2020-21 UEFA Champions League Preview: Messi, Ronaldo and the Group of Death highlight Groups E-H


Zellreder | Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah Hinton

Europe’s most prolific club competition marches on, as 32 teams vie for 16 coveted spots in the knockout stages. The pomp and circumstance provide the perfect background for stars to be born and reputations forged in the fire of playing against the best teams in the world. This preview will cover the second half of the group stage, groups E-H. Let’s meet the teams!

Group E

Sevilla F.C.

With their most recent success in the UEFA Europa League, the argument could be made that the Andalusian club has now achieved the status of European royalty. Winners of four Europa League titles in seven years, if there is one thing that Sevilla knows how to do, it is how to win in European competitions.

In this group, with no clear favorite to win, Sevilla can propel their way to the knockout stages and make some noise. Manager Julen Lopeteugi’s squad had remained relatively untouched by the summer transfer market, with no significant losses apart from aging midfielder Éver Banega. However, the return of midfielder Ivan Rakitić to Seville should be an adequate replacement for the veteran leadership and playmaking ability that Banega provided.

In addition, the permanent addition of Suso should provide Lopetegui with another attacking option on the wing. The attack for Sevilla is anchored by striker Luuk de Jong, who scored nine goals in all competitions, and Argentine winger Lucas Ocampos. Ocampos was the most prolific scorer for Sevilla, as his 16 goals led the club.

Munir El Haddadi also scored 10 goals for the Europa League champions. While their attack is good, their defense is stout and stingy, only giving up 34 goals in 38 games last season in their domestic league.

Sevilla found their centerback pairing of the future in Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé, and the leadership of right back Jesús Navas only adds to the resolute nature of the defense. As seen on Matchday One, Sevilla can defend, but can it score? The answer to that question will determine how far Sevilla can go in the Champions League.

Chelsea F.C.

The Blues reinforced stereotypes this transfer window by splashing the cash in abundance, even in the face of a global pandemic. After a two-window transfer ban, Chelsea has assembled enough talent going forward to create one of the best attacks in Europe.

From Germany came striker Timo Werner, whose goalscoring exploits of 78 goals in 128 appearances for RB Leipzig were enough to leave bigger clubs salivating for his signature on a contract, and Kai Havertz, the German wunderkind whose playmaking ability and skill on the ball garnered praise from all of Europe. From the Netherlands came winger Hakim Ziyech, who was the best playmaker on Ajax for the last two seasons, contributing 22 goals and 26 assists for the Dutch champions.

This talent joins a nucleus of stars such as soccer’s own “Captain America,” Christian Pulisic, who has shown game-breaking skill and pace on the ball, Mason Mount, who is being molded in the image of his manager, Frank Lampard, and Tammy Abraham, who impressed with 18 goals.

Last season, the problem with Chelsea was its consistency and defense. With a year of top-flight management under his belt, Chelsea legend Lampard should be able to steady the ship and keep the squad flowing in the same direction.

The defense is not so easy to fix. Kepa Arrizabalaga, also known as the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, has proven to be a flop, given his price tag. Their centerback pairing of Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen is average at best, while their depth does not inspire confidence. However, a new left back in Ben Chilwell, some experience in centerback Thiago Silva and a new man between the posts in Edouard Mendy should temporarily assuage defensive concerns.

The main question with the squad lies in their chemistry. With so many new signings, it might be a while before Chelsea is at its best. Can Chelsea afford to wait for its players to grow into the squad, or will the baptisms of fire burn the entire team?

F.C. Krasnodar

If this team inspires looks of confusion, that would be because Krasnodar has never been here before. The Russian debutantes are in the best possible situation, as Group E has no favorites.

This is a team that does not score a lot. Its top goal scorer was Swedish striker Marcus Berg, registering only 10 goals in all competitions. The Byki, or Bulls, play in a defensive-minded formation, with only one striker to lead the attack.

This team is dangerous in that they are playing with house money – they have nothing to lose. Krasnodar could make some noise, but its opponents are not holding their breaths.

Stade Rennais F.C.

In a rare feel-good moment in 2020, when Rennes first learned that it would play in the Champions League group stage, they played the UCL anthem at the loudest volume for 30 minutes . . . at three in the morning!

The French debutantes, like their Russian counterparts in the group, are also playing with house money as they have no expectations. However, Rennes have someone that Krasnodar could only dream to have in their squad – one of Europe’s most promising prospects in Eduardo Camavinga.

