It’s better to be lucky than good, or so the old saying goes. But when it comes to the UEFA Champions League, victory often relies on being lucky and good.
Who you get in the draw is sometimes just as important as how good you are and how well you play. For instance, who knows how different the 2015-16 season could have gone if Juventus had drawn, say, Wolfsburg, Zenit St. Petersburg, or a struggling Chelsea side rather than Bayern Munich in the Round of 16?
The group stage draw for the current season has come and gone, and it’s safe to say that the Old Lady’s luck held for the most part as the balls were drawn from their bowls. Group H is not by any means the easiest group in the competition — is anyone not related to the players by blood or marriage actually going to watch Group D? — but it’s certainly not the Group of Death either. That distinction belongs to Group C, which is likely making Aurelio De Laurentiis consider the merits of punting Europe to focus on winning the Scudetto for the second consecutive year after being drawn with Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, and Red Star Belgrade.
With the matchups set, we’ll take the time to get a closer look at Juve’s three group stage opponents, and just how well the team might maneuver through the first phase of the quest to finally bring the European title back to Turin.
First, a quick rundown of the rules for the draw. If you knew these already, consider them a refresher, if you didn’t, take notes.
- The 32 teams in the group stage are divided into four pots of eight teams each. Pot 1 is made up of the defending champion (in this case, Real Madrid), the Europa League champion (Atletico Madrid), and the champions of the six highest-ranked leagues in Europe based on UEFA’s country coefficients. The rest of the teams are distributed amongst Pots 2-4 based on their UEFA team coefficient, an amalgam of their results in European competition over the last five seasons. Thus, Juventus was in Pot 1 as champion of Italy, the fourth ranked league.
- One team from each pot is placed in each of the four-team groups.
- Teams from the same country cannot play each other in the group stage. Therefore, Juventus could not be drawn against Napoli, Roma, or Inter.
- In order to maximize TV ratings, UEFA divides teams from the same country into groups that cannot play on the same day. This makes for some convoluted viewing when the balls are being drawn, because rather than simply being dropped into groups in sequence, as you see in the draw for international tournaments like the World Cup or European Championships, teams start dropping into groups in what seems like no real order. This year, Juve was paired with Inter, meaning that once Juve was placed in Group H, Inter was locked into A, B, C, or D, because those groups play on separate days.
- Due to ongoing political tensions, Russian teams and Ukrainian teams will not be drawn into the same group.
With Napoli and Roma both ensconced in Pot 2, there were only six options for Juventus to be matched with. Only one of those five, Tottenham Hotspur, was of major concern from a competitive standpoint. The team that did get matched up into Group H was simultaneously one of the juiciest storylines UEFA could have hoped for and the team in the worst form of anyone else in the pot.
The media will eat this storyline up from now until December: Juve’s newest signing, Cristiano Ronaldo, against the team that made him a star — Manchester United.
Ronaldo, of course, spent six years at Old Trafford, winning his first Champions League with them in the 2007-08 season. He’s faced his old team three times before with Real Madrid: in a Champions League Round of 16 tie in the 2012-13 season — he scored in each leg as Real knocked United out — and the UEFA Super Cup last summer, which saw him enter as a late substitute in a 2-1 Real win.
Ronaldo’s history with his old club will dominate the storylines going into these fixtures. Jose Mourinho will probably be hoping that that takes up all the media attention, because whoooo, boy, does he have problems at the moment.
United have had a terrible start to the Premier League season. They beat Leicester City by the skin of their teeth in the league’s curtain raiser, with the Foxes very much the better side for long stretches of the game. Their next two performances were nothing short of horrific: a 3-2 loss at expected relegation battlers Brighton & Hove Albion that wasn’t nearly as close as the score made it look and a 3-0 wipeout by Tottenham in Manchester before beating Burnley 2-0 over the weekend.
United look generally uninspired, and it almost looks as if the game has passed Mourinho by. He’s getting destroyed tactically by coaches from the minnows to the title contenders, and refuses to adapt his old style even though it’s now woefully out of date.
Whether or not this affects how the two teams play each other remains to be seen, because it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Mourinho will be sacked before the end of October and one of the big-name coaching free agents — namely Zinedine Zidane or Antonio Conte — will end up at the helm, which would completely change the team.
For his part, Mourinho insists that his tactics are working, and that’s not as pathetic a claim as it looks on its face when you consider how different the Spurs game could have been if Romelu Lukaku had taken any of the numerous chances he had in the first half. Lukaku, who cost £90 million when he moved from Everton two summers ago, still hasn’t developed a knack for scoring in big games, and it’s worth noting that Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci kept the Belgian firmly in check when Italy met Belgium at Euro 2016 — although they had Gigi Buffon marshaling the defense behind them rather than Wojceich Szczesny. The bigger threat in big situations might be Jesse Lingard, who somehow always seems to pop up in huge spots for United. Both he and Marcus Rashford bring a pace that could give Juve’s older center-backs issues, and if Joao Cancelo keeps defending like he has been either of them could give him a torrid time, too. Then there’s Alexis Sanchez, who isn’t a fit to Mourinho’s tactics and has seen the shine rub off of him a bit as a result.
