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Champions League group stage preview: Predicting who will qualify from every group

The UEFA Champions League group stages are back, with matchday one kicking off on 19 & 20 September.

This season’s final is at Wembley, with Manchester City hoping to retain their title, although there are plenty of other clubs who will fancy their chances of being there too.

124 matches will be played before then, so here’s a group by group preview ahead of the big kick off.

Group A: Bayern Munich, Manchester United, København & Galatasaray

On paper, this group has a clear top two and a bottom two, but will it play out that way?

Bayern Munich are the clear favourites to top the section, given that they’re unbeaten in 34 group games, which is a competition record, a sequence that dates back to September 2017.

Having brought in Harry Kane, Thomas Tuchel’s team look very strong, making them amongst the favourites to win the entire competition, highly likely to take top spot.

The Red Devils were dumped out by Bayern in 2001, 2010 and 2014, but beat the Bavarian juggernauts in the 1999 final, famously scoring twice in stoppage time.

This year also marks three decades since Man United’s ‘welcome to hell’ game in İstanbul, defeated by Galatasaray on away goals back then, hoping for a different outcome as they return to the new Ali Sami Yen.

Both København and Galatasaray had to come through three rounds of qualifying just to get into the group phase, but the champions or Türkiye and Denmark will, more than likely, be fighting for third.

Prediction: 1st: Bayern Munich. 2nd: Manchester United. 3rd: Galatasaray. 4th: København.

Group B: Sevilla, Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven & Lens

Arsenal are back in the Champions League for the first time since 2016, and the Gunners have been handed a kind draw.

Mikel Arteta’s team avoided all of the competition’s juggernauts in Thursday’s draw, and are odds-on favourites to top Group B.

The North London-based side have finished in the top two of their last 17 Champions League groups, dating back to 1999, and are highly-likely to keep that streak going.

Sevilla are the section’s top seeds, but are an absolute mess right now, having kicked off the new La Liga season with three defeats out of three.

So, could PSV be favourites to take second spot, aiming to reach the Champions League knockout phase for the first time since 2015/16?

Peter Bosz’s side certainly come into this campaign full of confidence, having scored seven against both Sturm Graz and Rangers in qualifying.

Last, but by no means least, RC Lens are competing in major UEFA competition for the first time since 2007, back in the Champions League after 21 years away.

Les Sang et Or finished second in Ligue 1 last season, just one point below champions PSG, but, having sold their two stars, Loïs Openda and Seko Fofana this summer, may struggle to compete at this level.

Prediction: 1st: Arsenal. 2nd: PSV Eindhoven. 3rd: Sevilla. 4th: Lens.

Group C: Napoli, Real Madrid, Braga & Union Berlin

Real Madrid begin their quest for a 15th European title.

Los Blancos have not been eliminated before the round of 16 in this competition since 1962, a fact that will remain true, with Carlo Ancelotti’s team strong favourites to take top spot.

Napoli though are the group’s top seeds, having ended their 33-year wait to win the Scudetto last season.

I Partenopei also reached the quarter-finals of this tournament for the very first time earlier this year and, having kept hold of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen, will be a threat to anyone.

Elsewhere, Union Berlin’s footballing fairytale continues.

Die Eisernen were promoted to the Bundesliga for the very first time in 2019, before qualifying for the Europa Conference League in 2021, the Europa League the following year and now the Champions League.

Union are set to sell-out the Olympiastadion for all their home matches and, having started the new league season with back-to-back 4-1 wins, Urs Fischer’s side will certainly take some beating.

Lastly, Braga are back in the group stages for the first time in 11 years, following qualifying victories over both TSC Bačka Topola and Panathinaikos.

Os Arcebispos are Europa League regulars but, in a very competitive Group C, Artur Jorge’s side may struggle to make the step-up.

Prediction: 1st: Real Madrid. 2nd: Napoli. 3rd: Union Berlin. 4th: Braga.

Group D: Benfica, Internazionale, RB Salzburg & Real Sociedad

Last season’s beaten finalists Internazionale Milano find themselves in a very interesting Group D.

I Nerazzurri had to come through a group of death 12 months ago, ousting Barcelona, before eliminating Porto, Benfica and rivals A.C. Milan, before a 1-0 defeat to Man City in the final at Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadı.

This time, Simone Inzaghi’s side are the favourites to top this section, but the Portuguese champions will be hoping to exact revenge for April’s quarter-final exit.

Benfica actually topped their group a year ago, achieving this for the first time since 2011, finishing above PSG and Juventus, but Roger Schmidt’s team will have to be at their best to reach the knockout stages again.

Real Sociedad’s last two Champions League appearances came in 2003 and 2013, set to end their decade-long exile from the competition, but Imanol Alguacil’s men will have to upset the odds to get through.

RB Salzburg did reach the knockout stages the season before last but, having seen Matthias Jaissle depart Al-Ahli, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Austrian Bundesliga.

Prediction: 1st: Internazionale. 2nd: Benfica. 3rd: Real Sociedad. 4th: RB Salzburg.

Group E: Feyenoord, Atlético Madrid, Lazio & Celtic

Group E is, possibly, the most intriguing of all eight sections, with all four clubs believing they have a chance of beating each-others.

