Champions League group draw preview: analysis and predictions
WSL leaders Arsenal have been handed a tough group that includes holders Lyon, while Chelsea face a big test against Man City slayers Real Madrid — but both will have been pleased to avoid Wolfsburg at this stage, writes Martin Whiteley.Embed from Getty Images
With qualifying ending the previous week, the 16 remaining teams today discovered their fates when the draw for the group stage of this year’s Champions League took place in Nyon, Switzerland.
Only the champions from the top three in the association club coefficients list — currently France, Germany and England — and the winner of the previous season’s competition gain an automatic place in the group stage. As Lyon claimed their record-extending eighth European trophy and the title in France, the champions of Spain, Barcelona, also gained direct entry to the last 16.
For those sides looking to emerge from qualifying through the league path, a rigorous test was ahead of them. The leading six countries had two representatives in the competition, and with only five spots available, some heavyweight battles ensued straight from the first round.
The early departures of quality teams can undoubtedly result in a reduction in the standard on show in the groups. Aside from Arsenal in 2007 and Barca in 2021, every other winner’s come from either France or Germany since 2005.
Offering automatic group places to at least the top two French and German teams would free up the chances for some of the other league path teams to flourish. Another way to improve the group stage would be to have an equal number of teams from the league and champion’s path make it through to the final qualifying round. A crossover could then take place.
Any changes to the qualifying format will depend on Uefa removing the rule that teams from at least 10 countries must feature in the group stage. This year that number was 11, and once more flung up certain match-ups that appear weaker than some of the games that took place in qualifying. However, there are still some thrilling ties to look forward to…Embed from Getty Images
Group A: Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Vllaznia
Chelsea will be looking to bounce back from failing to get out of the group stage last season with the help of summer signing Kadeisha Buchanan, a five-time Champions League winner.
Both PSG and Real Madrid will offer a threat to qualify. The Spanish side secured the services of Caroline Weir in the summer, and her goals have helped them see off her old club, Manchester City and Rosenborg. PSG lost Sara Dabritz to Lyon but offset that with the arrival of goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, who came the other way, and Netherlands winger Lieke Martens, who joined from Barcelona. PSG have had an indifferent start to their domestic campaign, letting slip a 2-0 lead at Le Havre at the weekend to have to settle for a point.
Outsiders Vllaznia — the first side from Albania to reach the last 16 of this competition — are no strangers to Europe due to their dominance domestically for over 10 years. This group will be a significant step up in class, though.
Top two prediction: Chelsea and PSG.Embed from Getty Images
Group B: Wolfsburg, Slavia Prague, St. Polten, Roma
Wolfsburg are already sitting on top of the Frauen-Bundesliga and should have little trouble in this group. Experience might favour Slavia Prague, who have reached the last eight three times, for second place.
Roma have already dumped Paris FC and Sparta Prague on their maiden European adventure, having had an excessive turnover of players during the summer. While St. Polten have enjoyed plenty of European experience but never any real success.
Top two prediction: Wolfsburg and Slavia Prague.Embed from Getty Images
Group C: Lyon (holders), Arsenal, Juventus, Zurich
Another group where three teams will think they have a chance of advancing. Lyon tends to find a way to come out on top and will likely do so again. The key battleground will therefore be the Arsenal and Juventus games. The Italy champions currently sit fourth in the table but have proficient goalscorer Cristiana Girelli in their ranks.
Arsenal have come straight out of the starting gates this season and currently top the Super League table with maximum points. Victory in a tense tussle with Ajax 3-2 on aggregate saw them book their place in the group stage. Zurich, meanwhile, are the type of team with plenty of success at home but can never replicate that on the bigger stage.
Top two prediction: Lyon and Arsenal.Embed from Getty Images
Group D: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Rosengard, Benfica
Barcelona and Bayern Munich should be the sides fighting to see who occupies the top two spots. Barca are still without the injured Alexia Putellas who missed the Euros and the departed Jenni Hermoso from last season, but they have recruited the English duo of Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze. Bayern, who acquired Georgia Stanway, overcame Real Sociedad to reach this stage, and after an opening-day stalemate against Eintracht Frankfurt, have now won their last two league games.
Rosengard missed out on the group stage last year, losing to Hoffenheim, but this season have a five-point advantage over Kristianstad at the top of the Swedish league with four games to play. Benfica will be looking to get more than the four points they achieved at this stage last term.
Top two prediction: Barcelona and Bayern Munich.Embed from Getty Images
Star player: Ewa Pajor
Despite not winning the trophy since 2014, Wolfsburg have reached the final three times since then. Although outplayed in the first leg of last season’s semi-final against Barcelona, the German side showed their class to win the return leg and could have the player to watch this time in Ewa Pajor.
In an injury-hit 2021/22 campaign, the Poland striker still bagged eight goals in seven league appearances. Two-in-two during the triumphant DFB-Pokal run of Wolfsburg and three in five Champions League games. This season the forward already has four goals in all competitions from the same number of outings.Embed from Getty Images
Must-see game: Chelsea v Real Madrid
All the Group A games between Chelsea, PSG and Real Madrid are a tantalising prospect, but the WSL champions taking on Manchester City slayers Real will have an edge to it. Weir came back to haunt her old side with a fierce 15th-minute strike that was enough to dump the Sky Blues in qualifying — and the prolific Scotland forward’s notched four of the Spanish team’s 10 goals in their four games since then. The Blues’ title defence got off to the worst possible start when they slumped to an opening-day defeat by newly-promoted Liverpool, but they’ve since bounced back to record back-to-back wins, which will give them confidence ahead of their bid to reach the knockouts this time around.
Lyon will once again start as the favourites to lift another trophy at the final at the Philips Stadion in Eindhoven, Netherlands, in June next year when the group stage action gets underway on October 19th. The French giants currently sit top of the Division 1 Feminine, having won all four domestic games this campaign. But both Chelsea and Arsenal will be pleased to have avoided Wolfsburg who have inflicted a lot of pain on WSL clubs in recent history and are another strong contender for the crown.
Follow Martin on Twitter @673martin
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