Football: Champions League set to begin most challenging group stage

Football: Champions League set to begin most challenging group stage

Spain Soccer La Liga
Barcelona's Lionel Messi in action during the La Liga football match between Barcelona and Sevilla at the Camp Nou on Oct 4, 2020. (Photo: AP/Joan Monfort)

GENEVA: As a second wave of coronavirus cases hits Europe, the UEFA Champions League is going to again send elite players criss-crossing the continent.

But football’s biggest club competition has a back-up plan to ensure the group stage can be completed, even if there is a delay caused by the pandemic.

The fast-track schedule will begin on Tuesday (Oct 20), one month later than normal.

The plan is for 32 teams to each play six games in only 50 days, finishing by Dec 9.

With COVID-19 infections spiking across Europe, however, and Cristiano Ronaldo among multiple current cases at Italian champions Juventus, UEFA will let games be made up by a Jan 28 deadline.

Keeping the entire competition on schedule will also protect a prize fund of €2 billion (US$2.3 billion).

GROUP A

Defending champions Bayern Munich and battle-tested Atletico Madrid are strong favourites to advance from Group A.

Robert Lewandowski, voted UEFA’s best player in Europe last season, has started this season by scoring at a goal-a-game ratio for the German club.

Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski
Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski in action with Hertha BSC’s Dedryck Boyata. (Photo: Reuters/Andreas Gebert)

Atletico added Luis Suarez, who fell out of favour at Barcelona.

RB Salzburg impressed in its Champions League debut last season under American coach Jesse Marsch, but the club has since sold its three main forwards, including Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund.

Lokomotiv Moscow, the Russian league runner-up, has finished last in its group in the past two seasons.

GROUP B

Real Madrid has never failed to advance from the group stage and is looking to do it for the 24th straight season.

The record 13-time European champions lead a group with perhaps the most depth in quality.

Shakhtar Donetsk reached the Europa League semi-finals in August, but the Ukrainian club was routed by current group opponent Inter Milan 5-0.

Serie A - Benevento v Inter Milan
Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku celebrates after scoring. (Photo: Reuters/Ciro De Luca)

That was part of Romelu Lukaku’s streak of scoring in eight straight European games.

German club Borussia Monchengladbach rounds off the group.

Real will play home games at its tiny training ground while no fans are allowed into Spanish venues. The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium is being renovated.

Shakhtar will play in Kiev amidst its seventh season of exile from Russian-backed conflict in Donetsk.

GROUP C

Pep Guardiola will be trying to lead Manchester City to its first title in the competition for the fifth time - in a season in which the club was originally banned from playing.

Guardiola will go up against three Portuguese coaches.

Carabao Cup Fourth Round - Burnley v Manchester City
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with Bernardo Silva during a Carabao Cup match against Burnley on Sep 30, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Molly Darlington, Pool)

Marseille coach Andre Villas-Boas made his reputation at Porto, capping a treble-winning debut season in 2011 by winning the Europa League at the age of 33. 

Sergio Conceicao led Porto to a domestic double and now a 24th appearance in the group stage.

And Olympiacos, coached by Pedro Martins, won its first Greek league title in three years and is in the group stage for the 20th time.

GROUP D

Liverpool leads a group ideally formed for hipster analysts and lovers of pure, attacking football.

Liverpool and Ajax have combined for 10 European titles since they last met in the competition in 1966.

Virus Outbreak Liverpool Mane
Liverpool's Sadio Mane celebrates after scoring during an English Premier League match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sep 20, 2020. (Photo: AP/Michael Regan, Pool)

As with Ajax’s run to the semi-finals two seasons ago, Atalanta was a revelation last season before losing to Paris Saint-Germain on two late goals in the quarter-finals.

Danish club Midtjylland is a debutant - the club was created only 21 years ago and has a reputation for management decisions based on statistical analysis.

GROUP E

The past two Europa League champions and two more newcomers with very different histories will compete in Group E.

Sevilla and Chelsea have won six of the past eight Europa League titles, and Chelsea also won the Champions League in 2012.

Chelsea strengthened its squad for this season by buying goalkeeper Edouard Mendy last month from group rivals Rennes.

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy
Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. (Photo: AFP/Neil Hall)

Rennes has kept gifted France midfielder Eduardo Camavinga, however, who at the age of 17 is older than Russia's Krasnodar, the fourth club in the group.

Krasnodar was only founded in 2008 - 107 years after Rennes - but has qualified for UEFA competitions in each of the past six seasons.

GROUP F

As champions of Russia, Zenit St Petersburg is the top-seeded team in Group F despite placing last in its group last year.

Borussia Dortmund and its fleet of young attackers - including Haaland and 17-year-old American Giovanni Reyna - should start as the favourites.

Bundesliga - Borussia Dortmund v SC Freiburg
Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland scores their third goal against SC Freiburg at Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund, Germany, on Oct 3, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Leon Kuegeler)

Lazio is back after a 12-year absence with one of the most diverse squads, including players from at least 12 nations other than Italy.

Belgium's Club Brugge is the group's fourth team.

GROUP G

The first match between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is scheduled for Oct 28, when Juventus hosts Barcelona. The return match is on Dec 8.

Barcelona has advanced to the knockout round in 16 straight seasons, while Juventus has for the past six.

AS Roma's Davide Santon in action with Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo
Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo in action with AS Roma's Davide Santon. (Photo: Reuters/Alberto Lingria)

Ferencvaros is the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams in the competition, currently in 118th place in UEFA’s list.

Tuesday’s game at Barcelona is the club’s first in a Champions League group in 25 seasons, and the first for a Hungarian team since 2009.

Ferencvaros coach Serhiy Rebrov was in charge of Dynamo Kyiv in 2016, when the Ukrainian club played its only knockout games in the last 20 years.

Dynamo is now coached by 75-year-old Mircea Lucescu, a Champions League regular during his 12 years at Shakhtar.

GROUP H

Edinson Cavani was playing for Paris Saint-Germain when his new club, Manchester United, last won a game in the Champions League.

The teams meet again on Tuesday at Parc des Princes, where a stoppage-time penalty for United in March 2019 eliminated PSG in the round of 16.

Edinson Cavani signed for Manchester United on transfer deadline day
Edinson Cavani signed for Manchester United on transfer deadline day (File photo: AFP/Luis Acosta)

Also reunited are PSG and RB Leipzig after their semi-final match in August, won by the French champions 3-0.

Turkish champions Istanbul Başakşehir start their first group campaign after slumping to last in their league and failing to score in four games.

Source: AP/kg

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