Thursday’s draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League has resulted in some of the biggest names on the continent coming head to head in the first round.
While most of the usual suspects are expected to make it to the Round of 16, the race to finish top and avoiding the many banana skins, will add the customary thrill to the premier club competition in the football world.
Group A: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Club Bruges, Galatasaray
In recent years, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid have been in the top tier of favourites to win the Champions League. While PSG has failed to make it to the deep end of the tournament, Madrid exited early last year after a hat-trick of Champions League wins under Zinedine Zidane.
Madrid might focus more on La Liga this season, but the Champions League remains the number one goal for PSG – with or without Neymar Jr, who appears to be on the verge of returning to Barcelona at the time of writing. Club Bruges and Galatasaray would be vying for the Europa League spot.
Group B: Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur, Olympiakos, Red Star
Away trips to Olympiakos and Red Star mightn’t be the most comfortable, especially later in winter, but the two more fancied sides of Group B – Bayern and Spurs – should make it through to the Round of 16.
Spurs’ run to the final last year was an incredible story, but unfortunately one they might find hard to replicate – especially if they are in a slugfest for top-four in the Premier League.
Munich, now with a significant change in personnel, have had underwhelming runs in the Champions League in recent years, and the draw might be the perfect lineup for them to get some momentum going into the knockout stages this year.
Group C: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta
Will Manchester City finally win the Champions League this season? Will Pep Guardiola finally win the tournament outside of Barcelona?
Before winning it all, the English champions would have to play their first ever European Cup final – and the draw laid out for them gives them a relatively easy path to the Round of 16.
Italian side Atalanta would look to overpower Champions League regulars Shakhtar and bag that coveted second position, while Dinamo Zagreb might aim to play spoilers for the rest of the group.
Group D: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow
Another group with two European heavyweights, but one in which the third and fourth seeded sides mightn’t just be making up the numbers either. Juventus want nothing more than the Champions League this season, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s recruitment last summer suggests.
The Madrid side meanwhile are undergoing a transition, but the new-look side on paper has all the ingredients to match Atletico’s recent performances. Can Atletico go one better this time around though?
Four of the past six Champions League finals have featured Juve and Atletico, with neither of those two sides having won those contests. If Leverkusen translate their Bundesliga form in Europe, Juventus and Atletico could feel threatened. And Moscow is never an easy place to visit.
Group E: Liverpool, Napoli, Salzburg, Genk
We argued in this space last month that defending champions Liverpool might be the team to beat in Europe this season. Now they have the draw to ease into the competition as well.
Liverpool are joined by Napoli in the group again after the Italian side came so close to actually knocking the eventual European champions out in the very first round. This year, however, Liverpool and Napoli should both comfortably qualify for the knockout stages, with Salzburg and Genk going head to head for the third spot.
Group F: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague
Perhaps the pick of the groups, even if it features Barcelona who are considered overwhelming favourites – even more so if Neymar Jr is brought in. Barca have had astounding failures in the Champions League by their highest of standards over the past four seasons, and this might very well be the year they win it all – and do so convincingly.
However, they would still have wished for easier opponents than Dortmund and Inter in the very first round, both of whom are perfectly capable of making it to the Round of 16, and giving Barca a run for their money at home.
While Dortmund might be better on paper, Inter under Antonio Conte not only has the potential to ruffle some feathers in Serie A and the Champions League group stages, it might even actually go deeper in both competitions. Prague might have to make do with a bottom place finish.
Group G: Zenit Saint-Petersburg, Benfica, Olympique Lyonnais, RB Leipzig
This is arguably the least illustrious of the right groups, but perhaps one that will have the toughest competition. Zenit, Benfica and Lyon are three regular names in the Champions League, and each of those three is capable of topping this group.
If Zenit are successful in intimidating their opponents at home they might squeeze into the top two positions. However, Benfica and Lyon look good on paper – and might be further buoyed by the fact that they could’ve had much worse draws. Leipzig would in all likelihood look to enjoy their second ever Champions League outing.
Group H: Chelsea, Ajax, Valencia, Lille
Another group with a troika of big names, which too might be open for any of the three to take. Europa League winners Chelsea are undergoing transition under Frank Lampard after the imposition of the transfer ban.
Meanwhile Ajax, who took the competition by the scruff of its neck last season, are now without two of its biggest stars, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. Valencia might be the third most fancied side on paper, even if the Spanish club comes with a strong pedigree as well.
Unlike many other fourth seeds, Lille aren’t a shoo-in to finish bottom even in a group that features three higher billed sides. The French side could be one of a few to spring a surprise or two in the group stage.