The Champions League group stages for the new season are set. Due to European football’s increasing stratification we get to see some repeat clashes, while some groups appear foregone conclusions. However, broaden your horizons and look at the group stages from the perspective of all 32 teams — not just the elite, and you get to see lots of novelty as well as opportunity for the unheralded sides.
Group A: Ajax, Liverpool, Napoli and Rangers
Liverpool have played both Ajax and Napoli in recent seasons with the Partenopei now facing off against Jurgen Klopp’s men for the third time in five seasons. Like Liverpool, Ajax won all six of their group stage games last season, but the step up in quality is significant this season. The Dutch champions are also weakened by their manager departing along with some key stars. British eyes will be focused on Liverpool against Rangers, as both Anfield and Ibrox are set for thunderous atmospheres in those games. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men are the true wild cards in the group, their performances in reaching the Europa League final and following it up by making it through three rounds of playoffs suggesting a canny tactical team that won’t be easy for opponents to break down. Luciano Spalletti pitting his wits against Klopp should excite neutrals in what will be a tough challenge for last year’s runners up as they lost on both their trips to Naples in 2018 and 2019.
Verdict — It appears to be a tricky group for Liverpool, though it was also the case for the Reds in the last two seasons where their experience at this stage saw them qualify comfortably. Napoli should take the other spot, but Rangers are an interesting outside bet.
Group B: Porto, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Club Brugge
Atletico and Porto faced off in two bad-tempered games last year and the same intensity can be expected when the Iberian rivals clash this time around. Leverkusen and Atletico participated in an epic penalty shootout in 2016, but both sides have underperformed in Europe since then. Club Brugge always put in at least one outstanding performance in the group stages, taking points off Real Madrid and PSG in the last two campaigns.
Verdict — Atletico and Leverkusen have the strongest squads but both have started the domestic campaign poorly. If Porto and Brugge deliver at home, this group could end up being very unpredictable.
Group C: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter and Viktoria Plzen
It just couldn’t have been written any differently. The moment Robert Lewandowski’s move from Bayern to Barca was finalized, it felt inevitable that the two European giants would face off at some point this season. Barca have been pulverized by Bayern in recent seasons, but surely getting the man at the heart of so much of that trauma gives them a chance of at least showing up. Inter are yet again in a group of death. Being in the same group as Barca in 2018 and 2019 meant the Nerazzurri missed out on qualification in heartbreaking fashion, but Simone Inzaghi’s side conquered their European demons last season, not only qualifying out of the group stages but also giving Liverpool a proper fright in the round of 16 when they won at Anfield. I’d give Lukaku and Lautaro a chance against any defence. A Czech side took points off both Inter and Barca in 2019, but Viktoria Plzen don’t possess the same quality that Slavia Prague had.
Verdict — Bayern haven’t lost a group stage game in forever, but can their exciting 4-2-2-2 formation hold up defensively against the attacks of Barca and Inter? I’d still back the Bavarians to come through, but Barca and Inter can throw a spanner in the works if they play at their best.
Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt, Tottenham, Sporting and Marseille
Spurs couldn’t have asked for a better group on their return to the Champions League. Even Antonio Conte’s miserable group stage record should improve with the opponents in this group. Tottenham’s biggest challenge may lay in the fact that they welcome three of Europe’s most passionate fanbases to London, but in terms of squad quality they are in another league compared to the other sides. Frankfurt are living the dream playing in this competition, but expect excellent atmospheres and Oliver Glasner’s men to give their all regardless of results. Sporting are weakened yet again by the necessary sales they have to do every summer, though in Ruben Amorim they possess an excellent coach. Marseille have also had a summer of upheaval, but the early signs under Igor Tudor are promising, and at the very least they should do better than 2020, when they humiliatingly lost all six games in the group stage.
Verdict — Spurs should seal top spot with room to spare, with second being anyone’s guess.
Group E: AC Milan, Chelsea, Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb
Milan and Chelsea play against each other for the first time since the 99 season. Considering the Italian giants dominance of this competition in the 2000s and Chelsea’s regular runs deep in the competition at the same time, it’s remarkable they have avoided each other for more than two decades. Neutrals will certainly be looking forward to both clashes between the Rossoneri and the Blues. Salzburg under Matthias Jaissle impressed many last season as they finally made it out of the group stages and will look to make life difficult for Milan and Chelsea when they visit Austria. Dinamo Zagred return after a few years, though their impact has been negligible in recent campaigns.
Verdict — Chelsea have too much experience to be unsettled by this group. Milan will be looking to make a much better impression than last season given their European pedigree, but Salzburg are tricky outsiders for second.
Group F: Real Madrid, Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk and Celtic
The Champions couldn’t have asked for a better group to ease into their campaign. Real love to take it slow during the group stages, but such is the strength in depth compared to their opponents that Carlo Ancelotti can once again prioritize La Liga while navigating Europe. Shakhtar have humiliated Real in recent seasons, but unfortunately due to geopolitical matters, the Ukrainian champions are a pale imitation of their recent sides. On paper Leipzig have the second best squad, but they have started the season poorly and rarely travel well. All of which gives Celtic a decent shot, where Parkhead is sure to be a daunting challenge for Leipzig and Shakhtar at the very least.
Verdict — An easy group win for Real, but Celtic could upset a mentally fragile Leipzig to second.
Group G: Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund and FC Copenhagen
When was the last time City had a truly challenging group? On paper, City facing Sevilla and Dortmund should excite the neutrals. After all City against Dortmund was a quarterfinal in 2021, with BVB themselves beating Sevilla in the round of 16 in the same campaign. But the mood is gloomy and squad issues very challenging for both Sevilla and Dortmund, making it hard to see how they can give City a game let alone take points off the English champions. Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether Copenhagen can take points off the Spanish and German sides when they visit Denmark, thus making them outsiders for qualification.
Verdict — Another dominant group win for City. Second should go to one of Dortmund or Sevilla, but I don’t say that with a lot of confidence.
Group H: PSG, Juventus, Benfica and Maccabi Haifa
Considering the dominance of their respective leagues over the last decade, its remarkable that PSG and Juventus have never faced off in the Champions League. That novelty alone makes this a clash to look forward to, but the stakes are amped up when you consider the players that have moved between the two clubs in recent seasons. Benfica remain tricky opponents however, with Roger Schmidt’s men playing a pro-active brand of football during the playoffs, meaning Juve and PSG can’t afford to take their eye off the ball, especially when they travel to Lisbon. Maccabi Haifa achieved their aims for the season by reaching here thanks to a dramatic last minute goal in Belgrade, but I can’t see them troubling the other three sides in the group.
Verdict — It’s tough to see past PSG and Juve, but Benfica can make things interesting if they upset the favourites at home.