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Champions League Preview: Group H

We EPL fans already know Chelsea, but... Step inside to meet the other three sides here

Anders Christiansen takes the ball from Besikta’s Vagner Love - Malmo - Champions League
Anders Christiansen is probably the only player from minnows Malmö that holds any interest for fantasy managers.
Photo credit should read ANDREAS HILLERGREN/AFP via Getty Images

Group H is probably not one of those UCL groups where “anything can happen”. Chelsea is the defending champion and has only strengthened since lifting the trophy back in May; Juventus is a European titan that prior to last season had won Serie A nine years running. Grouped with middleweight Zenit and flyweight Malmö, the two powerhouses of world football should easily cruise to the Round of 16.

The imbalances in this group have ramifications for fantasy managers, so let’s run the rule over each side to see where value lies.


Malmö

  • Coach: Jon Dahl Tomasson
  • 2020 Domestic League Finish: 1st
  • 2020-21 UCL Finish: n/a
  • Average Player Age: 26.7
  • Market Value: $28.52M
  • Odds for R16: +900
  • Odds to Win Tournament: +25,000

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Summer Transfers

In: Felix Beijmo (Werder Bremen), Aleksander Nilsson (Malmo U19), Markus Björkqvist (Malmo FF U17)

Out: Fouad Bachirou, Guillermo Molins, Tim Prica, Amel Mujanic, Marcus Antonsson, Romain Gall, Hugo Andersson, Mathias Nilsson, Pavle Vagic, Rasmus Bengtsson

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Malmö failed to qualify for the Europa League group stage last season, crashing out via a 1-3 playoff defeat at the hands of Granada in October. However, they went on to win the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s top-flight domestic league. That earned them the right to play into the UCL group stage, and four rounds of qualifying later, here they are.

But let’s be clear: To say that Malmö is an underdog is an understatement. The prospect for advancing is bleak, and it’ll require luck just to nick the Europa League knockout-phase berth that is awarded to the third-place finisher in each UCL group.

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Fantasy Considerations

  • Penalties: Christiansen, Colak, Jo Enge Berget
  • Direct Free Kicks: Christiansen, Birmancevic
  • Corners and Indirect Free Kicks: Christiansen

I’m reluctant to name any fantasy picks from Malmö, but if I must then Anders Christiansen (€6.0M, MID) is probably your best bet. Managed by a former center-forward, Malmö sports the best offense in the Allsvenskan, and the club’s talisman and captain is the cornerstone of the attack. Christiansen hogs set pieces, including PKs, and has been involved in 11 of his team’s 37 goals this season, far more than any other player.

Defensively Malmö ranks 10th of 16 in the Allsvenskan, a league that is nowhere near the caliber of Europe’s best. Therefore, a fantasy strategy that targets attackers playing against Malmö could pay dividends.


Zenit St. Petersburg

  • Coach: Sergey Semak
  • 2020-21 Domestic League Finish: 1st
  • 2020-21 UCL Finish: Group Stage
  • Average Player Age: 27
  • Market Value: $190.52M
  • Odds for R16: +200
  • Odds to Win Tournament: +20,000

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Summer Transfers

  • In: Claudinho (RB Bragantino), Dmitri Chistyakov, (Rostov), Stanislav Kritsyuk, (Gil Vicente), Danila Prokhin (Sochi)
  • Out: Sebastián Driussi (Austin FC), Danila Prokhin (Rostov), Andrey Lunev (Bayern Leverkusen). Yuri Zirkhov (released without club), Daniil Shamkin (Baltika), Dmitri Chistyakov (Rostov)

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Sergey Semak was appointed manager of Zenit in May 2018, and the club has won the Russian Premier League every season since. Such is its dominance that Zenit lost only three league matches last season, and is undefeated six matches into the current campaign.

Curiously, Zenit was unable to duplicate that success in the Champions League, exiting in the group stage after collecting only a single point from six games. They’ll hope for an improved showing this time around, but their odds of advancing to the Round of 16 remain long.

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Fantasy Considerations

  • Penalties: Azmoun, Dzyuba (Sutormin if on pitch)
  • Direct Free Kicks: Malcom, Santos, Rakits’kyy
  • Corners and Indirect Free Kicks: Santos, Claudinho

Like Malmö, Zenit boasts the most prolific offense in its domestic league, but Semak rotates his attackers regularly enough to annoy fantasy managers.

