Predicting the 2016–17 Champions League Group Stage

Serge: The fateful eight groups of Champion’s League were drawn today and it wasn’t without intrigue (cue cam spitting whatever he was eating/drinking at his computer screen as Group C unravelled). As always there are some surprises, some new faces and at least one group that will keep you intrigued until the very end (hint: it’s not the group you may think). As always, get ready for disappointment, excitement and most of all some top quality European football.

Cam: I’m gonna level with you: I’m not certain we’re that great at the whole prediction thing. In the last two seasons of Champions League Group Stage play, we’re 22/32 in correctly predicting which teams advance to the knockout rounds, and 19/32 in predicting the order in which they advance from the groups. While that’s a solid C+, it’s not comforting to me that chimpanzees throwing club logo’d darts at a football table might be able to have just as accurate punditry as us. But it’s an annual tradition so let’s take our best shot at being minimally wrong this year.

Serge: Look there are known knowns and known unknowns, but it’s the unknown unknowns that always get us. Intriguing questions like “will Arsene Wenger stop acting like your stingy aunt” (no, probably) or “will Juventus convince Higuain that eating McDonalds every day is actually more harm than good for an athlete?” (again, no). I will level with you, sometimes I throw in wacky predictions just to perpetuate the myth that I’m crazy and I want Club Brugge to win. Sometimes, I’m just wrong.

Group A: PSG (FRA) || Arsenal (ENG) || Basel (SUI) || Ludogorets (Bul)

Serge: As it is prophesied long ago, Arsenal shall struggle through the group stage to barely qualify for the knockout rounds and then get trounced by the Universe’s choice of Barcelona or Bayern Munich. On paper, this group is fairly straightforward, but with a quick quality dip to PSG and the unpredictable nature of Basel, thing have the potential to be interesting in the end. Having reached the round of 16 two years prior before not even making it through the playoffs this year, the Swiss will be the wild-card. I think PSG is destined for first place, but given Arsene Wenger’s allergic reactions to spending on players anything that’s even close to actual market value, Arsenal can be stretched too thin across the board, making their match-up vs. Basel interesting. Still, PSG and Arsenal go through.

Cam: PSG are not the side they were two seasons ago: David Luiz — football’s Anderson Verejao — makes their defense more porous than a pasta strainer; Zlatan Ibrahimovic has departed to Manchester United; Edinson Cavani has not quite wound up being the player everyone expected when he was bought from Napoli (he’s been very good, but not quite as good as we’d all hoped); Thiago Silva is aging. But they’re still a formidable side: Angel Di Maria continues to be a dynamic midfield do-it-all, Marquinhos and Jese provide young, improving talent, and Unai Emery represents a significant tactical coaching upgrade on Laurent Blanc. Since Serge wrote his above, Arsenal have gone and spent 35 million pounds on German international Shkodran Moustafi (being a Valencia fan is an exercise in near-constant heartbreak). I expect the Arsenal injury bug to continue, but they’re also clearly better than Basel and Ludogorets. Same prediction as Serge, with Basel making the Europa League.

Serge: If I close my eyes I can almost talk us into winning this group and actually getting a favorable knock-out match up. Almost.

Group B: Benfica (POR) || Napoli (ITA) || Dynamo Kyiv (UKR) || Besiktas (TUR)

Napoli captain and all-around scary dude Marek Hamsik

Cam: This is one of those groups that, more than anything, is a reminder of how dispiriting the stratification of European soccer is: one of the most exciting Napoli sides since Maradona was ended prematurely this summer by their sale of Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus, while Benfica have seen their star players leave basically every summer for the last decade as Portuguese football continues to bleed money. Still, Napoli remain a formidable squad in this group — between Marek Hamsik, the Insigne brothers, Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon, and new addition Arkadiusz Milik (bought from Ajax for $35 million). By the same token, Benfica should be good enough — and Dynamo Kiev and Besiktas weak enough — to make it into the knockout stages, even if their squad isn’t as strong as in years past. It’s a real tossup between Kyiv and Besiktas as to who takes the Europa League spot, but I’ll irritate our Resident Ukrainian Writer by going with Besiktas.

Serge: Marek Hamsik looks like he leads a guerilla mercenary strike force in his free time. Napoli is in a weird spot as in that they lost their main striker, but they also finessed a gargantuan fee for someone who looks like he spent the summer doing stand-ins for the Pillsbury Doughboy. We’ll see how it plays out around the block, but it’s hard to see the Italians giving up the top spot, especially with most of their team still in tact and some capable replacements coming in. Benfica, like Porto, hemorrhages players in the off-season so it’s tough for me to say how well they’ll do before the window closes, but it seems to be a Portuguese kind of year so a trip to the knock-outs may be likely. I’m going to take a total nationality based pick though and say Napoli and Kyiv to make it through with Benfica close in third for the Europa League.

