in the Coppa Italia Final. Their results improved significantly in the second half of the campaign and they look strong so far in the 2020/21 season. They should provide the stiffest competition to the London sides, who are also among the hot favourites. However, it may depend on who gets the boot from the Champions League group stage.
As for dark horses, there are a lot of exciting teams in the Europa League this season, such as Real Sociedad. Even with the return of Martin Odegaard to Real Madrid, Real Sociedad have a bunch of exciting youngsters. Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal have become regulars in the Spanish national set-up and Alexander Isak has had a promising start to life in Spain. Combined with proven veterans, such as Willian Jose, Asier Illarramendi, and David Silva, the Basque side could cause problems this year.
Another pick, PSV, is somewhat of an unknown quantity. They were disappointing in the Eredivisie last year and many pundits will look to AZ Alkmaar as the superior Dutch side in the Europa League. AZ were great last season but are not showing the same quality so far this campaign. Furthermore, PSV’s failures were more down to Mark van Bommel’s poor management than quality on the pitch. In Donyell Malen, Cody Gakpo, Mohammed Ihattaren, Mauro Junior, Noni Madueke, and Israel legend Eran Zahavi, they have some of the best attacking depth of any team outside the top five leagues. What could be the determining factor in the Eindhoven side’s success, however, is the appointment of Roger Schmidt as head coach. Hopefully it will be their breakout season.