Champions League Group D preview: Juventus and newlook Atletico Madrid make for fascinating pool

Published on: September 9, 2019
Author: Jamie Clark
Our 2019 Champions League Group D preview looks at Juventus managed by Maurizio Sarri (foreground)

Two recent beaten finalists battle it out in UEFA Champions League Group D this autumn as Atletico Madrid and Juventus go again dreaming of glory in Europe’s elite club competition.

Atleti fell twice to city rivals Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016. Juve, meanwhile, lost out to Barcelona and Los Blancos in 2015 and 2017.

Both sides have made changes since their last 16 meeting in early spring which the Old Lady came from behind to win 3-2 on aggregate.

These two teams played in the same pool back in 2014 with Atletico finishing three points ahead of the Turin titans.

The betting makes Juventus favourites, because now they have Cristiano Ronaldo – the hat-trick hero who once again proved Atleti’s downfall in March.

With all due to respect to Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow, the pair are in a quite separate battle here.

Both will hope to take third place in Champions League Group D and go into the Europa League knockout phase in the New Year.

As this OpenOdds series continues, we look at the pool for the stories and subplots you need to know. There’s been plenty of transfer activity among the main players in this particular group.

What do the change of players, and coach in respect of Juve, mean in terms of the pool? Our experts make a detailed assessment ahead of European club competition resuming in earnest.

Sarri hopes to cover Chiellini absence at Juve

Last season’s Europa League winning coach, Maurizio Sarri, is now in charge of Juventus.

Off the back of a first career trophy in management, the cigarette chewing ex-Chelsea boss succeeded Max Allegri who maintained the success started by Antonio Conte in Turin.

The Old Lady are the dominant force of Italian football, breaking all previous records for consecutive Serie A crowns.

What has eluded them under both Conte and Allegri – although the latter twice came very close – is European glory.

Sarri has an arguably even deeper roster than either of his predecessors in Turin had. What he can’t call on, however, is injured club captain Giorgio Chiellini.

If there is a better master of the defensive dark arts in the last decade, then he must be invisible.

With Chiellini missing all of Champions League Group D through serious injury and Andrea Barzagli now retired, Juve’s defence suddenly looks very different.

Leonardo Bonucci becomes the senior centre back and has three players aged 25 and under as potential partners.

That is very young in Italy, and the youngest – 20-year-old Matthijs de Ligt – arrives from Ajax with a huge reputation.

The Amsterdam outfit put a memorable run to the Champions League semis together last season with a talented, youthful side showing no fear of the elite.

Serie A is where you learn to defend in a way like nowhere else. It’s a great-looking partnership on paper with Bonucci, but Daniele Rugani has been waiting for his chance for quite a while now.

De Ligt and that €75,000,000 price tag, plus recent Sarri selections, suggests Rugani remains backup, however.

Turkey prospect Merih Demiral provides cover in the centre, while versatile full back Danilo arrived from Man City in a part-exchange deal for Joao Cancelo.

Ramsey and Rabiot give real depth in midfield

Juventus have been pretty savvy in the transfer market. Their midfield now has a strong look to it with seven options for Sarri to choose from.

Wales international Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot didn’t cost a penny to bring to Turin. That’s incredible business from the Old Lady.

Ramsey may be given license by Sarri to do what Unai Emery refused him in his last campaign with Arsenal, and get forward. He’s a box-to-box midfielder at his best, arriving late and scoring goals like he did at Euro 2016.

Rabiot, meanwhile, has plenty of hype surrounding him but there have been question marks about his attitude.

He has been frozen out of France’s international success by Didier Deschamps and PSG weren’t prepared to play him once his intention to leave was clear.

Add these new names to existing players in Juve’s engine room and it’s a very deep area of the squad.

Rodrigo Bentancur can start attacks by winning the ball back, and Emre Can is a natural successor to Sami Khedira.

