The Champions League returns this week with group games in Europe’s elite competition taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The draw for the group stage of the competition took place at the end of August and created plenty of talking points and games to look forward to as clubs look to take the trophy away from Manchester City.
Here our European experts James Horncastle, Raphael Honigstein, Mario Cortegana, Pol Ballus and Peter Rutzler to analyse the draw and explain what to look out for this week. You can read an in-depth breakdown of what awaits the four Premier League teams here.
Which group gets you most excited?
James Horncastle: Group F should be fun. Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma will face AC Milan, the club he supported as a boy and ditched for the lucre of Ligue 1. It’s a reunion tour as Sandro Tonali, who claimed he wanted to captain and finish his career at Milan, faces his old team too. Then the Dortmund game pits Pulisic against USMNT teammate Gio Reyna with the backdrop of the Yellow Wall paling in comparison with everything that went down at the World Cup in Qatar. As geopolitics goes, the Saudi v Qatar angle to Newcastle against PSG is hotter than a summer’s day in Riyadh or Doha.
Raphael Honigstein: It has to be Group F, of course. But don’t sleep on Group E, with one of the best up-and-coming coaches in Feyenoord’s Arne Slot, Maurizio Sarri’s Lazio, a more attacking-minded(?) Diego Simeone at Atletico and Brendan Rodgers back in the saddle at Celtic. Not the biggest quality line-up but it should be lots of fun.
Pol Ballus: Group F, by a mile. There is an outstanding ’90s football vibe in this group, apart from it being clearly the only one in which you can see all four teams being real options to go through.
Mario Cortegana: I’m not going to be original: F is the group I’m going to pay most attention to, after C, Real Madrid’s group. It would be a surprise for them to go out because they are building a more balanced and hungry team, but I am very curious about what would happen if PSG were knocked out in the group stage of the Champions League. This would follow two editions in which they were eliminated in the round of 16. They have been unlucky this year at the first stage of reaching their eternal goal, winning the Champions League. Dortmund always offer spectacle, Milan are a giant awakening in recent years and Newcastle are a nouveau riche club that is doing things very well: they have not just got money, but also intelligence.
Peter Rutzler: Group F obviously catches the eye. Historic stadiums, famous clubs, and it really does feel like an open group. PSG are still a little bit of an unknown entity following so much change during the summer. It may feel despairing for Newcastle fans on the face of it but opportunities may knock…
Which big teams might struggle?
Horncastle: Arsenal are back in the competition after what feels like ages. The group feels like a trap. Lens 1-0 at the Emirates, the ghosts of ’98 suddenly apparate.
Honigstein: All of the teams in Group F will have a hard time qualifying, for obvious reasons. Beyond that, it’s a relatively benign draw for the big guns, who should all qualify with a degree of ease.
Ballus: I’d say PSG. The group is tough and Luis Enrique’s project is still at an early stage of development. Plus, there’s always in pressure in Paris when it comes to the Champions League… this is going to be fun to watch.
Cortegana: Following on from my previous answer, the biggest club that I sense may struggle the most is PSG. Although there are always surprises, the rest should have it under control.
Rutzler: This will not be a walk in the park for PSG, nor anyone else in Group F. The rest of the ‘elite’ sides seem to have safe draws, though. Arsenal might find a few potholes in the way of progress with Lens and PSV eager to bloody some noses. But they should come through that relatively unscathed.
If you could have a ticket to one match, which would it be?
Horncastle: Napoli against Real Madrid. I believe this fixture is why the European Cup became the Champions League. A group stage was introduced precisely because Madrid knocked out Maradona’s Napoli so early. Another reason to buy a ticket is the narrative around Ancelotti. Rarely for him, a player mutiny at Napoli led to his dismissal and appointment by Everton. He was supposed to be finished. He then won the Champions League with Madrid. Legend
Honigstein: Napoli vs Real Madrid at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona would be a dream to go to. All of Newcastle United’s home matches should be sensational as well.
Ballus: Manchester United vs Bayern Munich. A big European night at Old Trafford, the Harry Kane narrative and Thomas Tuchel expected to go to the next level in Europe after investment in the summer. It’s a similar thing for Erik ten Hag too. There’s loads of pressure on that game.
Cortegana: Real Sociedad against Inter Milan.
Rutzler: Lens’ first home game at the Stade Bollaert-Denis. The Ligue 1 side had a fantastic record at home last year, winning 18 of their 19 matches. But the atmosphere will be electric. Franck Haise has his team channeling the spirit of this old mining town, with a high-tempo style of play, and after 21 years without Champions League football, the blood will be pumping on opening night. A very tough away day for anyone.
Which group doesn’t seem glamorous but will be good to watch?
