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Champions League Preview: Group B

Let the Russian Roulette begin!

San Siro Stadium - AC Milan - Champions League
San Siro is back!
Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

A revolver rests on a dusty square table. Spectating from afar, you witness four men sitting with hands by their sides, gauging each other with piercing stares.

One of them is bald with a heavy white beard: Stephano Pioli, wearing black and red vertical stripes with seven UCL trophies standing behind him.

To his right, the mad Argentine Diego Simeone sporting white and red vertical stripes, with his army of Atletico Madrid players carrying spoils of war from last season’s destruction of Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.

To Diego’s right is a rather young Portuguese man with calculating eyes. He sports a mixed black and white beard and wears vertical blue and white stripes. This is Sergio Conceicao trying to figure out how to respond to the ghost of Jose Mourinho taunting him about how he is the only one to win the UCL with Porto.

The last man, wearing all red and eyeing Milan’s trophies counts “4, 5, 6...and 7”, then moves his glance towards Pioli and in a German accent mutters “uninterested”. The short stare ends, and he turns to look at the banner behind him that shows six UCL trophies and is printed with the words “You’ll never walk alone, Jurgen Klopp”.

With an Italian accent, Pioli says to Klopp, “We have one more than you.” The German shrugs him off, the Portuguese grins and the Argentine hastily reaches for the revolver and screams, “Let the Russian roulette begin!”


Atletico Madrid

  • Coach: Diego Simeone
  • Average player age: 27.6
  • Market Value: 738.90 Million Euros
  • Penalties: Luis Suarez, Joao Felix
  • Free Kicks: Kieran Trippier, Koke, Joao Felix
  • Corners: Kieran Trippier, Koke, Saul Niguez

Last season, Atletico Madrid capitalized on the slight dip in form of Barcelona and Real Madrid to win Spain’s La Liga, thereby qualifying directly to the UCL where they claimed a well deserved spot in Pot A of the draw. This caused dismay in other groups, as titans Barcelona and Real Madrid were consequently drawn from other, lower-level pots.

In Copa del Rey (Spanish domestic cup), Atletico Madrid suffered an early exit after a 1-0 defeat to third-tier league Cornella during the first week of January 2021. In last season’s Champions League, playing in the same group as then-UCL title-holders Bayern Munich, Atletico was pushed to the limit to produce a couple of very entertaining matches against RB Salzburg. Simeone and his team were ultimately knocked out during the round of 16 after losing to eventual champions Chelsea 3-0 on aggregate.

Currently, seven teams share the top of La Liga with 7 points after three rounds. Atletico Madrid is one of them, having drawn against Villarreal 2-2 this Sunday.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Atletico Madrid lost no key players, retaining all of them this season (so far). Young left-winger Marcos Paulo was brought in on a free transfer from Brazilian club Fluminense. The club also spent €65 million on two players, Rodrigo de Paul and Matheus Cunha. Both have explosive potential. While the latter may have difficulty breaking into the starting XI behind Suarez, Angel Correa and Felix, de Paul may find it easy — Serie A may know the player as Udinese’s conductor.


Liverpool

  • Coach: Jurgen Klopp
  • Average player age: 26.6
  • Market Value: 887.50 Million Euros
  • Penalties: James Milner, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane
  • Free Kicks: Alexander-Arnold, Salah
  • Corners: Andy Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Tsimikas

With Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip injured for most of last season, Liverpool achieved third place in the EPL. As two of the main players to win the EPL and UCL in recent years, third place is definitely an achievement in a league with eight giants. Consequently, Liverpool qualified directly to the group stage of UCL this season and were placed on pot B.

Virgil van Dijk Continues his Rehabilitation at Liverpool Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Two Salah goals were not enough to keep the Reds alive in the FA Cup last season as they lost 2-3 to Man United courtesy of goals from Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes in the fourth round of the tournament. Liverpool was also knocked out in the fourth round of the EFL Cup at the hands of Arsenal by penalty shootout after a goalless draw in October 2020. Two months earlier, the same matchup had ended with the same result, Liverpool losing the FA Community Shield final. Liverpool is currently one of five clubs sitting in second place in the EPL on 7 points.

