Group E: Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Bayern, Roma
Champions League winners under Jupp Heynckes, Bayern were toppled in Pep Guardiola’s attempted defence of the coveted trophy. Against a formidable Real Madrid side, Bayern succumbed under the pressure of ruthless counterattacking football to bow out in the semi-finals.
Pep’s primary purpose at Bayern is to dominate Europe so they’ll be back this year with some serious vengeance. The influx of summer signings may have been somewhat injury-enforced, but they also represent a sign of both power and intent. Mehdi Benatia, Xabi Alonso and Robert Lewandowski have made an already brilliant squad the most balanced in Europe. With promising youngsters bursting through, it would be foolish not to consider Bayern challengers.
Pep will have to be wary of which tactics he implements. His three-man defensive line hasn’t proved too fruitful yet, and while the season is still young, he knows expectations will always increase at Germany’s most famous club.
They’ve been handed the hardest group, but Guardiola will have probably wanted it this way. It’s not yet a case of now or never for the Spaniard, but he knows this near-perfect squad must live up to expectation.
Key Player(s): Arjen Robben/Thiago
Ones to Watch: Gianluca Gaudino, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sinan Kurt
Group D: Anderlecht, Arsenal, Dortmund, Galatasary
Borussia Dortmund may well have lost the 2013 final to Bayern, but they won the hearts of thousands around the world with thrilling attacking and transitional play. They learned from previous disappointments, rode their luck and played brilliantly in clutch moments.
After last year’s exit to Real Madrid, a tie in which they were perhaps the better team, Klopp wants to iron out those nearly-but-not-quite moments. Klopp wants another chance at a final.
Dortmund certainly do have greater depth this year. Italian striker Ciro Immobile was a big signing, but Adrian Ramos, Matthias Ginter and Shinji Kagawa will also prove important. Some of these new faces are still adapting – Immobile perhaps most – and Klopp’s flirtation with a 4-4-2 has also led to some tactical adjustments, but Dortmund can excel again.
Early season injuries to Marco Reus and Jakub Blaszczykowski have hampered their urge to hit the ground running, as once again it becomes a question of fitness for Dortmund. An aging Sebastian Kehl cannot be expected to hold the midfield anymore, and so the return of long-absentee Ilkay Gündogan is all the more important. Mkhitaryan looks set for a breakout season.
Dortmund should go through second in the group and, with the right draw and a bit of luck, they can make the final four again. After that, only Klopp knows.
Key Player(s): Marco Reus/Ilkay Gündogan
Ones to Watch: Erik Durm/Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Group C: Leverkusen, Benfica, Monaco, Zenit
This season should be different for Leverkusen. They’re stronger and have more experience. Then again, this is a broken record for Leverkusen fans desperate to see their side close the gap on the top two.
Previous European campaigns have shown Leverkusen’s naivety, but also their lack of top-level quality. New manager Roger Schmidt is facing a new task in the form of the Champions League, but he enjoyed the UEFA Europa League with his former club Red Bull Salzburg.
Their defensive issues remain, particularly from set-pieces, but their transitional play is better than before thanks to the arrival of Hakan Calhanoglu, the breakthrough of youngster Julian Brandt and the rise of the returning Karim Bellarabi.
They should make the knockout stage again, which would be a good achievement for a club looking to slowly build towards European improvement. Anything further really is a bonus and a credit to Schmidt’s ability to get the most out of his players. Their group is tough, but it’s the perfect test to see whether the club really are as far along as they think.
Key Player: Hakan Calhanoglu
Ones to Watch: Julian Brant/Karim Bellarabi
Verdict: First Round
Group G: Chelsea, Sporting, Maribor, Schalke
Schalke are perhaps the rockiest of the German sides in Europe, and this is nothing new. Manager Jens Keller remains a man with question marks over his head and seems destined never to shirk the doubt surrounding his ability. His team are much the same – weighed down by a talent ceiling they’re unsure about breaking through.
However, there are some youngsters coming through that give hope. Kaan Ayhan, Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer are all 19 or younger, have great futures and with constant top-level exposure can drive this club towards success.
Defensively Schalke will know they simply must improve on the porous nature that was on show last season. In attack they remain heavily reliant on the form of Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. New signings Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Sidney Sam add pace and flair, but Schalke can’t be expected to go far in the competition. They should finish second in the group though and should take hope from their academy’s impressive production rate, but they need to start believing too.
Key Player: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
One to Watch: Leon Goretzka
Verdict: First Round
Group A: Apollon, Gladbach, Villarreal, Zurich
Gladbach are in danger of stagnating. They have often caught the eye for their swashbuckling nature, but this year looks set to be a transitional one for Lucien Favre’s team. The departure of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to Barcelona was a loss, although Swiss keeper Yann Sommer is a good replacement. The addition of Ibrahima Traore and Andre Hahn (whose improvement graph is remarkable) has added quality to the flanks, but they need to string some consistency together. Striker Max Kruse is a talented combination player but needs to regain a prolonged goalscoring touch to take the pressure off Raffael.
Simply put, Gladbach are as hot and cold as some of their key players.
World Cup winner Christoph Kramer has become a pivotal leader of the side and if the 23-year-old keeps improving, Gladbach will have a tough time holding on to him. On-loan Thorgan Hazard adds depth, while Tony Jantschke and Fabian Johnson look set for excellent seasons. The quality is there for a deep run in the competition. The question is whether they can put it together.
Key Player: Christoph Kramer
One to Watch: Branimir Hrgota
Group H: Everton, FK Krasnodar, Lille, Wolfsburg
Handed perhaps the toughest group, Wolfsburg will be keen to show that they are good enough for the Champions League by going far in this year’s Europa League.
Manager Dieter Hecking has surprised many with his success at the club, but this year – like Leverkusen in the Champions League – will show whether Wolfsburg really have made the steps they think they have.
Kevin de Bruyne will be keen to show his inconsistency is a thing of the past and return to the form he showed while on loan at Werder Bremen. Robin Knoche is a very promising centre-back and with the experienced Naldo by his side, Wolfsburg have a stable defensive platform to build on. Luiz Gustavo is one of the game’s premier pass-masters, and while youngster Junior Malanda might not be gifted with a finishing touch, he is certainly a blossoming defensive midfielder.
It’s in attack where Wolfsburg are perhaps lightest. The arrival of Nicklas Bendtner doesn’t really fill the void that still remains after Mario Mandzukic’s departure. Ivica Olic has been the closest to filling it and despite his battling nature, the 34-year-old Croatian isn’t getting any younger. It’s a big year for Dutch hope Bas Dost, who is most likely facing his last chance, but goals remain a concern.
Wolfsburg can still make the final four of this competition though, and that, as often tends to be the case with German sides, is because of their midfield. With a strong defensive base, the club can stream forward with de Bruyne, talented German youngster Maximilian Arnold and Ivan Perisic. The addition of the experienced Aaron Hunt adds further weight.
The draw might play a part, but expect them to send a message with a good run.
Key Player: Luiz Gustavo
Ones to Watch: Robin Knoche/Junior Malanda