- The field of 32 is set, the groups are drawn and again we're left with multiple top-heavy quartets in the UEFA Champions League. A pair of evenly balanced groups and some tantalizing head-to-head matchups makes for an intriguing stage, though. Here's who we see making it through to the knockout rounds.
The group stage of the Champions League can feel at times like a frustrating procession, but after Thursday's draw in Monaco at least two of this season's groups look wide open, while the presence of Real Madrid, Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid in the second pot of seeds means at least a handful of major games will take place before Christmas.
Here's a closer look at the eight groups drawn and who the favorites to go through to the knockout stage will be:
PSG, Real Madrid, Club Brugge, Galatasaray
There’s no doubting the stand-out fixture in Group A, where Paris Saint-Germain will meet Real Madrid in a repeat of the last-16 tie of 2017-18 when Madrid won handsomely. The PSG project has gone badly of the rails in recent seasons, with constant success in France habitually exposed as soon as it faced an elite team in Europe, while the Neymar circus proved to be an ever-growing distraction. His probable departure may clarify some minds. Madrid is also a club in turmoil. Zinedine Zidane may have won the Champions League on each of the three occasions he’s managed in it, but he returned to the job with the understanding there would be a major squad overhaul that simply hasn’t happened in full despite a summer that has featured some major signings. There’s more than enough talent at the club to achieve great things, but the mood is wrong, and it’s hard to see aging limbs being able to compete on two fronts.
The draw, though, has been relatively kind. Club Brugge responded to coming second in the Belgian League last season by appointing the manager of the champion, Genk's Philippe Clement. His biggest task is finding a way of replicating the physical heft and goals brought by Wesley Moraes, who was sold to Aston Villa. In a world of change, some things remain eternal: last season, for the ninth time, Fatih Terim led Galatasaray to the Turkish title. It was a far from emphatic success, though, and this season Galatasaray has started the season with a draw and a defeat from its opening two games.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: PSG and Real Madrid
Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Olympiakos, Red Star Belgrade
Like Group A, Group B features two big sides whose meetings will no doubt draw a lot of attention, but also two weaker teams whose presence means whatever happens between the giants, they should both still go through. After seven league titles in a row, Bayern is another club that needs European success for validation. The arrival of France’s World Cup-winning fullbacks, Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, plus the loan signing of a pair of classy midfielders in Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic, makes the squad look rather better balanced and less superannuated than it has for some time.
Tottenham’s struggle is where it goes next after reaching the final of the Champions League last season. Spurs have beaten Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Ajax in recent seasons, so nobody will regard them as the soft touch they once were, and they have bolstered the squad with Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon, but their start to the season has been oddly flat.
For the first time since 2010, Olympiakos goes into a European campaign not as champions, after PAOK won the league last season. Pedro Martins’s side impressed in the qualifiers, though, conceding only one goal in six games, and that came after the tie against Krasnodar, conquerors of Porto, had been long since won. Last season was Red Star Belgrade’s first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 1992, and that it is here again suggests the growing stability at the club. It has won four out of four at the start of the Serbian league season.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: Bayern Munich and Tottenham
Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta
The Champions League is becoming an increasing fixation for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola. City has never won it, while Guardiola, despite winning a string of domestic championships in comprehensive style, has not won it since 2011. At times fortune has been against the club, and him in particular, but recently it has seemed he has overthought key games, as though continued near misses have fostered a doubt he never usually betrays. City begins with familiar enough opponents, drawing Shakhtar for the third straight season. City has won three of the previous four meetings. After the departure of Paulo Fonseca for Roma, Shakhtar made the slightly surprising decision to appoint 57-year-old Portuguese coach Luis Castro, but after defeat to Dynamo Kiev in the Super Cup, he has won five out of five in the league, despite a number of key departures over the past couple of summers.
The rest of the group should carry little fear for City as well. Dinamo Zagreb has won 13 of the last 14 Croatian league titles, but it’s taken only four points from 18 games in the group stage of the Champions League, and there’s little reason to see that record changing. Atalanta was the great surprise qualifier from Serie A last year, playing exciting, hard-pressing football under Gian Piero Gasperini. The addition of Colombian forward Luis Muriel adds depth to a squad that has been pruned this summer without losing any of the lodestones of last season, but this is the Bergamo club’s first appearance on this stage.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk
Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow
When it paid $110 million for a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2018, Juventus made an enormous gamble on winning the Champions League before age overcomes him. After a disappointing quarterfinal exit to Ajax last season, it’s doubled down on that goal, something that has led to Moise Kean leaving and Paulo Dybala being touted around. And that means there is pressure, particularly given that a ninth straight league title is almost taken for granted.
It has been drawn with the side it beat in the last 16 last season, Atletico Madrid, which had an extraordinary summer. Although Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin and Rodri left, the arrival of Joao Felix for $140 million still made this feel an exciting summer. There has been a shift in the profile of the squad toward a more exciting, creative one, and, if that can be married to Diego Simeone’s habitual defensive solidity, Atletico could be a major force this season.
Again, the sides from Pots 3 and 4 are likely to be awkward rather than threatening. The key for Bayer Leverkusen this summer was keeping hold of exciting young forward Kai Havertz, whose goals were a major reason it finished fourth in Germany last season. Leverkusen has all the hallmarks of a Peter Bosz side: very good going forward but open at the back. It’s begun this season with two wins.
