After Liverpool’s indifferent start to the season, the Champions League offers little respite. With Erik ten Hag leaving after five seasons that have yielded a number of notable European results, Ajax are an unknown under Alfred Schreuder, who managed Hoffenheim and was an assistant at Ajax and Barcelona before overseeing the end of last season at Club Brugge. He plays the familiar Ajax style of football, but has to deal with the exodus of Lisandro Martínez, André Onana, Sébastien Haller, Noussair Mazraoui and Ryan Gravenberch, with Antony possibly joining them soon. Napoli, carried by Georgian wonderkid Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, still represents a tough journey, and the mood at Rangers, back in the group stages after 12 years, should be no less fervent.
Expected order: 1 liverpool 2 Naples 3 Ajax 4 Rangers
What Group B lacks in star power, it makes up for in intrigue. Sérgio Conçeiçao’s Porto have become a usually clumsy opponent in recent years, knocking out Juventus penultimate season. There has been the usual summer flow at the Portuguese champions, with six players leaving, including Fábio Vieira at Arsenal, and four players arriving, but domestic form has so far been unaffected, with three wins from three in championship. For Atlético, the story is a familiar one of whether Diego Simeone can evolve into a more progressive style, with financial pressures starting to bite. Bayer Leverkusen finished third in the Bundesliga and largely kept this team together, but this campaign started with four straight defeats. Club Brugge are Belgian champions, but with Carl Hoefkens replacing Schreuder as coach, it feels like a transitional season.
Expected order: 1 Port 2 Atletico 3 Leverkusen 4 Brugge
Hands down the most glamorous group, with 14 titles between the teams. For Barcelona, Bayern, who beat them twice in the group stage last season and handed them an 8-2 defeat in the 2020 quarter-finals, represents a useful test. After years of stagnation, Barca may be ready to compete with the top flight again, having brought in Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Franck Kessié, Andreas Christensen and Jules Koundé in a frankly inexplicable and highly risky spending spree. Inter beat Barça and Bayern en route to the 2010 title and took over the Romelu Lukaku-Lautaro Martínez partnership. Bayern, having signed Sadio Mané and Matthijs de Ligt, have started the season with three out of three wins, but domestic form is rarely a problem. The Czech champions, Viktoria Plzen, make up the group.
Expected order: 1 bavaria 2 Barca 3 Inter 4 Pilsen
For Tottenham, the draw could have been worse. They’ve got the stadium, they’ve got the manager and with the arrival of Richarlison, Yves Bissouma and Ivan Perisic maybe now they can seriously challenge again but in terms of progress maybe the most important thing is to have attracted Eintracht Frankfurt, the weaker Pot 1 sides. They came 11th in the Bundesliga last season, lost Filip Kostic and are yet to win a league game this season. Sporting finished six points behind Porto last season and have already suffered a 3-0 defeat against them this season. Add to that a 3-3 draw with Braga on Matchday 1 and Rúben Amorim’s side are causing serious concern. After finishing second last season, Marseille spent a net £60m to add Alexis Sánchez, Jordan Veretout, Chancel Mbemba and Mateo Guendouzi.
Expected order: 1 Tottenham 2 Marseilles 3 Jock 4 unity
Winning the Scudetto for the first time in 11 years was a first step in restoring Milan to greatness; the next is European progress – but it’s been 10 years since Milan reached the quarter-finals. Divock Origi and Charles De Ketelaere have arrived to bolster the attack, but the most significant transfer activity may be the departure of Franck Kessié. chelsea have been wildly inconsistent already this season and will likely add to their squad before the window closes, but the biggest problem remains the lack of a consistent goalscorer. RB Salzburg reached the knockout stages for the first time last season, but their existence remains Sisyphean, building a squad and then selling its best talent: 10 players left this summer. Dinamo Zagreb remain stuck between levels: they have won 16 of the last 17 Croatian titles but won only three of 36 group matches.
Expected order: 1 chelsea 2 Milano 3 Salzburg 4 Dinamo
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Group F is that, despite the war, Shakhtar are able to participate, albeit playing home matches in Warsaw, having lost a large number of players after Fifa allowed them to terminate their contracts. The visit of European champions, Real Madrid, in particular, will be an emotional occasion. Madrid’s quality remains uncertain. Their success last season seemed less the result of a grand plan than finishing Karim Benzema, Thibaut Courtois’ keeper and relentless self-confidence. Casemiro has left, Aurélien Tchouameni and Antonio Rüdiger arrive. RB Leipzig lost Nordi Mukiele and Tyler Adams and gained Timo Werner but got off to a rocky start, taking just two points from three games. Celtic, much improved under Ange Postecoglou, have a reasonable chance of picking up a notable win or two and maybe even slipping into second.
Expected order: 1 real Madrid 2 leipzig 3 Celtic 4 Shakhtar
The obvious headline is Erling Haaland meeting Borussia Dortmund, the club he left for Manchester City. It was to win the Champions League that he was largely signed, as City seek to find greater ruthlessness in front of goal in the toughest games. Those probably won’t make it to the group stage. Dortmund, who replaced Haaland with Sebastien Haller and Anthony Modeste, remain inconsistent under former Jürgen Klopp assistant Edin Terzić. Sevilla mounted a vague title challenge for a time in Spain last season, but defeat to Osasuna and then a draw at home to Real Valladolid suggest a repeat is unlikely despite a summer in which the only player of real importance they lost was central defender Diego. Charles. Copenhagen are back in the group stage after a six-year hiatus.
Expected order: 1 Manchester City 2 Dortmund 3 Seville 4 Copenhagen
Benfica’s quality will define Group H. Roger Schmidt’s side started the season in impressive fashion, knocking out Midtjylland and Dynamo Kyiv in the playoffs by a combined aggregate score of 12-2. If they take points alongside Pot 1 and 2, the group could be very difficult. PSG have scored 17 goals in their opening three league games, with Lionel Messi seemingly reinvigorated. But hammering Ligue 1 opposition isn’t the highest level of European competition. Juventus are desperate to regain their former glories after finishing fourth in each of the past two seasons. Paul Pogba, Ángel Di María and Filip Kostic arrived with Matthijs de Ligt, Aaron Ramsey and Paulo Dybala all at the start. Maccabi Haifa, making their first appearance in the group stage for 13 years, are the lowest ranked team in the competition.
Expected order: 1 PSG 2 Juventus 3 Benfica 4 Maccabi Haifa