In 25 appearances, Camavinga led Ligue 1 with 98 tackles, winning 58 of those tackles. In addition, he already made his debut for the French National Team at 17-years old. Rennes is more attack-minded in its formation, with three attacking players leading the charge.

They enjoy the majority of possession and will use that to generate scoring opportunities. Rennes can make some noise in this competition, but it will just enjoy the ride.

Group F

F.C. Zenit St. Petersburg

The best-funded team in Russia, with connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin and owned by the state-run energy company Gazprom, is back in the Champions League. What a surprise. While that could be an unfortunate reality of the game, that is another topic for another time.

Zenit, who would certainly qualify as the most diverse team in Russia, are the defending champions of their domestic league and have a decent chance at making a run at the knockout stages of the Champions League. Last season, Zenit was led by captain Artem Dzyuba, who racked up 19 goals and 13 assists in all competitions.

The Russian champions also employed the services of Sardar Azmoun, once known as the “Iranian Messi,” who also scored 19 goals. Joining Zenit in attack last season was Malcom, who transferred from FC Barcelona.

The marquee signing for Zenit is Dejan Lovren, a defensive player who has won numerous trophies recently with Liverpool FC. So far, he has provided consistency in the backline, having played every game in all competitions.

Zenit play in the most basic of formations, the 4-4-2. This formation has four defenders, four midfielders and two attackers. The creativity comes not from the alignment, but from the players in the alignment. Besides Dzyuba and Armoun, where is the creativity and playmaking going to come from?

For Zenit, playing in the Champions League is the equivalent of graduating from high school into college. They have the talent to advance, but do they have the gravitas to do so?

Borussia Dortmund

Traditionally, Dortmund is one of the most exciting teams to watch in Europe. Their home stadium, the Westfalenstadion, has seen the development of world-class attackers such as Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, Christian Pulisic and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang. Unfortunately, many of these attackers have found more success away from their Yellow Wall of supporters.

Last season, Dortmund was led by English attacker Jadon Sancho, who had a command of the game unlike any seen in Germany. He had skill on the ball and the ability to change the game with one kick of the ball. Sancho showed adeptness at scoring and passing, scoring 20 goals and contributing 19 assists.

In a major coup for Dortmund, they managed to fend off the intense interest from Manchester United F.C. this transfer window to keep Sancho in the Black and Yellow, for now at least. However, Sancho’s partner in crime is almost equal to the Englishman in terms of attacking ability and a nose for goal.

Having joined Dortmund from RB Salzburg halfway through last season, Erling Haaland announced himself to Europe with 16 goals in 18 appearances. This season, Haaland should assume most of the goalscoring responsibility.

Dortmund has also seen the emergence of American prospect Giovanni Reyna, who will combine with Sancho and Haaland to form one of the best attacking trios in the game. Club legend Marco Reus will provide some attacking support in a depth position and midfielder Thorgan Hazard will look to continue his fine form that led to 13 assists last season.

Dortmund’s attack is great — the questions lie with their defense and form against top opposition. Borussia Dortmund plays with high intensity, which is good in attack but leaves the team vulnerable in the back. Dortmund employs a high line, or when the defensive back four is close to the halfway line of the pitch. When a team uses pace to attack BVB on the counter, bad things happen.

Dortmund need to solidify its defense if it wants to advance. In addition, Dortmund needs to beat great teams. Dortmund could have made a run at the Bundesliga last season, but they were unable to beat their biggest rivals, Bayern Munich. If Dortmund want to do big things in Europe, they need to beat good teams along the way.

S.S. Lazio

If there was a Most Valuable Player award in Serie A, a legitimate argument could be made that it would go to Lazio striker Ciro Immobile. With 39 goals in all competitions, Immobile won the European Golden Shoe as the top scorer across Europe and tied the all-time Serie A record with 36 league goals in a single campaign.

To be fair, Immobile is not the only significant part of the attack, as Luis Alberto contributed seven goals and led the team with 16 assists in all competitions. Lazio’s dangerous nature comes in the team’s style of play.

Manager Simone Inzaghi employs a 3-5-2 formation, which means that there are three defenders, five midfielders and two attackers. This formation serves two purposes for Le Aquile, or the Eagles. The first purpose is to overload the middle of the pitch and establish a foothold in possession. By inhibiting opponents from advancing the ball and building an attack out the back, Lazio control the play. The second purpose is to provide numbers in defense.

When the opponent does attack, the two wingbacks in the midfield come back to help in defense. This helps Lazio maintain the numerical advantage wherever the ball is currently being played. In attack, Immobile and Alberto press the centerback, forcing them into passing errors. It is this playstyle that allowed Lazio to concede the second-fewest goals in Serie A last season.

An important part of this midfield domination is Sergej Milinković-Savić, also known as SMS, who is also capable of magic when he wants. Another important player for Lazio to watch out for is defender Francesco Acerbi, who led the Roman club in passes completed last season, with a 90% pass completion rate.

Lazio’s strength is the discipline and organization, as they are a tough team to break down. On Matchday One, Borussia Dortmund learned that truth the hard way on their way to defeat. Lazio has the opportunity to ruffle feathers and make some noise in the group stages, perhaps with a trip to the knockout stages on the cards.

Club Brugge K.V.

The best of Belgium has something to offer to the Champions League. However, it might be a complementary three points to the opposition.

An evaluation of Club Brugge must start with its defense, who allowed a mere 14 goals in 29 league games last season. One attribute of Club Brugge’s play is the way that it can adapt to the opposition.

Brugge employed several different formations to confound its opponents, also making them impossible to build a definitive game plan for. This is a testament to manager Philippe Clement’s flexibility and situational awareness. However, the Belgian club will be overmatched against bigger clubs from bigger leagues, but if they beat Zenit twice, they could play spoilers.

Group G

Juventus F.C.

Two years ago, Juventus shocked the world when they signed megastar Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid C.F. Ronaldo’s arrival was a statement of intent from Juventus and a warning for the rest of Europe – that the “Old Lady” will be coming for the Champions League trophy.

Since then, I Bianconeri, or the Black and Whites, have been humiliated by AFC Ajax and Olympique Lyonnais in the knockout stages. Last year’s Juventus team could not fulfill their attack potential relied too heavily on the talent of Ronaldo to win under the tutelage of Maurizio Sarri, who was fired shortly after Champions League elimination.

This year, Juve will be managed by one of the best midfielders of his generation, Andrea Pirlo. They have an extremely talented squad, with Ronaldo as the jewel in the crown. If Juve wants to go far this year, the supporting cast of Juventus must produce in a big way, starting with Paulo Dybala.

With 17 goals and 10 assists in all competitions, the Argentine attacker is the best playmaker on Juventus, the obvious exception being Ronaldo, who had 37 goals in all competitions. Adding to the attack is Álvaro Morata, who scored 16 goals last season and returned to Italy after stints in England and Spain.

The midfield lost some veteran lynchpins in Miralem Pjanić and Blaise Matuidi, who combined for 5.1 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. However, the squad will rely on youth in the middle of the pitch, specifically new acquisitions Arthur Melo and Weston McKennie. Melo did not play a lot in Barcelona, but he made the most of his appearances, creating 1.95 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. McKennie was the shining light in the darkness of F.C. Schalke 04’s season.

Rodrigo Bentancur had 2.99 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes last season and 77 tackles for Juventus. Another midfielder to watch for is French international Adrien Rabiot, who had a pass completion percentage of 88% last season.

The defense for Juventus is solid, led by the Italian duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The questions for Juventus lie in the performance of the squad and its rookie manager. Juventus’ supporting cast needs to perform around Ronaldo to succeed.

Andrea Pirlo also needs to be careful. He has been given the keys to a Ferrari and his only job is to not crash it, which is a daunting task for any manager, let alone in his first managerial position. If everything clicks for Juve, they could be considered favorites to win the entire tournament.

F.C. Barcelona

It is an inconvenient truth for the Blaugrana, but this was the summer from hell. After their utter humiliation at the hand of Bayern Munich, Barça fired its manager, Quique Setién, and allowed its legendary striker Luis Suarez to leave for free. The team made the questionable decision to swap a young prospect in Arthur Melo for an older veteran with not many years left in his prime, Miralem Pjanić.

Years of organizational incompetence came to a dramatic climax when Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player ever to grace a football pitch, wanted to terminate his contract and leave the Camp Nou for free. However, Josep Bartomeu, the president of FCB, refused to let Messi leave, citing the expiration of the clause in his contract allowing Messi to unilaterally leave Barcelona and become a free agent.

