With a relatively simple route out of the group, Tottenham will break the UCL Conte curse and finish top – but the closely matched forces of Eintracht Frankfurt, Sporting CP, and Marseille means Group D’s second-place spot will be contested right to the very end, writes Rachel Roberts.
The Eagles will look to draw on their recent major final experience after victory over Rangers in the Europa League final last season sealed their second title in that competition – but with a 1-1 stalemate after 120 minutes, they did it the hard way, winning 5-4 on penalties. This earned Frankfurt their place in the Champions League for the first time since the tournament’s name change; the last time they played at Europe’s highest level was in the final of the 1959/60 European Cup.
The German side’s success in Seville this summer likely compromised their domestic form, seeing them finish 11th in last season’s Bundesliga. Since then, things haven’t been looking up, with the loss of star man Filip Kostic to Juventus. The midfielder created the most chances in the Bundesliga last season, so his absence will surely be felt in Europe too. Yet Frankfurt have secured the signature of former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund forward Mario Gotze, alongside other additions who have bolstered their attacking line and can give their Champions League rivals a torrid time.Embed from Getty Images
Pipping rivals Arsenal to fourth spot in the final few fixtures of the 2021/22 Premier League season, Tottenham make their return to the Champions League after two seasons out. Their best finish came in 2019, when they were runners-up to Liverpool after a memorable campaign which included a hard-fought triumph over Manchester City in the quarter-finals, and a thrilling late semi-final comeback against Ajax.
Spurs boss Antonio Conte won this competition as a player with Juventus in 1996, but is yet to add Ol’ Big Ears to his managerial haul. Having helped Spurs shed the bottle jobs tag, he’ll feel the time is right for a European charge. With the lethal strike pairing of Kane and Son, and additions of Dejan Kulusevski in January and the £60million summer signing of Richarlison from Everton, you can expect his team to capitalise on a favourable draw and dominate this group.Embed from Getty Images
Under manager Ruben Amorim, Sporting sealed their first league title in 19 years last year, and then led them to victory in the League Cup at the expense of bitter rivals Benfica. They finished second in the Primeira League to qualify, but have since sold the likes of Matheus Nunes and Joao Palhinha to Wolves and Fulham respectively. They’ve shipped eight goals in four games in the Primeira Liga already, so their Group D rivals will look to exploit his weakened side.
The Portuguese side toppled Borussia Dortmund to make it through the group stages of the Champions League last season, only to be beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Manchester City in the round of 16. That is the furthest they have ever progressed in the competition since their quarter-final appearance in 1982/83. With a leaky defence and lack of major European experience, they’re unlikely to progress.
Having won the inaugural Champions League campaign in 1992/93 by beating AC Milan 1-0 in Munich, Marseille are the only French side to ever lift this trophy. However, they have never reached such heights since – the Olympians did make the quarter-finals in 2011/12 (losing 4-0 on aggregate to Bayern), but their most recent appearance in 2020/21 ended in the group stages.
Like Conte, manager Igor Tudor holds experience in the Champions League playing with Juventus, in the side who were runners-up in 2002/03. He led Marseille to a second-place finish in Ligue 1 last season, and has added to his squad this summer, loaning in young Premier League defenders Nuno Tavares from Arsenal and Manchester City’s Issa Kabore, alongside a free transfer for Alexis Sanchez from Inter. They’ve started the season brightly, but with so many new faces, it will take them time to find their footing in Europe and their rivals can take advantage of this.Embed from Getty Images
Must-watch game: Frankfurt v Sporting
On the occasion of their first game back in the big time, Frankfurt’s 51,000 home fans will ensure their Deutsche Bank Park will be absolutely rocking, regardless of the earlier kick-off time. This game will be worth a watch for the atmosphere alone! The fight for a place in the round of 16 is sure to be tight between Frankfurt, Sporting, and Marseille. The Germans in particular will not want this long-awaited campaign to end at the earliest hurdle and consequently need to make the best start possible against Sporting, who will also feel they need to take something from the game to boost their chances of progressing. The combination of tense pressure and electric atmosphere makes this Group D opener unmissable.
Wednesday, September 7: Frankfurt v Sporting, 5.45pm; Tottenham v Marseille, 8pm
Tuesday, September 13: Sporting v Tottenham, 5.45pm; Marseille v Frankfurt, 8pm
Tuesday, October 4: Marseille v Sporting, 5.45pm; Frankfurt v Tottenham, 8pm
Wednesday, October 12: Tottenham v Frankfurt; Sporting v Marseille, both 8pm
Wednesday, October 26: Tottenham v Sporting; Frankfurt v Marseille, both 8pm
Tuesday, November 1: Sporting v Frankfurt; Marseille v Tottenham, both 8pm
Dangerman: Harry Kane
Spurs’ top scorer in the Champions League (20), joint-third top scorer of all time in the Premier League (187 and counting), and closing in on surpassing Jimmy Greaves’ long-held status as Tottenham Hotspur’s club record goal scorer – it is hard to look past Harry Kane and his achievements to date as the most threatening player in this group. He already has four goals to his name this season, and will relish the fixtures in Group D as an opportunity to add to his haul.Embed from Getty Images
Finishing place predictions: 1. Tottenham, 2. Frankfurt, 3. Sporting, 4. Marseille
Though things are never guaranteed in football, Tottenham should comfortably finish the group in the top spot. Therefore, the fight for the second qualification spot is one between three well-matched teams. Frankfurt should have the edge with the added boost of recent success in a European competition, whilst Sporting do have pedigree knocking out big names in this tournament. Marseille are a bit of a wildcard, so the competition between these three sides will ensure Group D’s compelling right to the end.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts