Are Juventus Favourites? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group D

Atletico Madrid

The summer transfer window was one of the most critical windows for Atletico during this decade. They lost an entire back-line, alongside their best midfielder and attacker in Rodri and Griezmann respectively. They went about fixing these problems in quite exciting ways, with a combination of experience and younger talent, including the addition of one of the hottest prospects in Europe; Joao Felix. It keeps Atletico Madrid competitive in the short term while allowing them to improve over the next few years.

Simeone’s side is currently top of the league, winning all of their games. However, they’ve shown an unusual trait in the opening 3 games. They’ve remained defensively solid as ever, with only Sevilla, Bilbao and Getafe facing fewer shots per game. They are deservedly top of the table, but what stands out is in the attack, where their shot numbers are fascinating. No side takes fewer shots per game than Atleti’s 6, but they’re managing to get 4 of them on target, the joint 7th best and by far the most efficient. In fact, Barcelona is taking 4.3 shots on target in 13 shots per game. It seems Simeone’s side are focusing on only taking shots from strong locations. Their xG per shot is 0.29, better than Sevilla, Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s an approach I doubt is sustainable, but the idea of your players focusing only on high-quality shots is delightful.

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While Morata and Costa have started the season brightly, their big-money signing Joao Felix has to be the player that rest of the teams here have to keep their eye on. The Portuguese international broke onto the scene with a bang. In his first full season of top-flight football, he scored a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt, making him the youngest player to score on in the Europa League. A lot of clips of the young forward went viral, showcasing his skill and ability on the ball in training. While that is great to watch, by far his best quality is his movement. Felix plays as a second striker, making him effective wherever he plays. The 19-year-old can find pockets of space to expose the opposition in different ways. He can either find room to receive the ball and bring others into play or go for goal himself. Playing in such a forward position has put pressure on him to contribute to goals, but it hasn’t had an effect on the way he plays. It’s by far one of my favourite things about him. Felix enjoys playing football, and you can see it on the pitch whenever he plays and makes the game look so natural. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops under a defensive coach like Simeone, but Felix possesses the qualities right now that can make him a world-class talent. His shot location and movement off the ball are genuinely excellent but offers so much in terms of dribbling and creativity that will make it so difficult for his opponents to handle.

My only worry regarding Atletico is during the knockout stages, but right now, I don’t expect them to have any issues in terms of reaching the round of 16. Their games against Juventus will undoubtedly be exciting, just to see if they continue their consistently high-quality chance creation.

Bayer Leverkusen 

One of the more attacking sides in the competition, Leverkusen have the forward talent to match nearly any team in Europe. Even with Julien Brandt’s departure, Leverkusen still possesses arguably the best forward options in the league, with Volland, Diaby, Demirbay, Bailey, Bellarabi and Havertz all being extremely useful for any coach to have. Ever since Peter Bosz’s appointment midway through the season, they’ve been an absolute joy to watch. Last season, he managed to improve all of the attackers’ output, while ensuring the side weren’t leaking goals nearly as often. Before the Dutchman’s arrival, Leverkusen were struggling to remain in competition with the other teams seeking Champions League football. The change in management was a real boost for all involved. Brandt and Volland were the two who benefitted the most. Out of Brandt’s 18 goal involvements, 14 came after Bosz’s appointment, and Volland scored 8 out of his 14 goals during the second half of the season. A change to a 4-3-3 with the players reaching their expected talent level ensured they deservedly finished inside the top four.

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As mentioned, there are a lot of players that Juventus, Atletico and Lokomotiv have to watch, but by far their biggest threat is Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old is not only the best player for his club but the future of the German national team. At such a young age, Havertz has shown so many qualities that will make him one of the best in the world. While goal-scoring has attracted all the attention, his creativity is his best quality. The midfielder, capable at playing from a six to a ten, is a fantastic passer. His teammates, primarily Bailey and Brandt last season, were great at stretching a defence, which allowed Havertz to pick up the ball in dangerous areas. The German consistently picked out the likes of Volland and Bailey through defence-opening through balls or accurate crosses into the box. It’s tough to stop Leverkusen from scoring goals, but stopping Havertz is the best way to ensure they’re not a threat.

