The UEFA Champions League group stage is set. The competition that started with the qualifying round back in June. With 78 teams back then, the number of the teams has now been cut down to 32 and groups have been drawn.
We now know where the stories are, and there are plenty of them. Robert Lewandowski will celebrate his move to Barcelona with a group-stage match against Bayern Munich, while Borussia Dortmund will also get to check in on former striker Erling Haaland and his new team, Manchester City.
Elsewhere, Liverpool face Ajax and Napoli in Group A, Chelsea square off with AC Milan while the defending champion Real Madrid receive a relatively easy grouping with RB Leipzig, Celtic, and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Ajax, Liverpool, Napoli, Rangers
Although terrifying, this group may be a little easier than Group C appears to be on paper. However, observe Edwin van der Sar, vice-president of Ajax, as the draw was being done. Napoli and Liverpool were the teams to avoid from Pots 2 and 3, respectively, yet Ajax got both! Good luck to Alfred Schreuder as he begins his first year as Ajax manager.
They are still skilled despite losing some important players, but they need experience. They began the season with a crushing loss to PSV in the Dutch Super Cup, but they have recovered their form in the Eredivisie thus far. They are definitely playing better than Liverpool at this point.
With two draws and a loss against Manchester United, Jurgen Klopp’s club has had its worst start since he took over. Usually, he dislikes his seventh season with a team, but this one could be different. Once their suspended (Darwin Nunez) and injured (Diogo Jota, Thiago, Naby Keita, Joel Matip, to mention just four) players are back, you can anticipate Liverpool to be at their best. This will also happen once their defenders are ready to defend once more.
The most in-form team is Napoli. The team led by Luciano Spalletti is winning with ease and looking sharp. They will need to play harder competition than Hellas Verona, Monza and Lazio this season to demonstrate their legitimacy in both Europe and Serie A, but they are showing signs of promise with their new signing Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who is swiftly emerging as Naples’ new hero.
Then there are Rangers, who for the first time in 12 years advanced to the group stage. As a result, Ibrox will be rocking like never before because they have nothing to lose. Reaching this point is a tremendous accomplishment; after that, everything is a bonus. The goal will be to cause as much havoc in this group as possible. While finishing in the top two may be too challenging, the dream is to finish third and advance to the Europa League.
MUST WATCH: Napoli vs Liverpool
At the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, the Reds have already lost twice, and a third defeat is possible. The atmosphere will be electrifying, and Napoli has plenty of talent to pose problems for a Liverpool team that is still looking for consistency and form.
Predicted finish: Liverpool, Napoli, Ajax, and Rangers
Of course, there are three clubs vying for the top two slots. Although talented, I believe Ajax is too young to compete with Napoli and Liverpool throughout the course of the six group games and will lose. The clubs of Klopp and Spalletti won’t have it easy, but I predict that they will advance, with Ajax finishing third, and that Rangers will score some points but not enough to qualify for the Europa League.
FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Club Brugge
Despite not being the strongest or most challenging group in this draw, it is nevertheless incredibly intriguing because of its diversity and underappreciated stories.
After their combative group stage matchup from the previous season, Porto and Atleti already have a rematch scheduled. With their loss to Villarreal earlier this season, Atletico had already performed poorly. Their assaulting strategy is still a work in progress because they appear to still be looking for who they are. They have a ton of potential, but they aren’t making good use of it. The topic will be quite different if the Joao Felix/Alvaro Morata pairing really takes off.
Porto can currently bring them a lot of trouble. Fabio Vieira and Vitinha both left for Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, and Sergio Conceiçao also made some intriguing additions (David Carmo, Gabriel Veron). Porto will play with intensity and with confidence and will be difficult to play against, basically the complete opposite of Bayer Leverkusen.
What really is happening on the German side? With four losses and a win in five Bundesliga games and another loss in the German Cup against a team from the third tier, they have had a disastrous start to the season. The squad has fallen from being a joy to watch last season to being ordinary this year, and Gerardo Seoane is under tremendous pressure. They may have a new manager by the time the group stage is done, but unless their key players — Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby — experience a surge in performance, they won’t advance.
Charles De Ketelaere left Club Brugge this summer. Philippe Clément, the manager who helped them become so good before leaving for Monaco halfway through the previous season, he will be missed and they will struggle to compete with the other three teams.
MUST WATCH: Atletico Madrid vs. Porto
This game was intense, violent, aggressive, and dramatic last season, and I anticipate the same for this season. It’s guaranteed to be exciting given how these two teams are playing! The outcome of the group could be significantly impacted by the outcome.
