Champions League Group H preview: lowdown on teams, must-see game, dangerman and predictions

PSG will ease to the last 16 ahead of Juve, while Maccabi Haifa are hoping to find their shooting boots against third-place rivals Benfica, writes Um-E-Aymen Babar.

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The big spenders are packed with exceptional talent, but so far Champions League silverware has eluded PSG. However, now that Lionel Messi has had a year to settle into the side with fellow star attackers Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, things could be about to change for the French champions. The fearsome front three have averaged more than one goal or assist per game at club level since the start of the 2016/17 season and will prove too strong for their Group H rivals. Although the Parisians have never faced Juventus in the Champions League before, they were on the losing side the last time the sides met in a friendly five years ago and could face familiar foe Angel Di Maria if he’s fit for tomorrow’s opener.

You need to go all the way back to 2004 to find the last time PSG were knocked out at the group stage in a 3-1 defeat by CSKA Moscow and, theoretically, they should cruise to first spot here. It’s the latter stages the high-scoring French side have had trouble with over the years — exemplified by last season’s last-16 capitulation to Spanish rivals Real Madrid — which doesn’t bode well for Juve, Benfica and Maccabi Haifa.

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Strong rivals for the French team perhaps, but Juventus will begin this European charge without top scorer Paulo Dybala, now at Roma, and former captain Giorgio Chiellini, who left the club to join MLS side Los Angeles FC. They have strengthened with Eintracht Frankfurt winger Filip Kostic, former Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba and Angel Di Maria from PSG all coming in. But it’s a blow to be without experienced Champions League performer Pogba, who’s set to have surgery on the knee injury he picked up in pre-season that’s prevented him from starting a game so far this season, for their group clashes.

Manager Massimiliano Allegri endured a trophyless season after returning to the club last year, and he’ll be under intense pressure to put that right. So far, they’ve got off to a shaky start in pursuit of the Scudetto, having been held to three draws in just five games, but Dusan Vlahovic has popped up with four important goals already. The Serbian striker could be the difference at the Parc des Princes tomorrow night as Juve look to issue a signal of intent after being knocked out by Villarreal in their last-16 tie last season.

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The current Primeira Liga leaders have started the season strongly with five wins in as many games, although they’ve conceded three goals in their last two matches. The centre-back pairing of former Manchester City star Nicolas Otamendi and Brazilian Morato, 21, is nice blend of youth and experience, but they’ll need to be rock-solid if they’re to stand a chance of taking anything off ruthless PSG and Juve in their hunt for second spot. Since reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season, Benfica have been weakened by the departure of prolific scorer Darwin Nunez, who netted 34 goals in 41 appearances last term, but has joined their European slayers Liverpool in a club-record £85million transfer deal.

The two-time European champions still managed to put Dynamo Kyiv to the sword with a 5-0 aggregate win and goals coming from all over the pitch in their play-off tie. It will also take a team effort for Benfica to shock the big guns, although it’s not beyond them. They’ll now look to the likes of Rafa Silva, David Neres and Joao Mario to step up in the absence of Nunez and get a crucial three points on the board immediately against Maccabi Haifa tomorrow.

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Maccabi Haifa

Everyone’s expecting Maccabi Haifa to be the Group H whipping boys but they currently hold the record for the most Champions League group stage qualifications for an Israeli team. They are desperate to make more history by becoming the first of their countrymen to make it past the groups, but it won’t be easy for them against heavyweights PSG and Juve. Haifa may be at a further disadvantage as they’re only three games into their domestic season, however they have negotiated as many European qualifiers against tough opponents such as Olympiakos and Red Star Belgrade to reach the Champions League proper.

In a difficult group, it’s unlikely they’ll be this season’s surprise package, so the best they can hope for is improving on their previous appearance in 2009/10 when they failed to score a single goal in all six matches. It will come down their head-to-head with Benfica, who have defensive frailties their top scorers Omer Atzili and Frantzdy Pierrot (three each in the league and Europe respectively) can exploit in order to snatch that elusive group goal, and go down fighting.

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Must-watch game: PSG v Juventus

What a thrilling contest is in store as European giants PSG and Juventus meet for the first time in the Champions League tomorrow night. Both sides have designs on winning the trophy this season, so you can expect an intriguing showdown as they look to showcase their credentials early on. But it will be a tough night for injury-hit Juve, who’re sweating on the fitness of Di Maria ahead of the trip away to PSG. Although the French champions have never beaten Juve, they are favourites for this one. Juventus captain Leonardo Bonucci and Bremer have formed a good centre-back partnership and will need to maintain their concentration levels for the full 90 minutes if they’re to prevent Messi, Neymar and Mbappe from running riot.

Fixture list

Tuesday, September 6: PSG v Juventus; Benfica v Maccabi Haifa, both 8pm
Wednesday, September 14: Juventus v Benfica; Maccabi Haifa v PSG, both 8pm
Wednesday, October 5: Juventus v Maccabi Haifa; Benfica v PSG, both 8pm
Tuesday, October 11: Maccabi Haifa v Juventus, 5.45pm; PSG v Benfica, 8pm
Tuesday, October 25: PSG v Maccabi Haifa; Benfica v Juventus, both 8pm
Wednesday, November 2: Juventus v PSG; Maccabi Haifa v Benfica, both 8pm.

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Dangerman: Kylian Mbappe

You have to choose Mbappe as the dangerman over Messi this season. The French Forward has scored 28 goals in 35 matches and continues to outshine his illustrious team-mates on the pitch. Mbappe’s incredible performances not only helped fire PSG to the league title last season, but earned him a Ballon d’Or nomination. In last month’s 7-1 rout of Lille, the 23-year-old scored the opener within just eight seconds — the fastest Ligue 1 goal in history — before going on to complete his hat-trick. He will cause problems for any rival defenders.

Finishing place predictions: 1. PSG, 2. Juventus, 3. Benfica, 4. Haifa

It will be a straight battle between PSG and Juventus for top spot, but considering the blistering front three that the French side have, it’s difficult to see past them progressing as leaders of Group H. Last season’s quarter-finalists Benfica could push Juve for second place if they are defensively strong and continue their goalscoring form, but underdogs Haifa look destined to finish bottom.

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