Group C: Barcelona (SPA), Man City (ENG), Mönchengladbach (GER), Celtic (SCO)

Cam: Now THIS is a Group Stage Draw!! Pep goes home. The man who made Barcelona an unstoppable force from 2008–12 is now Manchester City coach, and is tasked with returning to the Camp Nou in his first go in the Group Stages. Add a fun Borussia Mönchengladbach team and Celtic FC of Glasgow (who are surprisingly tough to beat at home) and this group is actually super interesting while also being completely predictable. As good as Guardiola is as a manager, and as loaded as Manchester City are with superstars, I do think there are two reasons why Barca will still win the group: first, Guardiola will still be fitting the pieces together at City — a process that takes time (his Barcelona squad didn’t fully click until his third season) — whereas Barcelona have an established system of play that is well-drilled and well-fought; second, even Guardiola’s fully gelled Bayern Munich squad proved unable to hold on when Messi reached his final form in the 2014–15 Champions League semifinals. Both games should be extremely exciting, but Barcelona I think will ultimately come out on top with City a close second. Mönchengladbach should take the Europa League spot — as much as it pains me to keep writing off Celtic (and annoys me that we somehow hit each other every freaking year in the group stage), the best they can realistically manage is an upset in the Europa League.

Serge: This is where chaos comes to live and prosper. Pep’s original Frankenstein vs. his new challenge of making a somewhat capable passer out of Gael Clichy. No, I won’t let that issue go, Gael Clichy is no Lahm. As much as I love watching the world burn and every ounce of me wants to say Mönchengladbach will take second away from City, that’s just not possible, at least not under Pep. Even so, I’m excited to see the German side that has been dazzling lately.

Group D: Bayern Munich (GER), Atletico Madrid (SPA), PSV (NED), Rostov (RUS)

Cam: Big fan of this group. Rostov and PSV are two of the best sides in pots 3 and 4, and there’s a genuine clash of heavy-hitters in Bayern and Atletico — the former have made at least semifinals in six of the last seven seasons, and Atletico have made two finals in three seasons. I’m actually gonna pick Atletico to win this group — Bayern have a totally new manager in Carlo Ancelotti, which necessitates a huge shift in style of play away from Guardiola, and Atletico have only added to their forward firepower this summer with Kevin Gameiro from Sevilla. Plus, they gave Bayern fits last year in the Champions League semifinals, and can probably do so again. Bayern for 2nd, PSV for 3rd.

Serge: You and I both know how much I love Diego Simeone. Like, to the point where I’d invite him to dinner despite the fact that it most certainly means some family members would disown me after he started a fight with my grandfather for no reason. His antithesis to Real and Barca in the past five years has been my favorite sub-plot of La Liga. It’s like bringing a drum set to an orchestra and then hoping you overpower the rest of the instruments in a fit of frenzy. I do agree that Bayern will take a bit of time to adjust and I wouldn’t even be surprised if they regress a bit under Ancelotti, but there is just way too much talent across the board to give PSV or Rostov any kind of hope, even of the false kind. With Lewandowski up front and Vidal patrolling the middle (not to mention the top 3 keeper in the world and probably a top 5 defender) Munich will get to the knockouts easily. Actually, here is what will happen. Arsenal will miraculously finish first in their group as Bayern finishes second… I don’t even want to type the rest of that, I’ll cry. Can’t call PSV vs. Rostov for Europa so I flipped a coin and got PSV.

Group E: CSKA Moskva (Rus), Leverkusen (GER), Tottenham (ENG), Monaco (FRA)

Serge: Another group that on paper appears to be hand in hand, but Tottenham are poised for a European breakthrough and as much as it pains me to say this, will probably run riot on the other teams. They’ve improved depth this season which will hopefully allow them to balance their fatigue levels across multiple competitions and the absence of Christmas break in England. Bayer Leverkusen are more likely to challenge for second place as they’ve been slowly ascending in Germany along Borussia and Munich. Still not ready to challenge for the Bundesliga, this could be their chance to show what they have. Monaco has put their focus too much on the “over their hill” players and CSKA has a history of epic disappointment in Europe. Spurs and Bayer go on.

Cam: I’m going to respectfully disagree with your assessment of this group as “Tottenham running riot.” As lopsided as the Bundesliga points table often appears, Bayer are not to be underestimated: under Roger Schmidt, they play a manically energetic, high-pressure football that’s a cross between Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund and Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. It’s a style that has often given English teams a ton of difficulty (see Bilbao’s dismantling of Manchester United over two legs in 2011–12 or Dortmund’s thorough beatdown of Manchester City in the 2012–13 Group Stages), and Dortmund’s success in the Champion’s League has steadily grown in recent years — they gave Atletico an extremely difficult fight two seasons ago. Add to the mix that Moscow in October/November is a deeply unpleasant away game — it’s far away and it’s colder than Vladimir Putin’s heart. I’m going with Bayer and Tottenham to take the top two spots, in that order, but would not be at all surprised if this group is a) close, b) home to a few major upsets.

Serge: Conquering Moscow anywhere past mid-August is in fact a daunting task and I’m just talking about the weather, not the psychopath fans either.