The only problem with Bosz, and it’s a big one, is his naivety. It all goes back to that Europa League. He fell right into Mourinho’s hands and played the way the Portuguese tactician predicted. Ever since it’s been a consistent worry for whenever his sides play one of the big clubs. Bosz possesses a lot of good qualities like other Cruyffian thinkers. The difference between him and other managers like Pep and Koeman is he doesn’t make the necessary changes for specific opponents. His sides will consistently play the same way week in and week out, and while that is good when facing weaker opposition, it makes it so easy for a good thinker to outsmart him. In a group containing the best defensive coach of the decade and a Juventus team famed for dealing with sides like Leverkusen, I just can’t see a world where they finish ahead of either of them.

Juventus

The way Juventus were eliminated in last year’s competition was worrying. A poor, but effective performance to earn a 1-1 draw away against Ajax gave them an advantage during the second leg in Turin. The problem was Juventus just decided to sit on their small lead, instead of taking the game to Ajax. The Dutch side was fantastic and highlighted not only their old-fashioned approach but the weaknesses in their team, especially the midfield. Frenkie De Jong and Donny Van De Beek walked right through Can, Pjanic and Matuidi. Since Pogba’s departure, The Old Lady have failed to adequately replace him, settling for older players who could do a job, instead of improving the team.

It’s what made Juventus’s summer quite perfect. Aaron Ramsey added a player who could offer a lot in goals and creativity from deep, something the previous crop of midfielders could not give. Rabiot is by far their best acquisition. While the Frenchman’s off the field issues put off a lot of clubs from signing him, there is doubting his talent. Rabiot is quite similar to a younger Luka Modric, arguably the best compliment to give him. He makes a lot of defensive actions per game, with the 24-year-old making 5.5 tackles and interceptions last season for PSG. He is an elite progressor of the ball, completing 1.3 dribbles and over 10 deep progressions. He is what Juventus needed, a midfielder who could actually transition the ball through dribbling.

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So far this season, Juventus haven’t been playing their new signings, with Sarri still opting for Khedira, Matuidi and Pjanic. What’s so fascinating about this is just how good they’ve been this season. If Sarri continues to get this output out of these ageing stars, I wonder what he can do with Rabiot once he is settled. Juventus now have a more attacking coach who could help guide Juventus to the Champions League they’ve been trying to win for years. With a solid defence, an improved midfield and Ronaldo still scoring goals, it’s hard to look past Juventus as one of the favourites for the competition. Simeone might cause them problems, but I can’t imagine Juventus failing to escape this group.

Lokomotiv Moscow 

It’s difficult to see how Lokomotiv Moscow find a way out of this group. The Russian side ended the 18/19 season in second place, finishing 8 points behind champions Zenit and equal on points with Krasnodar. Out of the top teams in Russia, Lokomotiv was arguably the worst. They overachieved xG and were lucky to finish so high up the field. Even after losing a lot of their older talent through free transfers, they have made some exciting additions. Joao Mario arrives from Inter Milan on loan, and while I’ve never been his biggest fan, he can offer a lot to a Moscow side who have just lost Manuel Fernandes. Grzegorz Krychowiak was signed permanently during the summer, after being on loan in the 18/19 season. The Polish international had a torrid time in Paris, but his move to Russia has been an enormous success. Usually playing as a defensive midfielder, Krychowiak has already scored 3 this season and is taking 3 shots per game. It’s clear he’s enjoying his football again, and it’s the best he’s been performing since his time for Sevilla.

Lokomotiv’s most significant threat has to be the Miranchuk twins. A rare occurrence to see twins playing for the same team, and makes it even more unique to see them being their team’s best players. Let’s start with Aleksey. The 23-year-old is more experienced than his brother, making his debut at 17 while his brother Anton, didn’t play for the first team until he was 20. Aleksey primarily plays as a number 10, using his incredible passing ability to create for his brother and the other forwards. Last season, Aleksey was making 2.6 key passes per 90, and it’s risen to 3.4 this season. Most of Lokomotiv’s attacks run through the attacking midfielder, which has made him not only one of his club’s best players but one of the stars of his national team.

