There was a twist to the Champions League group stage draw in Monaco Thursday. UEFA’s new seeding regulations meant that only reigning champions would be picked from Pot 1, leaving some dangerous contenders in the lower pots. And so it proved, as Manchester City was drawn with Juventus and Sevilla while Real Madrid drew Paris Saint-Germain and Shakhtar Donetsk.
The draw resulted in some intriguing individual storylines, powerhouses going up against one another and the first steps on the road to the San Siro.
Here is a rundown of each group, with picks to advance to the knockout stage:
PSG, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmo
Overview: Last season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s PSG faced Ajax and Barcelona and was only one team away from drawing his first club Malmo to complete a trip of all his former clubs. This time around, after Malmo got past Red Bull Salzburg and Celtic in qualifying, he will be able to return home. And his team won’t be able to afford any slip-ups, given it has drawn the toughest non-champion side from Pot 2, Real Madrid.
Even though new coach Rafa Benitez has some selection dilemmas to resolve, including how to get the best out of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo (which will be easier once the still underrated Karim Benzema returns to fitness), Madrid was the team to avoid in Pot 2. It will be the favorite to top the group, while French leader PSG must beware of Shakhtar, whose canny boss Mircea Lucescu was on a shortlist of potential bosses before Laurent Blanc took over.
Matchup to watch: PSG vs. Real Madrid. In two of the last three seasons, PSG has played Barcelona so it’s a relief that there is no repeat of the Qatar Derby, as the match was nicknamed. Real Madrid is still one of the top three sides in the competition and this encounter will be an opportunity to see if PSG is closing the gap at all.
Tipped to progress: Real Madrid, PSG
PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Wolfsburg
Overview: Louis van Gaal, lucky? He would not admit to it, but after a lackluster Manchester United side finished fourth last season–partly down to the heroics of David de Gea, partly down to inexplicable losses of form of Liverpool and Tottenham–and a decent draw in the qualifying playoff (it faced Brugge and avoided Monaco and Lazio), the Dutchman lucked out again.
United arguably drew the most attractive "champion" side in PSV, giving Memphis Depay an early chance to remind the Dutch side of what it is missing. And PSV is missing him, given its two draws in first three league games this season. CSKA Moscow, which beat Sporting in qualifying, is always a tricky trip, while Wolfsburg is an intriguing one.
The German runner-up, and German SuperCup winner, is on the verge of selling Kevin de Bruyne for up to €80m, but who will replace him? Will Wolfsburg try and buy Mario Goetze from Bayern Munich over the weekend? Or Julian Draxler from Schalke? Whoever joins in the next few days–assuming the KDB deal goes through–could determine the Wolves’ fate. As it stands, it’s in a good position to qualify.
Matchup to watch: PSV vs. Manchester United. One for the sentimental, and a chance to see Depay strut his stuff against his former teammates. Depay could have left PSV in the summer of 2014, just after the World Cup, but he waited one more year, and fulfilled his ambition of winning the Dutch title and and the league's Golden Boot. He was crucial to getting PSV into Pot 1–now his job is to knock it out.
Tipped to progress: Manchester United, Wolfsburg
Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray, Astana
Overview: It’s lucky for Benfica that the Portuguese league helps before Champions League rounds, often allowing competing sides to play league games on Friday nights to allow extra preparation time. Benfica will need it; as the western-most side in the draw, it was somehow inevitable that it would face Kazakh debutant Astana, the eastern-most team, which makes for a 10-hour flight of around 3,900 miles to a different time zone.
As if that were not bad enough, that’s supposedly the easy game for Benfica! It also faces 2014 runner-up Atletico Madrid and Galatasaray. Atletico is in the group just below the big three among the contenders this season, and after smart recruitment this summer–with Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto boosting a forward-line that already has Antoine Griezmann and the fit-again Angel Correa–should top the group.
Could Gala topple Benfica for second? Coach Hamza Hamzaoglu said, “Compared to other groups, this one seems relatively easy.” Let’s see what he says in December.
Matchup to watch: Benfica vs. Galatasaray. This could be a winner-takes-all for qualification, though Benfica’s coach might change by the time this game comes around. Rui Vitoria received the dreaded vote of confidence this week after two defeats–one in the SuperCup to rivals Sporting, now coached by former Benfica boss Jorge Jesus - in the opening three games. It could be a tricky post-Jesus transition for Benfica, and Galatasaray might just benefit.
Tipped to progress: Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray
Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Moenchengladbach
Overview: Ouch! Every competition has the Group of Death and this is it. This is toughest on Sevilla, who last season won the Europa League for a second straight time and became the first to receive a free pass into the Champions League group stage. Some reward! It's also tough on Man City, which failed to get out of the group stage twice in the last four years (and when it did get out, it drew Barcelona both times).
City coach Manuel Pellegrini has admitted that progress in Europe is important this season, and the team has started the Premier League like a train, with Yaya Toure reborn, Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala powerful at the back and Raheem Sterling impressing since his move from Liverpool. De Bruyne’s likely arrival further boosts the squad (as does the signing of Nicolas Otamendi), and while the draw is a tough one, there will be no excuse for Pellegrini to fail.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Juventus released Carlos Tevez before a return to City. Instead, the Italian champion will face another of its own ex-players, with Fernando Llorente just joining Sevilla. Knowing what damage its own Alvaro Morata did to former club Real Madrid last season, last year’s runner-up will have to pay the Spaniard extra attention.
Matchup to watch: Juventus vs. Manchester City. A tie worthy of the knockout stage, with Paul Pogba taking on Yaya Toure it will be a clash of the titans (and the prototype modern midfielders) in every way. For all the money City has spent this summer, it is still a very different prospect if Sergio Aguero is injured; keep the Argentine fit, and this squad could go deep this season.