Group F: Real Madrid (SPA) || Borussia Dortmund (GER) || Sporting CP (POR) || Legia (POL)

Serge: Probably the most straightforward group there is in terms of clear cut winners and losers. While Sporting will enter the group entertaining a faint dream of advancing, the talent gap between the top two and the bottom two is roughly the same distance it would take me to travel from Toronto to say Madrid to watch one of the games. It’s a nice thought to have with minimal odds of it actually coming to fruition. Real and Dortmund.

Cam: Given Real Madrid’s luck in the Champions League draw in the last four seasons, I was half expecting Kanye West FC — my summer league team from 2015 — to be drawn in this group. All shade thrown at the Evil Empire aside, this group will go down in the exact order of the pots: Real, Dortmund, Sporting, Legia. Next.

Serge: Your summer league was named Kanye West FC? Why not Ultralight Beam? I’m naming all teams Blonde from now to eternity.

Cam: At one point, two thirds of our squad had suffered season-ending injuries, so we’re going with Knees, Ankles, and Wrists FC next summer.

Group G: Leicester (ENG) || Porto (POR) || Club Brugge (BEL) || Kobenhavn (NOR)

Cam: Man, things could have gone so much worse for Leicester in their first ever appearance in the Champions League. They dodged Dortmund, Atletico, Leverkusen, Napoli, Sevilla, and ended up with Porto — who are liable to follow their usual pattern of selling their entire squad on deadline day to teams run by shady Russian oligarchs. Porto are fresh off ripping Ajax to shreds in the qualifying stages, and should be considered favourites to top the group. So long as Leicester remains healthy and rotates players well, they should have enough talent to manage a 2nd place finish in this group. I think the Europa League spot is a tossup — and largely comes down to who ships fewer goals against the top two in the group — but I’ll give a slight edge to Club Brugge.

Serge: Are we sold on Leicester having enough talent to rotate across all competitions? I think the big thing here is how much they punt on the EPL this year since not many players will have another shot at European football. That being said, both Porto and Brugge run a more sophisticate grade of football than Robert Huth cares for so seeing him in Europe is basically PPV for people who like wrestling. I think Porto will make it through, although like you said, their placement dependent entirely on how trigger happy they are (I’m celebrating the Lopez purchase by Arsenal as we speak). Funny thing though, Brugge can actually topple the Foxes out of the top 2 and into the Europa League.

Cam: I mentioned this in my Leicester preview — if I’m Ranieri, and if I’m a Leicester player, fan, owner, or hanger-on, I punt as hard as hell on the Premier League and enjoy the ride that might be my only appearance in the Champions League for a long time.

Group H: Juventus (ITA) || Sevilla (ESP) || Lyon (FRAC) || Dynamo Zagreb (CRO)

Serge: When Juve paid to have Gonzalo Higuain join them this summer with some of the gold they received from the Pogba sale, they must have been paying per lbs. Miraculously, the team has managed to hang on at the top of both Serie A and with monumental performances in the CL while losing players year to year. This year could be the time that the other shoe finally drops, then rolls a bit, falls down the stairs and crashes into the basement. They still have talent to advance from this group, but with Sevilla and Lyon on their toes it will be difficult. Also, Zagreb are no pushovers and if they manage to make at least one club sweat the things will get increasingly interesting. Juve simply can’t afford to lose even one of its talismanic defenders before the window closes or they will be in huge trouble. Sevilla and Lyon.

Cam: They won’t lose a defender. Chiellini is a Juventus lifer, Barzagli is old enough that there’s little upside to the long-term deal that would pry him away, and their balance sheet is so solid that they have no need to sell Leonardo Bonucci before the deadline. Leaving aside the baffling decision to spend that much money on Higuain, Juventus are still a very talented squad: Buffon shows no signs of aging, Chiellini remains one of the best defenders of his era, Paulo Dybala one of the budding young talents of South American football, and they’ve bought Bosnia’s Miralem Pjanic from AS Roma. They also don’t have to worry about Serie A competition as intensely, with the Milan clubs continuing their half-decade slide into mediocrity and their closest rival last season missing the Gonzalo Higuain-shaped void that he left behind. I think they’ll top the group, but it’s the fight for 2nd place where things get interesting. Having won three Europa League titles in a row, Sevilla have lost their talismanic coach (Emery to PSG) and best forward (Kevin Gameiro to Atletico Madrid), but retained much of the squad that won last season’s Europa League title against Liverpool. They’ve also brought in Jorge Sampaoli — Chile’s national team coach from 2012–15 and a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa — as Emery’s replacement. He coaches an even more manic system of Bielsa’s high-pressure defense, and their season-opening 6–4 win over Espanyol is a preview of what’s to come. They’ll either take 2nd in the group, or give us furiously entertaining games as they lose.

Serge: No points for Lyon and my boy Lacarzette? Okay, I’ll fly with that. I just want to picture the first match between Roma and Juventus now seeing how Nainggolan is not too pleased with Miralem his old buddy.

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