Champions League Group H preview: Chelsea still leading contenders despite transfer ban

Published on: September 16, 2019
Author: Jamie Clark
2019 Champions League Group H preview includes Chelsea

The phrases transfer ban and European success seldom go hand-in-had, but such is the look of UEFA Champions League Group H on paper that Chelsea remain favourites to win it.

Each team in this pool is hampered in some way or another. Dutch Eredivisie giants Ajax have lost key cogs in the spine of their side that reached the semis last season and won’t be underestimated again.

Valencia, meanwhile, have changed coach on the eve of the Champions League group stage beginning.

It’s hard to see what Marcelino Garcia Toral had done wrong with Los Che’s hands-on owner Peter Lim more likely the problem.

And Lille? Christophe Galtier has done a cracking job there, but like Ajax they are victims of their own relative success.

This European adventure starts with their best and brightest sold. Couched in those terms, perhaps the transfer ban isn’t so much of a headache after all.

Stamford Bridge playing favourite Frank Lampard is now Chelsea boss, but does have the small matter of contending with life after Eden Hazard too.

It takes a leap of faith to see any of the four sides in Champions League Group H reaching the business end of the competition.

This pool gets the same treatment as all the others, however, from OpenOdds experts. We’ve been assessing the prospects of all 32 teams across the eight groups.

Last, but by no means least, we come to this one. How will the comings and goings from these sides shape the pool?

Blues best of Champions League Group H bunch

Chelsea without Hazard leaves some big boots to fill at the Bridge. He starred in previously Premier League title triumphs and Europa League glory last term.

Now pitched back into the Champions League elite without him, and with no means of replacing their key player, punters can be forgiven some skepticism towards the Blues.

One man doesn’t make a team, however, and when you look at what the opposition in Champions League Group H have lost themselves, Chelsea should have sufficient relative strength-in-depth for this pool.

France frontman Olivier Giroud scored goals for fun in Europe last term.

Although Tammy Abraham gets the nod in most Premier League matches, expect him to take a backseat to the proven international performer in group games here.

Lampard still has a great supporting cast including Pedro, Willian and some hot homegrown prospects.

Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have missed the start of the English football season through injury, but Mason Mount has stepped up in midfield.

He’s rubbing shoulders with a World Cup winner in N’Golo Kante and far more established players such as Mateo Kovacic, Jorginho and Ross Barkley in the engine room.

David Luiz and Gary Cahill are no longer among Lampard’s defensive options but – judging by recent results for respective new clubs Arsenal and Crystal Palace – they aren’t much of a loss.

Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori did well in loan spells away from the Bridge last season. Several fringe players are out on loan in typical Chelsea fashion too, but these were never near the first-team picture anyway.

Hazard and Luiz apart, this is the side that won the Europa League under Maurizio Sarri last season.

In a pool where there are far greater problems and questions for their opposition, the Blues are worth backing.

Not even Ajax conveyor belt can replace lost talent quickly enough

Ajax don’t keep hold of their best players as a rule. The high-profile departures from Amsterdam are nothing new yet, as well-versed in churning out talent as they are, even Erik ten Hag must feel up against it this year.

A scintillating run to the Champions League semis only stopped by Spurs and Lucas Moura late on was reminiscent of the Ajax sides from the mid-1990s.

It is the best the Dutch club has done in Europe since. The only trouble is the elite sat up and took notice.

Star defender Matthijs de Ligt is now at Juventus and midfield maestro Frenkie de Jong is the great hope for Barcelona. Denmark striker Kasper Dolberg went to Nice, meanwhile.

Short of having an actual conveyor belt, Ajax are consistently one of the best production lines in Europe during the last 25-30 years.

Even long-time observers must admit the latest models rolling off it look smarter than the average. And that is the challenge.

Go back over the last quarter-century and there are more attacking names than midfield and defensive ones who have gone on to great things.

Replacing a striker or winger is easier for Ajax than bringing through a top-class centre half. Ten Hag has been allowed to reinvest some of the funds generated by De Jong and De Ligt leaving.

In Mexico defender Edson Alvarez, Romania midfielder Razvan Marin and Netherlands international winger Quincy Promes, he has spent around €50,000,000.

Serbia attacking midfielder Dusan Tadic has been prolific for them since leaving Southampton.

David Neres was part of the Brazil squad that won the Copa America over the summer, so Ajax still carry plenty of threat and kept hold of Hakim Ziyech too.

Whether that is enough to replicate what they did last season is doubtful.

Valencia chaos not a recipe for success

Ajax will still have every chance of progressing from Champions League Group H, however, because of the shambles at the Mestalla.

Marcelino was axed after the Spanish football transfer window closed and Albert Celades replaced him.

After working in the national setup for many years and with various age groups, this is his first job in club management.

A baptism of fire dugout debut as Valencia lost 5-2 away at one of Celades’ former sides Barcelona is hardly encouraging.

Marcelino did a fine job with Los Che and his successor is up against to even match two top four finishes in La Liga. He inherits a squad where most of the transfer budget went on a new goalkeeper.

Jasper Cillessen was second-choice to Marc-Andre ter Stegen at Barcelona, so a swap deal involving Neto gives him more chance of regular football.

The defence in front of him contains three new faces in Portuguese full back Thierry Correia, Villarreal loanee Jaume Costa and free transfer Eliaquim Mangala.

The latter has spent time on loan at Valencia before. So has Russia winger Denis Cheryshev.

Los Che’s real coup capture could be Uruguay striker Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo. After doing well up front in Galicia, more goals are expected.

Valencia have also moved on some previously promising players. Colombia defender Jeison Murillo is farmed out on loan once again, this time to Sampdoria.

Forward Santi Mina moved in the opposition direction to Gomez. Ruben Vezo was sold to Levante and striker Simone Zaza to Torino.

How Celades uses a squad that blends youth and experience and how those players respond to the new manager are factors in how far Los Che can push their Champions League Group H rivals.

Underdogs Lille least likely to progress

Lille produced Hazard and have just cashed in on another attacking talent, Nicolas Pepe. Galtier led the club to second in Ligue 1 behind the mighty PSG last season.

Repeating that and being competitive in this pool looks a lot harder. Lille have got good prices for their key performers from last season, but replacing them is tough.

They sold midfielder Thiago Mendes and full back Youssouf Kone to Lyon over the summer. They are direct domestic rivals who are stronger for the purchases.

Portuguese prospect Rafael Leao went to AC Milan, while Pepe cost Arsenal a cool €80,000,000.

It’s worth noting young forward Jonathan Ikone has already caught the eye of France national boss Didier Deschamps.

He then scored on his senior international debut. All but one of Lille’s summer signings were 25 or under.

Youth is what Galtier promotes and Timothy Weah – son of Liberia legend George – is an addition to his forward ranks. Turkey attacking midfielder Yusuf Yazici is another interesting transfer from Trabzonspor.

Without being disparaging, last season was probably a bit of a fluke from Lille. Marseille and Monaco had below par campaigns. Like Ajax, they have paid a heavy price for ruffling a few feathers.

As likeable and plucky underdogs as Lille make, they aren’t as accustomed to plotting a European campaign as any of their Champions League Group H rivals. Best of the rest in France is one thing, this is quite another.

Bookmakers have Lille as outsiders, but it’s less clear cut who joins Chelsea in the knockout phase.

Ajax and Valencia both have different challenges to overcome, but the Dutch champions’ resilience may prove enough to go beyond the group stage again.