ESPN - Monday 11th September, 2017
The Champions League group stages begin on Tuesday. Here is a look at all the groups.
Prediction: 1. Man United, 2. Benfica, 3. CSKA Moscow, 4. FC Basel
MAN UNITED (Rob Dawson)
Definition of success: United should be one of the teams looking to win the Champions League, but after missing out in two of the last three years, realistic expectations may be a little lower. Jose Mourinho has built up the strength of their group but United should qualify comfortably. After that, it can become a bit of a lottery and they have a manager who specialises in finding a way to win tight games in Europe, so the signs are good.
Key player: Romelu Lukaku. The one downside to signing the Belgian from Everton is that he has not been tested in the Champions League. If he scores goals then United will do well. His doubters say the 24-year-old struggles to perform in the big games but the Champions League -- especially the knockout rounds -- offers him a chance to put that right.
Manager's approach: Mourinho knows what he's doing in the Champions League. He has got enough attacking players to have a go at teams, but he may be a bit more cautious away from home if they get to the knockout rounds. After winning the competition with Porto and Inter Milan, he will not care if United are not immediately among the favourites this season.
Predicted finish in group: First. Anything less would raise some eyebrows.
BENFICA (Tom Kundert)
Definition of success: In his two seasons in charge, Rui Vitoria has led the Eagles to the quarterfinals and round of 16 stage of the Champions League, as well as winning the league on both occasions, so the bar is set high. That said, the loss of three key players in the summer -- Ederson, Victor Lindelof and Nelson Semedo -- means another run to the quarterfinals would be an excellent achievement.
Key player: Ljubomir Fejsa. The Serbian holding midfielder has accumulated an incredible nine championship winning medals in nine consecutive seasons in three different countries. Fejsa's powerful and fantastically consistent performance levels are all the more remarkable given that brittle fitness rarely allows him to play more than four consecutive games.
Manager's approach: Benfica have bludgeoned modest opponents into submission on a regular basis since Vitoria has been at the helm, but he adopts a more reactive approach in the big matches at home and in Europe. It has led to accusations of an overly conservative game plan, but the results speak for themselves.
Predicted finish: Second. Benfica should target the runners-up spot behind Manchester United.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
CSKA Moscow: After going 43 games without a clean sheet in the Champions League, dating back to 2006, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has finally ended the nightmare and hasn't conceded a single goal in four qualifying fixtures. But he'll need to continue that form in the group stage.
FC Basel: Hugely experienced in the tournament, they possess a deep squad and made an intriguing coaching change, promoting the promising former Swiss international Raphael Wicky from the Under-21 team, in April. But it's a tough ask.
Prediction: 1. PSG, 2. Bayern Munich, 3. Celtic, 4. Anderlecht
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN (Jonathan Johnson)
Definition of success: After the big-money signing of Neymar from Barcelona and the arrival of Kylian Mbappe on loan from Monaco, PSG have never looked better equipped to embark upon a deep Champions League run. Redemption after last year's failure to reach even the quarterfinals will be the minimum target for coach Unai Emery and his players this season, while a semifinal berth or better will be what the French capital outfit's Qatari paymasters are demanding. A spot in the last four -- for the first time in the Qatari era -- will be represent success. It would also illustrate progress on the pitch for the first time in a long while.
Key player: Neymar. Despite the presence of fellow summer signing Mbappe alongside him in attack and Marco Verratti in midfield, there is no doubt that PSG's key man is now Neymar. Les Parisiens' hopes of going beyond the quarterfinals will lie largely with him and the Brazilian superstar appears primed to deliver after finally being handed the keys to his own team after years in Lionel Messi's shadow with Barca.
Manager's approach: Emery is likely to continue with the possession-based 4-3-3 formation that he has started this campaign with, which he also favoured for most of last term. However, with so much depth in attack now, the Spaniard can afford to experiment with other systems and perhaps switch to his preferred 4-2-3-1 after his failure to implement it last season because it was undermined by the dressing room. Considering how many seemingly peripheral attacking figures would likely favour this change, it is not unrealistic to think that PSG could start out with a totally different style to the one they will finish with in this year's continental edition.
