Four years ago, two better iterations of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain slugged it out at this stage. The La Liga side topped the group and proceeded to win the tournament; the French champions finished behind them and reached the last eight. This time around the creaking giants may feel thankful that they avoided any of the banana skins available in the lower pots.
Now that Real Madrid and Gareth Bale are playing happy families, the Wales forward’s experience at this level may yet help give them the edge; they will need him because Eden Hazard is not yet fit and there are already some doubts about the new striker from Eintracht Frankfurt, Luka Jovic.
Not that Paris Saint-Germain, scarred by three round of 16 exits, necessarily take the upper hand. Neymar may be long gone when the group stage begins but, for all the forward’s baggage, his departure would cut a gigantic hole in Thomas Tuchel’s attacking resources. The manager will surely not survive another flat campaign in Europe.
Club Brugge, who have signed Simon Mignolet and are courting Victor Wanyama, will feel they can pip Galatasaray to third position.
Group A: Prediction 1 Real Madrid; 2 PSG; 3 Club Brugge; 4 Galatasaray
Star player Kylian Mbappé (PSG)
It would take a calamity or two for Tottenham to be forced into a repeat of last season’s salvage operation although, on current form, they will take nothing for granted. A much-changed Bayern side – Ribéry, Robben, Rodríguez, Hummels out; Coutinho, Perisic, Pavard and Hernández in – should be re-energised and can still rely on Robert Lewandowski, who scored his latest hat-trick against Schalke at the weekend. Should Spurs lose Christian Eriksen, they may lose the X factor that puts them in control.
They will remember, too, that Red Star Belgrade defeated Liverpool last year. The Serbian champions fancy a shot at third place and will contest perhaps group stage’s most romantic clash when they face Bayern, who they defeated en route to winning the 1990-91 European Cup in one of the competition’s great contests. It will be Spurs’ first trip to the Marakana since a Uefa Cup tie in 1972.
Olympiakos beat an impressive Krasnodar side in the play-offs this week and have passed through the group stage four times before. But, while the veteran winger Mathieu Valbuena is a new addition to their squad, it is hard to see them or Red Star toppling the front runners.
Group B: Prediction 1 Bayern Munich; 2 Spurs; 3 Olympiakos; 4 Red Star Belgrade
Manchester City may yet receive a Champions League ban in the coming months but their participation this season has scant chance of finishing early. For the third consecutive season they will face Shakhtar Donetsk and, having won their meetings in 2018-19 by an aggregate of 9-0, will see little cause for concern. Shakhtar have not lost a domestic league match for over a year but their outstanding manager, Paulo Fonseca, left for Roma this summer and it is hard to see Luis Castro coaxing a dramatic improvement.
Dinamo Zagreb beat Arsenal in their most recent group stage appearance four years ago but lost their other five games; a battle for third looks their best bet this time but the famed Maksimir Stadium atmosphere may not compensate for a lack of top-level quality.
The group’s most interesting side is Atalanta, who will probably be the nearest approximation to a challenger for City. Their Champions League debut was well-earned and, under Gian Piero Gasperini, they played some of Europe’s most vibrant football last season. Martin Skrtel has been brought in from Fenerbahce to add a layer of steel.
Group C: Prediction 1 Man City; 2 Atalanta; 3 Shakhtar; 4 Dinamo Zagreb
Star player Raheem Sterling (Man C)
Atlético certainly have a score to settle against Juventus, who overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to defeat them in last season’s round of 16. That was entirely owing to a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick; Juventus got no further and the forward, who turns 35 this season, knows his chances of adding to his five titles are running out.
Ronaldo will be as important as ever to Juve, for whom a slightly curious summer’s business has seen Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot arrive on free transfers and Matthijs de Ligt make his high-profile move from Ajax. Gianluigi Buffon is also back for one last crack but they may still have to rely on Gonzalo Higuaín while there are suggestions Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic could yet leave. Atlético, for all the bad bood of Antoine Griezmann’s departure, have started their season with successive 1-0 wins and can luxuriate in the €126m presence of João Félix – not to mention England’s Kieran Trippier.
Bayer Leverkusen will be weakened by Julian Brandt’s departure for Borussia Dortmund; Lokomotiv Moscow will surely offer little more than an awkward away trip or two.
Group D: Prediction 1 Juventus; 2 Atlético Madrid; 3 Bayer L; 4 L Moscow
Star player Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
This lineup does Liverpool’s prospects of defending their title little harm. They traded wins with Napoli last season but it is hard to make a case that Carlo Ancelotti’s team is dramatically stronger this time, although the Mexico forward Hirving Lozano is an exciting acquisition from PSV Eindhoven and Kostas Manolas brings defensive quality – and a taste for drama, as he showed against Barcelona two seasons ago – from Roma.
Red Bull Salzburg arrive in the group stage after a succession of near-misses and a lively young team will cause problems even though their successful manager, Marco Rose, left for Borussia Monchengladbach in pre-season. Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta will, if the latter is fit, be able to face the side they both represented earlier in the decade. Salzburg have a fine record of developing African players and the 19-year-old Mali forward, Sekou Koita, may be the latest off the production line.
Perhaps Salzburg will be able to trouble Napoli in the hunt for a last-16 place. Genk, in their first appearance since 2011-12, look unlikely to do that on the evidence of last season’s Europa League.
Group E: Prediction 1 Liverpool; 2 Napoli; 3 RB Salzburg; 4 Genk
Star player Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Will the alarm bells be ringing for Barcelona? Slavia Prague’s presence does not quite make this a “group of death” but the inclusion of Inter Milan, now managed by Antonio Conte, provides a curveball that will make the five-time winners sweat. Inter mean business, as the arrivals of Romelu Lukaku and Diego Godín have shown; Alexis Sánchez has followed and the Serie A side, who last reached the knockout stage in 2011-12, look a different beast to the one they met in Group B last season.
Back then, Inter held Barça to a draw at San Siro but fluffed their lines against Spurs and PSV Eindhoven, missing a glorious chance to get through. This time they will look to capitalise on Lionel Messi’s absence with a calf problem, as well as any teething problems Neymar experiences if his return goes through. Antoine Griezmann is, at least, now off the mark for Ernesto Valverde’s reshaped side while Frenkie de Jong will only get better.
Meanwhile Borussia Dortmund, who have purred through the Bundesliga’s opening fortnight, look stronger than last year and will be better for the return of Mats Hummels. If everyone clicks, this group could provide the best drama.
Group F: Prediction 1 Borussia Dortmund; 2 Barcelona; 3 Inter; 4 Slavia Prague
Star player Antoine Griezmann (Barca)
There is little stardust here but is certainly the most evenly-matched group. Zenit and Benfica may have felt smug about drawing one another but will face arguably the strongest teams from the other two pots, with every chance the order could be turned on its head.
RB Leipzig, who finished third in a similarly tight quartet two seasons ago, look well set to improve on that this time. Julian Nagelsmann’s reign has begun with consecutive impressive wins in the Bundesliga, while they have retained key players and added the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Christopher Nkunku. Timo Werner is a lethal striker and their creative hub, Emil Forsberg, cannot currently get into a starting XI that is firing on all cylinders.
Last season Lyon shocked Manchester City but, with Sylvinho in charge and the likes of Tanguy Ndombele, Nabil Fekir and Ferland Mendy having departed, their appearance has changed somewhat. They have a goalscorer in Moussa Dembélé and should have too much for Benfica, who are now shorn of the brilliant youngster João Félix. If, as expected, Zenit fall short them Russia’s top-seed status will be in serious jeopardy.
Group G: Prediction 1 RB Leipzig; 2 Lyon; 3 Benfica; 4 Zenit St Petersburg
Star player Timo Werner (RB Leipzig)
Chelsea, bereft of Eden Hazard and David Luiz, might have hoped for a softer hand from the lower pots but will be happy enough to have avoided any of the heavyweights. Whether that statement does a disservice to Ajax depends on how quickly last season’s darlings recover from losing Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt; their principles will not change but they toiled at times during their play-off win over Apoel Nicosia and a repeat of their run to the last four may be a long shot.
Frank Lampard may also be encouraged by the way Valencia, to whom Chelsea have never lost in six Champions League meetings, fell short in last season’s Europa League semi-final against Arsenal. Maxi Gómez should offer the Spanish side more cutting edge, though, while the goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen is a handy arrival from Barcelona who will enjoy a reunion with Ajax.
Valencia are, in fact, the only member of this group not to have lost key outfield players over the summer. Lille sold Nicolas Pépé to Arsenal, with Rafael Leão and Thiago Mendes also leaving the Ligue 1 runners-up, but the Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen has made a flying start and will need attention.
The Guardian Sport