Back City as PSG playing catch up despite Messi arrival

The top two in the outright betting – favourites Paris Saint-Germain and last season’s runners-up Manchester City – have been drawn into the same group.

Unsurprisingly, the odds suggest they will cruise through to the last 16 but it’s close when it comes to who will actually finish top.

However, not all the groups are as hard to decipher…

Group A – Manchester City and PSG the standouts

Manchester City – at around 23/20

Paris Saint-Germain – at around evens

Red Bull Leipzig – at around 6/1

Club Brugge – at around 80/1

PSG’s plethora of summer signings ensure they get the favouritism nod from the bookies. Lionel Messi knows a thing or two about winning this competition, as does Sergio Ramos. Gini Wijnaldum is another man with a UCL medal, while Gianluigi Donnarumma and Achraf Hakimi are also top-quality additions.

City missed out on their main target, Harry Kane, but have a more settled team, one used to smashing their way through the group stage.

They were convincing winners over PSG in last season’s semi-finals (4-1 on aggregate) and while clearly, the French have strengthened since, boss Mauricio Pochettino now has plenty to gel together and he will have to do so by using the considerably weaker Ligue 1 as a testing ground.

With that in mind, it looks ideal for City to be heading to Paris on matchday two before hosting them in the penultimate round of fixtures when the motivation of having matchday six effectively off could well be on the table. At the prices, City look the bet.

That conclusion has been reached without even mentioning the two other teams in the pool. Perhaps that’s a bit disrespectful but it’s hard to see RB Leipzig or Brugge laying a glove on the two big-hitters.

Leipzig made the round of 16 last season but have had the heart ripped from their team with defenders Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate both gone, along with midfield talisman Marcel Sabitzer. Upamecano and Sabitzer have joined boss Julian Nagelsmann at Bayern Munich.

It’s hardly surprising they’ve made a poor start to the Bundesliga season, losing two of their first three.

As for Brugge, the Belgian champions are another team to have lost many of the players who did so well for them last season. They were eliminated in the group stage last season and a similar fate surely awaits.

Group B – Liverpool to rediscover form of two season ago

Atletico Madrid – at around 19/10

Liverpool – at around evens

Porto – at around 17/2

AC Milan – at around 5/1

Atletico Madrid were impressive in winning La Liga’s Primera Division last season – few topple both Real Madrid and Barcelona – but their poor results in Europe helped highlight what has been a gradual decline in the quality of Spanish soccer.

They won just two games in the group stage before being outclassed by Chelsea in a one-sided round of 16 tie. You have to go back to 2016/17 to find the last time Atletico won a Champions League group and, having also lost Saul Niguez in the summer, they look worth opposing.

The group certainly looks to have the potential to be competitive with Porto having made last season’s quarter-finals, while AC Milan have a developing squad with plenty of young talent, including Ivory Coast midfielder Franck Kessie, who played a major part in Milan finishing second in Serie A.

With experienced heads such as Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to call upon, perhaps Milan can push their way into the mix.

However, Liverpool look worthy favourites. They have their key defenders fit again with the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez having missed huge chunks of last season.

While it’s far from certain they will all return to the Premier League title-winning form of two years ago, the early-season signs are good and they should have enough to win this group, albeit the price is nothing to write home about.

Group C – Ajax a tempting price

Sporting Lisbon – at around 5/1

Borussia Dortmund – at around 4/7

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Ajax – at around 10/3

Besiktas – at around 10/1

Group C is one of three groups where the top seeds – in this case Sporting Lisbon – are not expected to qualify, at least according to the odds.

Sporting, who ended a 19-year wait for the Portuguese title in May, are back in this competition after a five-year absence. Last season, their European campaign ended in Europa League qualifying, so there’s a big step up required here, even given their domestic success. The loss of midfielder Joao Mario is certainly a blow.

Similar things can be said about Besiktas, who also exited last season’s Europa League prior to the group stage. They’ve tried to strengthen for these matches, adding Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi, but the Turks looks likely to struggle in company such as this.

Borussia Dortmund are odds-on favourites but they’ve sold Jadon Sancho (replaced by Dutch star Donyell Malen). They also have a new boss in Marco Rose with Lucien Favre departing mid-season and his interim replacement Edin Terzic having also now left the hot-seat. They are short enough at 4/7 even given the near-certainty of goals provided by Erling Haaland.

They look worth taking on alongside Dutch champions Ajax. They dominated the Eredivisie last season, winning by a 16-point margin, and have largely kept hold of their key men.

Steven Berghuis has been added and while you can always expect young talent to emerge from the academy, it’s interesting to see they’ve splashed fairly big money on Copenhagen teenager Mohamed Daramy.

Boss Erik ten Haag took Ajax to the semi-finals of this competition not so long ago and while a repeat seems unlikely, they do look a tempting price to finish top of this group at 10/3.

Group D – Real and Inter to miss out on top spot

Inter Milan – at 5/2

Real Madrid – at around 1/3

Shakhtar Donetsk – at around 12/1

Sheriff Tiraspol – at around 100/1

If this group looks familiar, that’s because it is; Inter, Real and Shakhtar all played in the same Champions League pool last season. They are joined here by the first Moldovan side to play in the group stage, Sheriff, whose price to win the group says much about their chances.

In 2020, Real Madrid emerged victorious but not before a big struggle which saw them lose home and away to Shakhtar. They’ve since lost Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos from their defence – David Alaba has been signed from Bayern to plug the holes but to lose two key men at the same time doesn’t look great.

Spending has been unusually low at the Bernabeu and while most of these players did make the semis last season, they were often far from convincing, certainly not convincing enough to get involved at 1/3.

Italian champions Inter could take advantage, although they’ve lost important players too in the summer. Romelu Lukaku was arguably Europe’s best striker last season, while Achraf Hakimi and Ashley Young are other members of that team to have moved on. And that’s before we mention the departure of title-winning boss Antonio Conte.

Shakhtar may be worth chancing at a big price to win the group. Their mish-mash of a squad contains many Ukraine internationals and a number of Brazilians, such as the highly-talented Marlos and midfield enforcer Alan Patrick.

They have long played attractive soccer and they are a team who have had their moments against the big boys over the years, none more so than in last season’s competition.

Sadly for them, striker Junior Moraes has an injury which looks set to keep him out of much of the group stage but 20-year-old Lassina Traore has hit the ground running since his arrival from Ajax and looks one to watch.

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