There are no hiding places in UEFA Champions League Group F this season with Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan all in this pool.
Poor Slavia Prague have the look of proverbial whipping boys against this illustrious European opposition. This is obviously one of the more competitive of the eight groups.
While bookmakers make Catalan giants and La Liga winners Barca favourites, Dortmund have talented youngsters on their books.
Inter, meanwhile, have made some fascinating changes under new coach Antonio Conte, so this pool is set up to be a cracker. There’s just no Czech calculations in the equation.
Champions League Group F guarantees a big game each and every week across the six matchdays. There are bound to be twists and turns aplenty on the road.
The only certainty is one big club is going to miss out on reaching the knockout phase and will have to settle for the Europa League after Christmas.
OpenOdds experts continue their series of articles on Europe’s elite club competition with an in-depth look at this pool.
Transfer activity in and out could be decisive in deciding which teams progress and which don’t. Who has recruited the smartest?
Only time will tell, but for now we profile Barcelona, Dortmund and Inter – and wish Slavia the very best of luck!
Pressure on Valverde at Nou Camp
Barca should have been in the Champions League final last season. They weren’t, however, because of a monumental second leg collapse at Anfield in the semis.
While that famous night rocked the Kop and will go down as a triumph over the odds for Liverpool, it raises some worrying questions. Was opposition coach Ernesto Valverde getting his tactics right?
Another goal would’ve well and truly killed the tie. Barcelona couldn’t withstand the wave of momentum behind Jurgen Klopp’s Reds once they got back into it.
This defeat was so damaging that the Nou Camp club lost the Copa del Rey final to Valencia afterwards.
Speculation surrounded Valverde’s future. Barca have backed their manager in the market, but it’s not defence where the Catalans have strengthened.
A lengthy pursuit of France forward Antoine Griezmann adds another dimension to an already star-studded if ageing attack.
Argentina icon Lionel Messi and Uruguay striker Luis Suarez are both well north of 30 now. Griezmann’s big money move from Atletico Madrid raises questions about the future of Ousmane Dembele.
So promising at Dortmund, his career has stalled at the Nou Camp with some doubts over his attitude and application.
Valverde adding another forward meant Philippe Coutinho, whose dream move to Barcelona simply hasn’t worked out, joined Bayern Munich on loan.
Ajax midfield talent Frenkie de Jong is a forward-thinking buy if continuing his development in Spain.
Little done to shore up defensive frailties
It’s here where Barca need renewal most. Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal are all over 30 too. De Jong and Brazil’s Arthur Melo can relieve those ageing legs.
Those buys apart, Valverde has done a goalkeeper swap with Valencia. Neto replaces Jasper Cillessen as backup to Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Defence was the problem at the business end of last season, yet left back Junior Firpo – an arrival from Real Betis – is only backup to Jordi Alba at the moment. He could certainly be a long-term successor on that side.
Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet – who previously caught the eye at Sevilla – are Valverde’s first-choice pair at centre half. They shipped five goals in the first three La Liga games.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) September 10, 2019
This wasn’t happening in the days of Carles Puyol. Barcelona simply must try and tighten things up or pressure on Valverde will only intensify.
Without results in Europe, he’ll find no solace in Champions League Group F either. Although Barca took four points off Inter in last year’s pool, there are new systems in place there.
As favourites to win the group, any backers of Barcelona would have wanted them to make a better start to the defence of their domestic league.
They start with Dortmund away before hosting Inter and end this pool with those fixtures reversed.
Valverde has to get out of this group or his job is in major jeopardy. Past Barca teams would deal with these difficult teams, but you just wonder if the defence will be got at it.
Developing Dortmund team can continue progress
Lucien Favre has charge of some up-and-coming talents at Bundesliga boys Dortmund, but the experience of Bayern Munich triumphed over his youthful side in German football last term. It’s a learning curve for them.
Dortmund are now without attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic and defender Abdou Diallo but have recruited slightly differently this summer.
Favre has seen more experienced Bundesliga players like Mats Hummels, Nico Schulz and Thorgan Hazard – brother of Eden – arrive at the Westfalenstadion.
Julian Brandt is another supporting cast member lowering the average age of the Dortmund squad, however, now purchased from Bayer Leverkusen.
Older players – notably Shinji Kagawa, Andre Schurrle and Omer Toprak – have moved on or gone out on loan. Despite those departures, it’s a very deep looking roster for Favre to choose from.
Paco Alcacer can show Barcelona what they could’ve had if they’d been willing to give him more game time. The Spain striker has been prolific since joining Dortmund.
Backed up by the likes of Brandt, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho – fresh from his first senior international goals for England – Paco will not want for supply.
Hummels, Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer have to be comfortable in their roles as defensive mentors to those emerging in their places at Dortmund. How Favre blends them together is the most fascinating element.
It’s hard to see Dortmund not getting out of Champions League Group F. There is strength and healthy competition for places in virtually every area of the pitch.
Like Barca, they could keep things a bit tighter at the back but they should make further progress on last season.
Can Conte factor elevate Inter?
In Italy, meanwhile, Inter have lost one strong dressing room presence with striker Mauro Icardi going on loan to PSG and gained another in new boss Conte. You don’t imagine they would get on particularly well.
Conte has a track record of falling out with strikers. Just ask Diego Costa to show you that text message.
One centre forward the Inter manager is a big fan of, however, is Romelu Lukaku. The big Belgium frontman has another large price tag to justify after moving to the San Siro from Manchester United.
Conte needs to unlock for from Lukaku and erstwhile Old Trafford teammate Alexis Sanchez who followed him to Serie A on loan.
For all their faults, Icardi and Ivan Perisic helped fire Inter into the Champions League this season. The Croatia winger is now at Bayern alongside Coutinho.
Inter have allowed Conte to make these and other changes, offloading Radja Nainggolan and Joao Mario in midfield.
Senior defender Miranda left for China, but old Atletico Madrid teammate Diego Godin looks a very shrewd replacement and addition to the backline on a free.
He was the bedrock of Atletico Madrid’s defence for many years. Conte will surely build his rearguard around Uruguay captain Godin who is up there with the best in the world.
In a refreshing change from the Italian stereotype, some smart young loan acquisitions in midfield give Inter new impetus and energy in the engine room.
Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi are rubbing shoulders with senior pros like Borja Valero. Conte will be judged by the signings made and on how they fit together.
This is a hard pool, but if he gets them organised they can make life difficult for Barca and Dortmund in Champions League Group F.