The Champions League is back, anthem and all, and the group stage is set after Thursday’s draw. Manchester City got the dreamiest of all dream draws and every English team is feeling pretty good, while most of Europe’s other giants got paired off for some big impending group play showdowns.
The group games kick off in mid-September, but Bovada has already released odds for group winners. Let’s hop in for a quick preview of each group and see if we can find some early value.
Real Madrid -125
Paris St. Germain +100
Club Brugge +6600
Real Madrid and PSG are familiar bedfellows. The two clubs met in the round of 16 in 2018 and played in the same group in 2015. Real Madrid won both meetings, dominating the knockout tie 5 to 2 and winning and drawing in the group matchups, ultimately winning the group.
Now the two meet again in what is probably the marquee pairing of the group stage.
Neither team is happy with how things ended a year ago in Champions League. Neither even made it past the round of 16. PSG were eliminated on away goals to Manchester United, while Real Madrid lost to Ajax in shocking fashion.
Madrid also lost twice in group stage, including a stunning home loss to CSKA Moscow. It was an abrupt ending to the Galacticos three-year run as UCL champions.
Both teams enter this year’s Champions League campaign as relative underdogs. Madrid are +800 to win it, and PSG are +900, both on the edge of the top five odds. Real Madrid reloaded this summer after an all-around disappointing campaign, adding Eden Hazard among others, while Paris St. Germain continue to wait out the Neymar saga.
The two matches between Madrid and PSG should ultimately determine who wins the group, and Real Madrid should be a slight favorite, so in the end, both teams’ odds feel just about right. The two giants meet in the group stage opener on September 18, and Neymar will miss the opening match to suspension.
I suppose we should mention Galatasaray and Club Brugge, who are also in this group. Those two will battle for the 3rd place Europa spot, but neither is a realistic threat to finish top-2.
Galatasaray is always a difficult road visit, as evidenced by their customary “Welcome to Hell’ banners, so don’t be shocked if they grab a point of one of the giants. They’re the more likely 3rd place finisher here.
Bayern Munich -175
Tottenham Hotspur +150
Red Star Belgrade +6600
Last season’s Champions League runners up headlined Group B… and also Bayern Munich! It’s a bit of an odd world where Tottenham Hotspur are the team coming off the more successful campaign, but here we are.
Lest we forget, this was almost over before it ever got started for Spurs. They barely escaped group stage, then barely escaped both Manchester City and Ajax to make the finals. Spurs were in Barcelona’s group last year, Real Madrid the year before. They have a knack for drawing a major opponent in group play.
Bayern are Bayern, so they’re the sizable favorite here, as they are in Germany. Munich got younger and more dangerous in attack, adding Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic to flank Robert Lewandowski upfront. They will be a tough out as always and are deserving favorites here.
Spurs have had a bit of a difficult start in England, so there could be some value in betting on Bayern in this group. Bayern Munich is +1200 to win Champions League.
Olympiakos and Red Star Belgrade are long shots to win the group, but you can count on them making life difficult. Greece and Serbia are never an easy road trip. Belgrade actually beat the eventual UCL champions Liverpool last campaign, and Olympiakos are always a tough, physical battle, especially at home.
Manchester City -600
Shakhtar Donetsk +800
Dinamo Zagreb +10000
It’s hard to get much more of a cushy draw than this for Manchester City. City entered the new campaign as Champions League favorites, and their odds certainly won’t get any worse after this draw.
They remain the favorites at +350 and, even if you like them to finish the job this year under Pep Guardiola, do not present much value at that number.
City find a familiar opponent in Shakhtar Donetsk, who they’ve drawn in group three consecutive years now. In 2017, the Shakhtar stunned the Citizens in Ukraine and finished second in the group.
They didn’t fare so well in 2018, losing 9–0 in the combined tie and finishing third in the group. They’re pretty much always competitive in group stage and will like their chances to at least advance.
Their main competition for second should be Atalanta, last season’s surprise breakout Italian team. The Black and Blues will make their Champions League debut this fall – but they won’t get to do it at home.
UEFA regulations and impending stadium renovations will force Atalanta to play all their home games at the San Siro in Milan, potentially costing them a vital home-field advantage.
Dinamo Zagreb is the fourth group member out of Croatia. They’ll be likely to finish fourth as well.
City tend to lose a group game each year, so it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Atalanta or Shakhtar pull off a single-game upset, but City are a lock to advance safely as a group winner barring catastrophe. You could do worse things with your money than investing it at -600 for a 16.7% return in three months.
