After Liverpool’s indifferent start to the season, the Champions League offers little respite. With Erik ten Hag departed after five seasons that yielded a number of notable European results, Ajax are something of an unknown quantity 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 high-pressing 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 perhaps soon to join them. Napoli, buoyed by the Georgian wonderkid Khvicha Kvaratskhelia , always represents a difficult trip, and the atmosphere at Rangers, back in the group stages after 12 years, is unlikely to be any less fervent.
Predicted 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 habitually awkward opponents in recent years, eliminating Juventus the season before last. There’s been the usual summer flux at the Portuguese champions, with six players departing, among them Fábio Vieira to Arsenal, and four players arriving, but domestic form has been so far unaffected, with three wins out of three in the league. For Atlético, the story is a familiar one of whether Diego Simeone can evolve to a more progressive style, with financial pressures beginning to bite. Bayer Leverkusen finished third in the Bundesliga and have largely kept that side together but this campaign has begun with four straight defeats. Club Brugge are Belgian champions, but with Carl Hoefkens replacing Schreuder as coach, this feels like a season of transition.
Predicted order: 1 postage 2 Atlético 3 Leverkusen 4 Brugge
Without question the most glamorous group, with 14 titles between the sides. For Barcelona, Bayern, who beat them twice in the group stage last season and inflicted an 8-2 defeat on them in the 2020 quarter-final, represent a useful test. After years of stagnation, Barça are perhaps ready to compete again with the elite, having brought in Robert Lewandowski , Raphinha, Franck Kessié, Andreas Christensen and Jules Koundé in a frankly inexplicable and very risky spending spree. Inter beat Barça and Bayern on their way to the 2010 title and have reprized the Romelu Lukaku-Lautaro Martínez partnership. Bayern, having signed Sadio Mané and Matthijs de Ligt, have started the season by winning three out of three, but domestic form is rarely an issue. The Czech champions, Viktoria Plzen, make up the group.
Predicted order: 1 Bavaria 2 Barcelona 3 Inter 4 plzen
For Tottenham, the draw could have been worse. They have the stadium, they have the manager and with the arrival of Richarlison, Yves Bissouma and Ivan Perisic they perhaps now can seriously challenge again, but in terms of their progress perhaps the most significant is having drawn Eintracht Frankfurt, the weakest of the Pot 1 sides. They came 11th in the Bundesliga last season, have lost Filip Kostic and not won a league game yet this term. Sporting finished six points behind Porto last season and have already suffered a 3-0 defeat to them this season. Add in a 3-3 draw with Braga on the opening day and there are major concerns over Rúben Amorim’s side. After last season’s second-place finish, Marseille have spent a net £60m to add Alexis Sánchez, Jordan Veretout, Chancel Mbemba and Mateo Guendouzi.
Predicted order: 1 Tottenham 2 Marseilles 3 sports 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 10 years since Milan last 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 probably add to their squad before the window closes, but the biggest problem remains the lack of a consistent goalscorer. RB Salzburg reached the last 16 for the first time last season, but their existence remains Sisyphean, building a side and then selling their best talent: 10 players left this summer. Dinamo Zagreb remain trapped between levels: they’ve won 16 of the past 17 Croatian titles but have only won three of 36 group matches.
Predicted order: 1 Chelsea 2 Milan 3 Salzburg 4 Dinamo
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Group F is that, despite the war, Shakhtar are able to take part, albeit playing home games in Warsaw, having lost large numbers of players after Fifa allowed them to break their contracts. The visit of the European champions, Real Madrid, in particular will be an emotional occasion. How good Madrid are remains unclear. Their success last season seemed less the result of any great plan than the finishing of Karim Benzema, the goalkeeping of Thibaut Courtois and an implacable self-belief. Casemiro has left, with Aurélien Tchouameni and Antonio Rüdiger arriving. RB Leipzig have lost Nordi Mukiele and Tyler Adams and gained Timo Werner but have had a difficult start, taking just two points from three games. Celtic, much improved under Ange Postecoglou, have a reasonable chance of a notable victory or two and perhaps even sneaking second.
Predicted order: 1 real Madrid 2 Leipzig 3 Celtic 4 Shakhtar
The obvious headline is the meeting of Erling Haaland and Borussia Dortmund, the club he left for Manchester City. It’s to win the Champions League that he has largely been signed, as City look to find a greater ruthlessness in front of goal in the toughest games. Those are not likely to arrive in the group stage though. Dortmund, who have replaced Haaland with Sébastien Haller and Anthony Modeste, remain inconsistent under Jürgen Klopp’s former 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 suggests a repeat is unlikely despite a summer in which the only player of real significance they lost was the centre-back Diego Carlos. Copenhagen are back in the group stage after a six-year hiatus.
Predicted order: 1 Manchester City 2 Dortmund 3 Seville 4 Copenhagen
The quality of Benfica will define Group H. Roger Schmidt’s side have started the season impressively, dismissing Midtjylland and Dynamo Kyiv in the playoffs by a combined total score of 12-2. If they take points from the pot 1 and 2 sides, the group could be very tough. PSG have scored 17 goals in their first three league games, with Lionel Messi apparently re-energized. But hammering Ligue 1 opposition is not the highest level of European competition. Juventus are desperate to return to former glory after finishing fourth in each of the past two seasons. Paul Pogba, Ángel Di María and Filip Kostic have arrived with Matthijs de Ligt, Aaron Ramsey and Paulo Dybala all departing. Maccabi Haifa, in their first group-stage appearance for 13 years, are the lowest-ranked side in the competition.
Predicted order: 1 PSG 2 juventus 3 Benfica 4 Maccabi Haifa