The group-stage draw for the UEFA Champions League is always a strange, exciting, but mostly strange day. The path to European glory becomes more in focus with a straightforward goal: finish in the top half of your group and you make it to the knockout stage that begins next year. If you don’t you’re onto the Europa League or out of continental competition all together. Why is that so stress-inducing? Is it the tension of watching someone swish little balls around in a see-through case during a ceremony that could take two minutes and lasts an hour?
This year’s ball tug and shuffle left some interesting results, probably none more tantalizing than Group C, where Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Viktoria Plzen will face each other. Let’s disregard the Czech Republic’s finest for a moment and focus on the three European giants, each of whom have won the UCL in the last dozen years. Some may call in the “Group of Death” but I’d actually go somewhere else with that honor.
Inter very quietly finished second in Serie A last season, two points shy of winning the league with a much better goal differential than crosstown rival AC Milan. To think this group automatically goes to the employers over the last calendar year of Robert Lewandowski is foolish. The Italians have a chance to win the group and I’ll call Inter as my surprise team for the entire tournament, making a deep run into the knockout stage.
The aforementioned Lewandowski is another big reason why Group C is so interesting, as well as the overall history between Barca and Bayern. The Polish striker made the move from Germany to Spain this offseason and won’t have to wait long for two important games against his former team. Over the last decade, Bayern has bested Barcelona in four UCL games by a combined score of 21-2, including three shutouts for the German juggernauts.
My choice for the hardest foursome to advance from this year is Group A. Any of the four teams could make it to the last 16. Ajax, Napoli, Liverpool and Rangers all could win the group and all could crash out of the competition. That might be a little hard to believe for Liverpool supporters, coming off a runner-up finish last season and mostly the same team intact. Yet, the trio of road games in Amsterdam, Glasgow and Naples far from guarantees points. In fact, the last two times Liverpool has faced Napoli on the road in the UCL — two losses for the Reds.
The team with the easiest road to the knockout stage is, shocker, Real Madrid. The defending champions got a relatively easy draw, having to best two out of the three of RB Leipzig, Celtic and Shakhtar Donetsk to advance to the knockout stage. Manchester City would be a close second in that category, with Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund providing semi-challenges to keep Pep Guardiola and crew from advancing.
It’s hard to predict a winner for the UCL every year because of how many different elements go into re-drawing each round. If current trends hold out, a team that’s won a European crown before will do it again this season. The last four teams to make their UEFA Champions League finals debuts all lost, dating back to 2013. That also includes each of the last three of the last four finals with Tottenham, PSG and Manchester City. I’ll take my best stab at it anyway and say Paris Saint-Germain win its first UCL title. Lionel Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and crew finally get it done.