Horncastle: Group C feels novel. The Champions League group stages serve up the same old same old (City-Leipzig! Again!) So the idea of Madrid going to Braga and playing in the quarry is great. I also can’t wait to see Leonardo Bonucci’s Union Berlin take on Napoli at the Olympia Stadion. Bonucci has trash-talked Napoli in the past. He must now face Osimhen. Get the popcorn out.
Honigstein: There’s a slight lack of glamour — it’s all been hoovered up by Group F — but both Groups D and E promise plenty of entertaining football between evenly-matched opponents. Roger Schmidt’s Benfica taking on his former club Red Bull Salzburg will deliver fireworks.
Ballus: I’d go for Group D. Last year’s finalists Inter Milan will face three teams full of young exciting talent. I think Real Sociedad have a chance to go through. Keep an eye on Japanese winger Takefusa Kubo, who is some footballer.
Cortegana: It would be Group D. Benfica always play to win and try to be the protagonist in the Champions League; Inter showed what they can do in last season’s final; Salzburg are one of those teams that try to entertain and, although perhaps in Europe they are not so well known; in Spain we know how beautifully Real Sociedad play.
Rutzler: Group E should be interesting. A cool mix of styles, with Slot’s Feyenoord and Simeone’s Atletico and Sarri’s Lazio all on show. Not enough groups look competitive enough on paper — hopefully a few shock results avoid too many soulless processions.
What makes you feel happy when you look at this draw?
Horncastle: Manchester United being welcomed back to hell by Galatasaray, like in 1993. What a time to be alive that was.
Honigstein: Seeing Union Berlin take on Real Madrid and Napoli in the Champions League will never not be a wonderful thing. The east Berlin club have made it to Europe’s elite competition from the fourth division without a sugar daddy or state ownership, and they serve as an important reminder that for all the talk about football becoming a close shop, the system is still permeable enough to allow minnows to become heroes.
Ballus: Barcelona being the absolute favorites of their group — and at the same time having no excuses for failing to qualify for the knock-out stages. It’s the moment for them to start leaving past traumas behind.
Cortegana: In addition to Real Madrid’s manageable group, the competitiveness of the aforementioned Group D. We are going to see matches involving perhaps lesser names but very entertaining ones.
Rutzler: An English coach in the Champions League is a rare thing. So it’s pleasing to see Eddie Howe deservedly on the European stage. His work at Bournemouth was outstanding and didn’t always receive the plaudits it deserved. From Boscombe to Milan. Not bad.
Which player could break through and become a star of the group stage?
Horncastle: Milan have finally balanced out their attack. It is no longer so left-sided and dependent on Rafael Leao. The impact of Pulisic has been instant but I can’t wait to see Samuel Chukwueze skate past players on the right. Tijjani Reinjders, the silky midfielder signed from AZ, is another player to follow closely.
Honigstein: It almost feels too easy to pick a Red Bull Salzburg or RB Leipzig player considering their great success in developing stars such as Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane, Christopher Nkunku and countless others. But I’ll pick one anyway. Belgian forward Lois Openda, Leipzig’s €38.5m signing from Lens, has already made a big impression in the early weeks of the Bundesliga. Watching him take on Europe’s best defences will be hugely exciting.
Ballus: Lamine Yamal. A 16-year-old winger who is not just capable of earning a spot in Barcelona’s starting line-up, but to be named MVP of La Liga games. Yamal has this kind of personality that makes him thrive in big stages, so welcome to the Champions League.
Cortegana: Harry Kane. He had several suitors this summer, but the team who really bet on him was Bayern and he will prove from the group stage that the Germans were not wrong. There is also the added bonus of him playing against Manchester United, who are long-time admirers of the striker.
Rutzler: This feels like the breakthrough season for PSG’s Warren Zaire-Emery. The 17-year-old looks to be a key part of Luis Enrique’s plans this year, regularly starting games since pre-season. He is a complete midfielder who can do a bit of everything and will impress on a European stage. Forward Elye Wahi, 20, was also excellent for Montpellier last season and should stand out for Lens, too.
Name the last 16 qualifiers
Horncastle: Man City, Real Madrid, Bayern, Lens, Arsenal, PSG, Lazio, Man United, Napoli, Inter, Benfica, Milan, Leipzig, Barcelona, Porto, Atletico.
Honigstein: Bayern, Man Utd, Sevilla, Arsenal, Napoli, Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter, Lazio, Atletico, PSG, Newcastle, Man City, Leipzig, Barcelona, Porto.
Ballus: Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Arsenal, PSV, Real Madrid, Napoli, Inter, Real Sociedad, Atletico Madrid, Lazio, PSG, Milan, Manchester City, Leipzig, Barcelona and Porto.
Cortegana: Bayern, United, Arsenal, Lens, Real Madrid, Napoli, Inter, Benfica, Atletico, Lazio, PSG, Dortmund, City, Leipzig, Barcelona, Porto.
Rutzler: Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Arsenal, Lens, Napoli, Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter, Atletico, Feyenoord, PSG, Newcastle, