Group H is one bathed in history featuring a quartet of clubs who have all won Europe’s top prize in the past. This is the only such foursome in this year’s UEFA Champions League group stage. Though all have lifted the cup before, there are two clear favorites, and the other duo will be relishing the challenge to shock the soccer world. We take a look at how Group H will play out in the last installment of our eight-day long UCL preview series.
How did they qualify? A third place finish in the Italian Serie A sent AC Milan into a playoff battle with PSV Eindhoven. After drawing 1-1 in Holland, the Italians found footing easier at the San Siro, winning 3-0 to book a place in the group round.
What’s their history in the competition? The Rossoneri are regulars on this stage and have won Europe’s premier tournament seven times. Only Real Madrid, with nine titles, has achieved more success. Last season they faced Barcelona in the Round of 16, and despite a stunning 2-0 win at the San Siro, AC Milan fell victim to Lionel Messi’s magic in Spain and lost 4-2 on aggregate.
How far could they go? The club has experienced a near complete overhaul since it last won the UEFA Champions League in 2006-07 beating Liverpool 2-1 in Athens, Greece. Only Kaka, who returned to the club on deadline day, sports the AC Milan shirt these days, and he is out with injury. The club now boasts a group of fresh faces, key among them attackers Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy.
If Milan can overcome injuries to captain Riccardo Montolivo, compatriot Andrea Poli and seven other key players in the early games, they should be able to make the Round of 16. Still, their form in Serie A to date, just one win from three matches, suggests anything beyond that would be unexpected.
How did they qualify? The Blaugrana won Spain’s La Liga to earn their spot in the group stage.
What’s their history in the competition? The masters of the tiki-taka have won the competition on four occasions, first in 1991-92 and on three triumphs since 2005. Last year they were humbled in the semifinals by eventual champions Bayern Munich, meaning they will be looking to prove their prowess once again.
How far could they go? Barcelona is one of the favorites to claim the cup in Lisbon. When you add Neymar to a group including some guy called Lionel Messi and a couple of midfielders who go by the names Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and, well, we could go on and on, you certainly have the goals in the squad and the ability to impose your style of play on opponents needed to win it all. In overcoming a 2-0 deficit to AC Milan last year, the time a side has ever won a knockout round game after losing 2-0 away form home, that you can never count Barcelona out.
The big question, though, is if Barcelona have learned the lessons of last season and if new manager Gerardo “Tato” Martino has what it takes to guide the club through his first European journey.
How did they qualify? A third straight Dutch Eredivisie title was good enough to send Ajax straight into the group stage.
What’s their history in the competition? Ajax, the most storied club playing in Holland, have triumphed in Europe four times: 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1995. They haven’t been a threat to win it all since the days of the Johan Cruyff-led reign in the 1970s and the historic 1995 squad led by Dutch internationals Edwin van der Sar, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert.
Last season they were dumped out of the group stage after they were drawn with Bourssia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Manchester City, a group in which few clubs would stand a chance.
How far could they go? Ajax sold its best two players, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld to Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico Madrid, respectively, this summer. Viktor Fischer is a 19-year-old starlet, but the weight of this group will prove heavy on his young shoulders. A third-place finish and a trip to the UEFA Europa League seems the most likely target.
How did they qualify? After winning the Scottish Premier League, Celtic still faced a long road to making the group stage. After beating Cliftonville and IF Elfsborg in the second and third rounds, they were on the ropes in the playoffs. Ultimately Celtic overcame a two-goal deficit from the first leg to defeat Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan 3-0 at home in the game’s dying embers, a historic night and emotional celebration.
What’s their history in the competition? The 44-time Scottish champions lifted the 1967 European Cup. They first made the UEFA Champions League group stage in 2006-07 under Gordon Stachan and reached the Round of 16 where they were nipped 1-0 by AC Milan. Celtic has made it out of the group only one other time, last year when they stunned Barcelona 2-1 in Scotland and finished second. They lost 5-0 on aggregate to Juventus in the first knockout roun.
How far could they go? Advancement for Celtic will come down more to grit and guile than pace and skill. They club isn’t as strong as last season and beating Barcelona again is a big ask. Celtic will need to secure points against Ajax and hope to take advantage of a wounded Milan. The pride and fighting spirit at Celtic makes it hard to pick against them, but facing this group, we’ll do just that.
Players to watch: Lionel Messi and Neymar
Barcelona boasts both the world’s best player and the world’s most talked about player in Lionel Messi and Neymar. The amazing Argentine and booming Brazilian are still learning to play together in their first season, and the rest of Europe will be hoping they don’t figure it out.
Player on the rise: Stephan El Shaaraway
The 20-year-old AC Milan striker has been compared to Messi and Neymar in Italy due to his expert close control, dribbling ability and low center of gravity. Don’t let the haircut fool you; this guy is for real. The Rossoneri’s UCL hopes depend on just how quickly he can recover from a thigh strain that will rule him out of today’s contest.
The upcoming games:
Group H play kicks off today with Ajax facing Barcelona at Camp Nou in the first encounter between the two storied teams. Meanwhile an injured AC Milan side takes on Celtic in Italy at the San Siro. Both matches kick off at 2:45 ET.
The two teams likely to advance to the Round of 16:
You would have to be mad to pick against Barcelona, and we aren’t. They’ll win the group. We favor AC Milan to find the form needed to best Ajax and Celtic, though it will be difficult to get past both proud clubs.