AC Milan kicks-off its Champions League season Tuesday. Photo Credit: Twitter/@ACMIlan

Champions League Group E Preview

To the casual soccer fan, Champions League Group E seems straightforward. The group features two titans of the European soccer landscape, AC Milan and Chelsea. Both clubs have dominated the European stage in recent years.

Milan won last year’s Serie A title, while Chelsea won the Champions League just two years ago. It would figure that Chelsea and Milan would be the clear-cut favorites to come out of Group E. While Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb have proven that they are beyond capable, they lack the firepower of major clubs from Europe’s top leagues.

However, Group E figures to not as straightforward as previously thought. Shocking results after matchday one and a swell of drama (we’re looking at you, Chelsea) have created serious intrigue surrounding which clubs will come out of Group E.

AC Milan and Chelsea still figure to be the favorites to move onto the knockout stages. But the group is primed for an upset. Both smaller clubs have shown that they can hold their own against Europe’s titans. It shouldn’t be a shock if either club is able to steal a spot in the knockout round.

AC Milan in the Champions League

AC Milan is likely the strongest club in Group E. The Scudetto winners started strong in Serie A, sitting 3rd with 11 points through five matches. A win in the Milan Derby proved the Italians are capable of repeating as Italian champions.

https://twitter.com/acmilan/status/1566122649767579648?s=20&t=u3yxsV91vYR6qzD0N52hVA

And it’s not like Milan lacks firepower. The club features French stars Mike Maignan in goal and Theo Hernandez on the left flank, as well as reigning Serie A Player of the Year Rafael Leão. The club also features a slew of young talent, like dominant defender Fikayo Tomori and new signing Charles De Ketelaere.

This doesn’t mean that Milan is without its weaknesses. Milan’s defense is weaker than last year’s. Through five Serie A matches last year, Milan had only allowed three goals (two less than this season) despite having played against both Lazio and Juventus.

Dominant defensive midfielder Franck Kessie left the club for Barcelona. The midfield pairing of Sandro Tonali and Ismaël Bennaccer likely won’t be able to hold the midfield in the same way Kessie did.

The right-back spot remains weak. The position lacking a true regular starter that can both hold his own defensively and distribute the ball. Sergiño Dest is weak defensively, while Calabria and Florenzi exist to fill a void at right back.

This defensive weakness exposed itself during Tuesday’s game against Salzburg, where forward Noah Okafor was able to dribble around Calabria to score. Milan’s defense is fallible. It would not be shocking to see the Scudetto winner’s backline exposed again this season.

Milan remains the favorite to win Group E, but don’t be shocked when the Italian champions continue to drop points.

Chelsea

A question comes to mind when writing about Chelsea: where do I begin? The club has been outright disappointing so far this season. The London club sits 6th after six matches in the Premier League. The club has a goal differential of -1 and have suffered shock losses to Leeds and Southampton. These woes repeated in Tuesday’s shocking Champions League loss to Dinamo Zagreb, who held Chelsea scoreless and scored on a Mislav Oršić chip over Kepa Arrizabalaga.

https://twitter.com/CBSSportsGolazo/status/1567197520018939909?s=20&t=u3yxsV91vYR6qzD0N52hVA

The London club has so far lacked identity and consistency. Nine goals allowed through 6 matches is woeful for any Thomas Tuchel side, which is generally hailed on defensive excellence. The defensive pairing of Thiago Silva, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Wesley Fofana has thus far been disappointing, lacking chemistry together.

The midfield is hurt, with N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic missing games. The attack has lacked any sort of consistency and poise outside of Manchester City signee Raheem Sterling. Star attackers Kai Havertz and Mason Mount have thus far struggled to find top form. The duo has scored only one goal through six Premier League matches.

These woes culminated in manager Thomas Tuchel’s surprise firing on Wednesday morning over the phone.

Brighton manager Graham Potter was hired Thursday morning as Tuchel’s replacement. This will be Potter’s first foray into the Champions League. Potter faces the huge task of righting the ship at Chelsea. He will have to solidify the starting lineup and find form out of both his attack and defense. Chelsea could realistically finish anywhere in Group E.

FC Salzburg

Salzburg is a club that has routinely punched above its weight in Europe. This is the fourth season in a row that the Austrian club has qualified for the Champions league. Last season they furthered their success, getting past the group stage for the first time. Despite getting thrashed by Bayern Munich last season, Salzburg has impressed in Europe in recent years.

Salzburg has had an excellent season so far in the Austrian Bundesliga. Salzburg is in 1st so far with 18 points through seven matches. The club has scored 18 goals and has only conceded 3 so far this season. The club’s backline, led by veteran defender Andreas Ulmer, has been solid.

Brazilian forward Fernando has been excellent for Salzburg this season. The forward holds the Austrian Bundesliga lead in goal contributions (with 4 goals and 3 assists). Forward Noah Okafor has also contributed 4 goals, and rising star Benjamin Šeško has been excellent off the bench. During last week’s match, Okafor was able to dribble through multiple Milan defenders to score.

https://twitter.com/FCRBS_en/status/1568207600553967617?s=20&t=u3yxsV91vYR6qzD0N52hVA

Okafor was able to show his prowess in Tuesday’s match against AC Milan, nutmegging two of Milan’s defenders before scoring. The team was able to steal a point from the match, showing that they can go head-to-head with Europe’s top clubs. Salzburg manager Matthias Jaissle faces the tall task in continuing to steal points against Milan, Chelsea, and Dinamo Zagreb. Don’t be surprised if Salzburg is able to advance out of the group stage.

Dinamo Zagreb

Speaking of clubs punching above their weight in Europe: Dinamo Zagreb.

Zagreb advanced through several stages of Champions League qualifiers, winning each playoff round along the way. This is a club with resilience, which they showed with their Champions League opening win against Chelsea. Forward Mislav Oršić was able to sneak the match’s only goal over Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga.

https://twitter.com/gnkdinamo/status/1567221760524795904?s=20&t=4nDlsIyggM0KP0_eDtA6OQ

Dinamo Zagreb’s recent Champions League success is not just a bout of resilience; this is a great club. The club sits in 1st through eight HNL games. They have scored 27 goals and only conceded 10 through these opening matches. Oršić is the star of the squad, leading HNL in both goals and assists. Swiss forward Josip Drmic and Croatian forward Dario Špikić have both contributed 3 goals. Defender Petar Bočkaj holds the league lead in assists with four. This is a team with firepower.

The Croatian Club also has a stout backline. Zagreb’s backline was largely able to hold Chelsea scoreless because of consistency and commitment to holding the line. Chelsea is a team riddled with recent dysfunction, but it remains impressive to hold a team on that level scoreless on the European stage. After all, this is the same squad that advanced to the Europa League quarterfinals just two seasons ago. Don’t be surprised if Dinamo Zagreb find themselves in a similar situation to Salzburg. They are expected to finish 3rd or 4th, but don’t be surprised if they steal enough points to advance to the knockout stages.

About Connor O'Bryan

Connor O'Bryan is a world soccer reporter for ESPN Gainesville. He has previously written for WUFT Gainesville and for Atrium Magazine. Connor also cohosts the "Off The Bar Podcast", a student driven podcast that focuses on the global soccer landscape.

Check Also

Conte Talks Back

It’s not hard to believe that as a coach you have to be hard on …