Champions League Team-by-Team Guide: Five sides to back before the big kick-off

Group A

Bayern Munich – 9/25.7 (to win the Champions League)

German giants Bayern were worthy champions last term, both on the continental stage and the domestic one. Despite concerns over the sustainability of his high defensive line and exhausting pressing game, Bayern coach Hansi Flick’s risks paid off, as did his diligent work on the training ground.

As I’ve explained in my assessment of the German teams in the UCL, Bayern did some astute work in the transfer market (although it was later than usual), and they should have the numbers they need to fight on multiple fronts. If Leroy Sane stays fit, he will add pace and directness to what is already a supercharged attack, and Bayern shouldn’t need to deal with any of the dressing-room dramas that have sometimes plagued them down the years.

I am comfortable tipping Bayern to retain the trophy at 9/25.7 on the Exchange. Yes, there are strong contenders elsewhere, but a mix of consistency, star power and excellent coaching make the Bavarians the team to beat.

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Atletico Madrid – 24/125.0

Atletico’s famous win at Anfield against the then-defending champions Liverpool was the highlight of a good campaign that failed to hit top gear. Having lost a slew of top stars like Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez and Rodri, it was always likely to take time for Diego Simeone’s new-look side to really settle, and it feels like that process is an ongoing one.

Having been cast out by Barcelona, Luis Suarez brings his wiles, his experience and his ultra-competitive spirit to the group, and I believe he could bring the best out of talented youngster Joao Felix. Jan Oblak is still the world’s best goalkeeper, but the loss of dynamic midfielder Thomas Partey’s passing range and drive is a hefty blow – the Ghanaian international has moved to Arsenal.

Atletico have the toughest possible start at Bayern, but they are still 1/3 to qualify for the last 16, and that’s about right. They are still incredibly hard to beat (one defeat in their last 22 competitive matches), and they have world-class players in both boxes. If you’re going to back them to win the tournament, do it now, as they are priced at a hefty 24/125.0.

Salzburg – 409/1410.0

Having craved group-stage football in this competition for so long, Salzburg have qualified in back-to-back seasons under impressive American coach Jesse Marsch. Takumi Minamino, Erling Haaland and Hee-Chan Hwang have all departed, but Zambian forward Patson Daka is the latest superstar on the RBS production line.

I’d expect Salzburg to make a strong start at home to Lokomotiv Moscow, and you can back them -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at 10/111.89, but I just can’t see them edging out either Bayern or Atletico.

Lokomotiv Moscow – 1000.0

Lokomotiv finished bottom of their group last term, and there’s an argument to say they are in a worse position now than they were then. Vastly-experienced coach Yuri Semin has been cast aside, and star player Aleksei Miranchuk has joined Atalanta. The attacking burden rests upon the shoulders of Russian international striker Fedor Smolov.

It would be a big surprise to see Loko even come close to qualifying.

Group B

Real Madrid – 14/115.0

Given the abundance of razzmatazz during the reign of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, it has been fascinating to see Zinedine Zidane mould Los Merengues into a very consistent yet unflashy side. A post-lockdown run of ten straight wins secured the La Liga title, and six of those victories were by a single goal. That solidity appears to have been maintained, with two clean sheets collected from the first three games of the new La Liga season.

Real made far too many errors across the two legs of their last-16 tie against Manchester City last term, with centre-back Raphael Varane in catastrophic form at the Etihad, and they can’t afford a repeat of that in the latter stages this term. I expect an experienced, battle-hardened Real to qualify, but with Inter in their group, I can’t get excited about backing them to win Group B at 8/111.76.

In terms of their price to win the tournament, 14/115.0 seems a bit generous to me, given the fact Zidane has already won the trophy three times as a coach. I think you can always afford to back a couple of teams to win a tournament like this, and I’ll have the Spanish champions as my back-up option.