Blaise Matuidi still has the legs to do plenty of running and Miralem Pjanic is the kind of playmaker Sarri loves in his teams.

The challenge for new Juventus boss here is to keep each of this magnificent seven happy. They have pretty much all bases covered.

Sarri’s arrival in Turin has saved the career of Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentina striker is beloved by his manager and played under him at Napoli, then on loan with Chelsea last term.

Ronaldo is an obvious lock in attack, so South America trio Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa can’t all start.

Mario Mandzukic doesn’t even make the Juve’s Champions League Group D squad and fellow Croatian player Marko Pjaca is way down the pecking order.

All change at Atleti but Simeone expects same graft

Given the wealth of talent in Turin, Juventus are favourites to win the pool but Diego Simeone and Atletico can never be taken lightly.

He has presided over a summer of major change at the Wanda Metropolitano. Atleti saw three senior defenders leave for nothing.

All of Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran Torres were in their mid-30s, though. Lucas Hernandez, meanwhile, was one of three mega transfers out of Madrid that gave Simeone plenty to spend.

Holding midfielder Rodri went to Man City, Hernandez to Bayern Munich and France forward Antoine Griezmann belatedly to Barcelona.

In short, the spine of the side he built was ripped out, but Simeone has simply rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job.

This Atletico overhaul saw him bring in a new back four, midfield options and the very exciting Portugal wonderkind Joao Felix.

Among the defensive recruits is right back Kieran Trippier from Tottenham who played in the Champions League final in June.

The question is can Simeone keep on reinventing Atleti so they are at least as good as they were before? Given the fees Griezmann, Hernandez and Rodri commanded, their replacements have some big boots to fill.

He will demand the same hard work from those stepping up like holding midfielder Marco Llorente – brought across town from Real Madrid’s reserves – and centre back Mario Hermosa, who caught the eye at Espanyol.

That €125,000,000 plus splurge on Joao Felix is the perhaps most fascinating punt taken by Simeone in his football coaching career.

Plenty of players coming out of Portugal have been branded as “the next Ronaldo” during the last 10-15 years. None have really lived up to the hype.

Champions League Group D actually tests Joao Felix’s credentials against the man himself.

Leverkusen look to have more about them than Lokomotiv

Away from Atletico and Juventus, Bundesliga boys Bayer Leverkusen have shown Peter Bosz’s poor sell with Borussia Dortmund was just a blip.

The Dutch coach came in midway through last term and steered Leverkusen to a top four finish. Attacking midfielder Kai Havertz was the real find of the campaign with 20 goals in all competitions.

Leverkusen have kept hold of their prized asset for Champions League Group D, but did cash in on Julian Brandt when Dortmund came calling.

Nonetheless, with players like Havertz, Karim Bellarabi and Leon Bailey supporting main forwards Lucas Alario and Kevin Volland, the Bayer attack isn’t lacking firepower or supply.

What is likely to let Bosz down in Champions League Group D is the Leverkusen defence.

Towering centre back Jonathan Tah is very highly rated, but Bayer’s backline conceded the most goals of any top eight Bundesliga side last season.

They are going to be found out against the attacking riches of Juventus and Atletico Madrid.

In terms of the race for third place, however, Leverkusen look better equipped for a Europa League transfer than Lokomotiv Moscow.

Head coach Yuri Semin is well into his fourth spell in charge. The odd name stands out at Lokomotiv where former Spurs and Schalke defenders Vedran Corluka and Benedikt Howedes ply their trade.

Besides the Miranchuk brothers in midfield is Poland anchorman Grzegorz Krychowiak and left-sided player Maciej Rybus, and former West Ham United loanee Joao Mario of Portugal.

In attack, veteran Peru forward Jefferson Farfan joins one-time Swansea City flop Eder, Fyodor Smolov and Montenegro’s Luka Djordjevic.

It’s an admirable Russian Premier League side that finished runners-up to Zenit St Petersburg last term but lacking strength.