How's this for pedigree?
Ajax are coming off a Champions League semifinal appearance, just seconds short of reaching the final. Chelsea were crowned Europa League champions last season. Valencia were Europa League semifinalists. Lille are coming off their best league season in nearly 10 years. Group H is going to be fun.
|TEAM||TO WIN GROUP||TO QUALIFY||NOT TO QUALIFY|
Much like Group G, this one is wide open. Chelsea open as favorites, but it's a difficult tag for them to live up to. Frank Lampard has no managerial experience in the Champions League and the squad lacks depth as a result of its summer transfer ban. Tammy Abraham has enjoyed an excellent start to the season, but the sample size is small and he's unproven against top opposition. Chelsea have the makings of a strong side, but there are plenty of question marks keeping the door open for clubs below them.
Ajax's price seems disrespectful. All the talk is about the losses of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt - understandably so, as they're two world-class talents - but there's a lot to like about the club's summer business. Quincy Promes further bolsters an already lethal attack, while Edson Alvarez and Lisandro Martinez help fill the void left by De Ligt. Most importantly, Ajax managed to hold onto the rest of their stars amidst heavy outside interest. Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, Dusan Tadic, Nico Tagliafico, and David Neres all remained in Amsterdam, leaving the bulk of the team intact.
Valencia exchanged goalkeeper Neto for ex-Ajax stopper Jasper Cillessen and lost Santi Mina on a free transfer, but otherwise return the same team as last season - plus Maxi Gomez and Thierry Correia. They've been starved of Champions League success over the past decade, though, suggesting a first-place finish in this group might be a bit of a pipe dream.
Group H has the feel of a two-horse race for top spot. With the difference between Ajax and Chelsea marginal at best, there's excellent value in backing the Amsterdam outfit.
Pick: Ajax to win Group H (+250)
After last season, I would have loved to back Lille as a dark horse in this group. I was thrilled to see what that squad could do in the Champions League. But that squad no longer exists.
The Ligue 1 outfit was raided over the summer, with Nicolas Pepe, Rafael Leao, Thiago Mendes, and Youssouf Kone all joining new clubs. Pepe and Leao combined to score 30 of the club's 66 goals last season, while Mendes pulled the strings playing more minutes than anyone in midfield. Those losses are too much for them to overcome and pull off a group shock.
That leaves Valencia with the best chance to displace Chelsea or Ajax from the top two. Los Ches failed to progress beyond the group stage in their previous two attempts, including a feeble third-place display behind Zenit and Gent in 2015-16.
They'll also be without Carlos Soler for at least the next month after he injured his ankle in late August; he'll likely miss their trip to Chelsea and first home game against Ajax. Soler had a hand in every goal Valencia scored in the Champions League group stage last season, notching two of their five tallies and assisting the other three. They will miss him immensely.
It would hardly be a surprise to see Valencia go through, but in such a tight group, losing Soler's creativity for two massive games could dig them a hole too deep to escape.
Pick: Ajax to qualify (-110); Ajax 1st, Chelsea 2nd (+700)
Alex Moretto is a sports betting writer for theScore. A journalism graduate from Guelph-Humber University, he has worked in sports media for over a decade. He will bet on anything from the Super Bowl to amateur soccer, is too impatient for futures, and will never trust a kicker. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.