Every UCL group-winner favourite: Real Madrid lost Casemiro but still have Benzema and one major nation’s ‘GOAT midfielder’
This season’s Champions League marks the competition’s 30th anniversary.
World football’s premier club tournament has never been more intriguing with a host of clubs vying to dethrone Real Madrid, who are chasing an eye-watering 15th title in European Cup history.
Real rank fifth in BetUK’s list of Champions League favourites at 9/1 behind Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, three of whom they beat en route to winning last season’s title.
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Conspicuous by his absence from the competition is Cristiano Ronaldo. He returned to former Manchester United last summer only for the Red Devils to fall short by finishing outside the Premier League’s top four places. This gives Lionel Messi a chance to reduce the 15-goal gap between the pair in the Champions League all-time top-scorer charts.
Ronaldo was reunited with former Los Blancos teammate Raphaël Varane then and now Casemiro this summer. The imperious defensive midfielder is one of just several players to depart the Santiago Bernabéu with Borja Mayoral, Takefusa Kubo, Luka Jović, Isco and Gareth Bale all finding new homes.
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But despite the dismantling of the most dominant team in Champions League history, the competition’s most decorated manager Carlo Ancelotti — who recently picked up the Uefa Men’s Coach of the Year award — can still count on Uefa Men’s Player of the Year and heavy Ballon d’Or favourite Karim Benzema. Elsewhere, the evergreen Luka Modric continues to cement his claim to being the midfielder of his generation. Equally important has been the formerly derided Belgian shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois, who can lay claim to being Europe’s best goalkeeper. He showed why in last season’s final against Liverpool when he made a record number of saves, some more incredible than others, to win the Man of the Match award.
Casemiro’s absence will undoubtedly be felt, but the hope is Aurélien Tchouaméni’s assimilation will not take long while Eduardo Camavinga’s is well underway.
Having Toni Kroos — whose passing accuracy has never dropped below 92% for Real in a La Liga season — around should make that process be a smooth one. His place among the greats is secured but former World Cup-winning Germany captain Lothar Matthaus has gone one step far in eulogising the Greifswald native.
Asked if Kroos is one of the best midfielders in German history, Matthaus told Marca: “I would say the best. If we look at his titles, he is number one. Champions in Bayern; four in Real; Leagues with both; world champion with my country… Toni is very intelligent, precise and always chooses the move well. He has a radar and knows when he won’t be quick at Real Madrid’s hectic pace.”
The 2022/23 Champions League group stage is soon upon us. So what are our early predictions?
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Predicted Group A winner: Liverpool have reached the Champions League final in three of the five campaigns they have qualified for the competition under Jürgen Klopp and they’ve never failed to make it out of the group stages.
- Group A: Ajax, Liverpool, Napoli, Rangers
Predicted Group B winner: Atlético Madrid‘s defensive record at home in the Champions League since the start of the 2014/15 season: 24 clean sheets and 19 goals conceded across 37 games. They’ve only shipped in two or more goals on five occasions.
- Group B: FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge
Predicted Group C winner: Bayern Munich were perfect in the 2021/22 group stages, winning all six games, while scoring the most goals (22) and boasted the equal number of clean sheets kept (4) and fewest goals conceded (3).
Group C: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Viktoria Plzen
Predicted Group D winner: Tottenham have made it out of the group stages in each of their last three Champions League campaigns.
- Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt, Tottenham, Sporting CP, Marseille
Predicted Group E winner: Since making his Champions League debut for Chelsea at the beginning of the triumphant 2020/21 season, Edouard Mendy has kept more clean sheets (14) than he has conceded goals (10) in the competition. He’s also conceded just two goals in his 11 group stage games.
- Group E: AC Milan, Chelsea, FC Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb
Predicted Group F winner: Real Madrid are looking to become the first side to have three perfect group stage campaigns in 2022/23. They previously went 100% in 2011/12 (19 goals scored plus two conceded) and 2014/15 (16 goals scored plus two goals conceded).
- Group F: Real Madrid, RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk, Celtic
Predicted Group G winner: Manchester City are the only side to have finished as group winners in each of the last five Champions League campaigns.
- Group G: Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, FC Copenhagen
Predicted Group H winner: Paris Saint-Germain arguably boast Europe’s most lethal front three of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Lionel Messi.
- Group H: PSG, Juventus, Benfica, Maccabi Haifa