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Inter Milan – 35/136.0

Much like their counterparts at Tottenham, Inter fans have developed something of a fatalistic streak, with a lingering suspicion that their club’s greatest enemy is within rather than without. Last season saw Inter make huge progress under Antonio Conte, but they also had plenty of near-misses. They finished a point behind Juventus in the Serie A title race, they lost the Europa League final to Sevilla, and their UCL campaign was effectively derailed by a 3-2 defeat at Borussia Dortmund that saw them squander a two-goal lead.

Conte certainly can’t complain that he hasn’t been backed in the transfer market. Veterans Arturo Vidal, Aleksandar Kolarov and Matteo Darmian have been brought in, as has rampaging wing-back Achraf Hakimi. All of the key players have stayed, including strikers Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku.

The squad is certainly deep enough to compete at home and abroad, and Inter’s price of 35/136.0 to win the tournament is attractive, although my fellow writer Mark O’Haire believes their focus will be on domestic success.

Borussia Mönchengladbach – 199/1200.0

Borussia Mönchengladbach are on the right track under their astute coach Marco Rose, and just being back in this competition represents a huge step forward. However, the Foals took just four points from their six games against the other sides in the Bundesliga’s top four last season, and they didn’t pull up any trees in the Europa League. This is a tough group, and this challenge might have come too early in the team’s development.

Shakhtar Donetsk – 409/1410.0

Shakhtar Donetsk caught the eye as they stormed into the semi-finals of the Europa League, but they then fluffed their lines badly against Inter Milan in a 5-0 hammering. Although Luis Castro’s side have a lot of European experience and some outstanding performers in Taison, Marlos and Junior Moraes, they froze in the headlights, and one wonders how they can bridge that gap in such a short space of time. Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov is often a liability, and Shakhtar leaked 13 goals in six group games last term. I can’t see the Ukrainian champions making much of an impact here.

Group C

Manchester City – 9/25.7

Like a recurring nightmare he just can’t escape from, Pep Guardiola watched his Manchester City self-destruct yet again in the latter stages of the Champions League last season. It’s almost a cliché now to talk about the Catalan schemer over-complicating things, but how else can we explain such an error-strewn, jittery display as the one the Citizens produced against Lyon two months ago? A team that finished seventh in Ligue 1 took advantage of an unsettled City, as Guardiola decided to mirror OL’s defensive shape, rather than focusing on what had gotten his team to the quarter-finals in the first place.

Guardiola hasn’t taken City as far as the semi-finals, and he failed to reach a Champions League final with a Bayern side that won the tournament the season before he arrived. Given City’s domestic issues in 2020 (they have lost five times in the Premier League) there are legitimate concerns that Guardiola’s aura of invincibility is fading. Although I don’t foresee any serious problems in this group, I can’t advise backing them to win the Champions League at 9/25.7, and I certainly don’t see them as credible favourites.

Porto – 239/1240.0

As Benfica floundered last season, Sergio Conceicao’s ultra-competitive Porto took full advantage of their old foes’ frailties. A six-match winning streak in the home stretch of the title race saw the Dragons finish five points clear at the top in the Primeira Liga. However, there were disappointments in Europe – Porto suffered a disastrous defeat against Krasnodar in the UCL qualifiers, and they were dismissed in the last 32 of the UEL by Bayer Leverkusen.

Porto did some interesting business late in the transfer window, bringing in young defender Malang Sarr, wayward entertainer Felipe Anderson and midfield powerhouse Marko Grujic, all on loan from Premier League clubs. Those moves were necessary, after the loss of left-back Alex Telles, striker Fabio Silva and midfielder Danilo.

I see this as a close fight for second between Porto and Marseille, and the Portuguese side seem a bit short to me to qualify at 8/11.

Marseille – 319/1320.0

Having been burned by his experiences in the Premier League with Chelsea and Spurs, Andre Villas-Boas won the league and cup with Zenit in Russia, went on a Shanghai sojourn with SIPG and then left football entirely to have a crack at the 2018 Dakar Rally. He’s now back in Western Europe, and back in the Champions League after leading Marseille to second last term.

Villas-Boas won the Europa League with Porto back in 2011 (he is still only 42) and I think he can push his old club hard in the race for second. Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin can provide the necessary craft if they stay fit, and a bad-tempered win at bitter rivals PSG was a big psychological boost for the whole group. The signing of enfant terrible Mickael Cuisance from Bayern Munich could prove to be a masterstroke.

