Champions League Group G preview: Wide open pool leaves Leipzig, Lyon, Zenit and Benfica with hope

Published on: September 15, 2019
Author: Jamie Clark
2019 Champions League Group G preview includes Lyon

It’s a rare enough thing to have something like UEFA Champions League Group G where all four teams fancy their chances. Quite simply, anything can and probably will happen in this unpredictable pool.

One team has to be favourite, though, and bookmakers go with RB Leipzig of Germany following their strong start to the Bundesliga campaign.

French side Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon for short – usually do well when pitched into Europe despite being a selling club these days.

Benfica of Portugal and Zenit St Petersburg from the Russian Premier League won their respective domestic leagues last season. Discount one of this quartet at your peril.

Punters must have a strong view before piling into this pool. Even then you might get your fingers burned. Champions League Group G is wide open and that’s part of the fun!

OpenOdds experts are assessing every single one of the eight pools comprising the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition this year.

This is tougher than most, but we’re paid to make picks. There are usually stories and subplots when clubs collide in the Champions League.

In this case, we’re looking at the ins and out of the four clubs in search of those capable of navigating a path through the pool and into the knockout phase.

Leipzig better equipped for second tilt at Champions League

Leipzig won’t mind us mentioning this, but they’ve been the upstarts of German football in recent years.

Their second Champions League campaign starts with them top of the Bundesliga under highly touted new boss Julian Nagelsmann. That’s been the plan for some time.

After cutting his coaching teeth at Hoffenheim – another outfit that made a rapid rise through the divisions – this gig is arguably tailor-made for Nagelsmann and the pool is his oyster.

Fellow Red Bull owned club Salzburg use a similar recruitment model to Leipzig. It’s all about promoting young talent and they’re certainly better-equipped than their Austrian counterparts.

Star striker Timo Werner has stayed with Leipzig and so has top defensive prospect Dayo Upamecano. They’ve turned winger Ademola Lookman’s loan spell from Everton permanent and made some other canny acquisitions.

Austrian attacker Hannes Wolf swaps Salzburg for Leipzig, and midfielder Christopher Nkunku becomes the latest French prospect on their books.

Wales teenage defender Ethan Ampadu and Czech Republic forward Patrik Schick, meanwhile, join on loan from Chelsea and Roma respectively.

Leipzig give these young players a platform to develop that previous or parent clubs simply can’t. Contesting Champions League Group G puts them all in the shop window and it’s a win-win situation.

Can Nagelsmann and his youthful squad deliver? The open nature of this pool gives them every chance, but a cautionary tale comes from Leipzig’s maiden Champions League campaign a couple of seasons ago.

They finished third in their pool then which contained Besiktas, Monaco and Porto. This is arguably easier, but the challenge lies in maintaining their strong domestic form in Europe.

Everything points to Leipzig faring better this time around. They’ve kept hold of pretty much everyone bar Bruma and Jean-Kevin Augustin and, with those attacking absences replaced, Nagelsmann can ruffle a few feathers.

Benfica look vulnerable

Portuguese Primeira Liga winners Benfica are rather flattered by that domestic champions title, because they have lost a lot of firepower over the summer.

Prolific Brazilian forward Jonas called time on his career, while the Lisbon club cashed in on wonderkid Joao Felix. It’s the same old problem of nice to get a good deal but how on earth do you replace him?

Switzerland striker Haris Seferovic scored more than his fair share of goals for Benfica last term, though – as did midfielder Rafa Silva. There just isn’t the same strength-in-depth at Bruno Lage’s disposal.

Benfica have obviously brought bodies in to try and fill the gaps but they are unknown quantities. Raul de Tomas did well in two seasons at Rayo Vallecano, yet they finished bottom of La Liga last term.

Venezuela’s Jhonder Cadiz makes a big step up, while fellow South American frontman Carlos Vinicius spent time on loan at Monaco last season. That club had a dismal campaign, so the jury is out.

This isn’t meant to be disparaging but Benfica might be a bit out of their depth if their gambles don’t pay off.

Although they’ve started the defence of their league crown well enough, they are one or two injuries away from problems.

With their strength-in-depth at European level in doubt, past glories or European pedigree doesn’t count for much. If there is one team worth avoiding in this pool, then it might well be Benfica.

Lyon look resilient enough to withstand departures

Whereas there is that question mark over whether Benfica can cope with the players they’ve lost, Lyon are even more accustomed to cashing in and rebuilding.

Departures from the Ligue 1 outfit include full back Ferland Mendy, midfielder Tanguy Ndombele and forward Nabil Fekir. Those departures raised over €130,000,000 in transfer fees.

New Lyon boss Sylvinho – remember him, Arsenal and Manchester City fans? – has been allowed to reinvest in the squad, though. Brazilian midfield duo Jean Lucas and Thiago Mendes are potential replacements for Ndombele.

Highly-regarded Denmark centre back Joachim Andersen is one of the bigger splashes from Sampdoria to strengthen defence. Former Gunners youngster Jeff Reine-Adelaide is another engine room addition.

One major factor in Lyon’s favour in Champions League Group G is they’ve kept hold of the rest of their attack.

Ex-Celtic striker Moussa Dembele and Netherlands forward Memphis Depay – once of Manchester United – are their real stars.

Fekir’s absence won’t be so keenly felt as a result. Lyon look stronger in the final third than Benfica and, if Andersen reproduces his displays in Serie A, they have greater potential.

Promoting young talent is as much a part of their ethos as it is at Leipzig. That makes encounters between the two clubs on matchday two and crucially the final game of the pool, decisive.

Zenit move for Malcom intriguing

Sergei Semak was a midfield great of Russian football and the Zenit boss has made a marquee signing that gives the club claims.

Malcom struggled to make an impact at Barcelona but was bottom of the pecking order. The young Brazilian winger had showed real promise at Bordeaux beforehand.

Their loss is very much Zenit’s gain. This diminutive, maverick talent still has huge potential to progress. Malcom will need to do that if Zenit are to get out of this open group.

Compatriot left back Douglas Santos is another addition from Hamburg, with Venezuela central defender Yordan Osorio also loaned in from Porto. These foreign signings adjusting to the Russian climate is always a concern.

However, Champions League football is an obvious incentive and Semak also recruited a few in January. They include Colombia midfielder Wilmar Barrios and Ukraine defender Yaroslav Rakitiskiy.

How these additions gel with longer-serving Zenit players like Branislav Ivanovic, Yuri Zhirkov, and forwards Aleksandr Kokorin and Artem Dzyuba is the key.

Champions League Group D is an opportunity for the Russians to make hay in home games. Neither Benfica, Leipzig or Lyon will relish going to Zenit.

Winning on their own patch might be enough in this pool to get out of it, but the German and French clubs look in pole position.