Which is the Champions League group of death?
Background Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC BY-SA 4.0
Come tonight, European football lives again. Unfortunately, where there is life, there is also death. The luck of the Champions League draw smiles on some clubs but leaves others to twist in a harsh wind. Three or four teams who all deserve to make the knockout rounds may find themselves fighting for two spots in the group of death. The question? Which group is that this year?
From the off, we can discount the following three quartets:
- Group A: Sorry Galatasaray and Club Brugge, you can't hang with Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid even if Zinedine Zidane does have a 'Pardon our Dust' sign hanging in the Bernabeu clubhouse during his rebuild.
- Group B: Same for you, Red Star Belgrade and Olympiacos. Bayern Munich and last year's finalists, Tottenham, rank well above your paygrade.
- Group E: Are you willing to put money down on Genk or Red Bull Salzburg ousting three-time winner Carlo Ancelotti's Napoli or the defending champions, Liverpool? If so, you're a brave soul than I.
Group D, with Juventus and Atletico Madrid set to renew hostilities following their epic quarterfinal tilt in 2018/19, look like they should be written off at first glance too. But then you remind yourself that Bayer Leverkusen is sneaky good and Lokomotiv Moscow are coming off a stellar season in the Russian Premier League. The extended winter break will probably derail Muscovite hopes but they are entirely capable of taking someone with them.
Then there are groups with a single odds-on winner and two or three inferior sides on level terms for the remaining place. In 2019/20, the only foursome who align in that fashion resides in Group C. Manchester City should run away and hide with group honours but up and coming Serie A side Atalanta and perennial scrappers Shakhtar Donetsk both can make an argument for their respective worthiness to progress. La Dea feature Colombian finisher Duvan Zapata. Shakhtar are an anonymous squad who ignore a civil war raging around them to battle their way through Europe year in and year out.
That leaves three groups. Each can be termed a group of death depending on which type of demise appeals to your perverted mind.
If you're a do-it-yourselfer, then Group H is for you. These four sides aren't willing to wait for someone else to do them in. Progressing might be a case of who wants it least.
Ajax progressed deep into the tournament last year then sold their two generational talents, Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. Without them, the Godzonen will be muttering about sons of something other than deities.
Then there's Chelsea. The Europa League champions and Premier League second-runners-up ought to boss the group except they made manager Maurizio Sarri so unwelcome that he left. Eden Hazard jumped ship as well. Frank Lampard is adept at handling young stars like Mason Mount but has no other choice with the Blues serving a transfer ban. He could use a decent defender. His green squad has surrendered 11 goals in the season's first five matches. That won't cut it on the continent.
Lille surprised everyone by finishing second in Ligue 1 in 2018/19. They may have further surprises for their group rivals in the coming months although they too made life more difficult by allowing Nicolas Pepe to play with Arsenal in the Europa League.
Valencia owner Peter Lim didn't help his team's cause by sacking Marcelino so early in the campaign but Los Che have quality as well if they can get their act together in time.
A Quiet, Lonely Death
When Eskimos grew too old to contribute to the family, they'd pack up, load all their possessions onto the next iceberg out of town and float away to die. Unless a polar bear showed up, it wouldn't be what you'd call an exciting end and excitement is why we watch grown men kick a ball around for 90 minutes hoping to score once or maybe even twice.
Group G is about as cold and lonely as you can get. Lyon amounts to Memphis Depay going it on his own after Nabil Fekir and Tanguy Ndombele followed Alexander Lacazette out of town. Benfica's best and brightest defected to Wolves in the Premier League. Zenit St Petersburg players have a good sense of what it feels like to be an Eskimo. Only RB Leipzig look like clear winners.
Julian Nagelsmann has the side atop the Bundesliga in the early doors and firing on all cylinders. The polar bears will want to leave them alone but the rest of the group just doesn't have what it takes to progress. Sadly, however, one will.
If you thought about watching 300, The Magnificent Seven reboot, or, best of all, Avengers Infinity Wars and Endgame back-to-back while skimming through that last section, Group F is what you were waiting for.
Barcelona. Borussia Dortmund. Inter. Oh, and Slavia Praha for comic relief.
Each of the first three deserves to move on. Each of them wants it with a desperation that stops at nothing. Everyone among the trio will give everything they have to be in the final 16. But only two clubs will survive.
If you don't know Barcelona's story, what are you doing here? They haven't won since 2014. In the past two tournaments, they've lost after going into second legs with a three-goal advantage. Last season, Lionel Messi promised Europe to the 99,000 attending the Liga opener at Camp Nou. He might as well have promised the moon. A calf injury sidelines him at the moment but his teammates figured out how to win without him against Valencia on the weekend. If it wasn't for their repeated and progressively worse failures in recent seasons, you'd say they're a lock. This lock can be picked, though.
Borussia Dortmund are young, hungry and quicker than Boris Johnson blaming a problem on someone else. Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho and former Barcelona man Paco Alcacer are an attacking trio that Barca can only envy. To think the Blaugrana made their union possible, not only by selling Alcacer but buying Ousmane Dembele, leads to thoughts of a possible upset at the top of the group.
Don't count out Antonio Conte and Inter, either. The Nerazzurri board gave the former Chelsea boss everything the Blues wouldn't. Diego Godin arrives to provide leadership at the back. Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez are on hand to take the pressure off burgeoning star Lautaro Martinez. The three dissidents in the squad, Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic and Radja Nainggolan were removed. The Beneamata are pulling in the same direction and can't be taken for granted. Conte not only has his eye on ending Juventus' Scudetto run, he wants the one club trophy he hasn't won.
One of the three clubs is going to be extremely disappointed. Prematurely bustled out of the Champions League, they'll be left with two choices: wallow in self-pity or take their frustrations out on the Europa League. That, ladies and gentleman, is a true group of death.