Finally, it’s time for the UEFA Champions League group stage! The road to the final began back in June with the first qualifying round, and now, the field of 78 teams has been whittled down to 32 and the groups have been drawn. Now we know where the narratives are, and there are plenty — Robert Lewandowski will celebrate his Barcelona move with a group date against Bayern Munich, while Borussia Dortmund will also get to check in on former striker Erling Haaland and his new club, Manchester City.
Elsewhere, Liverpool face Ajax and Napoli in Group A, Chelsea square off with AC Milan and defending champions Real Madrid get a fairly gentle landing spot in Group F with RB Leipzig, Celtic and Shakhtar Donetsk.
How will it all play out? ESPN’s Julien Laurens (Groups A, B, C), James Olley (Groups D, E) and Rob Dawson (Groups F, G, H) have assessed each group to predict the big games and the teams that will advance to the last 16.
Ajax, Liverpool, Napoli, Rangers
This is another nightmarish group, but perhaps a little less difficult than Group C looks on paper. But just look at Edwin van der Sar, Ajax’s vice president, when the draw was made. Liverpool were the team to avoid from Pot 2 and Napoli the one to avoid from Pot 3, yet Ajax got them both! Good luck to Alfred Schreuder for his first season on the Ajax bench. They have lost key players and are still talented, but they lack experience. They started their season with a heavy defeat against PSV in the Dutch Super Cup but have found form in the Eredivisie so far — they’re playing better than Liverpool, that’s for sure.
Jurgen Klopp and his team are going through their worst start since his arrival with two draws and a loss at Manchester United. He doesn’t like his seventh season at a club usually, but this could be different. You can expect Liverpool to be back to their best once their injured (Diogo Jota, Thiago, Naby Keita, Joel Matip to name just four) and suspended players (Darwin Nunez) are back and once their defenders are willing to defend again.
Right now, the most in-form team is Napoli. Luciano Spalletti and his players are looking good and winning in style. They will need to face tougher opponents than Hellas Verona and Monza to prove they are the real deal this season both in Europe and in Serie A, but they are looking promising with their new signing Khvicha Kvaratskhelia quickly becoming the new hero in Naples.
Then, there are Rangers, who made it to the group stage for the first time in 12 years. They have nothing to lose, and Ibrox will be rocking like never before. It is a great achievement to reach this stage; from here, everything is a bonus. The aim will be to disrupt this group as much as possible: finishing in the top two might be too difficult, but the dream is on to finish third and qualify for the Europa League.
Must-see match: Napoli vs. Liverpool
The Reds have already lost twice at the Stadio San Paolo, and there could be a third time. The atmosphere is going to be incandescent, and Napoli have a lot of quality to trouble a Liverpool side that is still searching for form and stability.
Predicted finish: Liverpool, Napoli, Ajax, Rangers
They are three clubs for the top two spots, of course. I feel that Ajax are a bit too young maybe, although talented, to compete with Napoli and Liverpool over the six group games and will fall short. It won’t be easy for Klopp’s and Spalletti’s teams, but I expect them to go through with Ajax in third, while Rangers will get points on the board but not enough to make it to the Europa League.
This is not the best or most difficult group in this draw, but it’s still a very interesting one because it’s eclectic and boasts some underrated narratives.
Porto and Atleti meet again already after the feisty affairs in last season’s group stage. Atletico have already been underwhelming this season, losing to Villarreal. They seem to still be searching for their identity, and as a result, their attacking game is still a work in progress. They have the talent, and loads of it, but are not using it well. If the Joao Felix/Alvaro Morata partnership really takes off, then the discussion will be very different.
For now, Porto can cause them loads of problems. Sergio Conceiçao lost some big players in the summer (Fabio Vieira to Arsenal, Vitinha to Paris Saint-Germain) but have also made some interesting signings (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 is going on with the German side? They’ve had a shocking start to the season, with three defeats in three Bundesliga games and a loss in the German Cup against a third-division side. Gerardo Seoane is under huge pressure, and the team has gone from being fantastic to watch last season to being average this year. By the time the group stage is over, they might have changed managers, but unless their star players (Patrik Schick, Moussa Diaby) enjoy an uptick in form, they won’t go far.
