The Champions League officially returns to action with a incredible slate of group stage openers, with Bayern-Man United and PSG-Borussia Dortmund among the best of them.
While there is plenty of intrigue after a busy summer in the transfer window, the title still appears to be Manchester City’s to lose after breaking through last season with a treble.
Here is a preview of each of the Champions League groups and predictions on which teams will advance to the knockout stage.
Group A: Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Copenhagen, Galatasaray
Most of the headlines coming out of Group A concern the return of Harry Kane to England; however, that won’t occur until the final group stage matchday on Dec. 12. Rather, Manchester United returns to the Champions League after a one-year hiatus with a trip to Munich, which is not the place you want to be after consecutive 3–1 Premier League defeats to Arsenal and Brighton, respectively. Thomas Tuchel’s Bayern is widely considered the group favorite—and a heavyweight contender to win the tournament—but Manchester United’s fortunes will likely come down to how it fares against all-time Danish Superliga champion Copenhagen and Turkish giant Galatasaray, who feature former Red Devil Wilfried Zaha making his Champions League group stage debut.
Prediction: Bayern Munich, Manchester United advance
Group B: Sevilla, Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven, Lens
It’s been a while since Arsenal found itself back in the Champions League—2017, to be exact—and its lasting memories from that time are a pair of 5–1 routs courtesy of Bayern Munich. But the Champions League gods welcomed the Gunners back with open arms, handing them one of the lighter groups of the tournament. Rather than drawing PSG or Bayern or Barça, Sevilla is top seed from Group B after winning the Europa League last season. However, Sevilla currently sits 17th in La Liga after earning only one win from its first four matches. Lens, meanwhile, shouldn’t be overlooked after finishing just a point short of the top of Ligue 1 while PSV Eindhoven will keep us invested with a couple of USMNT internationals in Sergiño Dest and Ricardo Pepi and Mexican international Chucky Lozano.
Prediction: Arsenal, PSV advance
Group C: Napoli, Real Madrid, Braga, Union Berlin
After winning its first Serie A title since the Maradona years, Napoli comes into the season with a target on its back and some unfinished business. After watching Inter finish runner-up, the Italian side will feel like it missed a golden opportunity for more silverware last season when it dropped out in the quarterfinals after a tepid performance against AC Milan while lamenting an injured Victor Osimhen. However, Napoli will have to deal with the departure of manager Luciano Spalletti, reigning Serie A defender of the year Kim-Min jae and Mexico’s Chucky Lozano. Real Madrid has its own holes to fill after the departure of Karim Benzema but is expected to make a return run for the crown after being dethroned by Man City. Braga comes into the tournament after finishing third in Portugal while Union Berlin makes its Champions League debut after signing USMNT winger Brenden Aaronson on loan.
Prediction: Real Madrid, Napoli advance
Group D: Benfica, Inter, RB Salzburg, Real Sociedad
As often happens with the Portuguese and Dutch league winners’ groups, odds seem to be a bit of tossup with several sides trying to make a surprise run. While Benfica and last year’s runner-up Inter Milan are the rightful favorites in the group, both sides will also have to overcome major losses in the transfer market. Benfica lost Portugal’s World Cup star in Gonçalo Ramos to PSG and the forward’s seven Champions League goals from last season won’t be easily replaced, even with the addition of an aging Ángel Di Maria. Inter looks to be even more shorthanded after letting Romelu Lukaku and Milan Skriniar walk, while goalkeeper André Onana joined Manchester United after an incredible run last season. Basque side Real Sociedad makes its return to the Champions League after a nine-year absence while RB Salzburg enters as the perennial Austrian representatives looking to use their experience to make a splash in a group where it is fully possible.
Prediction:Benfica, RB Salzburg advance
Group E: Feyenoord, Atlético Madrid, Lazio, Celtic
If you’re looking for a group of chaos, this is your best bet. Atlético Madrid may be the clear favorite on name recognition alone, but Diego Simeone’s squad is not the same as its golden years over the last decade. Last year’s performance is clear evidence of that after Atlético crashed out of the Champions League with five points from six matches and a last-place finish from an equally light group. Feyenoord may have lost some key players, none greater than midfielder Orkun Kökcü, but the Dutch side will hope that Mexican international Santiago Giménez continues his form that has seen him jump to the top of the Eredivisie’s goalscoring list with six goals to start the season. Lazio won’t have stalwart midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić to lead the way while Celtic will be out to shock in a group where it believes it can do some damage.
Prediction: Feyenoord, Atlético advance
Group F: PSG, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Newcastle
There are no doubts about the group of death this year, and it will certainly be a shame to see two of any of these teams not advance to the knockout stage. PSG is truly Kylian Mbappé’s team now after PSG watched Lionel Messi and Neymar go abroad while bringing in French teammates Ousmane Dembélé and Randal Kolo Muani. As manager, Luis Enrique will bring an entirely fresh approach to the squad with the Champions League chops to prove it. Dortmund will certainly be missing Jude Bellingham while Newcastle will hope that all of its transfer market investments pay off with its first Champions League appearance since ’02-03. All eyes will be on AC Milan after its massive summer on the transfer market, which featured moves for USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Yunus Musah.
Prediction: PSG, AC Milan advance
Group G: Manchester City, RB Leipzig, Crvena Zvezda, Young Boys
Manchester Cityfinally overcame its Champions League woes last season to the tune of an historic treble and now its title defense will be off to an easy start with its group draw (remember: a group of death doomsday scenario could have featured Man City, Real Madrid, AC Milan all in the same group). Even without Kevin De Bruyne for the group stage, expect Man City to soar, especially now without the pressure of trying to win its first Champions League trophy. RB Leipzig will still be expected to finish second, but arguably no team in soccer suffered more from its summer losses. After selling players like Joško Gvardiol, Dominik Szoboszlai and Christopher Nkunku to Premier League sides, RB Leipzig earned more than $240 million in summer sales. Crvena Zvezda and Young Boys are both Champions League usuals, but their difficult draw won’t be kind to them.
Prediction: Man City, RB Leipzig advance
Group H: Barcelona, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Royal Antwerp
For Barcelona, nothing has changed. The Catalan side is still in a lot of financial trouble and it is still the favorite to win its Champions League group and La Liga. Last year, Barça was drawn into a group of death with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan and paid for its sluggishness, dropping out of the group stage with a third-place finish when it desperately needed the knockout stage income. But additions like İlkay Gündoğan and João Félix will be sure to get the La Liga champions into the knockouts in style. Porto looks to have its usual confidence this year with four wins from five matches to start the season. Look out for Royal Antwerp, which won its first Belgian league title in 66 years. The side will be itching to knock Porto out of what seems to be a secure knockout stage ticket, while Shakhtar Donetsk will be fan favorites throughout.
Prediction: Barcelona, Porto advance