The UEFA Champions League group stages are back, with matchday one kicking off on 6 & 7 September.
Given that the World Cup takes place this winter, the group phase will be wrapped up far earlier than usual, with the last round of games scheduled for 1 & 2 November.
All roads lead to Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadı, the venue for the final on 10 June.
The only previous final to take place in İstanbul produced Liverpool’s astonishing comeback against A.C. Milan back in 2005.
124 matches will be played before then, so here’s a group by group preview ahead of the big kick off.
Liverpool, Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City & PSG all to top their groups
Back this accumulator at 16/1!
Group A: Ajax, Liverpool, Napoli & Rangers
Arguably, the toughest group to call at this stage is right at the top of running order in the shape of Group A.
Last season’s finalists Liverpool will face familiar foes in Napoli, who they met in 2018 and 2019, and Ajax, after those two clashed two years ago.
The Reds have featured in three of the last five Champions League Finals and haven’t fallen in the group phase since 2014.
However, with Jürgen Klopp’s side yet to win in the Premier League so far, they may no longer be the unstoppable force of recent times.
The team providing a bit of variety to this group are Rangers, who are back after 12 long years ago.
To get here, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team came through two qualifier, overturning a first leg deficit against Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, before ousting PSV Eindhoven.
Also, the Light Blues did reach last season’s Europa League Final, eliminating Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig en route, before falling on penalties to Frankfurt.
So, Rangers are certainly one of the strongest teams to come out of pot four, so expect them to spring a surprise or two, with Ibrox becoming an impenetrable fortress.
The two non-British clubs meantime are going through transitional periods.
Ajax have lost manager Erik ten Hag and six key player this summer, including Lisandro Martínez, Noussair Mazraoui, Ryan Gravenberch and Sébastien Haller.
Calvin Bassey, who will be making an expeditious return to Ibrox, is one of seven new arrivals and, given the competitiveness of this section, the Eredivisie champions could struggle.
Lastly, Napoli are back in the group phase after three years away.
It’s been all change for I Partenopei this summer too, Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne all departing, making Luciano Spalletti’s side somewhat of an unknown quantity.
In summary, it’s all to play for, with all four teams feeling they have a genuine chance of getting through.
Prediction: 1st: Liverpool. 2nd: Napoli. 3rd: Rangers. 4th: Ajax.
Liverpool to finish first in their Champions League group
Liverpool to top UEFA Champions League Group A- 2/7!
Group B: FC Porto, Atlético Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen & Club Brugge
Similarly, Group B is also wide open, although this is more due to a lack of quality rather than a surplus of it.
Atlético Madrid have finished second in their group in each of the last four seasons, only failing to get through once in nine attempts under Diego Simeone.
Last season, despite losing three of their first five games, los Colchoneros snuck through courtesy of a matchday six victory at Estádio do Dragão.
They’ll return to Northern Portugal again with FC Porto in their group once more.
The Primeira Liga champions came third in that section, but have reached the knockout phase in six of their last nine attempts.
Two and a half years ago, Sérgio Conceição’s side were knocked out the Europa League in the round of 32 by Bayer Leverkusen.
Die Werkself are back for the first time in three years but, with three of their last four Champions League adventures ended by Atlético Madrid, could be set for some more déjà vu.
After three games, Gerardo Seoane’s side sit in the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with no points, so may be accommodating opposition.
Lastly, this is Club Brugge’s fifth successive season competing in the group stages, a remarkable achievement.
The Blue-Blacks finished third in three successive season, before that streak was broken 12 months ago as they finished bottom.
However, with a draw having been kind to them, the Jupiler Pro League champions will fancy their chances of post-Christmas European football.
Prediction: 1st: Atlético Madrid. 2nd: FC Porto. 3rd: Club Brugge. 4th: Bayer Leverkusen.
Atlético Madrid to finish first in their Champions League group
Atlético Madrid to top UEFA Champions League Group B- 10/11!
Group C: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Internazionale & Viktoria Plzeň
When Group C was drawn out, there were audible gasps in the auditorium in İstanbul and with good reason.
Bayern Munich and Barcelona will meet again; their three meetings since 2020 have all produced Bayern victories, 8-2, 3-0 and 3-0.
Last season, following that hammering in Bavaria, Barça were eliminated, thereby failing to get out of their group for the first time since 2000.
However, this team is completely different, with the Blaugrana making five eye-catching editions, none more so than Robert Lewandowski, who’ll be up against his former employers.
President Joan Laporta is banking on a deep Champions League run to help pay off Barça’s ever increasing debt., so his heart will have sank when they were paired with Bayern Munich again.
Right now, Julian Nagelsmann’s team have won all four matches this season, scoring 20 goals and conceding four: Robert who?
