- The Champions League group stage has devolved into a rather predictable exercise, but the 2017-18 edition will still feature some marquee matchups with tasty storylines.
Well, it's the start of a new Champions League season. The draw for the group stage, if all were equitable and sensibly run, would be a highlight of the season, a moment at which all seemed possible, at which the everything was mapped out as pure potential and we envisaged a series of games in which giants wrestled for preferment and minnows stepped up to challenge them. But the financial reality has ruined all that.
Last season, in all but one of the eight groups, the two sides with the highest revenues went through to the knockout phase. Tottenham was the only exception, eliminated by Bayer Leverkusen. And if Tottenham underperforming is the most unpredictable thing to happen, a tournament really does have a problem. Once the group stage was genuinely fraught with peril for the big sides. Now we wonder whether Maribor, the Slovenian champion, and Qarabag, the first Azerbaijani side to reach this stage, will even muster a point. The vast disparity between the haves and the have-nots means that the group stage, which should be a challenge, feels like a 96-game trailer for the real event of the knockout stage.
That said, Tottenham, still struggling with playing at Wembley, could easily miss out again, having drawn both Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Madrid, the two-time defending champion, is seeking to be the first team to win three European titles in a row since Bayern Munich 1974-76. Although Madrid has won the Champions League in three of the last four seasons, there had been until last season a slight question mark about it, a sense that it had benefited from simply being rich enough to guarantee always being in the mix. There was no faking it last season, though, as Madrid beat Napoli, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages before hammering Juventus in the final. The suggestion from the start to this season, and victories in both the European and Spanish Super Cups is that its balance might be even better this season.
Dortmund underperformed by its own standards last season, finishing just third in the Bundesliga after a start to the season ravaged by injuries. Thomas Tuchel left at the end of the season and the early signs under Peter Bosz, who took Ajax to the Europa League final, have been positive.
Probably the most dangerous Pot 4 side was RB Leipzig, which finished second in Germany last season but, as a new club, is disadvantaged by a coefficient system designed to reinforce even further the strength of those who are already strong. Even so, it ended up with a relatively kind draw and an open group. It will play French champion Monaco, which will be much weaker this season after the loss of several key players–and potentially even more–and Monaco's fellow 2004 Champions league finalist Porto, as well as beefed-up Turkish side Besiktas.
Barcelona, having lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and wrought by boardroom unrest, is perhaps not quite the threat it usually is. It will play the losing finalist from last season, Juventus, whom it beat in the 2016 final but lost to in the 2017 quarterfinal. Olympiakos and Sporting are the sides looking to upset the two big guns, whose only uncertainty should be regarding which of the top two places they secure.
Neymar and PSG will have to face the might of Bayern Munich, as well as Anderlecht and the Scottish champion Celtic, which twice drew Manchester City in the competition last season under Brendan Rodgers and reached the group stage with an 8-4 aggregate win over Astana. Even so, it'd be a massive upset if PSG or Bayern fail to go through.
Premier League champion Chelsea faces a potentially awkward group with Atletico Madrid–twice a finalist in the last four years–Roma and Qarabag. Spice could be added by the ongoing stand-off between Chelsea and Atletico over the probable sale of the ostracized striker Diego Costa. Antonio Rudiger, signed by Chelsea in the summer from Roma, could line up against his former club. Roma is now managed by Eusebio Di Francesco, who did an excellent job at Sassuolo but is untested at this level. Chelsea and Atletico will be favored to progress.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has been relatively fortunate with the draw, facing Ukrainian champion Shakhtar, which is still unable to play at home because of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Napoli, though, is one of the tougher sides from Pot 3, with the group completed by the Dutch champion Feyenoord, which ended an 18-year league title drought last season. Considering the alternatives, Man City should be in fine shape.
Manchester United will also feel the draw could have been far worse. It will face a repeat of the 1968 European Cup final as it plays Portuguese champion Benfica, as well as Basel and CSKA Moscow. The fifth Premier League side, Liverpool, back in the group stage after a thrilling 6-3 aggregate qualifying victory over Hoffenheim, faces the team that beat it in the Europa League final two seasons ago, Sevilla. Jurgen Klopp's side had the fortune of drawing one of the two weakest Pot 1 teams in Russian champion Spartak Moscow in addition to Swedish upstart Maribor–a draw that is surely happily accepted at Anfield.