Atletico Madrid +150
Bayer Leverkusen +1200
Lokomotiv Moscow +6600
Group D is the group of outsiders that are actually insiders. Juventus and Atletico Madrid each rank outside the top 5 Champions League favorites, but both are certainly in contention. It is also the group of the UCL runners up. Juventus made the Champions League final and lost in 2015 and 2017, while Atleti were runners up in 2014 and 2016.
Juventus remains the class of Italy and will certainly hope to advance further with Cristiano Ronaldo, who was supposed to be the missing piece. They also spent big on former Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt, the new missing piece, and they’ll bring a litany of big names across the roster.
Atletico Madrid have undergone quite a new look after selling Antoine Griezmann and Rodri for big money this summer, trading most of their money in for a club-record signing in 19-year-old João Félix.
The two are certainly familiar with one another. They were also paired in group play in 2014, where Atleti won its home game and the group. They met again in the round of 16 last year. Each team won a home shutout, but Juve advanced 3–2 on the tie. Expect a lot of defense from both these squads and in matchups throughout this group.
It’s a tough draw for Bayer Leverkusen, who can’t love their chances. Leverkusen are a good attacking German team but may have a hard time breaking down the defenses of Juventus and Atletico Madrid. They’ll likely have an easier time with Lokomotiv but will likely battle them for a place in Europa.
This will inevitably come down to Juve or Atleti, who meet in the opener in Madrid on September 18. The pressure will be on Atletico Madrid to get a result there to set an early tone, but Juventus is the more tested squad and present nice value at -165. You might even like them at +1000 to win it all.
FC Salzburg +1400
KRC Genk +10000
Well, this certainly brings back memories. Liverpool and Napoli met in group play last year too, and advancement came down to the final minutes on the final-match day. Liverpool lost all three away ties in group stage, a combined 6–1 to PSG, Napoli, and Red Star Belgrade.
Liverpool led 1–0 at Anfield in a must-win match and held on at a wild finish as Napoli nearly stole the point and second place before a last-minute Alisson save. Little did we know at that point that the Reds would go on to win a Champions League title.
Napoli and Liverpool ended up tied in that group, each winning 1–0 at home in the head-to-head matchup, and Liverpool advanced on the goals scored tiebreaker. Napoli will be eager for the rematch, and this time without PSG in the way.
The Italian club is always a high-flying, entertaining act and a difficult out in Champions League. They know only one way to play and they play it all out, attacking at every angle.
Liverpool begin their title defense on the road in Italy, so the group will get off with a bang. The Reds won Champions League last year after finishing second the year before, and they were runners up in England as well.
Jurgen Klopp has Liverpool firing on all cylinders, and defender Virgil van Dijk has just been named UEFA Men’s Player of the Year. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino present an always terrifying front three in attack, and Liverpool are third favorites to repeat at +650.
Like many of the other groups, Liverpool and Napoli will be heavy favorites to advance.
Interestingly enough, FC Salzburg have only just managed to qualify directly for Champions League this year after 11 failed attempts to reach this group stage – and they did so because Liverpool won the Champions League after already qualifying for its UCL place in England.
That could be an interesting twist of the knife if Salzburg can pull off an upset. The Belgian club Genk are a long shot.
Napoli are an interesting pick here, especially if they can get a result in the opener when Liverpool comes to town. The Reds tend to start slow in Champions League at times, so Napoli could be an interesting pick at +150.
Borussia Dortmund +350
Inter Milan +550
Slavia Prague +15000
At last, we come to the inevitable annual Group of Death, and in truth, any group that drew Inter Milan from Pot 3 was likely to end up with the moniker. This is the most interesting group in that it’s the only one with three giants, one of whom obviously cannot advance out of group stage.
Inter was in last year’s Group of Death too, and the death turned out to be their own, but only barely. They nearly advanced but saw Tottenham take their spot while Barcelona won the group.
Spurs ended up eliminating Borussia Dortmund last year as well, holding them scoreless in the round of 16 tie, while Barca lost to Liverpool and have now gone five long years since a Champions League final.
Inter Milan may feel a lot like Manchester United this fall after signing Romelu Lukaku and bringing in Alexis Sanchez on loan. The two should add a lot to the Inter attack, and don’t be surprised to see them find new life with a fresh start.
Inter haven’t advanced past group stage since 2012, so they’ll be eager to get back to their storied ways. They’ll hope new manager Antonio Conte can lead the way.
They’ll have to get past Barcelona if they want to win the group, and Barca can certainly make an argument as the most talented team in the world. As if Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were not enough, the Blaugrana went out and bought Antoine Griezmann too, a terrifying front three if there ever was one.
They’re the second favorites to lift the cup behind Manchester City, and at +500, this might be the time to grab their odds after a tougher-than-expected draw.
