The numbing predictability of the Uefa Champions League, in terms of its composition in the final stages, may rest heavy on us all, but its allure remains impossible to dismiss. It remains the ultimate platform, the arena wherein the very best players in the world trade blows. That the concentration of these players within a select few teams has historically never been greater is a reality that recedes when that familiar anthem hits and echoes off the thrumming walls of some of the most revered footballing grounds.
For the African exports who have made it to the top of the food chain in Europe’s plutocratic footballing hierarchy, their impact in the competition will vary depending on the length of their teams’ involvement. While the competition sees the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, club sides with history in the competition, return, the convoluted seeding system has seen to a fairly straightforward draw in a lot of groups, with only the Pot 1 and 2 teams representing a real match-up..
Therefore, we feel confident enough to put the crystal ball to use, divine the entrails and predict which African stars will make it through to the Round of 16 after the dust clears in early December. So, the good news or the bad news first?
There are unlikely to be tales of cheer for Victor Wanyama at Tottenham, whose side have a hellish draw featuring reigning champions Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. APOEL Nicosia should represent something of a gimme, but trips to Santiago Bernabeu and the imposing Westfalenstadion do not hold out much hope.
There is, however, a chink in the German side, in the form of manager Peter Bosz. His Ajax side got all the way to the final of the Europa League last season, but there remains a worrying naivety about him, such as was exposed by the wily Jose Mourinho. That said, there is no shame in being shown up by the Portuguese manager, and in Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, the former Vitesse boss should have enough firepower to see off Tottenham and join Real in the next round.
Victor Moses and Chelsea have the prospect of a mouth-watering encounter with Atletico Madrid to contemplate; the touchline passion derby, if you will. Antonio Conte’s side will face fewer sides able to match the level of intensity Diego Simeone demands from his horde, and both encounters will see no prisoners taken.
Ghana international Thomas Partey has seen his influence in the Spanish capital grow steadily, and he is now firmly established as the first central midfield option off the bench at Atletico. Los Colchoneros have the small matter of acclimating to a new stadium, but their experience in Europe should see them join Chelsea to progress. Roma will, however, provide stiff opposition, while South African Dino Ndlovu’s Qarabag have done well just getting this far, and can be proud of being the very first Azerbaijani club in the Champions League.
Group D is pretty straightforward for both Barcelona and Juventus, a kind draw that will almost certainly see Mehdi Benatia and, if he isn’t Galatasaray bound, Kwadwo Asamoah’s Champions League runners-up from last season advance. Seydou Doumbia was on target for Portuguese side Sporting in the second leg qualifying thrashing of FCSB, but that will be as far as Jorge Jesus’ men go in the competition. Emmanuel Emenike will also struggle to make much of an impact with the relatively modest Olympiakos.
Where Portuguese representation is concerned, Benfica should have a bit more luck, and look a good bet to go through alongside Eric Bailly’s Manchester United. That this advance will come at the expense of African football favourite Serey Die and Basel, tinges it with sadness somewhat.
Monaco were the great story of last season’s edition, producing a memorable run all the way to the semi-finals, but have bled freely all summer, losing several key players. There should, however, be a more prominent role for Almamy Touore, while Rachid Ghezzal has arrived to bolster the forward line.
Judging by their start in Ligue 1, they remain wildly entertaining, and so should have enough to come through Group G. Who follows them represents a conundrum, and will largely come down to whether or not Vincent Aboubakar can be clinical in front of goal for Porto. If he disappoints, Naby Keita’s RB Leipzig will profit gratefully.
Faouzi Ghoulam and Kalidou Koulibaly are cornerstones of a Napoli rearguard that will need to retain their wits better than they did last season against Real Madrid. Yaya Toure’s Manchester City join them in Group F, and both should progress at the expense of Karim El Ahmadi and surprise Dutch champions Feyenoord.
There is little prospect of African joy in Group B. Bayern Munich and PSG are overwhelming favourites to progress, but will at least give forward Henry Onyekuru a taste of elite level football for the first time with Anderlecht along the way, which was the entire point of West Ham loaning him to the Belgian giants.
Liverpool are positively crawling with African players, and Mohamed Salah will fancy his chances of getting past the group stage. Sadio Mane was imperious in the qualifiers, and Joel Matip has been a revelation since moving to Anfield. Along with Sevilla, they will have enough to go past Maribor and Spartak Moscow.