As for Club Brugge, they lost their best player this summer in Charles De Ketelaere, while captain Hans Vanaken could also be on his way to West Ham before the end of the transfer window. Add the loss of Philippe Clément, the manager who made them so good before leaving for Monaco halfway through last season, and you have a team that will struggle to compete with the other three teams.
Must-see match: Porto vs. Atletico Madrid
Last season, this game was full of intensity, fighting, aggression and drama, and I expect this season’s one to be exactly the same. The way these two teams play, it can only be fireworks! And the result could have a big impact on the outcome of the group.
Predicted finish: Porto, Atletico, Leverkusen, Brugge
Although they lost some key players this summer, I have a good feeling about this Porto side. I think they have learned a lot from last season’s group stage matches with Atletico, Milan and Liverpool, when they finished third. They will top the group this time, and Atletico will be too strong for Bayer Leverkusen for the second spot unless the German team finds its rhythm — and quickly.
Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Viktoria Plzen
This is the worst 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!
Bayern are the overwhelming favorites, with manager Julian Naglesmann’s new 4-2-2-2 formation and the arrival of Sadio Mané. They have looked fantastic so far this season, and they will want to redeem themselves after last season’s disappointing and unexpected exit against Villarreal. Barcelona continue their reconstruction under Xavi. Their financial situation has been one of the sagas of the summer. They have made great signings in Robert Lewandowski, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen, Raphinha and Franck Kessie, while Ousmane Dembélé signed a contract extension. Now Xavi has to make them play well together.
Inter play well together already, and the return of Lukaku will only make them stronger and more physical. Last season was a great learning curve in Europe, and this team keeps growing, like their manager, even if they narrowly missed out on the Serie A title. They are not at their best just yet, but it is just a matter of time.
Must-see match: Bayern vs. Barcelona
Call it the Lewandowski derby! It will be immense. What kind of reception will he get? What kind of mindset will he be in? Before the draw started, everybody seemed to know that Bayern would draw Barca. On top of that not-so-happy reunion, it is also a rendezvous for two teams that have put on some epic, humiliating games over the past few years. It used to be the Spanish giants humbling Bayern, but Bayern have more than exacted revenge in the years since: Remember their 8-2 aggregate win in 2020? Lionel Messi and Jerome Boateng are not there anymore, but it will still be a great one.
Predicted finish: Bayern, Inter, Barcelona, Plzen
Bayern will win the group, which feels like a pretty easy pick. They have been impressive so far this season, and Nagelsmann is better already in his second season. I expect them to go through comfortably. From there, the fight for second place is real. Inter or Barca? Barca or Inter? I like what Simone Inzaghi did last season, taking his team to the last 16 for the first time in 10 years, and Inter have added Romelu Lukaku back to their squad: He will make a big difference. Yet you can say the same for Lewandowski at Barcelona! Can they both go through, please, as well as Bayern? No? OK, my money is on Inter, then, but only just.
Tottenham’s return to the Champions League for the first time since 2019-20 looks inviting … in theory, anyway. They have avoided Europe’s heavyweights — having drawn Real Madrid in 2017, Barcelona in 2018 and Bayern Munich in 2019 — but there are questions, not least around manager Antonio Conte, who has never translated his domestic success on to the European stage.
The Italian has won just 12 of his 54 Champions League group stage matches with Chelsea, Inter Milan and Juventus, and although there were mitigating circumstances, let’s not forget they exited the Europa Conference League last term at the group stage.
Last season’s Europa League winners Frankfurt will test their resolve, while Sporting Lisbon, making their 10th group stage appearance, have improved under Portuguese coach Ruben Amorim. Marseille have no fewer than four players with connections to Arsenal, Tottenham’s north London rivals, in their ranks: Matteo Guendouzi, Alexis Sanchez, Sead Kolasinac and Nuno Tavares. In fact, Tavares is still with the Gunners, on loan at the Ligue 1 club, and he has the chance to endear himself to supporters of his parent club by upsetting Spurs’ progress.