Atlético Madrid actually finished bottom of their group last season, thereby ending up fourth of a group UEFA competition for the very first time.

12 months on, Diego Simeone’s side are significantly improved, making los Colchoneros big favourites to go through in first place.

Feyenoord are the top seeds, given that they’re Eredivisie champions, with this their sixth appearance in the group phase, although they’ve only ever got through once, achieving this in 1999.

So, could second spot be up for grabs?

Lazio reached the Champions League knockout phase for the first this century back in 2020, but Maurizio Sarri’s side have made a nightmare start to this campaign, beaten by both Lecce and Genoa.

So, can Celtic spring a surprise or two?

The Scottish champions are winless in ten Champions League group games, accumulating just two points last season, but Brendan Rodgers’ side will beleive they can beat anyone, particularly at Parkhead.

Prediction: 1st: Atlético Madrid. 2nd: Feyenoord. 3rd: Lazio. 4th: Celtic.

Group F: Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan & Newcastle

When the draw was made, Group F immediately leapt off the page, and it is impossible not to label this section a group of death.

Newcastle United are back in the Champions League after 20 years away, but boy have the Toon Army been handed a baptism of fire.

Top-seeds Paris Saint-Germain haven’t failed to get beyond the group stages since 2004, but this new-look les Rouge-et-Bleu side will have to be at their best to continue this streak.

Lionel Messi and Neymar have both departed PSG this summer, replaced by Ousmane Dembélé and Gonçalo Ramos, so will Luis Enrique’s side be too strong for the rest?

A.C. Milan though have also been busy in the transfer market and have looked fantastic so far, kicking off the new Serie A season with back-to-back wins.

I Rossoneri reached the semi-finals last season, their best run in the Champions League for 16 years, so Stefano Pioli’s side will not want to crash out early.

Borussia Dortmund are also regulars are Europe’s top table, only failing to get through their group twice since 2011.

Die Schwarzgelben have made a mixed start to this campaign, leaving manager Edin Terzić under pressure, so they’ll need to improve and quickly, or face elimination from this group of death.

Whoever tops this section will certainly have to work hard for it while, from a Newcastle perspective, they’ll need St James’ Park to be a fortress, with some amazing away days awaiting their supporters.

Prediction: 1st: AC Milan. 2nd: Paris Saint-Germain. 3rd: Newcastle United. 4th: Borussia Dortmund.

Group G: Manchester City, RB Leipzig, Crvena zvezda & BSC Young Boys

This is defending champions Manchester City’s 13th successive season in the Champions League but, to date, they’ve never ended the group stages with maximum points, a fact that could change soon.

Pep Guardiola’s treble winners were unstoppable for the final three months of last season, winning a third successive Premier League and this competition for the very first time, defeating Inter in the final.

In a very gentle Group G, the Sky Blues will sail through.

RB Leipzig meantime have been decimated in the transfer market, having sold Joško Gvardiol to Man City, Dominik Szoboszlai to Liverpool and Christopher Nkunku to Chelsea for a combined €220 million.

Nevertheless, die Roten Bullen always manage to regenerate, and Marco Rose’s side are widely-expected to get through again.

1991 winners Crvena zvezda have not reached the round of 16 in this competition for 31 years, back when they were holders, and are back in the group stages for the first time since 2019.

Red Star Belgrade will need to make the Marakana a fortress, but will fear no foe on their own turf.

Lastly, BSC Young Boys have qualified for a group stages for the third time, following Tuesday’s play-off victory over Maccabi Haifa.

The Swiss champions have only ever won two Champions League group games, beating Juventus in 2018 and Man United in 2021, so can they claim another scalp at Stadion Wankdorf?

Prediction: 1st: Manchester City. 2nd: RB Leipzig. 3rd: Crvena zvezda. 4th: BSC Young Boys.

Group H: Barcelona, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk & Royal Antwerp

Having been eliminated in the group stages in each of the last two seasons, will it be third time lucky for Barcelona?

Xavi’s side reclaimed the La Liga title last season, although this team is far from perfect or flawless.

The Blaugrana will be playing home matches at Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, with Camp Nou being redeveloped, and, while they’re far from favourites to win the competition, Barça should get through a kind Group H.

FC Porto meantime will fancy their chances of getting through too, seeking to reach the round of 16 in back-to-back seasons, and Estádio do Dragão is never an easy place to go.

Elsewhere, Shakhtar Donetsk will be proudly flying the Ukrainian flag in the Champions League once again, playing home matches at Volksparkstadion in Germany, hoping to do their entire nation proud.

Lastly, Royal Antwerp are one of two debutants in this season’s group stages, having won their first Belgian title since 1957 earlier this year.

To date, the Grand Old have only ever played two ties in this competition, beaten in the first round by Real Madrid 66 years ago, before ousting AEK Athens in the play-off round earlier this week.

All three matches at Bosuilstadion will be a massive occasion, but Mark van Bommel’s team are favourites to finish rock bottom.

Prediction: 1st: Barcelona. 2nd: Porto. 3rd: Shakhtar Donetsk. 4th: Royal Antwerp.

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Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".

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