This group then earned official group of death status when Internazionale came out of pot 3, a pretty reputable third wheel.
I Nerazzurri reached the knockout phase for the first time for a decade last season, having fallen in the group phase in three successive seasons beforehand.
Here, with Romelu Lukaku back, Simone Inzaghi’s team will take some stopping.
When Inter won the treble in 2010, they famously beat Barça in the semi-finals and then Bayern in the final.
Lastly, what a draw this is for Viktoria Plzeň.
The Czech champions are back in the group phase after four years away, overcoming HJK, FC Sheriff and Qarabağ in qualifiers.
This is Plzeň's fourth group stage appearance and, to date, they’ve won just four games, all of which have come against either BATE Borisov or CSKA Moskva.
Unfortunately for Michal Bílek’s team, of all 32 clubs competing, his side are surely the most likely to end up on zero points.
Prediction: 1st: Bayern Munich. 2nd: Internazionale. 3rd: Barcelona. 4th: Viktoria Plzeň.
Barcelona NOT to finish in the top two of their group
Barcelona to fail to qualify for the UEFA Champions League knockout stages- 6/4!
Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt, Tottenham Hotspur, Sporting CP & Olympique Marseille
From the group of death to the group of competitive balance?
All four clubs in Group D will optimisic of getting through a section that’s pretty much perfectly poised.
Eintracht Frankfurt are the top seeds, by virtue of their Europa League Final victory over Rangers on penalties in May.
So, amazingly, Die Adler will play a first match in this competition since losing 7-3 to Real Madrid in the European Cup Final 62 years ago.
Oliver Glasner’s side beat Real Betis, West Ham and Barcelona en route to last season’s success, so should certainly be taken seriously.
2019 runners-up Tottenham Hotspur meantime are back in this tournament for the first time since just before the pandemic.
Spurs have finished in the top two of their last three Champions League groups, their only failure coming in 2016.
Head Coach Antonio Conte though has finished outside the top two in four of his last five UEFA group phases, his only qualification in the last decade coming with Chelsea.
So, can either of the two lower seeds spring a surprise?
Sporting Clube de Portugal did just that last season, reaching the knockout round for the first time since 2008/09, by ousting Borussia Dortmund.
However, having lost key players, Rúben Amorim’s team might not be as competitive this time round.
Last, but by no means least, 1993 winners Olympique de Marseille are back.
Les Phocéens reached the Europa Conference League semi-finals last season, but haven’t reached the Champions League knockouts since 2011/12.
Expect fireworks from Group D, both literally and metaphorically.
Prediction: 1st: Tottenham Hotspur. 2nd: Eintracht Frankfurt. 3rd: Olympique Marseille. 4th: Sporting CP.
Tottenham Hotspur to finish first in their Champions League group
Tottenham Hotspur to top UEFA Champions League Group D- 1/2!
Group E: AC Milan, Chelsea, RB Salzburg & GNK Dinamo Zagreb
Group E is likely to suffer from a big chasm between two clubs fighting for qualification and the other two scrapping for the Europa League spot.
2021 winners Chelsea have finished in the top two in 19 of their 20 UEFA groups, the sole exception coming a decade ago, when they dropped into the Europa League and won that.
Last season, Thomas Tuchel’s team did have to second place behind an Italian club, narrowly pipped by Juventus.
Seven-times European champions A.C. Milan will be hoping for a repeat as they target a knockout phase return.
Having finished rock bottom of their section 12 months ago, I Rossoneri still haven’t got through the group phase of this competition since 2013/14.
However, having won their first Scudetto in 11 years last season, Stefano Pioli’s team look well set to be competitive on the continent.
Thus, the champions of Austria and Croatia could be left behind by their wealthier opponents.
Although, RB Salzburg did reach the knockout stages for the very first time last season, with this their fourth successive season in the group phase.
GNK Dinamo meanwhile are back after three years away, overcoming Shkupi, Ludogorets and Bodø/Glimt in qualifiers.
The 23-times Croatian giants haven’t finished in the top two of a Champions League group since 1998, with this statistic unlikely to change.
Prediction: 1st: Chelsea. 2nd: AC Milan. 3rd: RB Salzburg. 4th: GNK Dinamo Zagreb.
Chelsea to finish first in their Champions League group
Chelsea to top UEFA Champions League Group E- 1/3!
Group F: Real Madrid, RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk & Celtic
For the third successive season, European champions Real Madrid will take on Shakhtar Donetsk.
Two years ago, the Ukrainian side actually beat los Blancos home and away, but did lose 2-1 and 5-0 to the Spanish giants last time round.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team went on to beat Liverpool in the final in Paris, thereby lifting the club’s 14th European Cup.