Must-see match: Eintracht vs. Tottenham
The atmosphere at the Deutsche Bank Park will be fearsome and the toughest test of Tottenham’s group stage prospects. Spurs won only one of four away games in their last Champions League campaign (2019-20), while they were beaten 2-1 by NS Mura in one of Conte’s first games in charge, a Europa Conference League contest in November. However, Frankfurt finished 11th in the Bundesliga last season, and Spurs have strengthened significantly under Conte.
Predicted finish: Tottenham, Eintracht, Sporting, Zagreb
This is a tough group to call given there are no standout teams, but Tottenham should have the quality to prevail. Several players who reached the 2019 final remain — most obviously Harry Kane and Son Heung-min — who know what it takes to thrive in this competition. Frankfurt seem to raise their game in Europe, and their remarkable support could help take them above Sporting and Marseille. But in truth, all four sides will believe they have a very real chance of qualifying.
AC Milan and Chelsea have a rich history in this competition, but they are pitched together in Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 1999. Milan, seven-time winners and current Serie A champions, will harbour high hopes of going better than last season’s group stage exit, and at 40 years of age, this could be Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s final Champions League campaign.
Chelsea — two-time winners, including in 2021 — were knocked out in agonising fashion at the quarterfinal stage by Real Madrid last time out, who have since signed defender Antonio Rudiger on a free transfer. FC Salzburg will embark upon their fourth consecutive group stage campaign and boast a forward line led by Benjamin Sesko. The 19-year-old attracted interest from Chelsea before signing for RB Leipzig, but that deal does not kick in until 2023, so Sesko will have a chance to show the Blues firsthand what they missed out on.
Dinamo Zagreb qualified through the playoffs, overturning a first-leg deficit against Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt to reach the group stage after a three-year absence.
Must-see match: Chelsea vs. AC Milan
Certain to be one of the pivotal matches in the group, this game will also see a few former Chelsea players return to Stamford Bridge for the first time: Olivier Giroud, Fikayo Tomori and Tiemoue Bakayoko. All will have points to prove. Giroud moved on last summer after struggling for regular game time under Thomas Tuchel. Tomori came through the Chelsea academy under Tuchel’s predecessor Frank Lampard but ended up on loan at Milan before making a permanent move at the end of last season. Bakayoko is on loan from Chelsea, but UEFA rules do not prohibit players featuring against their parent clubs.
Predicted finish: AC Milan, Chelsea, FC Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb
Chelsea are still scrambling to strengthen their squad in the final days of the transfer window, and with the group stage starting in early September, Tuchel will have little time to work in any more new players. Milan have a chance to steal an early advantage, which may make them difficult to catch, but Chelsea should still qualify. Salzburg are likely to make it tough, but they only just got out of a weaker group last season — beating Sevilla 1-0 on matchday 6 to secure second place — before being thrashed by Bayern Munich in the round of 16.
Real Madrid, RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk, Celtic
Real Madrid have won the Champions League five times in the past nine years and have reached five other semifinals since 2010-11, so there should be little doubt about their prospects. They didn’t get Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland, and Casemiro joined Manchester United, but they are still a formidable team that knows how to win this competition. On top of that, they have Karim Benzema in the form of his life and on course to be named the best player in the world. Carlo Ancelotti will like his chances of picking up another winners’ medal in June.
Group F also sees Shakhtar Donetsk flying the flag for Ukraine while the country is at war with Russia, a situation that means Shakhtar will have to play their home games at Stadion Wojska Polskiego in Warsaw. RB Leipzig will be hoping to make it to the last 16 after running into Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in their group last season, while Celtic, returning to the group stages for the first time in five years, will be eyeing up Real Madrid for a shock at Celtic Park after beating Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona 2-1 on a memorable night in 2012.