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Aleksey’s attacking output has been improving as he gets older, mainly his shot volume; something his brother already excels at. Anton Miranchuk had to wait four more years to play alongside his brother in the first team, which is very surprising considering just how good he is. While his brother plays in the middle, Anton sees most of his game time on the left, cutting inside to shoot or create for his teammates. Aleksey is slightly more creative, with Anton averaging 2.2 key passes per 90, but Anton is far more of a goal threat. Last season, the wide player was scoring 0.51 goals per 90, a massive difference to his brother’s 0.13. This is primarily down to the pair having different roles in the side, but it’s good to see where they differ.

It might be slightly unfair to write them off before the competition even begins. But it’s difficult to imagine a world where Lokomotiv can escape this group. Atletico possess a fantastic manager, Juventus have talent across the pitch, and even Leverkusen have some of the best attackers in Germany. It’s one of the many flaws with the Champions League group stage structure, and it seems each of these previews showcases this perfectly. I’m still unsure how to necessarily fix this, but something needs to be changed to benefit those who did win their league titles. After all, it is called the Champions League, not the super club’s league.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group D

After going through two incredibly hard groups to predict, let’s look at a group with less quality, but is just as hard to predict.

Galatasaray

The Super League champions go into this group with a good chance of getting out of it. Galatasaray have started the season relatively well, scoring a lot of goals, but a loss to Trabzonspor was not good, losing 4-0 away from home. When talking about stand out players, there are a few who have started well. Fernando is among a few who has started the season very well. The former Manchester City midfielder has put in a great 4.6 tackles and interceptions. While his ability in the offensive side has never been stand out, his great defensive work is enough. Another who has stood out is Eren Derdiyok. The swiss forward has started very well, putting in 4.4 aerial duels per 90, which should tell you enough on his style of play. He has been putting in a very average 2.2 shots on target per 90. The forward could be seen as over performing, but let’s hope he continues it into the competition before his form fades. They have already scored 11 goals at home in 3 games. Their home form is a threat, but there is question marks on if they can do it away from home. Nevertheless, I do think they will escape the group and reach the round of 16, but won’t top it. They just have more quality than the rest of the teams here.

Lokomotiv Moscow

The Russian League Champions were incredibly lucky in their group draw. They were in the same pot as Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona and teams at that stature. They avoided all the top teams, but still could have drawn some difficult sides. They were lucky to draw teams that are definitely beatable. Even with the lucky draw I am not expecting much from the Russian side. They have been very poor at the start of the season, as they sit in 9th place in the league. They have struggled to score and defensively are not keeping the opposition away from the box. Players like Smolov, Eder and Fernandez have failed to make an impact this season. I have no hope for them at all in this group, and expect a bottom finish.

Schalke

Schalke were a strange one last season. While they did finish second, it was more down to the other teams not performing, instead of Schalke being great. This season has proved this. With Bayern at their usual superhuman ways, and Dortmund looking good, Schalke have been exposed. They haven’t had the easiest of starts, but Wolfsburg, Munchengladbach and Hertha are still beatable. They have just been struggling in front of goal this season. I thought the signing of Mark Uth would be an excellent addition to the forward line, with him being an exciting Hoffenheim’s top scorer last season. He hasn’t started so well, but so hasn’t the rest of the team, excluding Caligiuri. He has started the season very well, he’s averaged 4.7 tackles and interceptions, and making 3 key passes per 90. Schalke just seem to be out of form at the moment, and it will continue into the group stages. A 3rd place finish it will be for the German side.

FC Porto

Porto are in a great position at the moment. They went from constantly staying behind Benfica, to now being the league champions, after winning be league with a more workman approach. They sold both Ruben Neves and Andre Silva, two very promising players, and instead of replacing them, chose to use the players at their disposal in a different way. They went from a 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2. They went for a front two of Aboubakar, a player who was out of favour, and Marega. Both are in their prime years and won the league by sharing the goal load between them. They also have Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has risen to become one of the more important players for the club. He is an excellent dribbler and is a real driving force in that attack. He has been taking 2.5 shots already this season, showing that he has no intention of slowing down from last season. If Porto are to do anything in the Champions League, it will be on Brahimi. Porto do have the best side in this group, and will top it.

Final Table

1. FC Porto

2. Galatasaray

3. Schalke

4. Lokomotiv Moscow