Los Merengues have featured in the knockout phase in 25 successive seasons, with that streak set to continue.
Meantime, it wasn’t such a celebratory season for Shakhtar, despite nominally being domestic champions.
The Ukrainian Premier League season was curtailed following February’s Russian invasion, with the new campaign cautiously getting underway, despite the war rumbling on.
Almost all of their foreign players have departed, including Manor Solomon, Tetê, Marcos Antônio, Dodô, David Neres, Ismaily and many more.
The Miners will play their ‘home matches’ in Warsaw, but, for very sad reasons, will surely struggle to compete at this level.
Rounding out the pack are RB Leipzig and Celtic; they clashed in the Europa League in 2018, with both matches producing home wins.
Die Roten Bullen finished third in Group A last season, actually ending up in that position in three of their five UEFA group stage campaigns.
Domenico Tedesco’s team did go onto reach the Europa League semi-finals, but will be targeting an extended stay in this competition.
Lastly, 1967 winners Celtic are back in this competition after five years away.
The Hoops have only won two of their last 18 Champions League group matches and haven’t reached the knockout phase since 2012.
However, Ange Postecoglou’s side will certainly fancy their chances of picking up points and securing post-Christmas European football of some kind.
Prediction: 1st: Real Madrid. 2nd: RB Leipzig. 3rd: Celtic. 4th: Shakhtar Donetsk.
Real Madrid to finish first in their Champions League group
Real Madrid top top UEFA Champions League Group F- 1/5!
Group G: Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund & København
In short, Manchester City are going cruise to top spot in this group, right?
The Citizens have won 21 of their last 30 Champions League group games and haven’t fallen at this hurdle since 2011.
So, expect Pep Guardiola’s team to wrap up qualification, and top spot, with a lot to spare.
Both Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund should be capable of challenging the Premier League champions but, given what’s going on in Andalucía and North Rhine-Westphalia, this seems unlikely.
Los Nervionenses are yet to win in La Liga this season and, after finishing third 12 months ago, the six-times Europa League winners could be set to return to their favourite competition.
Borussia Dortmund too fell at this stage last season, finishing behind Sporting CP on head-to-head.
Already, die Schwarzgelben’s Bundesliga title bid has gone off the rails; just last Saturday, they lost 3-2 to Werder Bremen, despite leading 2-0 in the 89th minute.
So, the clashes between Dortmund and Sevilla are likely to decide second.
Or, could FC København spring a surprise?
The Danish Superligaen champions are back in this competition for the first time since 2016, having edged out Trabzonspor in the play-offs.
The Lions last finished in the top two of a Champions League group in 2010 and, before a ball is kicked, Jess Thorup’s team would probably settle for third.
Prediction: 1st: Manchester City. 2nd: Borussia Dortmund. 3rd: Sevilla. 4th: København.
Borussia Dortmund to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages
Borussia Dortmund to finish in the top two of UEFA Champions League Group G- 1/2!
Group H: Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Benfica & Maccabi Haifa
Two of the group phase’s glamour fixtures will come from Group H, namely the meetings of Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.
This is les Parisiens’ 11th successive season in the group phase and they’ve never failed to reach the knockout rounds in this period.
Under Christophe Galtier, PSG have won all four matches to date, scoring 21 goals and conceding just three.
This form will be tested when they take on Juventus for the very first time.
La Vecchia Signora are two-times European champions but, since last winning this competition in 1996, have been beaten in five finals.
Juve last failed to get out their group in 2013, but have been beaten in the round of 16 in each of the last three seasons.
The other former winners of this tournament in Group H are Benfica.
This is the Eagles 18th appearance in the group phase, needing to win two qualifiers to get here, hammering both Midtjylland and Dynamo Kyiv.
Benfica won back-to-back European Cups in the early 1960s, but have lost all eight UEFA competition finals subsequently, fortunes attributed to Béla Guttmann’s 100-year curse.
Before worrying about any curses, Roger Schmidt’s side will have to negotiate a very challenging section, with third probably the height of their ambitions.
Lastly, Maccabi Haifa are back, qualifying for the first time since 2009.
The Israeli champions caused a big shock or two in qualifying, overcoming Olympiacos, Apollon Limassol and Crvena zvezda, needing a stoppage time own goal in the play-off round.
Sammy Ofer Stadium will welcome some of Europe’s biggest names, but it isn’t likely to witness too many home wins.
Prediction: 1st: Paris Saint-Germain. 2nd: Juventus. 3rd: Benfica. 4th: Maccabi Haifa.
Paris Saint-Germain to finish first in their Champions League group
Paris Saint-Germain to top UEFA Champions League Group H- 2/5!