By Alex Jimenez
The Union of European Football Associations Champions League, soccer’s most prestigious club competition, returns this week, after one of the most hectic transfer windows in history closes.
The two biggest names in soccer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, will be lining up next to new teammates in the 2021-2022 iteration of the UCL – with the latter making a move nobody expected; joining Paris Saint-Germain after Barcelona’s financial crisis forced them to let Messi walk free.
The Champions League group stage consists of eight-four team groups. Each team plays the opposing three teams in the group on two separate occasions, once at home and once away, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the round of 16.
Here is a closer look at how these eight groups shape up:
Courtesy: UEFA Twitter
Group A Prediction – Man City, PSG, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge
Group A holds the two most controversial clubs in present day soccer, both state-funded, who also happen to be the two favorites in this competition – PSG and Manchester City. The inclusion of RB Leipzig, an underdog who has the potential and quick counter-attacking style to cause an upset, will make this group one every fan will be watching.
Unfortunately for RB Leipzig, the star-studded talent of Man City and PSG will be too much for them to handle. The German club has struggled to transition under American coach Jesse Marsch, who recently took over Leipzig following the exit of Julian Nagelsmann, losing three of its opening four games.
Manchester City fell short of lifting the UCL trophy again last season, losing to Chelsea in the final, but remains a well-oiled machine even without a legitimate striker. City tends to manage the group stages with ease and this season should be no different – it’s the knockout stages when questions arise for Man City.
All eyes will be on PSG throughout this competition after adding Messi, who many consider to be soccer’s GOAT. The signings of Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum will help balance a team who already had bolstered two of the best attackers in the world before Messi even arrived.
Group B Prediction – Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, AC Milan, FC Porto
Arguably the most well-rounded group in terms of talent from top to bottom, group B could very well bring a surprise. After all, Atletico Madrid brought down Liverpool during the round of 16 of last year’s UCL.
Additionally, Atleti stunned the world after beating Real Madrid and Barcelona to lift the Spanish league title last year and reinforced the team with the additions of Rodrigo De Paul and Antoine Griezmann over the summer.
Liverpool looks to reach their heights of the 2019 season, when the team became the champions of Europe after a plague of injuries caused an underwhelming season last year. The signing of Ibrahima Konate will strengthen their defense, but a hesitance to sign players in the attack and midfield may cause Liverpool issues if their forward line doesn’t produce.
The resurgence of AC Milan as a competitive team under Stefano Pioli has been great to see, but the squad may have issues trying to balance competing for a title in Italy and returning to the UCL after seven years.
FC Porto put up a Cinderella performance to remember after defeating Juventus and nearly beating eventual-champions Chelsea last year. However, the talent in this group will prove a real challenge for the Dragões.
Group C – Dortmund, Ajax, Sporting, Beşiktaş
Borussia Dortmund will be looking to one of the game’s brightest young stars, Erling Haaland, to produce on soccer’s biggest stage before he leaves. With a release clause of 75 million Euros set to kick in this summer, all of Europe’s elite teams will be knocking on Dortmund’s door to sign him.
Ajax have managed to keep Erik ten Hag despite interest from other clubs, and with emerging talents Ryan Gravenberch and Antony, a run similar to 2019 when it reached the UCL semifinal could repeat itself.
Group D – Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sheriff
Ironically enough, this group is nearly identical to last year’s group B, the only difference being Sheriff replacing Borussia Monchengladbach. This is Sheriff’s first appearance in the UCL group stage and is Moldova’s first team to reach the UCL group stage – its reward is facing Real Madrid, UCL’s most-decorated team with 13 titles.
Real Madrid has lost Zinedine Zidane as the head coach, the man who led them to three consecutive UCL titles between 2016-2018, and its center-back partnership of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos, who captained the team since 2015. It still would be difficult to see Real Madrid not progress past this group to the knockout stages without them.
Group E – Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Benfica, Dynamo Kyiv
Newcoming head coach Julian Nagelsmann knows Bayern Munich’s success in Germany is almost inevitable, and his success will be judged in the UCL. Bayern Munich suffered a huge loss when Robert Lewandowski went down before losing to PSG in last year’s UCL quarter-final and will hope to bring back the success they achieved in 2020, when it won the Champions League.
Bayern Munich will open this year’s campaign by playing Barcelona, the club it embarrassed 8-2 on its way to winning a 6th UCL title.
Barcelona will go into its first UCL campaign without Messi since 2003, with hopes Memphis Depay and the young core can steer the ship following a transfer window where Barcelona lost not just Messi but Antoine Griezmann also.
Group F – Manchester United, Villarreal, Atalanta, Young Boys
Following a disappointing UCL exit last season, Manchester United has added Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho, and UCL’s serial-winner Cristiano Ronaldo. After United’s UCL exit, they were able to reach the final of the Europa League, the European tournament directly under the UCL.
The winner of the final? None other than Villarreal, who was also drawn into group F with United. The Yellow Submarine, led by Unai Emery, play a reactive and defensive style that tends to suit European soccer.
Additionally, group F includes Atalanta, one of Europe’s most exciting and intriguing squads, thanks to their man-to-man pressing and quick transitions. Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta’s coach, has consistently managed to over-perform with the squad’s given budget.
Group G – Sevilla, Salzburg, Wolfsburg, Lille
Although Group G doesn’t have European giants, it may end up being the most competitive group. Salzburg consistently dominates Austria’s Bundesliga and has become a regular in the Champions League since Red Bull started investing. With the departure of Patson Daka, Karim Adeyemi has stepped up to become the club’s next young star, scoring six goals in seven league games.
Sevilla finished an impressive 2020-2021 season in fourth place in La Liga, but were just 9 points off Atleti who finished first. Monchu, Sevilla’s sporting director, continues to add talent to the squad bringing in Rafa Mir, Thomas Delaney, Gonzalo Montiel and Erik Lamela, who is off to a great start in Spain.
Lille achieved the impossible by beating PSG to the French Ligue 1 title last season, but coach Christophe Galtier since has stepped down and the team lost key players over the summer transfer window.
Group H – Chelsea, Juventus, Zenit, Malmo
Chelsea spent €115 million to sign Lukaku from Inter Milan, and the goal is clear – keep the UCL trophy in London. Lukaku has started to create chances into goals in England’s Premier League, and it is only a matter of time before he does the same in the UCL again.
“The distances are so close, yet they (Chelsea) are so wide … they are so direct in behind,” said Pep Guardiola, manager of Man City, when speaking to BT Sport on Chelsea’s tactics.
It’s evident Juventus has dropped a few levels from the team it was in 2015 and 2017 when it reached the UCL Final. The team lost the Serie A title in Italy last season for the first time since the 2010-2011 season and lost Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer transfer window. Coach Max Allegri has been brought back, following his departure from Juve in 2019, to try and bring the Old Lady to the European and Italian success of which they are accustomed.