Like James Eastham does in his look at the French challenge, I’ll back Marseille to qualify here at 7/4.

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Olympiakos – 479/1480.0

Greek champions Olympiakos gave Tottenham a couple of scares in the group stage last term, but they have lost Daniel Podence, Kostas Tsimikas and Guilherme, and all three players were first-team regulars. Pedro Martins’ side will be tough to break down, but they are relying heavily on French veteran Mathieu Valbuena to provide the magic at the other end. Qualification would be a big surprise.

Group D

Liverpool – 6/17.0

Jürgen Klopp has catapulted himself into Liverpool’s pantheon of football gods, sitting alongside Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish, Joe Fagin and Rafa Benitez. The German has delivered a first domestic league title for 30 years, as well as the Champions League, Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

People will point to the recent 7-2 hammering at Aston Villa as a sign of decline, but I would suggest it was a blip, an anomaly that began with a dreadful and unusual goalkeeping error and was also down to an outstanding display from a team in form. Liverpool still have one of the world’s best defenders in Virgil van Dijk, two of the planet’s best full-backs, a plethora of midfield options enhanced by the arrival of the classy Thiago, and a front three to rival any forward line in the sport.

Liverpool were given a kind draw, and although a slip-up against a swashbuckling Atalanta isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, they should reach the last 16 with room to spare. Liverpool are third-favourites to win the UCL at time of writing at 6/17.0, and it seems odd to me that they are over a point bigger than Manchester City.


Atalanta – 33/134.0

If you don’t have a soft spot for Atalanta, the question to ask is whether you really like football at all. Gian Piero Gasperini’s great entertainers swept their way to the quarter-finals last term, only to fall at the final hurdle against PSG. They have made an extraordinary start to the Serie A season, rattling in 13 goals in their first three matches, and winning all three. Creative genius Papu Gomez decided to resist the lure of a big-money move to the Gulf, and his decision to stay could be critically important.

The attack has been beefed up by the arrival of Dutch striker Sam Lammers, while attacking midfielder Aleksei Miranchuk is a really intriguing acquisition. The concern is still the defence, which is put under consistent pressure by the way Atalanta play. Clean sheets are in short supply, but I think the Italians will get away with it until the latter stages.

As a value option, Atalanta are worth serious consideration at 33/134.0.

Ajax – 149/1150.0

Ajax restored their reputation as European heavyweights two seasons ago, as they came within a whisker of reaching the Champions League final. However, the family silver has now been sold, with Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech all moving on to some of the continent’s biggest clubs.

Coach Erik ten Hag is still astute, but his star has fallen somewhat, and the Dutch champions failed to escape the group stage last term. A similar fate awaits this time around.

Midtjylland – 1000.0

Midtjylland are from Denmark, the home of Lego, so it’s perhaps no great surprise that they have slowly built their road to the Champions League piece by piece. The club has only existed since 1999, it started developing an enviable football academy five years later, and it won its first Superliga title in 2015. The Wolves have since won the league in 2018 and 2020, and now they have reached the Champions League group stage for the first time.

Exciting winger Pione Sisto is back after a four-year spell with Celta Vigo, and there is a lot of buzz about 21-year-old midfielder Jens-Lys Cajuste, but it was a be a huge surprise to see Midtjylland avoid finishing bottom.

Group E

Sevilla – 54/155.0

Sevilla’s love affair with the Europa League continued in Cologne, as they beat a very good Inter Milan side in last season’s final, lifting the trophy for the sixth time in 14 years. They were superbly organised by coach Julen Lopetegui, and oft-derided players like Luuk de Jong showed a big-match temperament when it mattered.

Centre-backs Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde are still in situ, and sporting director Monchi has kept things decidedly low-key by his standards. Ivan Rakitic returned to the club to fill the void left by the departure of midfield artist Ever Banega, while Sporting left-back Marcos Acuna will aim to replace Sergio Reguilon, who is now at Tottenham.

