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Saturday, 17 November, 2018

Juventus look weaker after key departures

Juventus goalie Gianluigi Buffon
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Gianluigi Buffon's quest for a first Champions League winners' medal goes on after last season's near-miss but unfortunately for the veteran goalkeeper Juventus's best chance of success may have disappeared.

The Old Lady were left to rue a woeful second-half performance when losing 4-1 to Real Madrid in the Cardiff showdown - their second final defeat in three years - and if they fell short last season why should Max Allegri's men improve?

Dani Alves walked out to join Paris St-Germain and world-class defender Leonardo Bonucci departed for Milan in one of the most surprising transfers of the summer.

Money has been reinvested - wide players Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa will enable Allegri to fully commit to a preferred 4-2-3-1 formation and Blaise Matuidi looks an ideal midfield partner for Miralem Pjanic - while Paulo Dybala and Alex Sandro were kept in Turin despite the best efforts of Barcelona and Chelsea respectively.

With Gonzalo Higuain also around Juve look strong in the final third, but losing Bonucci leaves a huge defensive hole.

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Group A

Group B

Group C

Most clubs would have been delighted to finish their domestic season second, reach the Champions League quarter-finals and win a cup.

Barcelona, however, are not most clubs. Their motto is 'more than a club'.

They have to win and it must be done with style but new manager Ernesto Valverde could easily be forgiven for wondering if he has done the right thing in taking on the challenge of replacing the exhausted Luis Enrique.

The bombshell of seeing PSG pay Neymar's buyout clause of almost £200m rocked a club troubled by internal strife. They are being run in an appalling manner and the trauma still being felt by Neymar's exit will be nothing compared to the reaction if Lionel Messi fails to sign a new contract.

With Messi and Luis Suarez in tow, Barca will always have a chance, while Ousmane Dembele was arguably the most suitable replacement for Neymar and Nelson Semedo's arrival finally means they finally possess a right-back.

However, there are far safer bets towards the top of the market.

It's rare for Olympiakos to make a major splash in the Champions League but they should be competitive.

Olympiakos finished third in their last Champions League group campaign of 2015-16, just like in 2013-14, 12-13 and 11-12, while they went to the Champions League last 16 in 2009-10 and 2013-14.

You have to go back to 2006 for the last time Olympiakos finished bottom of their Champions League group and the 44-time Greek champions have already come through a couple of tricky qualifying matches against Partizan Belgrade and Rijeka.

Young centre-back Panagiotis Retsos became the most expensive Greek when he signed for Bayer Leverkusen but some of that money was reinvested by Besnik Hasi in a non-subtle way. It's a land of giants defensively with Pape Cisse, Bjorn Engels and Jagos Vukovic signed up.

Olympiakos won the league by only six points last season compared to 30, 12, 17 and 15 previously, so they are probably going backwards but history suggests they will still challenge for third.

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Group E

Group F

Group G

Group H

The free ride for Portugal's Tres Grandes is over with the Primeira Liga gaining only two Champions League places from next season after Russia's clubs jumped above them in the crucial coefficient battle.

One of Benfica, Porto and Sporting will miss out and the Lions possibly have most to fear. They were third last season, six points back on an average Porto team and 12 inferior to Lisbon rivals Benfica and it looked a struggle for them to get past Steaua in qualifying.

At least it was in a goalless first leg before a much-improved display in Bucharest saw Sporting progress with a 5-1 victory with four of the goals came with Steaua chasing the tie in the last 30 minutes.

There was no surprise to see Bas Dost on target in that second leg - the Dutchman scored a barely believable half of Sporting's 68 league goals last season - but Jorge Jesus's men had a fairly uninspiring transfer window with Jeremy Mathieu, Fabio Coentrao and Seydou Doumbia having to prove their hunger.

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Juve look strong in the final third but losing Bonucci leaves a huge defensive hole
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