There will be intriguing battles between Atletico Madrid and Porto for top spot, and Bayer Leverkusen and Club Brugge for third, writes Um-E-Aymen Babar.Embed from Getty Images
After last season’s disappointing La Liga title defence that saw them just edge Sevilla to third place on the final day of the campaign, Atletico Madrid will be extra motivated to prove themselves this term. But they’ve had mixed fortunes so far in the league, with two wins and a defeat to Villarreal recently. The 10-time Copa del Rey winners have useful domestic cup experience to draw on, but have yet to shake off the dubious honour of being the team with the most Champions League final losses after missing out on the trophy three times.
Under long-serving manager Diego Simeone, now in his 11th season, Atletico come with pedigree and are notoriously streetwise. They got the better of Manchester United on their way to the quarter-finals last term, before narrowly losing 1-0 on aggregate to Kevin de Bruyne’s strike for Manchester City. Things are arguably getting a bit stale at the Wanda Metropolitano and could do with a shake-up, but this is still a powerful, counter-attacking team containing Barcelona loan star Antoine Griezmann and striker Alvaro Morata, and one that knows how to get to the business end of the Champions League.Embed from Getty Images
Portuguese champions Porto have a rich European history with two titles to their name from 1987 and 2004 under Jose Mourinho, who brought back their glory days. Following quarter-final heartbreak to Chelsea in 2020/21, as fate would have it, they were also then drawn in Group B with Atletico, as well as Liverpool and AC Milan last season. They’ll now be hoping to go one better than their third-placed finish after drawing 0-0 before losing 3-1 to the La Liga side, who they travel to in their group opener next Wednesday.
Despite attacker Luis Diaz’s departure to Anfield in January, their coach Sergio Conceicao managed to wrestle the Primeira Liga title back from Sporting Lisbon. They’ve lost other key players such as Fabio Vieira to Arsenal, but shored up their defence by adding highly-rated centre-back David Carmo from Braga, who was an unused sub as they slumped to a shock defeat by lowly Rio Ave at the weekend. But Porto are tough opponents for anyone and their rivals will not relish the prospect of a trip to Portugal.Embed from Getty Images
It would be wrong to underestimate Club Brugge, who’re the only Belgian club to reach a European final, and currently on a three-game winning run in the Pro League. They finished fourth in an unfavourable group that included big-spending Manchester City and PSG last season, but have more of a chance at competing for third and dropping into the Europa League here.
The Belgian champions will have played seven league games and be nicely warmed up by the time their Group B opener with struggling Bayer Leverkusen rolls around next Wednesday. Their new manager Carl Hoefkens, aged just 43, will be looking to make his mark in Europe by exploiting the German’s leaky defence and dip in confidence following a poor start to their Bundesliga season.
While Bayer Leverkusen will be delighted to return to the Champions League after a three-year absence, they are in dreadful form having lost three games and had as many players sent off in their four games so far. Another young coach, Gerardo Seoane, will need to sort his side’s indiscipline fast because cool heads are required to progress in Europe.
Nine-man Leverkusen did manage to get back to winning ways at the weekend, thanks to a deadly double from attack-minded ex-Celtic right-back Jeremie Frimpong and they’ve been boosted by the news that Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi has joined on loan until the end of the season. That’s two talented players who could give them the edge over Brugge.Embed from Getty Images
Must-watch game: Porto v Atletico Madrid
When Porto faced Atletico Madrid in December last year, it was an ill-tempered affair full of aggression, four goals and the added drama of three red cards. Given their earlier 0-0 draw was also littered with bookings for the likes of Zaidu Sanusi and Mateus Uribe, you can expect fireworks when the teams face-off in November. That final showdown between the familiar foes could decide who takes top spot in Group B – not one you’ll want to miss!
Wednesday, September 7: Club Brugge v Leverkusen; Atletico v Porto, both 8pm
Tuesday, September 13: Leverkusen v Atletico; Porto v Club Brugge, both 8pm
Tuesday, October 4: Club Brugge v Atletico; Porto v Leverkusen, both 8pm
Wednesday, October 12: Atletico v Club Brugge, 5.45pm; Leverkusen v Porto, 8pm
Wednesday, October 26: Club Brugge v Porto, 5.45pm; Atletico v Leverkusen, 8pm
Tuesday, November 1: Leverkusen v Club Brugge; Porto v Atletico, both 5.45pm
Dangerman: Mehdi Taremi
Porto’s top scorer last season with 24 goals in all competitions, Mehdi Taremi, has picked up where he left off with two goals and an assist so far in the league. The threat the Iranian striker, 30, carries is often overlooked, but his stunning overhead kick against Chelsea that won Uefa.com’s Goal of the Season and a nomination for the 2021 Puskas Award, made people sit up and take notice. Having also scored against Liverpool and Juventus in Europe, rival defenders will need to shackle the big-game forward, who’s not just physical but possesses a fearsome killer instinct.
Finishing place predictions: 1. Atletico, 2. Porto, 3. Leverkusen, 4. Brugge
Had Porto not lost some key players I’d be tipping them to finish first, but now Atletico can take advantage of a new-look team that’s still gelling. They’ll battle it out for first and second place, and while Brugge will put up a good fight for that all-important third place spot, it’ll be Leverkusen who guarantee their European adventures continue beyond Christmas.
Follow Um-E-Aymen Babar on Twitter @ItsUmeAymen