Sevilla are very tough to beat, and I find it interesting that they are behind Chelsea in the betting to win Group E. Sevilla are 11/8 compared to Chelsea’s 11/10, and that seems like value to me.

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Chelsea – 29/130.0

These are confusing times at Stamford Bridge. Club legend Frank Lampard makes all the right noises as manager, and he had a largely encouraging debut campaign, but he is struggling to find solidity and structure. The Blues still concede far too many goals, and the incredible depth of attacking talent at Lampard’s disposal only highlights the paucity at the other end.

New signing Thiago Silva has vast experience, and will help organise things in defence, but questions linger over whether Lampard can find the right tactical formula. Bundesliga alumni Timo Werner and Kai Havertz are both outstanding, and Hakim Ziyech is a one-man assist factory. However, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has pressure on his shoulders after being brought in to replace the hapless Kepa, and who is the best partner for Thiago Silva?

I can’t get excited about backing Chelsea to win the group at just above evens, and they seem way too short to win the tournament at 29/130.0, especially when you consider that Sevilla are 49/150.0.

Rennes – 399/1400.0

Given PSG’s total domination of Ligue 1, it can be tempting to dismiss the French top flight as a one-team league, but that would do a huge disservice to clubs like Rennes. SRFC beat the mighty Parisians in the 2019 Coupe de France final, and talented coach Julien Stephan (his father Guy won the 2018 World Cup with France as Didier Deschamps’ assistant) built on that success with a top-three finish in Ligue 1 last term.

Seventeen-year-old wonderkid Eduardo Camavinga is the box-office draw. Although he is a defensive midfielder, he scored a superb overhead kick for France recently against Ukraine, making him Les Bleus’ youngest goalscorer for over a century. Some smart domestic signings like striker Sehrou Guirassy and defender Nayef Aguerd have boosted the starting XI, while Steven Nzonzi brings plenty of experience to the table. Keeper Edouard Mendy and winger Raphinha have been lost to the Premier League, but Rennes certainly shouldn’t disgrace themselves at this level. I can’t quite get on board with backing them to qualify at 5/1, but they’ll raise an eyebrow or two.

Krasnodar – 1000.0

Like Midtjylland and RB Leipzig, Krasnodar don’t have much in the way of history. The Russian club was only formed in 2008, a pet project of Russian retail billionaire Sergey Galitsky, and the Krasnodar native remains determined to take his club as far as he can. Having finished third in the Russian Premier League last term, Krasnodar broke into the group stage of the UCL for the first time by beating PAOK home and away.

Krasnodar’s domestic form has been underwhelming, and they are playing catch-up against the likes of Zenit and Spartak Moscow. There is experience in the form of defender Igor Smolnikov and Swedish striker Marcus Berg, but arguably the most exciting players in the squad are 21-year-old keeper Matvey Safonov and 20-year-old winger Magomed Suleymanov. Krasnodar were plagued by injuries last term, and it is hoped that Remy Cabella and Victor Claeson can now make a consistent impact. Qualification for the last 16 would be a huge achievement, and it seems highly unlikely.

Group F

Borussia Dortmund – 29/130.0

With Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund have one of the most exciting attacking units in Europe, and there is genuine depth in their squad. However, persistent questions about lapses in concentration and the inconsistency of goalkeeper Roman Bürki make BVB unattractive at 29/130.0 when it comes to backing them to win the tournament.

These cracks may only become apparent in the knockout phase against top opposition – for example, Dortmund lost both Bundesliga games against Bayern Munich last term, they lost to PSG in the Champions League’s last 16, and they have already lost to Bayern this season in the DFL Supercup.

At 4/6, Dortmund are justifiable favourites to win Group F, and I think they will.

Lazio – 119/1120.0

It’s been a long time since Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Lazio were the darlings of Serie A at the turn of the century, but a little bit of stardust crept back into the club last season. Coach Simone Inzaghi helped put together an incredible run of results, but the timing of the COVID-19 outbreak proved significant. The Romans went into lockdown on a run of 16 wins in 18 league games, but after the restart, they lost five out of eight, and their Scudetto dreams turned to dust. They finished fourth, five points off top spot.

