Last year, Bayern Munich was trying to make history by becoming the first team in the Champions League era to defend its crown. This season, Real Madrid is in the same position. Once again, Europe’s elite competition is impossible to call, and the draw, which took place in Monaco on Thursday afternoon, did little to solve the conundrum. Here is our breakdown of the Champions League group stages.
Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiacos, Malmo
Overview: The only group which contains four league champions, this won't be a cake-walk for last year’s runner-up Atletico, who has lost Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa but strengthened with Jan Oblak, Antoine Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and, crucially, managed to hold onto key players such as Diego Godin and Koke, a €50M target for Barcelona. Can Atletico repeat last season’s success? It has enough to top this group and leave second place a fight between Olympiacos, who threatened to knock out Manchester United in this competition last season, and Italian champion Juventus, which has under-performed in Europe under previous boss Antonio Conte, but will be looking to return to its former glory with controversial appointment Massimiliano Allegri. Swedish side Malmo reached the 1979 European Cup final, but this is its first outing in the Champions League.
The big question: Will Allegri, in his first season at Juventus, go further than Conte in Europe?
Tip to progress: Atletico Madrid, Juventus
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Group B: Real Madrid, FC Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
Overview: This is the group in which everyone ends up happy. Holder Real Madrid avoids a banana-skin side from Pot 2, while FC Basel and Liverpool, back in the competition after a five-year absence, will both see chances to progress. But perhaps the story here is the unlikely presence of Bulgarian champion Ludogorets, who qualified in the most unlikely manner: Needing a last-minute equalizer against Steaua Bucharest, and then a penalty shootout in which center back Cosmin Moti went in goal (after the regular goalkeeper was sent off), only to save two penalties. His reward? A trip to Santiago Bernabeu and Anfield — well deserved.
The big question:
Liverpool may not have Luis Suarez, but can Mario Balotelli help it leapfrog FC Basel and get out of this group?
Tip to progress: Real Madrid, Liverpool
Group C: Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco
Overview: This is the group for Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese super-agent who moves players from Benfica to Zenit — like Ezequiel Garay this summer — and helps Monaco with its recruitment, too. Whether Radamel Falcao and, indeed, Joao Moutinho will be Monaco players when these games kick off is in Mendes' hands. Monaco, after last summer's spending spree, has become a selling club now, and it's Bayer Leverkusen, who bought Josip Drmic and the highly-rated playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu this summer, who could threaten Andre Villas-Boas’s hopes of reaching the knockout phase.
The big question: Will Villas Boas get the redemption he craves in this competition and earn a Round of 16 tie against Chelsea so he can beat Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich?
Tip to progress: Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen
Group D: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
A repeat of last season for the top-two seeds, which came down to the final minute of the sixth matchday, when a Kevin Grosskreutz goal against Marseille left Arsenal in second place and facing a Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich. The challenge for Arsene Wenger’s side is to go one better this time around, but that won’t be easy: Dortmund has lost Robert Lewandowski, but the 2013 runner-up has its strongest squad in the Jurgen Klopp era, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrykh Mkhitaryan starting their second seasons strongly. It’s also a tough draw for Galatasaray's new coach Cesare Prandelli, but the Turkish champion could play a decisive role and could trip up the favorites.
The big question: Will Arsenal top its group?
Tip to progress: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund
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Group E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Roma
Overview: A sense of déjà vu here as the first three teams drawn out faced each other last season. But instead of Viktoria Plzen comes the potential banana-skin of Roma, a side that combines the know-how of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi with the unpredictability of Miralem Pjanic and Gervinho. It will be a fascinating Champions League debut for Roma's Englishman abroad, Ashley Cole, but can the Italian title contender really upset the apple cart and finish ahead of the English and German champion? If it does, it would be Rudi Garcia’s finest achievement yet.
And what of the big two? Both coaches are in season two, and Manuel Pellegrini's project looks the more stable; City has strengthened well this summer, and is no longer so reliant on the Hart-Kompany-Yaya-Aguero spine as it was 12 months ago. As for Bayern, this season, Pep Guardiola is going for a 3-4-3 system, with new players Mehdi Benatia (ex-Roma), Xabi Alonso and Lewandowski set for major roles. The players it has unavailable — the likes of Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago Alcantara — are fantastic. This season, Bayern is once again the team to beat.
The big question: With Europe a priority this season, will Pellegrini come under pressure if City fails to reach the quarterfinals?
Tip to progress: Bayern Munich, Manchester City
Group F: Barcelona, PSG, Ajax, Apoel Nicosia
Overview: A narrow second in the 'Group of Death' category, this came so close to becoming the 'Group of Zlatan,' as the PSG forward faces former clubs Barcelona and Ajax. Ibrahimovic almost completed the full set — with Malmo, where he began his career, drawn just after Apoel — but it will be enough for him to dominate the narrative in Spain and Amsterdam.
This is year five of the PSG owners' project; the year it wanted to seriously challenge for this competition. In 2014, it was a few minutes from knocking out Chelsea in the quarterfinals; one year earlier, PSG lost to Barcelona only on away goals. This is also a tough test for Luis Enrique, the new Barcelona coach whose job is not just to get the best out of Lionel Messi again, but also to sort out a defensive mess that Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu are expected to shore up. Ajax could take points off the big two, but probably not enough to qualify.
The big question: Will the Neymar-Messi-Suarez partnership fire Barcelona to success again?
Tip to progress: Barcelona, PSG
Group G: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting, Maribor
In terms of where teams finished in their leagues, this comes out as the weakest group of the lot — Chelsea and Schalke finished third, Sporting second and only Maribor was champion — but that won’t bother Jose Mourinho one bit. His side lost home and away to FC Basel last season but still topped its group. Second place is up for grabs, though, with Celtic's conquerors Maribor a dark horse that could trouble up-and-coming Sporting — despite losing some of its stars from last season — and a Schalke side that seems permanently in the shadow of Germany's big two, with a coach, Jens Keller, whose approval rating always seems to hover on the cusp.
The big question: Can Nani help Sporting reach the last 16?
Tip to progress: Chelsea, Schalke 04
Group H: FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE
Overview: This group has a Spanish feel. Athletic, who beat Napoli in qualifying, is the tough pick from Pot 3 that could trouble Shakhtar Donetsk. The Ukrainian side is far from the creative force of a few years ago, as it has lost players looking to leave the crisis-hit country. Last Saturday, Shakhtar's Donbass Arena was damaged by bombs, and games will likely take place in the 35,000-seat Lviv arena. Porto was one of the weaker sides in Pot 1, but has an interesting experiment in place; after a dismal last season, it has appointed former Spanish Under-21 boss Julen Lopetegui as coach and hired young Spanish talent like Casimiro, Oliver Torres, Adrian Lopez and Cristian Tello. Also look out for dynamic new forward Vincent Aboubakar.
The big question: Can the Spanish revolution at Porto last the distance?
Tip to progress: FC Porto, Athletic Bilbao