Predicted finish: First. PSG fans will remember how notoriously slow Carlo Ancelotti's teams are to hit their stride, so the Ligue 1 giants will be confident of bettering Bayern Munich and their former Italian tactician over two group stage fixtures.
BAYERN MUNICH (Mark Lovell)
Definition of success: Last season's quarterfinal exit to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid side proved no disgrace, taking the eventual champions all the way to extra-time in the Bernabeu. However, following the agony of three consecutive semifinal defeats under Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti was hired to improve on the Catalan's record. He needs to reach the semifinals or his time in Munich might be prematurely cut short.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski. Bayern's top scorer was sorely missed in the last season's quarterfinal first leg and was not 100 percent for the return either. Still bereft of a backup striker, Bayern need Lewandowski to stay fit and firing if they are to go deep in the competition. PSG and Bayern will fill the top two group places anyway, leaving Celtic and Anderlecht to battle it out for Europa League glory.
Manager's approach: Chasing his third win, Ancelotti knows how to get the job done in Europe's top club competition and he will be especially keen to get one over his former employers at PSG. The Italian's sides are not as easy on the eye as his predecessor and it has been a tough watch of late with a series of stale performances. Whatever system he employs, 4-3-3 or his favoured 4-2-3-1, if everyone is fit there's unlikely to be a spot available for the only remaining Bavarian -- Thomas Muller.
Predicted finish: Second. Finishing top of the group ahead of PSG would be welcome, but it's far from a must these days. Real Madrid finished second in their group last season behind Borussia Dortmund and still went on to seal the trophy with plenty in hand.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Celtic: Brendan Rodgers knows his team much better in his second season, and the results a year ago were positive anyway as they went an entire league season unbeaten and drew twice against Manchester City in Europe. If Kieran Tierney and Leigh Griffiths continue to progress, more surprises could be ahead.
Anderlecht: The Belgian champions started the season in disastrous fashion and life without Youri Tielemans (now at Monaco) looks tough, but they still can turn things around.
Prediction: 1. Atletico Madrid, 2. Chelsea, 3. AS Roma, 4. FK Qarabag
ATLETICO MADRID (Joe Walker)
Definition of success: After heartache in two of the last four finals and elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in each of the last four seasons, success could be defined as merely knocking out their city rivals -- even if Los Rojiblancos are then immediately dumped out in the next round themselves. However, Diego Simeone has high standards and his definition of success will be one thing: lifting the trophy. Realistically, another semifinal appearance would be significant.
Key player: Saul Niguez. It would be easy to say Antoine Griezmann here, however Saul is perhaps even more important for Atleti than the Frenchman. The top-scoring Spaniard in the competition over the last three years, it is more often than not Saul -- rather than Griezmann -- is the man that rises to the occasion when Atletico need a hero. He is the driving force of this side from the middle of the park and will be pivotal for years to come.
Manager's approach: Simeone puts the collective above all. He demands 100 percent from every player and insists on defending from the front. His Atleti are most comfortable without the ball and love to play on the counter, yet have shown themselves to be more than capable when up against a low defensive block as they are likely to encounter with Maribor. He had an impeccable home record at the Vicente Calderon in the Champions League and will be hoping to carry that over to the new Wanda Metropolitano.
Predicted finish: First. While Chelsea and Roma pose significant threats, Simeone and Atleti are old hands at this. They finished top of a group containing Bayern Munich last season and should have enough cunning and nous to do likewise this time round -- provided they can turn the Metropolitano into a fortress.
CHELSEA (Liam Twomey)
Definition of success: Chelsea won this competition with a less talented team in 2012, but no one at Stamford Bridge expects such glory this time around -- particularly with Real Madrid looking so imperious. Regaining credibility on the elite European stage is the priority, and a solid run to the quarterfinals would do just fine.
Key player: Eden Hazard. With mercurial talisman Diego Costa out of the Champions League squad and seemingly on his way out of the door, Hazard is now Chelsea's most reliable matchwinner, as well as the team's most talented player. When it comes to finding a way through top defences, the Belgian is Antonio Conte's best hope.
Manager's approach: Conte has gained a reputation for underachievement in the Champions League, but there is no logical reason why that should continue. Chelsea are a well-drilled team with a good balance between defence and attack and in Conte, they have a coach with the knowledge to counteract most types of opponent.
Predicted finish: Second. Chelsea to just slip behind Atletico Madrid in top spot, and it might even come down to goal difference between two similar and evenly-matched teams.
ROMA (Terry Daley)
Definition of success: Just getting out of a very tough group would be a success for a Roma team that is in transition and with a new coach -- Eusebio Di Francesco -- who is making his managerial Champions League debut. Should his talented team click and finish above either Chelsea or Atletico, they have the players to cause some damage in the knockout stages
Key player: Patrik Schick. With the team settling into a new system its hard to pick out one key man, as neither Roma's attack nor defence look fully settled. Record signing Schick has been brought in to add flair to a staid forward line and how he fits alongside the in-form Edin Dzeko will be crucial as the group stage unfolds.
Manager's approach: Di Francesco loves to play attacking, high-pressing football that puts the opposition on the back foot, and if Roma are going to get any joy out the four matches with Chelsea and Atletico, he will have to hope his side adapt quickly to his 4-3-3 system -- or adapt his ideas to the players he has.
Predicted finish: Third. Should the teething problems with Di Francesco's system be overcome there's no reason why Roma can't qualify, but as it stands third is most likely.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Qarabag: The Azerbaijani side's national pride makes them especially motivated, since they can't play in the city of Agdam, and brilliant coach Gurban Gurbanov (who has been with them since 2008) brings stability and continuity. But they are against much bigger fish.
Prediction: 1. Juventus, 2. Barcelona, 3. Olympiakos, 4. Sporting CP
JUVENTUS: (Mina Rzouki)
Definition of success: After reaching the final twice in three years, Juventus will be expected to win their group and reach the latter stages of the competition, perhaps even finally win it. A side that has long boasted balance and tactical brilliance, Juve have yet to produce a performance worthy of their name in the final, often capitulating at the last hurdle. Only winning the elusive trophy will appease the disheartened fans who dream of success.
Key player: Paulo Dybala. The Argentine's technique, vision and football IQ has many referring to him as the next Lionel Messi. Few players in the world can make the impact he can and ever since Juventus handed him the No.10 jersey, the player has delighted with his intensity and brilliance, ensuring wins for a side that is yet to recover its fluidity.
Manager's approach: Having strengthened the attack, Juventus may lose a little balance but will be more effective and efficient going forward. Massimiliano Allegri has always played with a little caution and he'll be keen to address the defensive problems, but if Juventus are to reach the latter stages, the coach will need to ensure they are as tactically versatile as ever, playing the balanced game required to beat the very best.
Predicted finish: First. Juve will go head-to-head with Barcelona for top spot, but this season they have nothing to fear from the Catalans and should have the edge.
BARCELONA (Sam Marsden)
Definition of success: Despite a general lack of satisfaction with how the transfer window closed and the state of the midfield, only winning the Champions League will be considered a success. In difference to previous seasons, though, a semifinal or final defeat may not be considered the end of the world depending on the circumstances.
Key player: Ousmane Dembele. The warnings not to put too much pressure on Dembele -- who at just 20 is the world's second most expensive player -- by comparing him to Neymar are completely fair. However, how quickly he settles into his new life at Camp Nou will play a big part in how Barca's season unfolds. Hitting the ground running would ease the Messi-dependence.