Lazio have kept the squad together, with stars like Serbian midfielder Sergey Milinkovic-Savic and relentless goalscorer Ciro Immobile still in their ranks. However, the early signs aren’t encouraging – Lazio were thrashed 4-1 at home by Atalanta, and were then held at home by Inter. They were also underwhelming in last season’s Europa League, failing to reach the last 32.

Lazio are 8/15 to qualify, and that seems an unattractive price for a team that’s out of form.

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Zenit – 339/1340.0

Zenit’s domination of Russian football continued last term, as they won the Premier League, the Russian Cup and the Super Cup. They were top of the league after 15 rounds of this season, and there’s every reason to think they will win the title again.

Talismanic striker Artem Dzyuba continues to impress for club and country, and the addition of Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren adds know-how and bite to the back-line. Sardar Azmoun (the “Iranian Messi”) has scored consistently throughout 2020, and Brazilian midfielder Wendel is expected to shine after Zenit spent heavily on his move from Sporting.

I think Zenit are a genuine threat to Lazio here, and their price of 5/4 in the To Qualify market is worth considering.

Club Brugge – 639/1640.0

Belgian champions Club Brugge caused a stir in the Champions League last term by drawing 2-2 at Real Madrid in the group stage, but ultimately they couldn’t derail either Real or PSG. Once again, Philippe Clement’s side are underdogs, a status underlined by their heavy defeat at Manchester United in last season’s Europa League. Avoiding bottom spot would be seen as a success.

Group G

Barcelona – 15/116.0

The Lionel Messi saga feels like it is on a break between series rather than the show being cancelled, and with presidential elections on the horizon and club legend Xavi waiting in the wings, it seems new coach Ronald Koeman is on shifting sands. Koeman’s attempted Dutch revolution was stopped in its tracks by the financials, as Lyon forward Memphis Depay and Liverpool midfielder Gini Wijnaldum stayed put.

For all the noise, Barca have actually made a decent start. A formation change seems to have settled Frenkie de Jong, teenage star Ansu Fati is getting better and better, while Philippe Coutinho looks ready to seize his second chance. If Antoine Griezmann ever starts to show the form he has for France and Atletico Madrid, that will be another serious plus, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of the sport’s best goalkeepers.

If the drama dies down, and Koeman doesn’t make the kind of man-management missteps he has sometimes been prone to making, then Barcelona can be a threat. However, the scars of the 8-2 defeat to Bayern last season will take some healing, and 15/116.0 for Barcelona to win the tournament seems too short to me. Even with Messi in the team, there are just too many questions.

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Juventus – 14/115.0

Football can be a game of risk, emotion and sometimes sentimentality, and all three of those featured in the left-field hiring of Andrea Pirlo as Juventus coach. Installing star players as coaches is de rigeur, with Zinedine Zidane setting the benchmark at Real Madrid, but it is also a huge risk. Juve couldn’t resist dumping Maurizio Sarri after the shock exit to Lyon last term, but ditching him after just one season hints at a club that is blindly groping for direction, having decided that it wasn’t satisfied by the consistent winning offered by Max Allegri.

Cristiano Ronaldo remains the central figure, and his tally of 31 Serie A goals last term suggests the 35-year-old still has plenty to offer at the highest level. Federico Chiesa, Dejan Kulusevski and Paulo Dybala are all talented attacking players, while Alvaro Morata offers a more physical option. The midfield is poorer for the loss of Miralem Pjanic, while centre-back Matthijs de Ligt needs a strong sophomore season after struggling to settle after his move from Ajax.

Seasoned Serie A observers like’s very own Dave Farrar have serious doubts about Juventus, and although I backed them as UCL contenders last season, Pirlo’s lack of coaching experience has put me off this time around, especially at a price of 14/115.0. If you fancy them to pip Barcelona in the race to win the group, you can back them at evens on the Sportsbook.

