Here are our previews for the last two groups.
Lyon’s group may not have the best European teams, but it’s certainly the most even group in the UCL. There is no team here for which we can say that it will go through easily. Lyon’s play can be pretty erratic – they can beat Monaco 3-0, but then go 2-2 with Amiens. Under their new coach Sylvinho they play in quite an offensive 4-3-3 formation, with Memphis Depay as their key player. Last season he made 111 key passes (the best in Ligue 1), scored 10 goals and provided 10 assists. But although Lyon’s attack is pretty dangerous, their defense is known to flop. It’s no doubt they will score plenty of goals, but it will be hard for them to keep their net empty.
As we said, anyone can pass the group, and the road to the knockout stage for Lyon definitely won’t be a cruise.
This is the tenth year in a row that Benfica qualified for the Champions League. Their coach Bruno Lage prefers the good old 4-4-2 formation, with two physically dominant strikers who can hold the ball. Their main playmaker is Pizzi, who often enters the box, and then scores or provides. He already has 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 league matches. Although they have 4 clean sheets in the Primeira Liga, the lack of experience in European matches could be a problem for Benfica’s very young centre-backs Rúben Dias and Ferro.
They started the season in a pretty good form, and except for the 0-2 defeat from Porto, they have four wins and a goal difference of 13-0. Last two seasons they were stopped already in the group, but this season they have solid chances to go further.
RB Leipzig is one of the most desirable clubs for young players around the world; their great transfer policy of buying only young and talented players continued this summer, with the signings of Lookman, Schick, Nkunku and Ampadou. Their new coach Julian Nagelsmann (at just 32 years old, he is the youngest coach in the UCL) started the season in a great form and they currently hold the first place in the Bundesliga. They attack in 3-4-3 formation, with full-backs playing really high and the front three who swarm the box. In defense they transform into 5-4-1 with Timo Werner in front waiting for counter-attack. He already scored 5 goals in 4 matches in the league, and will present the main threat for Leipzig’s opponents.
What could cost them passing the group is the lack of experience in European matches, just like two seasons ago, when they failed to pass the group with Beşiktaş, Porto and Monaco. Now they have two more years of experience and maybe they can show what their squad is capable of.
The Russian champions play a similar style of football as Benfica, but more defensively modified. With Azmoun and Dzyuba in front who draw guards on themselves, space is open for the wingers. Their team have several very experienced players, like Ivanović and Zhirkov, who create a very solid squad, with South American players such as Driussi, Barrios and ex-Barça player Malcom.
In their last six UCL appearances, Zenit qualified for the knockout stage every second time. So if past is any indicator, this year it’s time for the round of 16 again. They are currently among three teams who are holding the first place in the league, so it will be very difficult to play at the highest level on both fronts. It will be crucial to use their resources rationally, so they can play well in the UCL.
Last season’s Europa League winners are back in the UCL, in which they didn’t manage to go further than the round of 16 since 2013/14. After they received the transfer ban, their new coach and the club legend Frank Lampard had a difficult task of finding the perfect combination of available players.
The transfer ban was a chance for young players to prove their quality, and some of them already did; only three players have scored in the Premier League, and all of them are the players who came back from loan – Tomori, Mount and Abraham. Mount and Abraham particularly showed they are capable of carrying the team on their backs, and with 10 goals combined, they certainly are. Chelsea’s squad have a lot of potential they will try to show in the UCL, where they will play without pressure.
We still feel the goosebumps from last season. Ajax demonstrated beautiful style of football, which even Real Madrid and Juventus weren’t able to stop. Their players were probably the most wanted this summer, and although they sold de Jong and de Ligt, players like Tadić, Ziyech and Neres stayed and will try to repeat another epic season.
Erik ten Hag practices Cruyff’s total football, which entails a specific organizational structure, in which any player can play any role on the pitch. We have seen this on the example of Tadić, who played several roles during one match. He would start the match as a centre-forward, but most of the time play as the playmaker. Also, their full-backs, Tagliafico and Mazraoui played as wingers, while Blind was a deep-lying playmaker. We believe most of football fans can’t wait to see if Ajax can repeat another outstanding season. Their group is not easy, and starting from there, they will constantly have to be on 100%.
The Spanish side had quite a hectic summer. After a solid transfer window, in which they brought players like Gómez, Cillessen and Mangala, Valencia’s board sacked their manager Marcelino, who is considered as the main figure of the return to the UCL. Their new coach Albert Celades doesn’t have any experience in coaching at the highest level, so it will be interesting to see how he will fit in the elite.
Their current form is pretty low, with only one league win in four matches. It seems like their defense can’t keep the pace with the rest of the squad, what they showed in the match against Barcelona. We will see how their new coach will set up the team, but for now it seems that Chelsea and Ajax are a bit ahead.
Thanks to the second place in Ligue 1 last season, Lille are back in the UCL after seven years. Galtier’s team played terrific defense, conceding only 33 goals (lowest in the league), and keeping their net empty 15 times. Last season’s brightest stars – Pépé, Mendes and Leão left this summer, but Lille found the appropriate replacements. They were very active this summer and bought talented youngsters like Weah, Yazıcı, Osimhen and the ex golden boy Renato Sanches. They started this season in an erratic form, with 3 wins and 2 losses.
In the formation 4-2-3-1, the front four are very offensively oriented, with a back-up of the full-backs. Two midfielders are primarily defensive and stay in the back during attacks. During defense, they form a firm defensive structure. In their group they have solid chances, which they will try to grab. First two places will be hard to catch, but not impossible.