Group A is by by some distance the toughest, featuring the defeated finalist of the past two seasons, plus RB Leipzig, who reached the semi-final two seasons ago. There will be a repeat of last season’s semi-final, in which Manchester City comfortably overcame Paris Saint-Germain in a battle of two mega-rich petro-clubs. City’s problem tends to come later in the competition as Pep Guardiola overthinks a major tie, but for once progress will not be straightforward against a PSG now bolstered by Lionel Messi and, perhaps more consequentially, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos and Gini Wijnaldum. Leipzig may not quite be so strong this season, in transition after Jesse Marsch replaced Julian Nagelsmann as coach, while Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahmim Konaté have left. Club Brugge have never made it through the group stage.
Predicted finishing positions: 1 Manchester City 2 PSG 3 RB Leipzig 4 Club Brugge
Group B features three former winners and a side that has three times lost in the final. Atlético capitalised on the chaos at Real Madrid and Barcelona to lift the title in Spain but recent European performances have been poor, even if they did eliminate Liverpool the season before last. For Liverpool, the question is whether their poor form last year was the result of a freakish collection of injuries, or something more profound. Although Porto finished second in Portugal last season, Sérgio Conceição’s side impressed in the Champions League, eliminating Juventus and beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Milan, meanwhile, are back in the Champions League for the first time since 2014, as they continue their rebirth under Stefano Pioli. Gianluigi Donnarumma is a major loss, but Olivier Giroud, Fikayo Tomori and Mike Maigan have all arrived.
1 Liverpool; 2 Atlético 3 Porto 4 Milan
Group C is probably the most open group. Last season’s league title was Sporting’s first in 19 years, a remarkable achievement for their coach Rúben Amorim. Marco Rose has arrived as coach at Dortmund, but for all the promise he has shown at Red Bull Salzburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, he is as hampered as every previous coach by the economics of Dortmund, which saw Jadon Sancho depart. Ajax won the Eredivisie by 16 points last season and have largely been able to keep their squad together. Most crucially, perhaps, Erik ten Haag remains manager despite widespread interest from, among others, Tottenham. The Turkish champions Besiktas have bolstered the squad before their first Champions League campaign in four years, their most intriguing signing, perhaps, that of Michy Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea.
1 Dortmund 2 Ajax 3 Sporting; 4 Besiktas
Three of the four sides in Group D were also drawn together last season, when Inter finished bottom and Shakhtar third, despite beating Real Madrid home and away. Madrid every now and again can still find a performance to evoke memories of the days of glory, but an ageing squad is increasingly inconsistent. Although Inter won Serie A for the first time since 2010, they have since lost their manager, Antonio Conte, replaced by Simone Inzaghi, as well as Romelu Lukaku and Hakimi. Lassina Traoré and Marlon were the two big arrivals for Shakhtar, whose run of four straight Ukrainian titles was ended last season. Sheriff became the first Moldovan side to reach the group stage by seeing off Dinamo Zagreb in the play-off.
1 Real Madrid 2 Inter 3 Shakhtar 4 Sheriff
There are three former winners and a former semi-finalist in Group E, but this should be relatively straightforward for Bayern, who beat Barcelona 8-2 last time they met. They will, almost certainly, win a 10th successive Bundesliga title this season but that dominance means their season will be judged largely on results in Europe where Nagelsmann has not yet convinced. For the first time since 2003, Barcelona will begin a Champions League campaign without Messi and, indeed, much in the way of hope. Dynamo Kyiv lost only once in winning the title under the veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu last season, their first championship in five years, while Benfica finished third in Portugal following the return of the manager Jorge Jesus from Flamengo, where he won the Copa Libertadores.
1 Bayern 2 Barcelona 3 Dynamo Kyiv 4 Benfica
Having gone out in the group stage last season, this is a tricky draw for Manchester United, for whom the signings of Raphaël Varane and Jadon Sancho mean there can be no more excuses. Seventh in La Liga last season, Villarreal would not be a Pot 1 side anybody would fear necessarily, but Unai Emery is a master of European competition – as he proved by beating United in the Europa League final. With more luck in the home leg of the last-16 tie last season, Giampiero Gasperini’s hard-pressing Atalanta might have eliminated Madrid, and the season before they pushed PSG close in the quarter-final. Young Boys lost just twice to win the Swiss title by 31 points under Gerardo Seoane but he has since moved to Bayer Leverkusen to be replaced by David Wagner.
1 Manchester United 2 Atalanta 3 Villarreal 4 Young Boys
Group G is by some way the weakest group. Lille have lost their manager Christophe Galtier since their shock title success last season, and would probably have been the weakest side in Pot 1 anyway. Sevilla got within nine points of the Spanish champions Atlético last season and they’ve started this season with a pair of victories, but they’re also probably the poorest side in Pot 2. Wolfsburg, meanwhile, have lost their coach Oliver Glasner since finishing fourth in the Bundesliga. That represents an opportunity for RB Salzburg, who are becoming a regular presence in the group stage. They’ve won five out of five in the league this season and saw off Brondby in a play-off despite the usual high turnover of players and the sales of their two highly rated Zambians, Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu.
1 Salzburg 2 Sevilla 3 Wolfsburg 4 Lille
What could have been a very testing group became rather less so after the Pot 3 and Pot 4 sides were drawn. Zenit lost only three games as they claimed a third successive Russian league title under Sergei Semak and should not be underestimated, but they are not at the level of Chelsea, the defending champions, now bolstered by the signing of Romelu Lukaku. Juventus, the Cristiano Ronaldo situation notwithstanding, can be expected to be much more competitive now Massimiliano Allegri has returned to replace Andrea Pirlo. Malmo, now managed by the former Newcastle striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, had to pass through four rounds to reach the group stage for the third time.
1 Chelsea 2 Juventus 3 Zenit 4 Malmo