Dynamo Kyiv – 509/1510.0

The Ukrainian giants are back in the group stage after a four-year absence, but domestically their faces remain pressed up against the glass, as their rivals Shakhtar carry off the league title year after year. They haven’t won the league since 2016, and although former Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu has masses of European experience, he doesn’t have the raw material to craft any big shocks here. Youngsters Viktor Tsyhankov and Vitaliy Mykolenko are worth keeping an eye on.

Ferencvaros – 1000.0

Hungarian champions Ferencvaros have already secured their big prize by reaching this stage for the first time in a quarter of a century. A superb qualifying run saw them dump out Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb and Molde. It’s a lovely story, but Ferencvaros are here for a good time, not a long time.

Group H

Paris Saint-Germain – 12.5

Although Neymar cried bitterly in Lisbon, and Bayern Munich celebrated securing the Champions League trophy, it felt like PSG made a critical breakthrough in the competition earlier this year. For so long, PSG have been similar to Manchester City in the sense that they collected scar upon scar in the Champions League, and those wounds were often self-inflicted. This year’s run to the final shows the squad that they do have the mental fortitude to come through those challenges, and with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria still in the squad, the necessary firepower is there.

It wouldn’t be PSG without a big dose of drama, and a row between sporting director Leonardo and demanding coach Thomas Tuchel continues to simmer, with the German tactician unhappy about the club’s transfer business. The lack of depth at centre-back is a concern (Thilo Kehrer and Abdou Diallo haven’t yet proven their quality at the highest level), and the failure to keep Thiago Silva may prove costly if injuries bite.

I still think the likes of Bayern Munich and Liverpool are in better shape, but not by much, so PSG’s price of 12.5 to win the Champions League does seem on the high side.


RB Leipzig – 99/1100.0

As I’ve explained in my preview of the German sides in the competition, RB Leipzig will have learned a lot from their run to last season’s semi-finals, and the loss of Timo Werner to Chelsea might not be the crippling blow it seems. Coach Julian Nagelsmann is the true star, and he won’t be overawed by facing the other big hitters in this group.

I backed RB Leipzig at 84/185.0 as a trading option at the start of last season, and I’ll back them to qualify here at 5/4. On that basis, you might want to look at them as a back-to-lay again in the Winner market, this time at 99/1100.0.

Manchester United – 39/140.0

There’s a lot of talk about rebuilds, philosophy and youth development at Manchester United, but it shows how far the club has fallen that they were celebrating clinging onto a Champions League spot on the final day of the Premier League season. The bizarre, amateurish pursuit of Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho raised fresh questions about the “front office”, with chief executive Ed Woodward once again coming in for justifiable criticism.

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer delivered the primary objective, but failures in three semi-finals surely raise concerns about his ability to win the big games under serious pressure. Defensively, United have looked incredibly shaky so far this term, with England’s Harry Maguire particularly poor. Donny van de Beek is a great signing, but how do you fit him into the same midfield as Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba?

Edinson Cavani brings knowledge and a bit of stardust, and he should help the development of young forwards like Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. There’s plenty of quality in the squad, but can Solskjaer bring the best out of the group? The clashes with PSG and RB Leipzig may well tell us, and even at 39/140.0, I wouldn’t go near backing United to win the trophy. I’m not even sure they’ll reach the last 16.

Istanbul Basaksehir 769/1770.0

It may have surprised casual observers to see a team outside the big three of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas win the Turkish Super Lig title, but Istanbul Basaksehir’s success has been long in the making. Heavily linked to controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Basaksehir finished as runners-up in 2017 and 2019, before finally getting over the finish line first in 2020.

Premier League aficionados will recognise some of the names in the squad. Demba Ba, Nacer Chadli, Rafael, Martin Skrtel and Kerim Frei all played in England’s top division, while the Basaksehir cause has previously been aided by Gael Clichy, Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor.

However, one wonders whether the peak has already been reached. Okan Buruk’s side have taken a solitary point from their first four league matches, and haven’t scored a single goal. They limply went out of the UEL last term to Copenhagen, and it’s hard to escape the notion that they will be this group’s whipping-boys.

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