The draw for the Champions League group stage is one of those events that should be more consequential than it is. It’s one of UEFA’s gala occasions, the grand drawing of the fixtures that will set the timetable for the rest of the year, and yet it always feels slightly futile.
The domination of the superclubs is such that the group stage tends to be extremely predictable, 96 games to ensure the richest 16 sides get through to the knockouts in February, when the competition begins for real. At least this year the failure of so many of those very richest sides shook up the seeding a little, placing at least a small handful of the elite in some jeopardy.
Here’s a closer look at each of the eight groups, along with a predicted order of finish:
The standout games, clearly, will be those between Manchester City and PSG, the latter of which now boasts Lionel Messi (and the former of which could soon boast Cristiano Ronaldo, if swirling reports and rumors come to fruition), but it’s the presence of RB Leipzig that makes the group interesting. It’s always the third side that adds the element of danger. It looked last season as though City had finally cracked its glass ceiling, with highly impressive victories over Borussia Dortmund and, in the semifinal, PSG. But then in the final came another of Pep Guardiola’s mystifying player selections and defeat to Chelsea. City’s biggest opponent in Europe, it often feels, is its manager’s tendency to overthink big games.
Will Messi carry Paris Saint-Germain to the Champions League at last? He remains a brilliant attacking player, but scoring goals hasn’t really been an issue for PSG. The problem is the gulf that frequently opens up between the midfield and a forward line inconsistent in performing its defensive duties. The more valuable signings may be those of Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum, and the Kylian Mbappé saga—whether he goes to Real Madrid now or becomes an out-of-contract wantaway star for the remainder of this season—hovers over everything.
Leipzig is perhaps not so strong as it has been, in transition after a second-place finish in the Bundesliga. U.S. manager Jesse Marsch has replaced Julian Nagelsmann, while Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahim Konaté have both left, placing a major strain on the center of the defense. Club Brugge, meanwhile, has never made it through the group stage of the Champions League, but Philippe Clement’s side has posed problems in the past two seasons, and center back Odilon Kossounou is the only major departure.
From a U.S. standpoint, in addition to Marsch, the group features three U.S. internationals in Man City’s Zack Steffen, Leipzig’s Tyler Adams and Brugge’s Owen Otasowie.
Predicted order of finish: Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge
Was Liverpool’s dip last year the result of a freakish collection of injuries, or was there something more long-term going on? The return of a proper central defense, clearly, will be a huge help and the early signs, albeit against lesser opposition, are that the forward line is firing again. But it was eliminated by Atlético Madrid in the round of 16 the season before last, and this group will pose a serious test.
Atlético made the most of problems at Real Madrid and Barcelona to win La Liga last season. No Diego Simeone side will ever be anything other than well-organized and highly motivated, and Luis Suárez, even at 34, remains a player capable of turning games with a moment of brilliance. But Atlético hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinal since 2017, and recent exits to Chelsea and RB Leipzig have been limp.
Porto finished only second in Portugal last season, but Sérgio Conceição’s side impressed in the Champions League, eliminating Juventus and beating eventual champion Chelsea in their second leg before coming up short on aggregate. AC Milan may not be the side it once was, but returning to the Champions League after seven years is a major landmark in its rebirth under Stefano Pioli, and its presence in the fourth pot makes this arguably the deepest and most balanced group in the competition.
Predicted order of finish: Liverpool, Atlético Madrid, Porto, AC Milan
Group C is perhaps the hardest to call. Borussia Dortmund is the side with the highest coefficient. Marco Rose has arrived as coach, but for all the promise he has shown at Red Bull Salzburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, he is as hampered as every previous coach by the economics of Dortmund, which saw Jadon Sancho depart. Forward Donyell Malen has arrived from PSV Eindhoven in his place, and the club at the very least managed to keep its promise to retain Erling Haaland, last season’s top scorer in the competition.
The Pot 1 side is Sporting, which last season won its first Portuguese title in 19 years, a remarkable achievement for coach Rúben Amorim. It has largely managed to keep a young squad together. Ajax, meanwhile, won the Eredivisie by 16 points last season and it, too, has largely been able to keep its squad together. Most vitally, Erik ten Haag remains manager despite widespread interest from elsewhere. Beşiktaş claimed the Turkish title on goal difference last season, and has strengthened, most notably by picking up Michy Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea.
Predicted order of finish: Dortmund, Ajax, Sporting, Beşiktaş
This group feels very familiar, with three of the sides having been drawn together last season (itself perhaps an indication of the stratification of European competition, with similar sides often in the same seeding pots). Back then, Real Madrid lost twice to Shakhtar Donetsk but still went through, while Inter finished fourth. If there is substance to Madrid’s bid for Mbappé, then that might change things, but for now Madrid looks like an aging squad struggling for consistency.
Although Inter won Serie A for the first time since 2010, it has since lost its manager, Antonio Conte, as well as two key players in Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi. Edin Dzeko has arrived, as have Denzel Dumfries and Hakan Çalhanoğlu, and Simone Inzaghi is an intriguing replacement for Conte, but this feels like a club undergoing a major reset. Lassina Traore and Marlon were the two big arrivals for Shakhtar, whose run of four straight Ukrainian titles ended last season. It beat Monaco in the last playoff round, but only after another all-too-familiar error from veteran goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov. Sheriff beat Dinamo Zagreb in the playoff to become the first Moldovan side to reach the group stage and is the minnow of the quartet.
