(Ruy Rebollo/The Intermission)
The UEFA Champions League group stages are less than a week away from kicking off. The drama-filled competition once again promises superstar players and world-renowned clubs and all the drama that goes along with it. With that being said, let’s go through some of my bold predictions for this year’s UEFA Champions League.
1. Neymar Jr. will shine, and PSG will go Deep
Paris Saint Germain’s Champions League dream is no secret. Since being taken over in 2012 by Qatar Sports Investments, club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi had made it abundantly clear that the Champion’s League is the be-all and end-all of the PSG project.
Led by newly hired manager Christophe Galtier, the club is playing with a 3-5-2 formation that seems to be getting the best out of PSG's many star players, most notably Sergio Ramos, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, and of course, Neymar Jr.
Through the first five games of the Ligue UN season, PSG is unbeaten, and Neymar Jr. is on fire. The Brazilian has 7 goals and 6 assists so far this season and has had a goal or assist in each of the last 16 games that he has played.
Where last season, Neymar was either injured or struggled to impact important games for the Parisians, Neymar now looks to be back to his best and will be at the heart of PSG’s most promising Champions League campaign yet. One thing is for certain, don’t bet against Neymar Jr. and PSG this year.
2. Barcelona will once again, fail to make it out of the group stages
In this year’s “Group of Death”, Barcelona came up against two well-oiled machines in Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
Despite losing star striker Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona in the summer, Bayern Munich looks as good as ever with replacement Sadio Mané filling the hole and filling the net in the Bundesliga. Bayern has also strengthened defensively and will strongly benefit from a healthy Alphonso Davies.
Inter Milan, while not as strong as Bayern, are still a force to be reckoned with, especially with the return of striker Romelu Lukaku and a strong start to the season from midfielder Nicolò Barella.
While Barcelona possesses several elite young players such as Pedri and Gavi alongside experienced pros such as Sergio Busquets and newcomer Robert Lewandowski, their consistency is still a real area of concern.
Just a few weeks ago, Barcelona highlighted this point as they struggled to get anything going against a frankly weak Rayo Vallecano side. Despite having 68% possession and 21 shots, the match finished in a 0-0 draw. This lack of consistency will need to be sorted out, or it will quickly be their undoing in the Champions League.
3. RB Leipzig will win their group
Perhaps my boldest prediction, I couldn’t tell you what exactly has inspired this, but most likely an epiphany. RB Leipzig has proven over the past few years that they can compete with some of the best teams in Europe and have strengthened over the summer with the return of striker Timo Werner and the addition of talented full-back David Raum.
However, Leipzig has not started the season particularly well, with only one win and two draws from their first four fixtures in the Bundesliga.
Fortunately, the Red Bulls have had a lucky draw as they will play Celtic FC and FC Shakhtar Donetsk alongside defending European Champions, Real Madrid. While it is never ideal to draw the defending champions, Leipzig’s pace going against the inexperienced midfield that Real Madrid will likely start could be a favorable matchup for the German side.
While their Bundesliga form has not generated much confidence, their group stage matchups are incredibly favorable. This, along with the Champions League heroics that will go along with Timo Werner in the Leipzig kit, will be enough for Red Bull to win the group.
4. Manchester City will not win the Champions League
The seemingly perennial favorites, the Citizens have knocked on the door of the Champions League title for the past several years. On top of this, the already powerful club has strengthened itself in the summer transfer window and frankly looks unstoppable in the Premier league.
New signing Erling Haaland seems likely to smash the premier league scoring record if he can stay healthy and adds a new dimension to an already potent City attack. However, manager Pep Guardiola will fall short once again, and City will walk away with nothing in the Champions League.
Manchester City, in recent years, has struggled to cope with the pressure and adversity that comes with playing in the Champions League. Last year, they didn’t put the game away when they could’ve, and collapsed late, allowing two goals in two minutes before losing in extra time. The year prior, manager Pep Guardiola in an effort to outsmart his opponent, tweaked a winning system and opted against playing a holding midfielder which was ultimately City’s undoing.
Whether the players or the manager, or both, Manchester City have proven year after year that they cannot get it done in the tough tournament style of the Champions League. Despite bringing in one of the best strikers in the world in Erling Haaland, this year will be no different for the Citizens.