The Champions League anthem — it is an iconic hymn that touches every Madridista heart. While weekends are devoted to domestic league games, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings are reserved for the “top one percent” of European football Clubs. On Thursday in Monaco, in the presence of dapper suits, shiny gowns, and paparazzi, UEFA held the group stage draw for the 64th edition of the Champions League.
Before we dive into Real Madrid’s opponents for the fall, let’s take a moment to explain the qualification process. Contrary to popular belief, the Champions League is a two-year tournament. Before this new season, each team had four ways to qualify:
a) win the previous Champions League
b) win or finish in top spots of their previous domestic league
c) win the previous Europa League
d) eliminate other teams in the summer’s qualifying knockout rounds
Compared to a domestic league where the top 16 teams within the same division return the following season, the Champions League is much more difficult to qualify consistently. A prime example is seven-time tournament winners A.C. Milan, whom have been absent for six straight seasons now and missed this campaign by one point in last season’s Serie A.
Since Real Madrid finished third in the last year’s La Liga, they were placed in Pot 2 and drew the following teams: back-to-back French league champions Paris Saint-Germain, Belgian league runners-up Club Brugge, and Turkish league champions Galatasaray. Of course, it has become an old record to hear sports media elements complain about how Real Madrid avoided a group with big-name teams from popular leagues (ex. Liverpool, Inter Milan). However, no opponent should be taken for granted, which is a harsh lesson many in the Madridismo world learned with the surprise elimination by Ajax in last season’s Round of 16. While I will leave the extensive tactical analysis to my colleagues on this site, let’s do a quick hit of each opponent.
Paris Saint-Germain (PSG): In their last meeting, two seasons ago, Real Madrid eliminated PSG in the Round-of-16. PSG has repeatedly stressed the importance of winning the Champions League, but have yet to advance past the quarterfinals despite Qatari ownership spending over 1.2 billion euros on talent and coaching this decade. If their international forwards Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani and Neymar are healthy and clicking on all cylinders, they have the firepower to light up our defense. Since they are a direct threat to win the group, it is critical to grab at least one point in Paris (September 17) and three in Madrid (November 26).
Club Brugge: Believe it or not, this Club was a tournament Finalist in 1978. They might be the weakest opponent in terms of collective talent. However, the timing to play the first game against them in the Santiago Bernabéu (October 1) is unfortunate, because the first La Liga Derbi Madrileño against Atlético will be played the weekend before. Can Real Madrid survive a physical battle against the city rivals and quickly prepare for the arrival of a well-rested Club Brugge three days later? Either way, completing a sweep of six points should be the goal.
Galatasaray: How fitting is it to pave the road to Istanbul with a Turkish team drawn in our group? One of the most obvious details to facing Galatasaray is playing in their intimidating home stadium. The “inferno” atmosphere inside Türk Telekom Stadyumu brings an extra level of confidence and stamina to their players. However, Real Madrid under Zidane has played its best in front of hostile crowds while on the road in Europe, specifically in 2018 with wins in Paris, Turin, and Munich before the Kiev Final. Since the teams will play in back-to-back matchdays (October 22 and November 6), tactical adjustments will be fresh to execute. At least four points should be feasible to earn for Real Madrid.
Although the group opponents are not overwhelming and calendar assignments for matchdays are accessible, these games are playoffs. If Real Madrid somehow do not obtain two wins against Club Brugge and Galatasaray, the fate of winning the group will depend on the results from the two blockbuster games against PSG. Finishing first or second in the group can determine if the Round-of-16 home game will be first in February (group runner-up) or second in March (group winner). Remember that Europe is Real Madrid’s place of business where the team performs their best since 1956. Let us raise the ceiling higher. As the Madridista battle cry goes, “¡A por la 14, Hala Madrid y nada más!”
Christian Paredes (@Xian_D_Paredes) is a Founding Member and Former Chairman of La Peña Madridista Sur de California (@RmSurCalifornia)