Predicted finish: FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge
I have a positive feeling about this Porto team, despite the fact that they lost some important players over the summer. They played Atletico, Milan, and Liverpool in the group stage last season, when they finished third, and I believe they have learned a lot from those encounters. This time, they’ll come out on top of the group, and Atletico Madrid will be too powerful for Bayer Leverkusen to hold onto second place unless the German squad rapidly finds its rhythm.
Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Viktoria Plzen
This is the toughest group of all, especially for Viktoria Plzen! More seriously, Bayern, Barcelona and Inter are the three best teams in one single group this season. It will be epic!
With manager Julian Naglesmann’s new 4-2-2-2 style and the addition of Sadio Mané, Bayern are the clear favorites. They have been absolutely stunning thus far this season, and they will be eager to atone for last season’s dismal and unanticipated departure against Villarreal. Barcelona is still undergoing renovations under Xavi. One of the summer’s sagas has been their financial position. Robert Lewandowski, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen, Raphinha, Marcos Alonso and Franck Kessie are all outstanding acquisitions, and Ousmane Dembélé signed a contract extension. Now Xavi needs to get them to work well as a team.
With Lukaku back, Inter will only get stronger and more aggressive in their teamwork. Even though they just missed winning the Serie A championship, this club keeps improving, much like their boss, and last season was a tremendous learning experience for Europe. They are not yet at their finest, but it will happen eventually.
MUST WATCH: Bayern Munich vs Barcelona
It’s the Lewandowski derby! It will be massive. How will he be received? What kind of frame of mind will he have? Before the draw began, it appeared that Bayern would be paired with Barcelona. On top of that uneasy reunion, it is also a meeting of two teams that have put on some epic, humiliating games in recent years. It used to be the Spanish giants who humiliated Bayern, but Bayern has more than avenged themselves in the years since: remember their 8-2 aggregate win in 2020? Even though Lionel Messi and Jerome Boateng are no longer present, the game will still be spectacular.
Predicted finish: Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, FC Barcelona, Viktoria Plzen
Bayern will win the group, which appears to be a foregone conclusion. So far this season, they’ve been impressive, and Nagelsmann is already better in his second season. I believe they will pass with ease. The race for second place is on from there. Inter or Barcelona? Barcelona or Inter? I like what Simone Inzaghi did last season, leading Inter to the last 16 for the first time in ten years, and Inter have brought back Romelu Lukaku, who will make a big difference. However, the same can be said for Lewandowski in Barcelona! Can they both go through, please, as well as Bayern? No? Okay, my money’s on Inter, but only just.
Eintracht Frankfurt, Tottenham, Sporting CP, Marseille
Theoretically, Tottenham’s first Champions League appearance since 2019–20 looks appealing. They avoided playing against Europe’s powerhouses this time around after drawing Barcelona in 2018, Real Madrid in 2017, and Bayern Munich in 2019, but there are still concerns, not the least of which surrounds manager Antonio Conte, who has never successfully transitioned his domestic success to the European stage.
With Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Juventus, he has only won 12 of his 54 group stage matches in the Champions League. Although there were mitigating factors, keep in mind that they were eliminated from the Europa Conference League at the group stage last season.
Frankfurt, who won the Europa League last year, will put them to the test, while Sporting, who are participating in their tenth group stage, have improved under Portuguese coach Ruben Amorim. The north London rivals of Tottenham, Arsenal, have no fewer than four players with ties to Marseille: Matteo Guendouzi, Alexis Sanchez, Sead Kolasinac, and Nuno Tavares. Actually, Tavares is still with the Gunners and playing on loan at the Ligue 1 team. He has the opportunity to win over Gunners supporters by hindering Spurs’ advancement.
MUST WATCH: Frankfurt vs Tottenham
Tottenham’s chances of making it out of group stage will be put to the test in a terrifying atmosphere at Deutsche Bank Park. In their most recent Champions League season (2019–20), Spurs only managed one victory on the road, and in one of manager Antonio Conte’s inaugural matches, a Europa Conference League match in November, they were defeated 2-1 by NS Mura. Frankfurt, on the other hand, finished 11th in the Bundesliga last year, and Spurs have improved greatly under Conte.
Predicted finish: Tottenham, Frankfurt, Sporting, Zagreb
Given that there are no standout teams in this group, it is difficult to predict a winner, but Tottenham should be able to achieve so. There are still a few players who know what it takes to succeed in this sport, most notably Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, who advanced to the 2019 final. Frankfurt appears to step up their game in Europe, and their incredible fan base might help them surpass Sporting and Marseille. In actuality, all four teams will think they have a good chance of making the last 16.