The Road to Istanbul (not Constantinople) began yesterday even though it actually began back in June for a number of teams. The Champions League Group Stage draw took place in Monaco yesterday afternoon and the fairly decided fixtures are shaping up to deliver some excellent matches.
Two very unusual teams in Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid are joined by two slightly more unfortunate teams in Club Brugge and Galatasaray. Unusual because of the sheer amount of money PSG and Madrid have spent in order to upgrade, adopt, adapt and improve making them almost unrecognisable from prior seasons; unfortunate because Brugge and Galatasaray could never stand a chance.
This past summer, Madrid have been linked with several key players for PSG (a team that always appears to be only moments away from self-destruction), namely Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. While Neymar has been toying with a move back to Barcelona, Mbappé has taken on the mantle of being the superstar of Paris. Undeniably gifted, his dominance with the French team appears to be somewhat stunted on the European stage. There is a tremendous irony that comes with Mbappé’s still relative newfound super-stardom in him progressing the furthers in the Champions League with the now lowly Monaco several seasons prior. Since his move, he has made a name for himself with in Ligue 1 and at the World Cup but this season is where he should show that he can do it on a Tuesday or Wednesday as well.
Between Thomas Tuchel’s tactical nuance and Zinedine Zidane’s ability to inspire, both managers will have points to prove when they face each other. For Tuchel: ‘PSG are that good and not just limited to their domestic dominion.’ Slaying the mighty Madrid will raise his stock higher and could confirm his position as heir-apparent to Pep Guardiola. For Zidane, this is his chance to show the world that he can do it without Cristiano Ronaldo. The team were almost in free-fall last season after his departure and when Zidane returned towards the end of last season, he was given a bye. With that being said, £274 million has been spent in rectifying the problems Madrid faced last year. A squad already blighted by injuries, Zizou will have to use that famed man-management skill he has to convince previously outcast players such as Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez to play their hearts out. He will also have to show the world that it was worth the £90 million and the several years of courtship to get Eden Hazard to come to the Bernabéu.
Due to the heavyweights of PSG and Real Madrid, there will be very little in the way of discussion of Club Brugge and Galatasaray.
The Turkish outfit now primarily consists of Premier League outcasts (Ryan Babel, Sofiane Feghouli, Jean Michaël Seri, Steven Nzonzi) as well as those with individual merit; Uruguay’s number 1 Fernando Muslera and the perennial yet-to-reach-his-potential Emre Mor. On paper, this team looks to be a mishmash of people who were available at the time but only recently players like Nzonzi and Seri were linked with big money moves to top clubs. The individual talent may still be there and upsets can happen.
As for Brugge, they stand in second place after four games in the Belgian league. The team is most likely to finish fourth in this group having made hard work of their qualifying round. Conceding 2 very late goals against Dynamo Kyiv, before progressing 4:3 on aggregate, this is a team that is largely inexperienced on bigger stages. Even Brugge’s loanee keeper, Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet, has never played a Champions League fixture out of the group stage. Of their 24 man squad 15 of them have played at the Champions League but not one of them has ever progressed beyond the first 6 matches. That isn’t to say that they have no discernible positives to take away. Hans Vanaken and Percy Tau could use their opportunity against titans such as Real Madrid and PSG as an audition. Tau in particular is already on the books at Brighton however, due to issues with a work-permit, had to make do with impressing on loan at Union Saint-Gilloise. They face an uphill struggle against three teams who may already know their final standing.
Group A may be predictable but there is always the possibility of a surprise. Rumours of ego-trouble and the inability to get further than the quarter-finals in Paris, injury and unfamiliarity in Madrid but the individuality in Istanbul and an almost lack of pressure knowing you can only exceed expectation in Brugge make Group A anything but closed.