In last season’s UCL, Liverpool won a strong group that included Atalanta, Ajax and Midtjylland to qualify to the round of 16. RB Leipzig were no match for them, a mere stepping stone for the English club to proceed to the quarterfinals by 4-0 aggregate.

Both Real Madrid and Liverpool were suffering from injury woes at the time, scrapping for a spot in the semis, but a brilliant Toni Kroos performance in the first leg was enough to knock out Liverpool on a 3-1 aggregate.

Liverpool Training Session
Ibrahima Konate with Sadio Mane
Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Liverpool’s failure to win any trophies last season is attributed to major injuries. €40 million were allocated to bring in RB Leipzig center-back Ibrahima Konate as a failsafe measure this season after Ben Davis and Ozan Kabak clearly did not bring what is needed to the team. Liverpool U23 squad player Harvey Elliott was promoted to the first team and has two starts under his belt.

In exchange, Liverpool sold Harry Wilson (Fulham) for €14 million, Taiwo Awoniyi (Union Berlin) for €6.5 million and Xherdan Shaqiri (Lyon) for €6 million. Georginio Wijnaldum left the the club on free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain and may make waves in Group A.


Porto

  • Coach: Sergio Conceicao
  • Average player age: 26.3
  • Market Value: 277.00 Million Euros
  • Penalties: Sergio Oliveira
  • Free Kicks: Otavio, Fabio Vieira
  • Corners: Bruno Costa, Otavio

Porto played a strong season in 2020-21 but ended mostly without any spoils except the Portuguese Super Cup, a one-off match representing Primeira Liga (Portugal’s top league) against Benfica, winning 2-0. In other competitions, Porto finished second in Portugal’s domestic league, five points behind Sporting CP, still enough to qualify directly to the UCL group stage. Porto reached the semifinals of Taca de Portugal (Portugal cup tournament) only to lose against the eventual winners Braga 4-3 on aggregate.

Porto were drawn as part of Group C in UCL last season against Man City, Olympiacos and Marseille. Porto had no trouble defeating the Greeks and French over both legs to qualify to the round of 16. In the process, Porto conceded only three goals in the opening match and kept five clean sheets afterwards. The real surprise took place in the round of 16 as Porto knocked out out flailing Juventus utilizing the now-recinded away-goal tie-breaker after an aggregate score of 4-4. In the quarterfinals Porto was knocked out just one goal shy from accomplishing another stunning surprise, losing to Chelsea 1-2 on aggregate.

FC Porto v Belenenses SAD - Liga Portugal Bwin Photo by Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Porto kept the books balanced during the transfer window, receiving €21.25 million and spending €24.7 million. Notable arrivals are left winger Pepe from Gremio Brazil (adding confusion since Portuguese defender Pepe is still a starter), left back Wendell from Bayer Leverkuzen, Bruno Costa from Portimonense, and Fabio Cardoso. They also extended Marko Grujic’s loan from Liverpool. There are no notable departures from last season’s lineups, but PSG exercised their option to buy Danilo Pereira after completing his loan spell in France, and Porto also sold squad player Chidozie Awaziem.


AC Milan

  • Coach: Stefano Pioli
  • Average player age: 26.0
  • Market Value: 463.40 Million Euros
  • Penalties: Frank Kessie, Ibrahimovic
  • Free Kicks: Ibrahimovic, Castillejo
  • Corners: Castillejo

After more than 10 years of Juventus’ monopoly over Serie A (Italy’s top league), three clubs overtook Juve to fight for UCL qualification towards the end of the season. AC Milan ended its season in second place after spending the majority of the first half of the season at the top, thus, ensuring qualification to the UCL group stage for the first time since 2013-14. Milan were not as successful in other tournaments last season. They were knocked out of Coppa de Italia in the quarterfinals by rivals Inter Milan 1-2 and eliminated from the Europa League round of 16 by finalists Manchester United 2-1 on aggregate.

