Continental competition is rarely short on narratives. But in instances when the football fails to deliver on suspense, fixtures between sides with polarized European pedigree and matchups rife with historical context provide enough of a plot.
With Thursday’s Champions League draw in Monaco acting as a fitting venue to highlight both the opulence and frequently inequitable nature of European contests, here’s a glance at five storylines to watch in this year’s competition.
Familiar friends become feared foes
Reunited and it feels so good. Continental heavyweights Juventus and Manchester United are set to square off on two occasions with Group H honors on the line, with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba facing their former sides.
Ronaldo, who tormented the Premier League for six seasons while with United, bagged 16 goals in European competition with the Red Devils. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner also played under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, adding another wrinkle to a scenario not short on storylines. The bronzed Portuguese footballing deity will line up across from Pogba, who left United in 2012 due to a dearth of first-team appearances, only to return after four seasons with Juventus.
Not to be overlooked, speedy World Cup-winning Frenchman Thomas Lemar’s summer switch to the Spanish capital largely flew under the radar amid an enthralling quadrennial tourney in Russia, though the 22-year-old will be front and center when he faces former club Monaco in Group A play.
History champions Manchester City
With last season’s domestic double under his belt, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola can now focus on replicating his continental successes at Barcelona with his current lot, and history favors the Catalan coach’s chances.
Since the Champions League format changed for the 2003-04 installment, 40 percent of the tournament winners have come from Group F. With City gifted a facile task of besting the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk, Hoffenheim, and a youthful Lyon side, Guardiola and Co. should advance to the knockout stage with two matches to play.
Poch’s return to Catalan country marks next notch for Spurs
When Tottenham drew with Real at the Bernabeu before dumping the Spaniards by a 3-1 margin at Wembley, it marked a coming-of-age tale for the Londoners. Spurs would top the group, and a year on, they have again been given a chance to prove their worth.
This time, the Argentine gaffer and his charges will travel to the Catalan capital to face Barcelona, providing an opportunity for Tottenham to continue carving their place among Europe’s emerging clubs. Pochettino, who enjoyed his best spell as a center-half with Barcelona cohabitant Espanyol, again faces a tough challenge with Eredivisie holder PSV and three-time European Cup winners Inter rounding out Group B.
Group(s) of Death
Those who fancy groups stacked with bonafide contenders have been dealt a fortuitous hand. Of the eight groups, only Group G (Real, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen) has two clear favorites, and only Group D merits a laugh (Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray).
That leaves a half-dozen groups littered with quality sides, including the aforementioned Group B. Pair that with several others boasting three accomplished sides, such as Group A (Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Monaco), Group C (Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, and Liverpool), and Group H (Juventus, Manchester United, and Valencia), and there are four assemblages that can lay claim to the “Group of Death” distinction.
Schalke, Galatasaray come away the biggest winners
Of the 32 teams involved Thursday, no sides – besides Lancashire leviathan Manchester City – benefited from the draw like Bundesliga outfit Schalke and Turkish giant Galatasaray.
Slotted into Group D with the most inferior of the eight Pot 1 clubs – Russian Premier League holder Lokomotiv Moscow – along with defending Portuguese champions FC Porto, both Schalke and Galatasaray will entertain realistic hopes of advancing to the last-16. The Gelsenkirchen lot has made the knockout stage of European competition in seven of the last eight seasons, and with relative unknown Domenico Tedesco bossing a youthful praiseworthy side, Schalke could be one of the darlings of the 2018-19 Champions League.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)