Tipped to progress: Manchester City, Juventus
2015-16 UEFA Champions League Teams
Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, BATE Borisov
Overview: As in the past, Roma was the team to avoid from Pot 3, but after last season’s European humbling, losing 7-1 at home to Bayern Munich and then 2-0 at home to Manchester City, feels less dangerous this time around. Kevin Strootman is still out injured, Gervinho’s moments of genius are ever-more fleeting and this is a make-or-break season for coach Rudi Garcia.
The sight of Leverkusen, magnificently drilled by Roger Schmidt, dismantling Lazio 3-0 in qualifying will not have helped Roman nerves; and nor will the news that Leverkusen is likely to replace Tottenham-bound Son Heung-Min with Dortmund’s Kevin Kampl, a reunion for the Slovakian with his former Red Bull Salzburg boss.
Can any of them compete with reigning champion Barcelona? Well, we’re unlikely to see a repeat of the 7-1 thrashing that Barcelona gave Leverkusen in the 2012 round of 16, when Lionel Messi scored five goals.
Barcelona is a little threadbare at the moment, as injuries and suspensions have already bitten and it’s unable to select new players until its transfer ban is lifted in January.
Barcelona should still have enough for top spot–and a reunion for Barca boss Luis Enrique, back at Roma as a European champion. Bet Roma never thought they’d see the day…
Matchup to watch: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Roma
There’s a reason why Pep Guardiola has named Schmidt as one of his favorite coaches. Leverkusen plays a high-pressing game and in Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu, has two midfielders who will be stars of the future. It was unlucky that new signing Charles Aranguiz, a Copa America winner with Chile, is ruled out for six months. This tie could be one for second place, but expect the Germans to win out.
Tipped to progress: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen
Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb
Overview: Sound familiar? Once again, Bayern faces Arsenal but the good news, for Gunners fans at least, is that the two teams cannot now meet in the round of 16. That’s where Bayern eliminated Arsenal in 2013 and 2014. Instead the group stages sees, probably, the biggest gulf between top and bottom two, as the big clubs should cruise to qualification.
Olympiakos has shown in recent seasons that it can cause problems in Europe, but last season came unstuck in a Juventus/Atletico group and lost in the Europa League to eventual finalist Dnipro. For Dinamo, finishing third would be an achievement, but expect outside interest in Algerian striker Hillal Soudani, who scored 16 goals (and had 16 assists) last season, and already has three in European competition this season.
Matchup to watch: Bayern vs. Arsenal
Pep vs. Arsene. The German league champion against Per Mertesacker and Mesut Ozil. Two teams for whom performance often trumps results. Both should qualify, but in the past Arsenal has come unstuck by finishing second in the group (once by dropping points on Matchday Six with a very young team at Olympiakos).
Tipped to progress: Bayern Munich, Arsenal
Chelsea, FC Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi Tel Aviv
Overview: This is where the champion factor comes into play. Chelsea often gets good draws in the group stage and this is no different, with the extra drama that boss Jose Mourinho faces FC Porto, his former club and where he burst onto the European scene, winning the 2003 UEFA Cup and the 2004 Champions League. While that encounter will dominate the headlines, don’t forget that Porto goalkeeper is Iker Casillas, who was bombed out of the Real Madrid side Mourinho coached.
Expect some spicy interviews–“I have no grudge, I am just focusing on the game,” that kind of thing–in the build-up.
Dynamo Kiev is a dangerous outsider–and you can be sure Mourinho will gripe about the distance and the lack of assistance from the Premier League fixture compilers–especially if it can keep hold of winger Andriy Yarmolenko for the next few days.
There will also be a reunion for Maccabi Tel Aviv boss Slavisa Jokanovic, who played at Chelsea. He was responsible for the playoffs’ biggest shock, as Maccabi edged past FC Basel on away goals. It could challenge Dynamo for third and a place in the Europa League knockout stage.
Matchup to watch: FC Porto vs. Chelsea
Mourinho will meet Porto boss Julen Lopetegui, who was Barcelona goalkeeper when the Portuguese was working in Spain under Bobby Robson in 1996-97. Lopetegui impressed in Europe last season, and in Alberto Bueno and Gianelli Imbula, has signed some talented prospects this summer. Look out for Yacine Brahimi, a jet-heeled winger who saved his best for Europe last season. On current form, he will give Branislav Ivanovic nightmares.
Tipped to progress: Chelsea, FC Porto
Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Lyon, Gent
Overview: Too close to call, or too mediocre to care? That may be unfair, especially as the last few seasons in this competition has revealed a surprise finalist: Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Juventus (with Monaco in the quarters last year). Can any of these sides follow that? It’s unlikely, although Valencia is a team to watch with coach Nuno, (in)famous for being super-agent Jorge Mendes’s first client, impressing hugely at the Mestalla.
Zenit, under coach Andre Villas-Boas, gets the bounce of the champion in Pot 1, but last season underachieved in a similar group (with Benfica/Leverkusen/Monaco).
Lyon is a young side that has signed some proven talent this summer: Mathieu Valbuena, Rafael da Silva and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa the pick of them, but look out for Claudio Beauvue, a powerful winger/striker with an eye for goal. It has also kept Alexandre Lacazette, who needs a good season in Europe to justify his €40 million price tag. Belgian champion Gent has started slowly this season and is the longshot in the group.
Matchup to watch: Zenit vs. Valencia
Also known as the Jorge Mendes derby (as is Benfica vs. Atletico), these two sides have young Portuguese coaches and the talent to cause trouble in the last 16. Zenit still relies on Hulk for goals and power, while Valencia youngsters Paco Alacer, 21, and Andre Gomes, 22, could break out this season.
Tipped to progress: Valencia, Lyon