If this group shows anything, it’s that the potting system can only tell part of the story. In the order they were drawn, Zenit St Petersburg, Benfica, Olympique Lyon and RB Leipzig, each team faced a bigger threat than the team before. There is a lot to be said about the strength of leagues, monetary advantages and the overall UEFA coefficient rankings at the fact that the Pot 4 team are some bookies’ favourite to finish top of Group G.
Zenit St Petersburg
Zenit St Petersburg are somewhat removed from other Champions League competitors, much like how Azerbaijan are somewhat removed from the Eurovision song contest. Due to their sheer distance from other teams, they regularly play at least two fixtures in the competition an hour earlier than others. Seemingly unphased by this slight alienation, the marketing team at Zenit leaned into their anomaly last week by changing their Twitter bio to ‘The club they all want in #UCLdraw!” It is in this self-depreciation that Zenit shows that they are all too aware that the potting system of the Champions League draw, while fair, can be grossly unfair. Champions of Russia they may be but a Pot 1 draw for them is less than ideal.
Last season, Zenit never relinquished first place; a 2:0 victory started their campaign and the remainder of the year followed suit. This year, they appear to be suffering some teething issues but have, regardless, carried on as per. Additions to their attack such as Malcom from Barcelona and Serdar Azmoun earlier in the year from Rubin Kazan means that Zenit are not short of good players. While both are young players, they have already achieved individual moments of glory. Azmoun, while at FK Rostov, managed goals against both Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid while Malcom, regardless of how the season went, can take great pride in knowing that Barcelona, at one point or another, wanted him in their squad. Fast forward to the present day, though, both players have had vastly differing starts. Azmoun has registered 11 goals in 20 league games while Malcom has struggled for minutes, having now suffered a hip injury.
Seemingly minutes away from joining A.S. Roma from Girondins de Bordeaux, Malcom was pipped by Barcelona, signing for €41 million. After two promising seasons, he looked ready to make a step up but in retrospect, it is clear that the right step was not as steep as Bordeaux to Barca and that the move to Roma would have been a better fit. As a right-winger at Barcelona, you compete with Lionel Messi, Ousmane Dembélé and other world class talents. In addition to that, a manager that seems to be fairly set in his ways. At Roma, while the competition is tough, it is would have been far more manageable. This transfer was quite possibly a dream come true for Malcom but since then it has been criticised by nearly ever pundit under the sun as immature and naive. If ever there was a time for Malcom to show up, this year would be it.
Benfica have 42 years left to win a European trophy. In 1962, Béla Guttmann led Benfica to the European Cup final and beat Real Madrid 5–3. The year before, he did the same thing but beat Barcelona 3–2. He was the first manager to win the European Cup without Real Madrid and, quite rightfully, was celebrated as one of the most influential managers of the 20th Century. It seemed only fair that, for this feat, he asked for a pay rise. When this was declined by Benfica, he placed a curse on the club. “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions.” The following season, Benfica did reach the European Cup final.
They, of course, lost.
Since the curse in 1962, they have come close to winning, reaching the European Cup finals of 1965, 1968, 1988 and 1990. This curse is not just limited to the Champions League and older iterations of it; their successes in the Europa League and UEFA cup have also been impeded: a lost final to Anderlecht in 1983 was followed by consecutive final defeats at the hands of Chelsea and Sevilla in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Their ability to produce younger players is matched by only few other clubs: Ajax are the closest, Atlético maybe? In the past few years, João Félix, Nélson Semedo, Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo and many more have all been sold for huge fees. Where this never ending supply of talented players are regularly lost to the highest bidder, it is amazing that they struggle to capitalise in time and not only reach a final but win one in 57 years. The curse of Béla Guttmann lives on.
Much like Benfica’s conveyor of talent, Olympique Lyon have regularly been home to France’s brightest and best. Karim Benzema, Samuel Umtiti, Michael Essien, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette, Éric Abidal, Corentin Tolisso to name a small handful. At one point they had a monopoly on Ligue 1, winning seven consecutive titles between 2001 and 2008, becoming the richest and popular club in the country. And now, much like Benfica, they are a team that gets picked apart before any significant, long term successes can be achieved again. The height of their continental success of recent years came in the form of a Europa League semi-final run 2016/17. Of the 13 players that took to the field for Lyon in their final game of the campaign, only 3 of them remain in the team today and to suggest that Rafael, the former Manchester United right-back, is still a regular for Lyon would be nothing short of inaccurate.
A strike partnership formed in 2015 between Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir, two former Lyon academy players, quickly became a force in French football. 40 goals and 20 assists for both of them could have put them firmly at the top of the France national team for years to come. Injuries to Fekir and the rapid progression of Lacazette’s career lead to the partnership breaking up after only a few seasons together. Fekir was just 20 years old during that break-out season, but has since struggled with his knees. Injuries were always going to occur as they do for any player. A precocious star, his time would surely come again. Unfortunately, the injuries caught up after brief spells of great promise. Much like Malcom’s move to Roma, Fekir was on the verge of joining Liverpool to be an almost like-for-like replacement of Coutinho, a versatile forward who can comfortably drop back to play in midfield. After this move fell through for whatever reason, Fekir’s stock fell too. Although captain of Lyon, his last season at the club was a struggle. Injuries and the overhanging disappointment of a failed transfer played a huge part but he was still able to help lead Lyon to third place. Now playing for Real Betis, his €19 million move may seem like a steal but Fekir has found difficulty in reaching the heights of his first season playing with Lacazette. And he is not the only one to leave, either. Midfield engine Tanguy Ndombele has left for Tottenham Hotspur, left back Ferland Mendy has joined Real Madrid… but the machine keeps ticking. Lyon, as is this case with Benfica, Ajax and Atlético, will continue to produce future stars. The only challenge will be keeping them there.
RB Leipzig are not a Pot 4 team. Or, at least, they don’t perform like a Pot 4 team. The only team in the competition that is younger than the competition itself, Leipzig is maybe the best example of a footballing project: an injection of money and the financial backing of one of the largest corporations in the world, a smart interpretation of Germany’s 50+1 ruling, an apparently willing feeder club and an unwritten approach of only signing players under a certain age. It sounds like a self-imposed set-up for a FIFA career but it is quickly becoming one of the biggest threats in German football. Their debut top-flight season ended with them in second place. 20 wins, 7 losses and 7 draws across the season, within 11 matches, Leipzig had jumped from second in the 2. Liga to first place in the Bundesliga and all without really looking bothered. Some players were already familiar with their opponents; Timo Werner, for example, had struggled to make an impact playing as a winger for Stuttgart. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s ability to spot his eye for goal and adeptness to work off of big man Yussuf Poulsen resulted in Werner scoring 21 goals across all competitions.
Now in their 4th year in the Bundesliga and 10th year of existing, Leipzig currently stand in first place. The only team to have taken maximum points from their league games, they have the joint-second highest goal haul and the fewest goals conceded. Fully leaning into the concept of youth, they have Julian Nagelsmann in charge, dictating the moves. Already seen as one of the best coaches out of Germany, him and Leipzig are on the cusp of something special. A tactically nuanced coach is now paired with players who are fully behind this project and play their hearts out every week. They move the ball at pace and all seem to have a mutual understanding of what needs to be done to get goals. The fact that only one outfield player in the team is over 30 is something that the Bundesliga should be fearful of for the coming years, as this team could potentially cause major difficulty for a while. As for right now, this team could cause major difficulty for Zenit, Benfica and Lyon… All while coming from Pot 4.