Predicted order of finish: Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sheriff
Bayern should win a 10th successive Bundesliga title this season, and so its new coach, Nagelsmann, faces the familiar problem of being judged almost entirely on European performance. There are mitigating factors, but Nagelsmann’s Leipzig was outclassed by Liverpool last season and PSG the previous year. The question is whether that was an issue of quality or tactical setup. Upamecano has arrived to take the place vacated in the defense by David Alaba.
The group, though, should not be too testing. For the first time since 2003, Barcelona will begin a Champions League campaign without Lionel Messi—and even with him it lost 8–2 last time it faced Bayern. Memphis Depay and Sergio Agüero have arrived, but this is a lesser experienced and accomplished squad than Barcelona is accustomed to fielding. Dynamo Kiev, managed by Romanian veteran Mircea Lucescu, lost just once in reclaiming the Ukrainian title after five years last season, while Benfica, having welcomed back Jorge Jesus after his stint at Flamengo, where he lifted the Copa Libertadores, only came third in Portugal last season.
Predicted order of finish: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev, Benfica
Still sore from the failure to make it through the group stage last season, despite winning in Paris and hammering Leipzig at home, Manchester United might have wished for a kinder draw this time. With the arrivals of Raphaël Varane and Sancho there can be no more excuses for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. This is an excellent squad, and he needs to get it performing consistently.
United did get to the Europa League final last season, but there it was beaten by Villarreal, which the Pot 1 club drawn into this group. The Yellow Submarine may have come seventh in La Liga last season, but Unai Emery is a canny operator in European competition, having won the secondary tournament four times and reached the final on one other occasion.
Atalanta has been one of the great stories of recent European football, regularly over-performing its budget under Gian Piero Gasperini. Center back Cristian Romero has gone to Tottenham, but Atalanta is a side based on perpetual transition. Young Boys, meanwhile, won the Swiss title by 31 points last season, losing just twice, but its coach Gerardo Seoane has moved to Bayer Leverkusen and been replaced by German American David Wagner. Domestic form has been patchy so far—four points from three games—but Young Boys won 3-2 home and away against Ferencvaros to reach the group stage for just the second time. It features U.S. striker Jordan Pefok, who will be tested on this stage for the first time.
Predicted order of finish: Manchester United, Atalanta, Villarreal, Young Boys
Group G represents a major chance for RB Salzburg to make it through the group stage for the first time, having drawn probably the weakest sides from Pot 1 and Pot 2. Lille’s success in winning the French title last season was borderline miraculous, given a wage bill about an eighth of that of PSG and, already, reality looks to be setting in. Christoph Galtier quit as manager at the end of the season, replaced by Jocelyn Gourvennec, while Boubakary Soumare, Mike Maignan and Luiz Araújo have all been sold. Although it edged a watered-down PSG in the Trophée des Champions, it has started its Ligue 1 title defense with a loss and two draws.
Sevilla got within nine points of Spanish champion Atlético last season and it has started this season with a pair of victories, but Bryan Gil left for Tottenham, with Rafa Mir and Gonzalo Montiel the notable arrivals. Wolfsburg, meanwhile, finished fourth in Germany last season, and its coach Oliver Glasner has moved to Frankfurt with Mark van Bommel replacing him.
Salzburg is becoming a regular presence in the group stage thanks to the investment of Red Bull. It had won five out of five in the league this season so far and saw off Brøndby in a qualifying playoff despite the usual high turnover of players and the sales of its two highly rated Zambians, Patson Daka (to Leicester City) and Enock Mwepu (to Brighton). U.S. midfielder Brenden Aaronson scored in each leg of the last round of qualifying, and he’s joined in this group by countrymen John Brooks (Wolfsburg) and Tim Weah (Lille).
Predicted order of finish: Salzburg, Sevilla, Wolfsburg, Lille
The addition of Romelu Lukaku gives Chelsea an attacking edge it lacked last season and that should make this an even better side than the one that won the Champions League.
Its success was rooted in the tactical intelligence of its play and the way in which, under Thomas Tuchel, it was able to combine a pressing game with something more restrained. The semifinal against Real Madrid was a masterclass in holding an opponent at arm’s length.
Max Allegri is back managing Juventus after a two-year absence in which the club suffered two last-16 exits in the Champions League and let a nine-year stranglehold on the scudetto slip away. The gamble on getting rid of him to bring European success has failed but was easily rectified; the other, splurging a fortune on Ronaldo, and so hampering the club tactically and financially, may not be.
The two superclubs should go nevertheless. Zenit lost only three games as it claimed a third successive Russian league title under Sergei Semak, with Artem Dzyuba and Sardar Azmoun a prolific strike pairing, but it was poor in the Champions League last season, collecting a single point from six group games. Jon Dahl Tomasson’s Malmö had to pass through four rounds of qualifying just to reach the group stage and is a clear underdog.
Predicted order of finish: Chelsea, Juventus, Zenit, Malmö
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