Borussia Dortmund are the third giant in Group F. Dortmund do as they do, uncovering young talent year after year and always bringing their best at the highest levels of European football. Dortmund have one of the best home-field advantages in football, and they’ll open group play by hosting Barcelona in a scintillating opener.
Dortmund have been a pesky group foe in recent years. They beat Atletico Madrid to the top in last year’s group and shocked real Madrid to win their group in 2016. A win in the opener against Barcelona could have them on their way to completing the trifecta, and they’re the most intriguing non-favorite on the board at +350 to win the group.
Slavia Prague are the unfortunate fourth member of this group. Their role will mainly be getting scored on time and again as their opponent tries to rack up goal differential. Even the Slavia owners knew they were doomed the moment they saw their draw.
RP Leipzig +200
Zenit St. Petersburg +500
Group G is the most interesting of the set if you’re into parity and fascinating football matches that will happen on the back channels of your television set while everyone else is watching the more interesting teams.
Group G is the only group that is well and truly wide open, where each of the four teams will believe they have a real shot at advancing and even winning the group. No one in Group G is even among the top-14 Champions League favorites, and the others are only even close because of this wide-open draw.
Zenit St. Petersburg are the longest shot of the four at +500. They’ll have an always useful home-field advantage and get two of their three home matches in November. Zenit were actually the Pot 1 team in this group as the champion of Russia.
They’ve played in Europe seven straight years without getting eliminated at their initial stage, always a pesky opponent despite a relative no-name roster populated mostly by Russians.
Lyon feel like the best team of the bunch. They advanced out of group play last year after shocking Manchester City 2–1 at the Etihad and drawing them in France. Lyon feature a number of EPL castoffs like Moussa Dembele, Memphis Depay, and Bertrand Traore.
They finished third in France last year and are off to a strong start in the new campaign. Despite a strong history, Lyon have mostly disappointed in recent European campaigns.
It’s a dream draw for RB Leipzig, who appear to be on their way up, but there’s a bit of déjà vu here. Leipzig was on their way up with a dream draw in 2017 before it all went sideways as the club finished third in the group to Besiktas and Porto.
Now they get a second chance. Leipzig feature German scoring wizard Timo Werner and American midfielder Tyler Adams, among others.
The final team in the group is Benfica, who won the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season with a stunning 103-goal display, blowing away the competition in goals scored.
Of course, as is often the case with Benfica, many of those goals are now gone after a summer sale, most notably of wonder kid João Félix. Most of Benfica’s attack has been replaced, so this squad will have to figure it out on the fly.
This group is truly wide open, and anyone of them could win the group. Leipzig may be the best team but have not had much luck in Europe, while Lyon and Benfica are will like their chances.
Even Zenit could be a worthy long shot, though they feel more likely to contend for second. If you feel a strong leaning on one of these clubs, this is a great spot to make some money.
Chelsea lead our final group after winning Europa and vaulting into Pot A and finding a dream draw. Chelsea are a team in transition after selling Eden Hazard, the straw that stirred their drink, and turning over the reins to Frank Lampard.
Chelsea have had an eventful start to their new campaign with a win, a draw, and a loss, and plenty of goals conceded along the way. They weren’t able to bring anyone in this summer so they’ll have to rely on youngsters like Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Christian Pulisic to carry the day.
Ajax will be a popular sleeper for many, but their window may have already closed after selling Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong for huge money this summer. Ajax memorably ran all the way to the Champions League semifinals last season and looked set for the finals before a heartbreaking collapse, but that run will not be easily replicated.
Valencia will fancy their chances. They finished third in their group last year but got a win and a draw against Manchester United and were close to advancing, and they always seem to be right on the fringe in group play.
Dani Parejo leads the Oranges and should keep them competitive. Lille finished second in France last season but underwent a lot of change this summer, selling Nicolas Pepe to Arsenal and replacing him with Renato Sanches and a number of other youngsters.
This group will be of special interest to American fans in particular, who could see three Americans feature.
Pulisic has been good for Borussia Dortmund in past Champions League campaigns and should earn some run with Chelsea. Timothy Weah is one of the new youngsters fighting for a spot with Lille. And 18-year-old Sergino Dest is a breakout right back for Ajax and looks like a future star for the USMNT now that he has committed.
Chelsea always seem to take their lumps in group play, and that will likely be the case in this campaign too, as they put together the pieces.
But they also always seem to come through too, not unscathed but safely through. Chelsea present one of the best values on the board at -135 to win the group. They’re simply better than the other three opponents, and that should play itself out, even if it’s a bit shaky along the way.
And that’s the 2019 Champions League draw! Now sit tight and get those group bets in before things kick off on September 17.
Oh, and hey – a hearty good luck to Manchester United fans in the upcoming Europa draw…