If Messi wanted to leave, his future club would have to pay close to one billion euros in accordance with his release clause. It became an ugly affair, with La Liga intervening and agreeing with Bartomeu and a threat of litigation hanging over Messi’s head. Before the start of this season, Messi agreed to stay for one last season before moving on.

Messi’s contributions to F.C. Barcelona can be an entire article itself, but last season, he was the talisman for the Blaugrana. With 31 goals and 25 assists, he was the guy for the team.

The problem with Barça’s team was that its stars were too old and had no support. Now, under new manager Ronald Koeman, Barça will look to develop the next generation of stars.

Antoine Griezmann arrived last season to much fanfare and proceeded to disappoint, never looking comfortable on the pitch. In all competitions, 15 goals is nothing to be ashamed of, but his nine goals in La Liga was his smallest tally in league play since 2012. Koeman will look to incorporate him as much as possible into the play, as well as Frenkie de Jong.

De Jong arrived in Catalonia as the “heir apparent” to midfield legends such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. So far, he has played out of position, with Barça’s formation not fitting in with his playstyle. With Koeman at the helm, that should change.

Finally, a young star in 17-year-old Ansu Fati was a revelation last season, scoring eight goals in 15 starts. Fati should have a more pronounced role on this year’s squad. The attack should be bolstered by the return of Philippe Coutinho from loan.

Barça needs a sense of stability, especially with the recent resignation of Bartomeu and the entire executive board from the club. Although silverware should always be the goal, this year is more about Barça reclaiming its identity as a top team. In the Champions League, FCB should advance and make some noise in the knockout stages.

F.C. Dynamo Kyiv

One of the most decorated clubs in the history of Ukrainian soccer is back in the Champions League group stage for the first time in three years. Dynamo Kyiv have finished second in the Ukrainian Premier League in four consecutive seasons; amazingly, they have not missed participation in a European competition since 1990. However, Juventus and Barcelona are a class above the Ukrainian club and should prove it over the coming months.

Ferencváros T.C.

Group G is all about Juventus and Barcelona. Messi vs. Ronaldo. Two of the best teams in Europe.

Back in the Champions League group stage for the first time in 25 years, Ferencváros should be proud that they made this far. However, in this script, Ferencváros will play the role of grateful doormat.

Group H

Paris Saint-Germain F.C.

After falling at the final hurdle, Paris Saint-Germain is out for revenge. With one of the best attacks that money can buy, PSG will look to finally put all the pieces together and win the Champions League. Winners of every French soccer trophy under the sun, PSG will rely on their three-headed monster of Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, Kylian Mbappe and Ángel Di María.

Neymar, once tipped as the heir to the thrones of Messi and Ronaldo, proved to be the focal point of the attack for Les Parisiens. With 19 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, the Brazilian showed that he was capable of the spectacular.

In the middle, Mbappe, already a World Cup champion and four-time Ligue 1 champion at just 20 years of age, continued his goalscoring and playmaking exploits with 30 goals and 14 assists. With those types of numbers, Mbappe is being tipped for a spell at some the biggest clubs in the world such as Real Madrid and Liverpool. His pace and skill on the ball is breathtaking to watch and is sure to cause fits for PSG’s opponents.

On the right, Ángel Di María has had a career renaissance after a dismal spell at Manchester United. Last season, the Argentine attacker scored 13 goals and amassed a team-high 22 assists. Add the nose for goal of Mauro Icardi, who scored 20 in all competitions last season, and the untapped offensive potential of Moise Kean, PSG now have an attacking force to be reckoned with.

In the midfield, Ander Herrera will be the fulcrum for the team, establishing a bridge between the defense and the attack. Last season, Herrera had 2.27 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes and a 90.4 pass completion percentage.

The biggest loss of the transfer window for PSG had to be center back Thiago Silva, who left for the blue side of London and Chelsea. It remains to be seen how much the squad will miss his veteran leadership, but fellow Brazilian Marquinhos will now have the lionshare of defensive responsibilities.

This season, the biggest enemy to the success of Paris Saint-Germain will be themselves. Associated with folding under the bright lights of Europe’s most famous club competition, they resurrected their image slightly with an appearance in the final of last year’s Champions League.

However, the pall of losing hangs over the head of France’s reigning champions. Unfortunately, winning Ligue 1, the Coupe de France, the Coupe de la Ligue and the Trophée des Champions is not enough to guarantee another year for manager Thomas Tuchel. With every loss and bad performance in the Champions League, Tuchel’s hot seat becomes warmer.

Their group is a tough one, evidenced by their loss on Matchday One to Manchester United. However, their talent should push Les Parisiens to the knockout stages.

Manchester United F.C.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen . . . in a way. Once the gold standard of English soccer, the Red Devils are far removed from the juggernaut they developed under manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Last season, Man U were transformed by the arrival of Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes into a decent side, establishing a presence in the middle of the pitch. With 12 goals and eight assists in only 22 appearances, Fernandes was the most valuable player for the Red Devils.

Man U were a dizzying side to analyze. They finished third in the Premier League and made the semifinals of three club competitions. The problem is that they lost all three. Man U is not a team bereft of talent, especially in attack.

Anthony Martial led the team with 23 goals and nine assists. He is always a threat whenever he collects the ball in the attacking third. Mason Greenwood was a revelation last season at only 17-years-old, scoring 17 goals in all competitions, contributing three assists along the way.

Finally, Marcus Rashford, MBE, scored 22 goals and had nine assists as he constantly found himself in great positions to pull the trigger and score. Rashford has had a brilliant start to his Champions League campaign, scoring four goals in two games and his first-ever hat trick against RB Leipzig in Matchday Two.

The midfield for United is also full of talent. The aforementioned Fernandes is the heartbeat of the squad on the pitch. He is flanked by Paul Pogba, who still has the talent to control games and pick a perfect pass. However, United’s vulnerabilities become exposed when their defense is under the spotlight.

Club captain Harry Maguire was a rock in the back four, registering the most appearances for the club last season. Considering his status as the world’s most expensive defender, his shambolic defensive moments this season are inexcusable and do not inspire confidence. As a result, Maguire’s partner in defense, whether it be Victor Lindelöf or Eric Bailly, look worse.

Luke Shaw at left back is not to the standard of Manchester United, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka is their best defender, but he cannot provide any support in attack. The most question marks lie with their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, as well as the board who makes transfer decisions.

Solskjær can have moments of tactical brilliance, but they are greatly outnumbered by his managerial duds. In terms of transfers, the club tried for months to lure superstar Jadon Sancho to Old Trafford, only to have him reject United at the last moment.

If United wants to succeed in the Champions League, the players must put aside the question marks surrounding the management and play their game.

R.B. Leipzig

The most hated club in Germany returns to the Champions League after reaching the semifinals in last year’s edition. However, they will be without their talismanic striker Timo Werner, who contributed almost 35% of all the goals scored by Leipzig in the Bundesliga last season.

Manager Julien Nagelsmann, a tactical savant, will now rely on other attackers to attempt to fill the void left by Werner. Marcel Sabitzer had 16 goals and 10 assists for Leipzig last season, while Yussuf Poulsen and Christopher Nkunku combined for 23 assists in all competitions.

All three attackers will have more pronounced roles this season, as well as Emil Forsberg. Forsberg is an attacking midfielder who can score goals, a highly valuable trait to the squad. The Swede had 10 goals last season and must improve on his tally if Leipzig want to repeat last season’s accomplishment.

One player to watch for throughout the group stage matches is American Tyler Adams. Adams burst onto the scene last year with his goal in the quarterfinals of the UCL against Atletico Madrid and will look to improve his form this season.

In defense, Leipzig will have one of the most sought-after players in the market in Dayot Upamecano to lead. In a group with heavyweights both traditional and new, Leipzig need to hit the ground running to have any chance of advancing into the knockout rounds.

İstanbul Başakşehir F.K.

The last debutante in the group stages of the Champions League is the culmination of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s influence and his dream of having a personal club to rival Istanbul’s “big three” of Galatasaray S.K., Fenerbahçe S.K. and Beşiktaş J.K. Erdoğan’s fingerprints are all over this club from being related by marriage to the club president to the use of his political party’s colors.

His portrait is hanging in the offices of their training ground, the number that he wore in an exhibition game is now retired by the club, and the club’s main sponsor is Medipol – the system of health and hospitals established by the Turkish health minister.

The politics involved with the Turkish champions is enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth of any reader, while the pictures of numerous Turkish flags hanging from the empty rafters of Fatih Terim Stadium could make any fan uncomfortable, given the context of the club. Başakşehir’s time in the Champions League will be more about being there than the results of their matches.