Of course, Ronaldo won’t be the only reunion we see when these two teams take the field. It will be Paul Pogba’s first time facing Juventus since re-joining United for a then-record €105 million. Il polpo is as good as he’s ever been on his day ... but the problem for Mourinho is that those days have seldom been one right after the other and tend to come at random. With a guy like Nemanja Matic shielding the defense (which needs a lot of shielding, but we’ll get to that), Pogba has more freedom to get forward and slice through any resistance in the opposing midfield.
But United’s biggest problem right now is their God-awful defense. The center backs in particular have been exposed repeatedly. Frankly, United has been deficient in this area for several years. Eric Bailly started out fantastic but has regressed, and when you put him and the rest of the group that could possibly play in the middle — Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Victor Lindelof are the other natural center-halves — and match them up with Juve’s group of insane forwards, and it’s not hard to imagine David De Gea — the one guy they have who can really be counted on day in and day out at this point — having a really busy night.
The bottom line on United is that they are a team right on the cusp of turmoil. The two rosters stack up fairly evenly on paper, with the exception of the back four. Whether the Red Devils have crossed that line by the time they face Juve will be a major factor in the two games between the clubs. If Mourinho — or someone else — has righted the ship between now and their first meeting, it will go a long way to determining how much of a fight Juve will get. And who might have the inside track on winning the group, too.
Pot 3 was the scary one, with Liverpool lurking make life miserable for whichever poor saps from Pots 1 and 2 ended up saddled with them. Fortunately, once Manchester United was drawn into Group H, that threat vanished, and Juve ended up with Spanish side Valencia.
In a nutshell, Valencia should be regarded much the way Sevilla was when Juve played them in back-to-back group stages two and three years ago — a team that Juve should be able to handle, but can be very dangerous if you let them be.
There is some Serie A in this team. Of particular note is Norberto Neto, who you will remember as Buffon’s backup for two years before deciding he wanted more playing time (which makes you wonder why he went to Juve on a free transfer to begin with). Also on board in the midfield is Inter washout Geoffrey Kondogbia.
Manager Marcelino grounded Valencia’s approach in good defense (they were fourth in La Liga in goals allowed last season) and qualified for the Champions League at a canter, eight points ahead of local rival Villarreal. That defense is anchored by Ezequiel Garay and Gabriel Paulista. The main strike pair, Rodrigo Moreno (another member of that Benfica team) and Santi Mina, scored 16 and 12 times, respectively, last season.
This is a team that has a good deal of European experience, albeit with clubs other than Valencia. Reserve forward Kevin Gamiero has extensive Champions League experience with Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, and was a key piece of the Sevilla team that won three straight Europa Leagues. Garay and Rodrigo were on the Benfica team that knocked Juve out of the Europa League semifinals in 2014, Kondogbia got some Europa League time with Inter, as did Neto when he was still at Fiorentina. These are guys that know how to play in Europe—but they’ve never done it together, and Valencia was out of Europe entirely last year. To compete against the likes of Juve and United they’ll have to bring their game to the next level.
On paper, Juve certainly has the edge here. The key in these games will be the ability to break down an organized and resolute team hunkered down to defend their goal. Allegri has struggled to do that at times (see: Olympiakos 2014, Sevilla 2015 and ‘16, Sporting last year). Luckily for Allegri, he has a shiny new toy designed to do that.
Yes, Ronaldo was signed to make a difference in the knockout stages, but it’s also teams like this, the teams that Juve have always managed to drop points to in the middle of the group phase, that he’s going to be incredibly valuable in. It’s these lost points that have cost Juve the top spot in their group two of the last three years, which has led to much tougher roads through the knockout round. While the rule change that put the league champions into Pot 1 has limited the advantage of winning one’s group in recent years, that advantage is still palpable, and it’s something that Juve will want to sew up sooner rather than later to save energy for tough December fixtures against Inter, Roma, and Atalanta.
So long as they limit any mistakes in the back, Valencia is a team that Juve can beat even if they’re not playing at 100 percent capacity. The Mestalla is a tough place to play, and frankly dropping points there wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise, but if Juve can overcome their Pot 3 jinx and polish them off, it will make the rest of their job that much easier.
We’re used to seeing Basel representing Switzerland in the group stage, but the format changes deprived the Swiss of a guaranteed spot and forced both of their representatives to go through qualifying. Basel were upset early by PAOK, leaving Young Boys as the Alpine country’s only hope.
Last season was an historic one for Young Boys. They won their first Swiss title in 32 years, and this will be the first time they’ve competed in the European championship proper since 1986-87, back when the European Cup was still a straight knockout tournament (they lost 5-1 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the first round). They have made the Champions League playoffs a few times over the last decade but never advance to the group stage, and only ever made it to the knockout round of the Europa League once, in 2014-15.
Suffice to say, there’s not a lot of detail to go into here. Young Boys’ roster is populated mostly by Swiss players, the most notable of whom is Steve von Bergen, who spent four years in Italy with Cesena and Palermo and played for Switzerland in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. He’s a key part of their defense, but he’s 35 now. Striker Roger Assale scored 12 times in the Swiss Super League last year and was a part of the Ivory Coast team that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015, but that’s about as notable as these guys get.
This is going to be a pair of park-the-bus affairs, but unless something momentous happens it’s difficult to see dropped points on either end here. There’s a reason Pot 4 teams tend to be awful—at least by the standards of this level.