- The Champions League draw yielded some straightforward groups and some intriguing sets of matchups. Here's who we see moving on to the knockout stage.
Another edition of the UEFA Champions League begins on Tuesday, with the group stage kicking off the long road to Kiev.
The group stage has lost much of its unpredictability over the years, with the new seeding system and the financial gap between Europe's elite and it's wannabe powers proving to make for a rather straightforward exercise. That said, there's a reason they play the games, and this season's group stage has some intriguing ones in store. Big-spending PSG is paired with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus go head-to-head, and two-time reigning champion Real Madrid was "rewarded" with a group featuring Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham. Add in the return of storied English powers Liverpool and Manchester United to the group stage, and there's reason for excitement once you hear that timeless anthem.
Here's who we think will be moving on to the knockout round–and the third-place finishers who will drop down to the Europa League knockout stage:
Basel, Benfica, CSKA Moscow, Manchester United
Everything seems to be coming up Jose Mourinho's way these days. Manchester United is off to a riveting start in Premier League play, and the draw was quite kind to the Red Devils, who earned their way back to the continent's top competition by winning the Europa League title. With Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic settling in perfectly, Paul Pogba off to an inspired start to the season and Mourinho's methods taking hold, Man United has a launchpad from which it can reach the knockout stage–and make some noise when it gets there.
FIRST: Manchester United
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Basel
Anderlecht, Bayern Munich, Celtic, PSG
The Bayern-PSG dynamic is going to be great, and getting to watch 180 minutes of the two power sides duking it out should be a treat. All eyes will be on what PSG is able to accomplish in this competition, with its last semifinal appearance coming some 22 years ago and the club assuming all the pressure in the world after its summer spending spree to land Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Dani Alves will make plenty of a difference of his own, in time, and while there's plenty of reason to believe PSG will blow away its lesser foes, Bayern has the chops to expose PSG more than its Ligue 1 opponents have thus far, though, while providing PSG a checklist for what it needs to do to succeed in the stage that truly matters.
FIRST: Bayern Munich
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Anderlecht
Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Roma, Qarabag
Qarabag, the first Azerbaijan team to make the Champions League group stage, might be the story of the competition, but this is not the group from which one will stage an underdog run for the ages. The real intrigue will be which of the big three faces an early exit and faces an unwanted path into the Europa League waters. We'll give the edge to Diego Simeone's tested side, which always seems to find a way in this competition, and Antonio Conte's Chelsea, which has overcome some transfer disappointment and a shock season-opening loss to steady its ship.
FIRST: Atletico Madrid
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Roma
Barcelona, Juventus, Olympiakos, Sporting CP
Barcelona has bounced back from losing Neymar with a perfect 3-0-0 start in La Liga, where it's yet to concede, but all eyes will be on how the team fares on this stage without the Brazilian superstar. Ousmane Dembele is a fine signing, and he showed well for Dortmund on the big stage last season. With the pressure ramped up even more, can he be the third leg of the tripod that Barcelona's attack sorely needs? Juventus, meanwhile, may have had its back line gutted in losing Dani Alves and Leonardo Bonucci, but it reloaded in a shrewd way, added midfield clout in Blaise Matuidi and held onto Paulo Dybala in the transfer market. Last season's finalist has the pieces necessary to outlast Barcelona–it knocked Lionel Messi & Co. out in the quarterfinals last season, after all–but both should coast to the next stage. The only intrigue should be regarding whether Messi can finally score on Gianluigi Buffon and if Sporting's president has, shall we say, NSFW comments for any of the competition.
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Sporting CP
Liverpool, Maribor, Sevilla, Spartak Moscow
The ping pong balls fell Jurgen Klopp's way, with Liverpool given a very favorable path and arguably the least fearful seeded team in Spartak Moscow. Sevilla always poses a challenge on the European stage, but is removed from the Unai Emery-Jorge Sampaoli days and should be a very beatable foe for the Reds. Liverpool's defense is liable to be exposed on the European stage–just not in this group.
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Spartak Moscow
Feyenoord, Manchester City, Napoli, Shakhtar Donetsk
Pep Guardiola's side lucked out, like fellow Premier League side Liverpool, and drew a weak seeded-pot team in Shakhtar Donetsk. There's no question City is the class of the group and should coast, with Napoli posing the biggest threat. Shakhtar, with its typical heavy Brazilian contingent, is in fine form in its domestic league, and so, too, is Feyenoord, which is off to 4-0-0 start in its title defense and still boasts Eredivisie golden boot winner Nicolai Jorgensen. Neither will be a pushover, but there's a clear have and have-nots separation in the group.
FIRST: Manchester City
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Shakhtar Donetsk
Besiktas, Monaco, Porto, RB Leipzig
This is by far the most open group in the competition. There's no hands-down favorite, there's no hands-down last-place finisher and there are strengths all over the place. Nobody is going to want to come to Besiktas to play against a battled-hardened side, whose summer additions of Gary Medel and Pepe have strengthened the core of the side. Monaco lost just about everyone from its semifinal team from last season–but it's still very good! And the wide array of additions, while they'll need time to gel, still make for an intriguing and competitive team. Porto remains CONCACAF's Team–with the Mexican quartet of Jesus Corona, Hector Herrera, Diego Reyes and Miguel Layun–and, despite losing goal machine Andre Silva, has gotten off to a perfect start in league play. Then there's the wildcard of RB Leipzig, which took the Bundesliga by storm last season and enters this competition for the first time powered by future Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita and German forward Timo Werner. If unpredictability is your thing, this is your group.
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: RB Leipzig
APOEL, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham
Poor Tottenham. The club's record in European play is not so sterling, and this is not a group conducive to improving that. Real Madrid and Dortmund are the class of the group, and for a second straight season they will meet in this stage. Dortmund outlasted the eventual champion in this phase has the ability to do so again with Real Madrid off to an even start to the season, despite losing Dembele. That may mean very little come the knockout round, of course. This group should be of interest to American fans, who get to watch Christian Pulisic be tested in four matches against Real and Tottenham.
FIRST: Borussia Dortmund
SECOND: Real Madrid
TO EUROPA LEAGUE: Tottenham
FIRST PLACE FINISHERS
Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Porto, Borussia Dortmund
SECOND PLACE FINISHERS
Benfica, PSG, Chelsea, Barcelona, Sevilla, Napoli, Monaco, Real Madrid
ONTO EUROPA LEAGUE
Basel, Anderlecht, Roma, Sporting CP, Spartak Moscow, Shakhtar Donetsk, RB Leipzig, Tottenham
Let the games begin!