Sardar Azmoun (€8.0M, FWD) is the team’s leading scorer, with five goals across six league games.

Aleksandr Erokhin (€6.5M, MID) has scored four this season and could be a solid value in midfield.

If you are looking for a cheap differential pick, Wilmar Barrios (€5.0, MID) could be a cheeky play. The defensive midfielder conceded a penalty and was shown yellow twice in Zenit’s 2020-21 UCL campaign, but still emerged as the team’s leading fantasy scorer. How did he do it? One recovered ball at a time (for a total of 52).

Artem Dzyuba (€8.0M, FWD), who was named the MVP of the Russian Premier League in 2019-20 and who scored 20 league goals last season, has yet to get off the mark in the 2021-22 campaign. I would avoid the 33 year-old unless his form improves.

Semak’s back four is much more settled, and here my choice is Yaroslav Rakits’kyy (€4.5M, DEF). Fantasy managers love a defender who offers attacking threat, and Rakits’kyy is just that. He shares direct free kick duty and has the second-most assists on the team. He was Zenit’s #2 fantasy producer in last season’s UCL campaign.


Juventus

  • Coach: Massimiliano Allegri
  • 2020-21 Domestic League Finish: 4th
  • 2020-21 UCL Finish: Round of 16
  • Average Player Age: 27.3
  • Market Value: $704.44M
  • Odds for Round of 16: -400
  • Odds to Win Tournament: +2000

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Summer Transfers

In: Weston McKennie (FC Schalke), Moise Kean (Everton), Kaio Jorge (Santos FC), Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo),

Out: Cristian Romero, Cristiano Ronaldo, Merih Demiral, Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluca Frabotta, Stefano Gori, Marko Pjaca, Nicoli Fagioli, Radu Drasgusin, Weston McKennie

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Juventus’ best summer transfer was the recruitment of manager Massimiliano Allegri, who returned to Juventus after a two-year absence in which the club suffered two last-16 exits in the Champions League and scuppered a nine-year monopoly on the Scudetto. Sacking Allegri to acquire European success was a gamble that failed, but that mistake has been easily corrected.

The other failed gamble, splurging €370M in fees and wages on Cristiano Ronaldo, crippled the club tactically and financially, and it may not be so easy to fix. Ronaldo is gone to Manchester United now, which has alleviated the tactical limitations his presence created, but with him goes a significant source of goals (101 in 134 appearances, to be exact).

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Fantasy Considerations

  • Penalties: Morata, Cuadrado
  • Direct Free Kicks: Cuadrado, Dybala
  • Corners and Indirect Free Kicks: Cuadrado, Dybala, Kulusevski

Alvaro Morata (€9.5M, FWD) actually outscored Ronaldo in the UCL last year, notching six goals to CR7’s four. This is especially impressive when you consider that CRon was on PKs. That duty now falls to Morata, so he could once again lead Juve in UCL fantasy points.

Our readers who followed the Euros this summer will remember Italy’s dynamic Federico Chiesa (€9.0M, MID). Chiesa had a good UCL campaign last season too, equaling Ronaldo’s goal tally and surpassing CR7’s fantasy production. He should play an even more important (and reliable) role in Allegri’s lineup now that Ronaldo is gone.

If you can’t find room in your budget for Chiesa, then Juan Cuadrado (€8.0M, MID) is a less expensive alternative. The versatile middie is on set pieces and notched six assists in last season’s UCL campaign.

Moise Kean (€7.0M, FWD) completed a deadline-day loan to Juve from Everton. He is yet to feature for his new club, but if he can claim a spot in Allegri’s S11 he’d be fantastic value for money. He scored three goals in last season’s Champions League tournament while playing on loan for PSG.

Among Juve’s defensive cadre, my pick is Wojciech Szczesny (€5.5M, GK). Zenit and Malmö are attack-oriented teams that are a level below the Italian behemoths, so Szczesny offers a good chance at clean sheets plus saves when he faces them. Just make sure you have a viable (playing a different day) alternative for the Chelsea fixtures.


