Ever since UEFA changed the rules of the Champions League group stage draw, there has been a lot more tension surrounding the event.
In years past, all four seeding pots were determined solely by the UEFA coefficient ranking of the 32 clubs involved. But two years ago, UEFA changed things around. Now, Pot 1 is made up of the defending champions and the champions of the seven strongest leagues in Europe — eight if the defending champs also won their league.
That change was meant to reward league champions, but it also served to make the draw a heck of a lot more interesting. Only three of the eight teams in Pot 1—Juve, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich, would have been seeded under the old system. The teams that would have taken the places of the others? Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain, and Sevilla.
Instead of being in the same pot with those clubs, Juve had the potential to be drawn with any of them.
Juve did end up getting drawn with one of the Pot 2 big’uns, but at the end of the day avoided a true nightmare scenario. Group D will present a challenge, but it is by no means the Group of Death. That honor goes to Group H, which consists of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, and APOEL — all teams that have made the quarterfinal in the last six years.
How will Juve be able to navigate Group D? Today we’ll take a deeper look at their opponents and how their journey may go.
Barcelona are always Barcelona. They have been one of the best teams in the world for more than a decade now, and they’re a massive danger no matter who they play or where.
That being said, it’s possible that Juventus are coming up on the Blaugrana when they are at their most vulnerable.
Barca are still reeling over Neymar’s world-record move to PSG. While Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are as dangerous as ever up front, new coach Ernesto Valverde has very little in the way of options right now in terms of who to play next to them. The only in-house options at post time are Paco Alcácer, who disappointed mightily in his first season in Catalunya, and two prodigal La Masia products who have been all over the place on loan, Gerard Deulofeu and Munir El Haddadi, although the latter has been linked with a move away.
That’s a mighty big drop-off. Barca are currently scrambling to reinforce their side. Sporting Director Robert Fernandez recently plead for patience from the fans, but as negotiations continue to founder for Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele, and PSG’s Angel Di Maria, there are cracks showing in Barca’s armor.
The furor over Neymar’s departure and the club’s obvious lack of preparedness to do so has deepened divisions over Barca’s administration. After his PSG debut last weekend, Neymar sharply criticized the board at Camp Nou, saying fans deserve better. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has been under huge pressure, and the candidate he defeated in the club presidential election two years ago, Augusti Benedito, has been pushing for a vote of no confidence. Messi has not signed the contract extension that was agreed upon this spring, and even captain Andres Iniesta has said that he may consider leaving after his contract ends at the end of the season.
All this is to say that there are a metric ton of distractions going on in the Barca camp. They may be able to right things — after all, this is Barcelona — but they may be at the most vulnerable they have been this century.
Juve will have the benefit of enjoying the second, and likely more impactful, game against them at the J Stadium (we can still call it J Stadium in the Champions League, UEFA bans corporate names for arenas), and when they do go to the Camp Nou on Matchday 1 it’s likely that Suarez won’t be 100 percent fit. The midfield and defense will likely see little change from last year aside from the presence of Alex Vidal, injured during last year’s quarterfinals, at right back.
After taking Barca down 3-0 on aggregate in the quarters, Max Allegri’s men will be facing a team that could prove to be a shell of that squad. That’s not to say Barca should be taken lightly — never, never never. Juve will still have to play at an extremely high level to beat them. But their presence in the group is not, as it has been in the past, a condemnation to second place. Between off-field distractions and on-field depletion, this is the most beatable Barca we’ve seen in quite some time.
For the record, these teams have played nine times competitively. Each team has won three times, lost three times, and drawn three times. And as Danny love pointing out, Leo Messi has yet to score on Gianluigi Buffon.
Fans might remember the terror perennial Greek champions Olympiacos struck their hearts three seasons ago, when they managed an upset win over the Bianconeri in Piraeus and pushed them to the brink in the return before Juve locked down a 3-2 win that put them in the driver’s seat to qualify for the group stage.
Juve was still finding its sea legs in the Champions League then. Now they’re routinely counted amongst the elite. The Greeks may be back in the group stage after crashing out in the playoff a year ago, but they aren’t a match for Juventus in quality anymore.
That gap is exacerbated by how young this team is — only three players on the first team are older than 30 and no one is older than 33. The experience gap will be another count in Juve’s favor.
That’s not to say this is automatic. The Karaiskakis Stadium is a tough place to play, and the roster’s inexperience is offset by an experienced coach in Besnik Hasi, who has taken Anderlecht and Legia Warsaw to the group stage in the past. Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emenike has been signed from Fenerbahce to provide goalscoring punch, and Hasi has brought midfield destroyer Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe with him from Warsaw. He could be a problem for a Juve midfield that has displayed some vulnerability to being beaten up in the early phases of the season.
Olympiacos will have all the makings of a trap game, especially the away leg, but if quality rules Juve should be able to handle them.
Juve’s record against Olympiakos (W-D-L) is 6-2-2 all-time.
SPORTING CLUBE DE PORTUGAL
After a trip to the Estadio Dragao in the Round of 16, Juve will return to Portugal to take on Sporting.
The Leões finished third in Portugal last year and pummeled Steaua Bucharest in the playoff to qualify for the group stage. They were crushed in this stage last year, losing five of six games against Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Legia Warsaw. They will look to right the ship this year and make the knockout round for the first time in eight years.
There is some talent on this team. Portugal international goalkeeper Rui Patricio is between the sticks. Playmaker Bruno Fernandes has joined from Sampdoria in the hopes he will better trigger the attack. Bas Dost scored a ridiculous 34 goals in 31 Primera Liga games last year, but only once in the Champions League. Seydou Doumbia has been brought in to augment the strike force, while Adrien Silva and William Carvalho provide the midfield’s teeth.
Manager Jorge Jesus will be a familiar face to many Juve fans — his Benfica side eliminated Juve in the semifinals of the Europa League in 2014. That team was known for its defensive solidity, but this team probably won’t be able to put together such stout resistance. Barcelona castoff Jeremy Mathieu and former Real Madrid full-back Fabio Coentrão form the backbone, as well as former Fiorentina youth product Cristiano Piccini on the other flank. It’s a group heavy on name recognition but lighter on actual quality.
Provided Juve’s back line can handle Dost, who has historically failed to match his domestic performances in Europe, they should have more than enough firepower to overwhelm Sporting’s defense. This isn’t a gimme either, but Juve are clearly superior here.