Lokomotiv Moscow, meanwhile, continues to benefit from the impact of its veteran coach Yuri Semin. Although it was unable to defend its Russian league title last season, Lokomotiv came second and won the domestic cup. Having signed Polish midfielder Gzregorz Krychowiak from PSG, it leads a tightly bunched domestic league this season.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: Juventus and Atletico Madrid
Liverpool, Napoli, Salzburg, Genk
For defending champion Liverpool, the priority this season is trying to reclaim the domestic league title it last won in 1990, but given how dominant Manchester City looks, retaining the Champions League is perhaps an easier target. Beyond bolstering the ranks of the backup goalkeeper, there have been no senior signings, but this is a young squad that has assimilated Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy–and, of course, one of its finest nights came last time the final was played in Istanbul as it will be again on May 30 of next year.
The draw reunites Liverpool with Napoli, whom it beat 1-0 in the final group game to reach the knockout stage last season. For Carlo Ancelotti’s side, keeping hold of Kalidou Koulibaly this summer has been vital, and his pairing with Kostas Manolas, signed from Roma, should provide a solid defensive base–not that there was much sign of that on the opening weekend of the season as Napoli beat Fiorentina 4-3. This time, though, there is no PSG in the group, and both the top seeds should make it through.
After years of trying, Red Bull Salzburg has finally made the group stage for the first time since 1994-95, long before it was taken over by the energy drink company. It's dominated recent Austrian history, winning the Bundesliga in each of the last seven seasons, and its place in this group gives American manager Jesse Marsch the chance to match wits with the likes of Klopp and Ancelotti.
Although Genk put Tottenham out of the Europa League in 2017, last season was its first Belgian league title in eight years and only its fourth ever. The sale of Leandro Trossard to Brighton significantly weakens its attacking options, while the manager who led it to glory, Clement, has decamped to Club Brugge.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: Liverpool and Napoli
Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague
What happened to Barcelona at Anfield last season had been coming for a while. There has been an issue in the midfield that rendered it vulnerable to pace, which is one of the reasons it signed Frenkie De Jong. It's early days yet, but the evidence of two league games so far is that the transition remains awkward. The potential arrival of Neymar is exciting but also potentially disruptive, and this is an undoubtedly tricky group.
There was a danger that having come so close to the Bundesliga title last season only to falter that Borussia Dortmund might have felt that was its best chance to overtake Bayern Munich. The arrivals of Mats Hummels, Thorgan Hazard and Nico Schulz this summer means Dortmund probably is stronger now than it was then, though.
It says much for Inter’s recent travails that it finds itself in Pot 3, but with Antonio Conte on the bench, Romelu Lukaku leading the line and Diego Godin in the back four, this is a far more threatening-looking side than Inter has had for some time. The outlier in this tough group is Slavia Prague. After reclaiming the Czech League last season, it has enjoyed a fine start to the defense of its crown and is already five points clear at the top of the table, having dropped just two points in seven games so far.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund
Zenit-St. Petersburg, Benfica, RB Leipzig, Lyon
This is perhaps the most evenly matched group. RB Leipzig is probably the toughest team from Pot 4, widely expected to challenge in the Bundesliga this season after having appointed Julian Nagelsmann as coach. A pair of wins to start the league season has underlined its credentials, and the draw must give it reason for optimism. Zenit St Petersburg was considered to be the weakest Pot 1 side. Sergei Semak won the league in his first season as manager there, since when he has bolstered his squad by added Malcom from Barcelona and Douglas Santos from Hamburg.
Benfica is the only Portuguese representative after Porto’s surprise exit in the qualifying phase. Bruno Lage replaced Rui Vitoria in January and led Benfica to the title, but his main task is finding a way of replacing the brilliant young talent Joao Felix, who was sold to Atletico Madrid. The group is completed by Lyon, which started the season spectacularly, seemingly inspired by the return to the club as sporting director by its former legend, Juninho Pernambucano. Although Ndombele left for Tottenham, he has been replaced by Thiago Mendes, and nine goals scored with none conceded in the first two games of the season suggested great things ahead until defeat at Montpellier last weekend brought a dash of realism.
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: RB Leipzig and Lyon
Chelsea, Ajax, Valencia, Lille
Group H vies with Group G as the hardest to call. Chelsea, the Europa League champion, has lost Eden Hazard, on whom so much of its attacking play was based last season and, although U.S. star Christian Pulisic has been brought in, a subsequent transfer ban has limited what could be done to improve the squad elsewhere. Frank Lampard is inexperienced as a manager and has never taken charge of a game in Europe before, and the evidence of the early part of the season suggests that his team will be very open.
For Ajax, the much-feared mass exodus did not take place after the club was within reach of making it to the final last season. Crown jewels Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt did leave, though, and Ajax was forced to come through a tough second qualifying round, beating Greek champion PAOK 5-4 on aggregate, before a more straightforward tie against APOEL in the final quailfying stage.
Although it’s started the season slowly, Valencia is a club on the upswing, having reached the Europa League semifinal last season and having brought in Eliaquim Mangala, Denis Cheryshev and Jasper Cillesen. Lille looks less of a threat. It finished second behind Paris Saint-Germain last season, but since then has lost Thiago Mendes, Nicolas Pepe and Rafael Leao.
This group has the distinction of featuring three Americans, with Pulisic, Sergino Dest (Ajax) and Tim Weah (Lille).
PREDICTED TO GO THROUGH: Chelsea and Ajax