Manchester City and holders Bayern Munich should secure straightforward passage but Manchester United must find a way past two of last season’s semi-finalists
Jonathan Wilson – The Guardian
(Clockwise from top left) Sadio Mané of Liverpool, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland, Kylian Mbappé of PSG and Internazionale’s Romelu Lukaku. Composite: BPI/Shutterstock; Uefa via Getty Images; Pool via Reuters; Getty Images; AP
The intrigue of a group is usually dependent less on the best two teams than the third side, and that means in Group A that much depends on Salzburg. They scored 16 goals in the group stage last season, but Erling Braut Haaland has been sold since, and five straight wins in Austria this season says little about their capacity to compete at European level. The champions Bayern lost their 32-game unbeaten run on Saturday but despite worries about squad depth they should go through comfortably enough with the side that eliminated them in the 2016 semi-final, Atlético. The hopes of last season’s Russian runners-up Lokomotiv Moscow probably vanished when they sold the forward Aleksey Miranchuk to Atalanta.
Prediction 1 Bayern Munich 2 Atlético Madrid 3 RB Salzburg 4 Lokomotiv Moscow
Star player Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
Real Madrid are such relentless winners, even when playing poorly, that nobody would expect them to go out, but given how rattled they were by Manchester City’s pressing last season, they might not find this an entirely comfortable group against three teams who all press hard and high. Antonio Conte’s Internazionale, who have scored nine and conceded five in winning their opening two league games this season, and are bolstered by Achraf Hakimi, Aleksandar Kolarov and Arturo Vidal, are probably the best of them, but Shakhtar are a better side than they showed in losing 5-0 to Inter in August’s Europa League semi-final, while Marco Rose’s Borussia Mönchengladbach are a fine example of a modern Austro-German pressing team.
Prediction 1 Real Madrid 2 Internazionale 3 Borussia Mönchengladbach 4 Shakhtar Donetsk
Star player Romelu Lukaku (Internazionale)
Ten seasons after his last Champions League title, there are plenty of questions about Pep Guardiola and whether his philosophy leads the game as it once did, but few of them are likely to be asked in the group stage. André Villas-Boas’s improving Marseille may threaten given their capacity for getting behind opponents, while the quality of Porto, the sole remaining Portuguese representatives, will become clearer when the transfer window closes. Olympiakos, Greek champions again after two years without success, troubled Tottenham, Arsenal and Wolves in the Europa League last season, but all are awkward rather than daunting for City.
Prediction 1 Manchester City 2 Marseille 3 Porto 4 Olympiakos
Star player Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
The first time most in England became aware of Ajax and its Total Football was in December 1966 when Rinus Michels’s side hammered Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 5-1 in the fog in Amsterdam. Remarkably the sides haven’t met in the European Cup/Champions League since, but with Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek gone from the side that reached the semi-final the season before last, this is a diminished Ajax. The Danish champions Midtjylland qualified with a remarkable late comeback in their play-off against Slavia Prague but the most likely runners-up are Atalanta, who have lost only the full-back Timothy Castagne from the team that so nearly eliminated PSG in last season’s quarter-final.
Prediction 1 Liverpool 2 Atalanta 3 Ajax 4 Midtjylland
Star player Sadio Mané (Liverpool)
After the summer spending spree there will be a clear expectation on Chelsea to at least match the achievement of last season in reaching the last 16, and there is little in the draw to prevent them doing that. Sevilla, Europa League champions again, are a solid and awkward side, although they have lost Éver Banega, Sergio Rico and Sergio Reguilón, but the third and fourth teams in the group are less challenging. Krasnodar, who qualified by beating PAOK in a play-off after finishing third in Russia last season, were the only debutants in pot three, while Rennes, third in France last season, are the second-lowest-ranked team left in the competition.
Prediction 1 Chelsea 2 Sevilla 3 Rennes 4 Krasnodar
Star player Timo Werner (Chelsea)
Arguably the weakest group, headed by Lucien Favre’s exciting but fragile Borussia Dortmund and their array of exciting and youthful talent. The top-seeded side, though, are Zenit St Petersburg, who have won two Russian league titles in a row under their former midfielder Sergei Semak, thanks in large part to the strike pairing of the Russia’s captain Artem Dzyuba and the Iran international Sardar Azmoun. Lazio, who started last season in Serie A well before faltering after lockdown to come fourth, and the Belgian champions Club Brugge make up a trio of sides likely to be battling for second.
Prediction 1 Borussia Dortmund 2 Zenit St Petersburg 3 Lazio 4 Club Brugge
Star player Erling Braut Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)
For the first time, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will meet in the group stage of the Champions League, a detail that, although it is coincidental, seems to underline their declining status. This may be a repeat of the 2015 final, and the 2017 quarter-final, but Juventus and Barcelona are in transition and under new managers in Andrea Pirlo and Ronald Koeman, which could conceivably open the door for Dynamo Kyiv. They are resurgent under the veteran Romanian Mircea Lucescu and beat AZ and Gent convincingly in the play-offs. The group is completed by the Hungarian champions Ferencvaros, the lowest-ranked side left in the competition.
Prediction 1 Barcelona 2 Juventus 3 Dynamo Kyiv 4 Ferencvaros
Star player Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona)
As draws go, this is about as bad as it gets for Manchester United, grouped with two of last season’s semi-finalists, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig. It was beating PSG in the last 16 the season before last that led to Ole Gunnar Solskjær being given the United job and he does have a decent record of setting his team up to sit deep and strike on the counter. But to pull off a similar result and get the better of Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig will require United to be much better defensively than they have been so far this season. Istanbul Basaksehir, with Nacer Chadli and Demba Ba in their squad, make up the group after winning a first Turkish title last season.
Prediction 1 Paris Saint-Germain 2 RB Leipzig 3 Manchester United 4 Istanbul Basaksehir
Star player Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain)