The 2018-19 Champions League group stage, which begins next month, will feature more than a few eye-catching games after Thursday’s draw pitted some of Europe’s biggest clubs against each other.
Group H sees a reunion for Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba with Manchester United and Juventus, respectively, while last season’s finalists Liverpool face a difficult task against Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade. Barcelona, meanwhile, have been drawn with Tottenham and Inter.
Elsewhere, holders Real Madrid — aiming for a fourth successive title — will be happy with their draw, as will English champions Manchester City and German titleholders Bayern.
With the group stage mapped out, who will make it through and keep alive their dream of lifting the European Cup in Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium next June?
Group A: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Brugge
Who will go through? 1. Atletico Madrid; 2. Borussia Dortmund
Europa League holders Atletico Madrid will be desperate to win this season’s Champions League due to the final being staged at their stadium in the Spanish capital, but Diego Simeone’s team have been handed a tough start.
Atletico, who have reached three finals and lost each time, won the UEFA Super Cup earlier this month and will be favourites to top the group and expect to leave the rest fighting for runners-up spot.
However, Borussia Dortmund have a strong European pedigree, while Monaco’s recent Champions League performances make them a dangerous opponent. Brugge’s best hope will be to snatch third and a place in the Europa League.
Group B: Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV Eindhoven, Inter
Who will go through? 1. Barcelona; 2. Tottenham
The group has serious pedigree, but beyond the names and history of the clubs involved, should ultimately see both Barcelona and Tottenham progress comfortably.
Barca will be favourites to qualify as winners — Ernesto Valverde’s team still possess awesome firepower in the form of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele — but Spurs showed last season, when topping their group ahead of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, that they can beat the best on the big stage.
Dutch champions PSV will do well to finish in the top two under new coach Mark van Bommel. Inter are some distance from repeating their 2010 Champions League success and are likely to find life tough under Luciano Spalletti; a battle with PSV for third place is their most likely scenario.
ESPN FC’s Paul Mariner sifts through the Champions League draw and determines who has the best path to the knockout stage and who may struggle.
Group C: Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star Belgrade
Who will go through? 1. Paris Saint-Germain; 2. Liverpool
Liverpool were fearful of a tough group after being placed in Pot Three and their nightmare became reality as Jurgen Klopp’s men were paired with PSG and Napoli.
PSG, with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani in their ranks, will be favourites for first place and Napoli, under Carlo Ancelotti, have the ability to beat anyone. As such, while Liverpool’s run to the final last season will give them belief, it will be tough for the five-time European champions to make the knockout stages.
Red Star Belgrade, European Cup winners way back in 1991, have qualified for the Champions League group stage for the first time, but the Serbian champions can expect to be left behind in a three-way battle for qualification.
Group D: Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray
Who will go through? 1. Schalke; 2. Porto
This group might lack box-office glamour, but it gives each participant a clear route into the knockout stages.
Porto are the only former Champions League winners among the four teams, but their meek surrender against Liverpool in last season’s Round of 16 — Jurgen Klopp’s team won 5-0 at Estadio do Dragao — will give Lokomotiv, Schalke and Galatasaray confidence that they can overcome the Portuguese champions.
Schalke, runners-up to Bayern Munich in last season’s Bundesliga, will be favourites to top the group, but this one is wide open.
Group E: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens
Who will go through? 1. Bayern Munich; 2. AEK Athens
Bayern will expect to cruise into the Round of 16 and it will take a momentous shock for the German champions to miss out. They remain a formidable force under new coach Nico Kovac, but the battle for second ensures Group E will be one of the most unpredictable.
Benfica’s Champions League experience will count in their favour, but Ajax’s squad retains several of the players who were part of the club’s run to the 2017 Europa League final, so Erik ten Hag’s men cannot be discounted.
And AEK Athens, having won their domestic title for the first time last season since 1993-94, have displayed durability by overcoming Celtic and Videoton to reach the group stages; they go yet go further.
Group F: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim
Who will go through? 1. Manchester City; 2. Shakhtar Donetsk
Manchester City’s ambition to win the Champions League will not have been dented by this draw, which has handed Pep Guardiola’s team a straightforward route through.
Although Shakhtar Donetsk inflicted City’s first defeat last season, the Premier League champions will not fear any of their opponents. Lyon and Hoffenheim, making their first appearance at this stage, will be difficult opponents, but City have the ability to finish top with a 100 percent record.
If you are looking for drama, the race for the runners-up spot is likely to be the only source of excitement, with Shakhtar’s recent pedigree giving them the edge.
Group G: Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen
Who will go through? 1. Real Madrid; 2. Roma
With two of last season’s semifinalists — Real Madrid and Roma — the battle for top spot and the race for third are likely to be the tale of this group.
Real will be strong favourites to finish first, but Roma’s incredible quarterfinal elimination of Barcelona last term ensures that the Madrid giants will be wary of their trip to the Stadio Olimpico. However, neither club should fear elimination at this stage with CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen making up the numbers in the group.
The big question from the Real vs. Roma games will focus upon how much the reigning European champions will miss the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo, following his summer sale to Juventus. Even without him, though, Real should cruise.
Group H: Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys
Who will go through? 1. Juventus; 2. Valencia
Cristiano Ronaldo facing Manchester United with Juventus, for whom United’s Paul Pogba used to play, will be the main draw, but the reality is that the two clubs and Valencia will be locked in a three-way fight for qualification.
Juventus, serial Italian champions and beaten finalists in two of the last four Champions League deciders, will be the team to beat, while United’s unpredictability under Jose Mourinho means the three-time European champions will be vulnerable vs. Valencia. United’s record against Spanish opposition is historically poor: Sevilla eliminated them in the Round of 16 last season.
Making up the numbers are Swiss outfit Young Boys, who have the ability to take points off their rivals and could take advantage of any complacency by snatching third spot. This, though, is a tough group to call.