AC Milan v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It was a busy transfer window for Milan as they brought in Fikayo Tomori (€29.2 m) from Chelsea, Mike Maignan (€13.0 m) from Lille, Sandro Tonalli (€6.9 m) from Brescia, Fode Ballo-Toure (€5.0 m) from Monaco, and Olivier Giroud (€1.0 m) from Chelsea. Milan also took in four players on loan: Brahim Diaz from Real Madrid, Tiemoue Bakayoko from Chelsea, Alessandro Florenzi from Roma and Pietro Pellegri from Monaco.

Stade de Reims v Paris Saint Germain - Ligue 1 Uber Eats Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Notable departures were Diego Laxalt (€3.5 m) to Dynamo Moscow, Gianluigi Donnarumma to PSG and Hakan Calhanoglu to Inter Milan (both on free transfers).


Predicted Line-ups

Disclaimer: Lineup predictions are speculative for some of these teams due to squad depth, open transfer window as well as managerial predilection for player rotation and formation tinkering. They represent nothing more than the most-selected players so far this season according to www.besoccer.com.

  • Atletico Madrid (3-5-2): Jan Oblak, Jose Gimenez, Mario Hermoso, Stefan Savic, Koke, Thomas Lemar, De Paul, Saul, Marcos Llorente, Yannick Carrasco, Angel Correa. (Suarez and new arrival Cunha may force Carrassco and Correa back on the bench when we get deeper into the season)
  • Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson, Van Dijk, Joel Matip, Tsikimas, Arnold, Henderson, Naby Keita, Elliott, Mane, Salah, Diogo Jota (Robertson and Firminio remain in contention to start over Tsikimas and Elliott/Jota respectively)
  • Porto (4-4-2): Diogo Costa, Pepe, Chancel Mbemba, Ivan Marcano, Joao Matio, Bruno Costa, Mateus Uribe, Luis Diaz, Otavio, Mehdi Taremi, Toni Martinez
  • AC Milan (4-5-1): Mike Maignan, Tomori, Simon Kjaer, Theo Hernandez, Davide Calabria, Rade Krunic, Tonali, Brahim, Rafael Leao, Saelemaekers, Giroud. (Ibrahimovic should find his way back in the starting XI when returned from injury)

Fantasy Prospects

It is possible for some fantasy managers to use their free transfers within Group A to alternate players facing weakling Club Brugge, but I cannot safely suggest that a similar strategy can be adopted here. This group could end with any team on top or with any team on bottom, so this is by far in my humble opinion the most unpredictable group for fantasy managers. For all I can predict, this group may end up with all teams tied for first place after all matches end in draws — hence my ‘Russian Roulette’ metaphor. If you must pick a player or two from this group, here are my somewhat-reserved recommendations:

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
  • Jota (€8.0m) from forwards. The other remaining options are too expensive and there are many better candidates to fill your squad from other groups.
  • Llorente (€6.0m) OR Kessie (€5.5) OR De Paul (€7.5m). Kessie may be a surprise in the tournament and could return a high average of points compared to his price, while Llorente is usually more involved in attacking in UCL matches than he is in La Liga. De Paul’s price tag is rather expensive but I expect good things from him in particular.

NMA UCL Fantasy Mini-League

If you played our UCL mini-league last season, or if you played our Euros mini-league over the summer, you should automatically be entered into NMA’s 2021-22 mini-league as soon as you create a team. Head to gaming.uefa.com and get to work!

If you are new to us, then once you create a team you can join our mini-league manually with the following info. Come join us, we’d love to have you!

  • League: Never Manage Alone
  • Code: 71MQALVG07

What do you think of Group-B? Will you invest in players here, or just watch the matches until the dust settles? Please share your thoughts in the comments,

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