Must-see match: Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Real Madrid
Shakhtar Donetsk are playing their Champions League games in Poland because of the ongoing war with Russia, but it will still be a momentous occasion to welcome Real Madrid, the reigning champions of Europe. Both games will be emotional night given what is happening in Ukraine, but Shakhtar, which reached the last 16 in 2018, are not here to make up the numbers and will give Ancelotti’s team a tough examination.
Predicted finish: Real Madrid, Celtic, RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk
Real Madrid don’t always make light work of the group stages, but if last season’s Champions League triumph proved anything, it’s that you should never bet against them. The rest of the group is up for grabs, and Celtic, RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk will all have an opportunity to qualify. Celtic haven’t been in the group stages since 2017-18 and haven’t progressed to the knockout rounds since 2012-13, but the atmosphere their fans can generate on European nights under the lights at Celtic Park might give them an edge. Even Real Madrid might get turned over in Glasgow.
Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, FC Copenhagen
Manchester City have reached the semifinals and the final in the past two seasons and have already been installed among the favourites for the competition this time around. Their group stage draw won’t change that, but there is enough danger in games against Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund to worry Pep Guardiola. Neither team made it out of their groups last season, but catch them on the wrong day, and Dortmund or Sevilla are capable of beating anyone; Guardiola will know full well about the threat they pose.
FC Copenhagen haven’t been in the group stage since 2016-17, and the champions of Denmark will need something close to a miracle to repeat their performance during the 2010-11 campaign, when they made it to the last 16 and were eventually ousted by Chelsea over two legs. The two battles between Sevilla and Dortmund should be exciting games after their last-16 tie in 2021 ended with the Bundesliga side edging them 5-4 on aggregate. Haaland scored four of Dortmund’s five goals across the two games, but this year will be lining up for Group G opponents Manchester City.
Must-see match: Man City vs. Borussia Dortmund
This tie will see Haaland return to his former club in his first season at the Etihad Stadium. The Norwegian striker said in the summer that he moved to Man City to win competitions like the Champions League, and he’ll have to get the better of Dortmund if he wants to progress. Dortmund took four points off Man City during the 2012-13 group stage as Roberto Mancini’s team finished bottom.
Predicted finish: Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, FC Copenhagen
Manchester City have turned into group stage specialists under Guardiola, and it would be a major surprise if they didn’t finish top of Group G, let alone not make it through at all. The battle for second place is likely to be between Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund, and although Sevilla were knocked out in the group stage last season, they have the edge against a Dortmund team that are still learning to cope without Haaland. The German side struggled last season too, and were eliminated from a group that included Ajax, Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas.
Will this finally be the year Paris Saint-Germain get their hands on the Champions League trophy? With Messi, Mbappe and Neymar, they have a squad to rival any in the world, but they have managed to develop the tag of Champions League chokers that won’t disappear until they lift the trophy. They haven’t been knocked out at the group stage since 2004 and should have no problem getting through Group H this year — it’s later on that they seem to run into problems. Last season they were on the brink of knocking out Real Madrid in the last 16 before throwing it away.
Juventus will pose a stern early test, but the Italians are looking for their own redemption after slipping up in the second round in each of the past three seasons. Their drought since they last won the Champions League is now at 26 years — far too long for a club of their size and resources. Benfica pose the strongest threat to PSG and Juventus after reaching the last eight last season, while Maccabi Haifa from Israel have made it to the group stage only twice before, in 2002-03 and 2009-10.
Must-see match: PSG vs. Juventus
You can’t ask for more from a group stage game than two heavyweights paired together, and Paris Saint-Germain against Juventus is exactly that. They’ve never played a competitive game before, but they are two teams that will not only be looking to finish top of Group H, they’ll both have ambitions to go on and win the competition. PSG will be among the favourites to lift the trophy, and Juventus are an early test of their credentials.
Predicted finish: Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, Maccabi Haifa
Juventus will edge the two games with PSG, allowing the Serie A side to claim the top spot in Group H. PSG shouldn’t have any problem qualifying for the last 16, even against a Benfica side that will be buoyed by their run to the quarterfinals last season. Darwin Nunez was key to their success last season, and the striker has departed for Liverpool, so the two top seeds should be too strong.