With the drama and shocking results and upsets from The 2018-19 UEFA Champions League last season, Europe’s premier football (what only the Americans call “soccer” is called “football” everywhere else in the world) is back with the first group stage games being played from September 17th-18th. The last group stage games will be played from December 10th-11th. The Champions League will conclude on May 30th, 2020 with the Final taking place at Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. Liverpool (see Mo Salah (left) and Dejan Lovren (right), who make up one of football’s greatest bromances, with the Champions League Trophy in the featured image) is the defending champions after beating fellow Premier League Club Tottenham 2-0 in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League Final this past June.
A total of 32 teams (who qualified via finishing in the top spots of their domestic leagues or via qualifiers) will play in the group stage. The reigning Champions League Title Holders and the reigning Europa League Title Holders earn automatically qualify for the group stage. All 32 teams are seeded and drawn (this year’s draw took place on August 29th) into eight groups of four. Each team plays the other 3 teams in their group twice (once at home and once away). The winner and runner-up of each group move on to the Round of 16 and are randomly drawn with another team (who they didn’t face in the group stage) to play two legs (one home and one away) and the team with the most goals over both legs progresses to the quarterfinals.
The eight remaining teams are randomly drawn for both legs for the quarterfinals and semi-finals. The last two teams left playing each other in the final. It is important to note that teams from the same domestic league cannot be drawn to play against each other in either in the group stage or round of 16. Teams from the same domestic league can be drawn to play each other in the quarterfinals and beyond.
With the setup of how the tournament works, here are 10 Things To Be Excited About for the 2019-2020 UEFA Champions League Group Stage:
1. Group F aka “The Group of Death”:
After the UEFA Champions League Group Stage Draw concluded on August 29th, football pundits declared Group F as the “Group of Death” this season. The four teams drawn in the “Group of Death” are Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, and Slavia Prague.
The former three teams (who have all previously won a Champions League title at least once) are expected to fight for the group’s only two spots to move on to the Champions League Knockout Stages. I’m so sorry Slavia Prague! There’s no way you will advance out of the group stage but still be happy that it is your first appearance in the Champions League Group Stage since the 2007-08 season.
2. Keylor Navas’s Recent Transfer from Real Madrid to PSG; Will Play Against Former Club During The Group Stage:
Whenever a talented player for any club plays his first match against his former team as an opponent, the game is bound to gain a lot of attention and press coverage (especially if the first game is at the stadium of the player’s former club). One of the most prolific transfers of the Summer Window Transfer Deadline Day was that of Real Madrid Goalkeeper Keylor Navas to PSG.
Over his the course of his five seasons at the Spanish club, Navas won 11 trophies and was the starting goalkeeper when Real Madrid won three consecutive UEFA Champions League Titles from 2016-18 (a feat that has yet to be accomplished by any other club). Given how recent his departure is, The Costa Rican’s first game against Madrid (home or away) is bound to make plenty of headlines as PSG (his new team) was drawn into the same group as Real Madrid (his former team)!
PSG and Real Madrid were drawn together in Group A along with Club Brugge and Galatasaray. Navas’s first game against his former club will take place on September 18th in Paris and his first time playing in Real Madrid’s stadium as an opponent will take place on November 26th.
3. Rematch: Juventus vs. Athletico Madrid:
Unlike the other two rematches on this list (see #4 and #5), the Italian and the Spanish sides didn’t meet in the group stage last season. Instead, both played each other in the Round of 16, where Juventus advanced to the quarterfinals on a 3-2 goal aggregate after coming from behind to win the second leg 3-0. Cristiano Ronaldo scored all three goals and Federico Bernardeschi (in a Man-of-the-Match Performance) provided the assist for the first goal and won the penalty for the third goal.
This year, both teams were drawn together in Group D, along with Bayern Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow. Although the two teams played each other once in The International Champions Cup this past summer (Athletico won 2-1), it didn’t count for anything as it was a pre-season match. What will the results be this time in The Champions League, when it really counts?
4. Rematch: Liverpool vs. Napoli:
Liverpool is the reigning champions and last year, they were in what was considered as the “Group of Death” with Napoli. The Serie A side won the first leg 1-0 but Liverpool won the second leg 1-0. The results of the second leg happened on the final match-days of the group stage and Liverpool advanced out of the group as the runner-up on the tiebreaker of the total number of goals scored in the group stage over Napoli, who finished third in the group.