Manager's approach: New coach Ernesto Valverde has remained cool during what has been a turbulent summer. On the pitch, he doesn't quite seem to have found what he's looking for yet, though. Therefore, the Champions League group stages may be used for tinkering. Messi on the right or through the middle? Another pivot alongside Sergio Busquets? 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
Predicted finish: Second. With so many doubts, Barca will want to prove a point, which they'll try to make by beating Juventus to top spot.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Olympiakos: The Greek champions lack stability due to frequent coach and squad changes, but the atmosphere at their home stadium is always hostile towards visitors, and one can expect former Chelsea midfielder Marko Marin to shine on the big stage at long last.
Sporting Lisbon: Gelson Martins proved that he is capable of becoming a major star last season, while the Lions managed to keep William Carvalho and made some interesting acquisitions this summer, especially the Argentina international Marcos Acuna.
Prediction: 1. Liverpool, 2. Sevilla, 3. Spartak Moscow, 4. NK Maribor
LIVERPOOL (Glenn Price)
Definition of success: Liverpool are back in the Champions League for only the third time in the last nine seasons. They have failed to get out of the group stages in their last two attempts in the competition, so reaching the knockout rounds is their first achievable aim. The five-time winners should be aiming higher though and, as a club that has an illustrious history in Europe, Liverpool should be eyeing up the quarterfinals.
Key player: Sadio Mane. This will be his first taste of European football with Liverpool, and it provides the Senegal winger with the opportunity to star on the biggest stage of all. Mane is becoming Liverpool's main man, and his pace and matchwinning ability will be crucial to the Reds' Champions League campaign.
Manager's approach: Liverpool have shown they can beat any team on any given day under Jurgen Klopp's management. Klopp also has pedigree on the European stage, guiding Borussia Dortmund to the Champions League final in 2013 and reaching the Europa League final during his first season at Anfield. His energetic, attacking style of play will be a welcome return to the UCL this season.
Predicted finish: First. Despite tricky trips to Spartak Moscow and Sevilla, this is winnable group, and Liverpool should be looking to secure a first-placed finish.
SEVILLA (Nick Dorrington)
Definition of success: Sevilla were very disappointed with their elimination at the hands of Leicester in last season's round of 16. They will be aiming to go at least one round further this time after solid investment in their squad over the summer.
Key player: Ever Banega. The midfielder has returned to the south of Spain after a patchy year at Inter Milan and has slotted back in seamlessly at the Sanchez Pizjuan. With his quick feet and incisive passing, he will dictate the rhythm of Sevilla's play from the centre of midfield.
Manager's approach: Eduardo Berizzo has been presented as a coach who will continue the style implemented by Jorge Sampaoli last season but there are some key differences. Berizzo prioritises forward momentum over control in possession and favours fixed over situational width in attack. The aggressive press will, however, remain.
Predicted finish: Second. With Spartak Moscow a relatively weak first seed, Sevilla are likely to compete with Liverpool to top the group, and they are certainly capable of doing so.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Spartak Moscow: Having celebrated a sensational title for the first time since 2001, the Russian giants will do their utmost to make a good impression on the big stage, and need Dutch star Quincy Promes to be in sparkling form if they are to stand a chance.
NK Maribor: The Slovenian champions' main star is director of football Zlatko Zahovic, but while the current squad lacks top quality, they compensate for it with outstanding team spirit and a great atmosphere at the Ljudski Vrt stadium.
Prediction: 1. Man City, 2. Napoli, 3. Feyenoord, 4. Shakhtar Donetsk
MAN CITY (Jonathan Smith)
Definition of success: It's too early in the Pep Guardiola revolution to put Manchester City among the favourites but they will want to progress beyond last season's round of 16 finish. A place in the semifinals would constitute success and give a base to build on for a realistic challenge of winning the competition in the years to come.
Key player: David Silva. One of the few players in the squad to have experienced success on the international stage, Silva's intelligence, creativity and courage to have the ball in difficult situations will be crucial in key matches. He becomes a natural leader on big European nights, driving his teammates forward against top opposition, just as his manager requires.
Manager's approach: Guardiola won't change his style; even if City come up against the biggest clubs he is determined to attack. It has it's drawbacks, as seen in the 4-0 to defeat to Barcelona last season, but when they get it right, they are capable of beating anyone.
Predicted finish: First. It's not the easiest group but City should be seen as having the most complete squad of the teams in it.
NAPOLI (Ben Gladwell)
Definition of success: Napoli are no longer a team just happy to have qualified for the Champions League, they are intent on becoming one of Europe's most feared teams. They were close last season against Real, and advancing to the last eight will be considered as a minimum aim. The Serie A side are earning widespread acclaim for their attractive, attacking style of play and are set to win over even more fans this season.
Key player: Dries Mertens. Transformed into a centre forward by Maurizio Sarri, Mertens has ensured Napoli fans don't miss Gonzalo Higuain. The Belgian playmaker honed his eye for goal in spectacular fashion, scoring 28 times in Serie A last season. The 30-year-old's trickery and agility make him hard to mark, while Napoli's three-pronged attack -- him, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon -- means opposition defenders cannot focus on just one and all three invariably get chances to score.
Manager's approach: Sarri has formed a fearsome 4-3-3 formation which could almost be regarded as a 4-2-1-3 with Marek Hamsik in support of the front three. Attacking is always the objective and Napoli do this with a fast-paced, one-touch passing game which shares similarities with the Barcelona of the Guardiola era. There is no keeping possession for the sake of it and plenty of purpose to Napoli's build-up play.
Predicted finish: Second. Manchester City and Napoli can be expected to walk away with Group F, with the main question being which of the two will finish first. The Azzurri can be expected to pick up nine points from their home games -- including a win over City -- and it may therefore come down to their meeting in Manchester to determine who tops the group. Both are in a different category to Shakhtar Donetsk and Feyenoord.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Feyenoord: The European Cup winners in 1970 consider themselves a top club, and the confidence under brilliant coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst is sky-high following their first title since 1999, even though Dirk Kuyt chose to retire.
Shakhtar Donetsk: They still can't host home games in Donetsk due to security reasons, but Shakhtar won the double in their first season under the Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca and Darijo Srna, who has been at the club since 2003, is still calling the shots as the captain. They will be tricky.
Prediction: 1. AS Monaco, 2. FC Porto, 3. RB Leipzig, 4. Besiktas
MONACO (Ian Holyman)
Definition of success: Expectations raised by last season's semifinal run have been tempered by key departures, such as Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Mbappe and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Then again, those players were little known when they arrived in the principality, and Monaco still possess a bona fide matchwinner in Radamel Falcao. All that means anything less than a round of 16 place would be a disappointment.
Key player: Falcao. The striker showed last season his thoroughbred pedigree remains intact despite his ill-fated moves to England. There's no Mbappe or Silva, but the Colombia international still has a willing and able supporting cast, notably Thomas Lemar. At 31, it will require canny man-management from Leonardo Jardim to ensure he stays fit enough to be on the pitch when it matters most.
Manager's approach: Jardim's title-winning team has been shredded, and yet he has still begun the season in characteristic swashbuckling, successful style. In stark contrast to his understated demeanour, Jardim's team only know one way to play: attack. And there is no reason to change a strategy that keeps on winning.
Predicted finish: First. The group stage draw could have been kinder with RB Leipzig the team no-one wanted in pot four, but Jardim's men should be classy and experienced enough to finish top.
PORTO (Tom Kundert)
Definition of success: After four trophyless years, a threadbare squad and with zero investment during the summer, this Porto side is a long way from the powerful team that competed with Europe's finest in the not-too-distant past. Although drawn against clubs of similar standing, staying in the Champions League beyond Christmas would be praiseworthy.
Key player: Oliver Torres. When the creative midfielder is on his game, Porto are difficult to stop. The talented 22-year-old Spaniard allies wonderful vision, a sharp football mind and technical excellence, which allows him to distribute the ball quickly and effectively to keep Porto on the offensive.
Manager's approach: A fiery, aggressive and fully committed winger for Portugal at the turn of the century, Sergio Conceicao has quickly instilled those very same traits into the club he served with such distinction as a player. In his successful coaching career to date, his teams have played only one way: on the front foot.