Chelsea

  • Coach: Thomas Tuchel
  • 2020-21 Domestic League Finish: 4th
  • 2020-21 UCL Finish: Champions of Europe
  • Average Player Age: 26.7
  • Market Value: $970.75M
  • Odds for Round of 16: -1200
  • Odds to Win Tournament: +750

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Summer Transfers

In: Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Marcus Bettinelli (Fulham), Trevoh Chalobah (Chelsea U23),

Out: Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori, Davide Zappacosta, Victor Moses, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Olivier Giroud, Kenedy, Emerson, Michy Batshuayi, Marco van Ginkel, Danilo Pantic, Izzy Brown, Willy Caballero, Jamal Blackman

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The addition of Romelu Lukaku gives Chelsea what it lacked most glaringly last season — a forward for all occasions who can finish clinically when allowed space and muscle defenders off the ball when not. That he now joins the squad that won the last tournament without him means that Chelsea must surely be among the favorites to win it again this season as well.

Chelsea’s success in the last campaign was rooted in tactical intelligence and the way that Thomas Tuchel employed a high press while remaining defensively sound. As Jonathan Wilson of si.com says, “The semifinal against Real Madrid was a masterclass in holding an opponent at arm’s length.” Tuchel also won the chess match against grandmaster Pep Guardiola in the final, sealing his reputation as one of the top tacticians in all of world football.

With the highest odds of any team in the tournament to make the R-16 (92%) and to win its group (67%), it would be a genuine shock to see the defending champs fail to advance.

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Fantasy Considerations

  • Penalties: Jorginho, Lukaku, Mount
  • Direct Free Kicks: Mount, Alonso, Havertz
  • Corners and Indirect Free Kicks: Mount, Chilwell, Ziyech, Alonso

Romelu Lukaku (€10.5M, FWD) is almost a must-have. The 28 year-old who scored 64 goals in 95 appearances for Inter Milan now spearheads Chelsea’s talented offense. The Belgian scored four goals in the UCL last season; now that he is playing for arguably the best team on the planet in a weak group, I expect him to exceed that tally this time around — he’s well-known as a flat-track bully.

Mason Mount’s (€7.5M, MID) influence in the side has steadily grown, and I expect him to build on his two goals plus two assists from the last campaign. He seems to be relatively immune to Tuchel-tinkering, and he hogs a fair share of set pieces. Priced at just €7.5M, he’s the best value among Chelsea’s attacking midfielders.

Jorginho (€6.0M, MID) was Chelsea’s #4 UCL fantasy asset last season, something you might not expect from a defensive midfielder. The Italian is Chelsea’s primary penalty taker, but his main method of fantasy production is ball recoveries — he racked up 23 points last season from those alone. He also offers the potential for clean sheet points, something you can bank on from Chelsea in this group. Jorginho is excellent value for money at this price point.

Antonio Rudiger (€6.0M, DEF) was Chelsea’s top-scoring defender in fantasy UCL last season. He’s a nailed-on member of what is perhaps the best defense in world football, so you can expect your investment to be rewarded with clean sheets.

Edouard Mendy (€6.0M, GK) kept a UCL-best nine clean sheets and made 32 saves on his way to the tournament trophy last season. Fantasy managers usually don’t like to shell out for goalkeepers, but for just €6.0M you can own last season’s top UCL points earner. Given the weak competition in this group, it will be hard to resist him.

Since Chelsea is a virtual shoo-in to win the group, I’d advise maxing out your quota of Blues. Since we’re allowed only three (!) from any one team, that will probably happen without trying. Caveat emptor though — if (when?) they punch their ticket to R16 early, Tuchel may rest and rotate for the remainder of the group stage matches. Be sure to manage your substitution strategy so you won’t be burned.


NMA Group Stage Article Stream

For group-by-group analysis of each this season’s UCL teams, please see NMA’s Group Stage article stream. This article completes the stream; to read the rest go there.


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

Stats and info quoted in this article were sourced from si.com, transfermarkt.com, fantasytipsters.com, highpresssoccer.com, projects.fivethirtyeight.com, footballcritic.com, gaming.uefa.com, wikipedia.org.

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Whom are you looking to buy from this group? Which sides do you expect to advance? Do you know more about any of the non-English sides than the rest of us? Please share in the comments below!

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