This year, the two teams were drawn in Group E, along with Austrian Club Red Bull Salzburg and Belgian Club Genk.
5. Rematch: Barcelona vs. Inter Milan:
The third consecutive rematch to make this list, Barcelona and Inter Milan will play each other during the UEFA Champions League Group Stage for the second year in a row. Last year, Barcelona won the first leg 2-0 and the two teams drew the second leg 1-1.
The _ leg produced one of the funniest moments of the entire Champions League last year when Inter Milan Midfielder Marcelo Brozovic blocked a freekick from Barcelona forward Luiz Suarez with his famous “Crocodile Move” (see the video below). The Crocodile Move caused a frenzy on social media and made Barcelona Superstar Leo Messi (who sat out the match due to injury) to laugh.
This year, the two teams were drawn in Group F, which is of the 8 groups, is considered to be the “Group of Death”. Borussia Dortmund and Slavia Prague are the other two teams in the group.
6. Chelsea’s Return to Champions League:
English club Chelsea will return to the UEFA Champions League this year after automatically qualifying following their 4-1 victory in the 2018-19 Europa League Final over Premier League rivals Arsenal. The English Club, who won the 2011-12 Champions League title, will play against Ajax, Valencia, and Lille in Group H. Will they be able to win their second-ever Champions League Trophy this season? Will someone pull a “John Terry” (No, I don’t mean as in having an alledged affair with a teammate’s wife/girlfriend or missing a penalty in an important match)?
7. Will Tottenham Make Another Far Surprise Run?
Of the many upsets from last season’s knockout phases, one of the most surprising ones was when Tottenham made it all the way to the Champions League Final where they lost to 2-0 to fellow Premier League club Liverpool.
While Spurs were expected to beat their Round of 16 opponents Borussia Dortmund, they made it all the way to the final after dramatic endings to the second-legs against Manchester City and Ajax in the quarterfinals and semi-finals respectively. Tottenham advanced to the semi-finals on the away goals tiebreaker over Manchester City after VAR controversially ruled out a late goal from Manchester City Forward Raheem Sterling due to his teammate Striker Sergio Aguero being declared offside by VAR officials. In the second leg of the semi-finals against Ajax (another surprise semifinalist), Spurs stunned Ajax fans (the second semi-final leg was played in Amsterdam) when they won the game 3-2 and striker Lucas Moura scored his third goal (see the clip below) in the final seconds of the match. The result meant that Tottenham would go on to the final, once again on the away goals tiebreaker.
Will Spurs be able to replicacte their magical run last season this year and win the Champions League Trophy this time around?
8. How Far Will Ajax Go This Year?:
During the second leg of the Round of 16 against Real Madrid, the football world was stunned when Ajax won the match 4-1 (see the clip below). The result meant that Real Madrid, the three-time defending UEFA Champions League winners would be eliminated on a 5-3 goal aggregate from both legs.
The cinderella team would go on to upset Juventus on a 3-2 goal aggregate from both legs of the quarterfinals. However, the magical run was over for Ajax in the semi-finals when Tottenham (another surprise semifinalist) advanced to the Champions League Final on a 3-3 aggregate on the tie-breaker regarding away goals. Will one of last season’s dark horses be able to make it all the away again this year?
9. Teams Making Their UEFA Champions League Debut This Season:
This year, only one team will be making their first appearance in the Champions League Group Stage this year. That team is Atalanta from the Serie A. Atalanta was drawn in Group C with Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Dinamo Zagreb.
10. VAR Drama:
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) wasn’t used in the Champions League at all until last season from knockout stages onwards. It will in effect at the same time for this season as well. Although VAR won’t be used during the UEFA Champions League Group Stages, it still makes this list.
Since it has been introduced recently in major football tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA Champions League, VAR has added more tension, intensity, and drama to every match. One of the most notable highlights last season from the knockout stages was when VAR controversially ruled out a late goal from Manchester City Forward Raheem Sterling due to his teammate Striker Sergio Aguero being slightly offside in the second leg of the quarterfinal between Manchester City and Tottenham (see highlights of the entertaining match in the clip below). Had the goal counted, Manchester City would have advanced to the semi-finals on a 5-4 goal aggregate from both legs of the quarterfinal. Instead, Tottenham moved on due to winning the tie-breaker on away goals from the 4-4 goal aggregate. The dramatic ending of the second-leg, which was played at Manchester City’s stadium, produced tons of drama and memes.