Predicted finish: Second. But they could run Monaco close as the French club deals with losing so many players.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
Besiktas: Attack-minded coach Senol Gunes is never afraid of anyone and, having led Turkey to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, he is capable of going one better than the group stage exit they managed last season in the Champions League, especially as the Eagles are more experienced now.
RB Leipzig: They finished second in the Bundesliga in their first ever season in the top flight, so the sky is the limit for a team who have managed to keep all their stars, including Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner.
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Dortmund, 3. Tottenham, 4. Apoel Nicosia
REAL MADRID (Dermot Corrigan)
Definition of success: As winners in each of the last two seasons, only lifting the trophy again would count as success for Real Madrid. Fans, pundits and players are full of confidence and there has been talk of matching the exploits of the 1950s and 1960s team, which won six European Cups in a decade. A group exit would be a disaster.
Key player: Sergio Ramos. While Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric are also irreplaceable, the season's opening weeks have suggested skipper Ramos could be the team's most important player. The squad is light on experienced centre-backs and Ramos' charismatic leadership is also useful to maintain a focus, which wavered dramatically through the group stages last season.
Manager's approach: Zinedine Zidane is likely to continue to rotate his squad, giving back up players minutes even before qualification is secured. This has the double effect of keeping stars like Ronaldo fresh for the final stages and shows confidence that youngsters like Marco Asensio can deliver.
Predicted finish: First. Dortmund showed greater consistency to top their group ahead of Madrid last season but you have to think the defending champions would right that wrong.
DORTMUND (Stephan Uersfeld)
Definition of success: Dortmund have been a constant in the knockout stages of Champions League in recent years. Sure, they did not qualify for the competition in 2015-16, but otherwise they have always made it past the group stage regardless of their opponents. A group stage exit would be regarded as nothing but a failure at the Westfalenstadion. Advancing to the quarterfinals appears to be the ceiling.
Key player: Mario Gotze. Having lost Dembele to Barcelona, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang needs a new feeder. United States international Christian Pulisic has shown that he can rise to the occasion, but new coach Peter Bosz will also look for experience which he hopes to find in Gotze. The midfielder is slowly returning to form and will be crucial for Dortmund with his qualities in the final third of the pitch.
Manager's approach. Bosz has impressed and confused both his side and opponents with a variation of formations and in-game coaching, but the former Ajax boss banks on a high-pressing 4-3-3 formation. Dortmund have looked vulnerable and, at times, wide-open in defence when losing the ball, but have been able to close the gaps in their opening league games so far. Bosz has asked for patience to implement the new style at Champions League level, however, the club's new system needs to work from the off.
Predicted finish: Second. Dortmund can gain an edge over Tottenham with their home form and finish the group as runners-up.
TOTTENHAM (Dan Kilpatrick)
Definition of success: Qualification would count as a huge success for Spurs, and a win in either game against Real Madrid would be a big statement, helping Mauricio Pochettino's team to announce themselves in Europe. Even if they go out, competing well with Real and Dortmund could be seen as progress.
Key player: Harry Kane. With Dele Alli suspended for the first three matches, there will be even more pressure on Kane to fire Spurs to qualification. The club were not clinical enough in the Champions League last season and his finishing could be the difference in tight matches.
Manager's approach: Pochettino is a league manager first and foremost, and he rested players for a must-win group game last season ahead of the visit to Chelsea. Spurs' post-European league games are all easier this year, but they host Liverpool after visiting Real, so don't be surprised if Pochettino rests players at the Bernabeu. In general, he never alters his approach based on the opposition, however.
Predicted finish: Third. The games against Dortmund, particularly at home, will be key but Real and the Germans should have too much quality and experience for Spurs.
- Any chance of an upset? (Michael Yokhin)
APOEL: They reached the quarterfinals in the 2011-12 season, and know that another sensation is not out of question for a multinational squad which showed great form and spirit in the qualifiers.
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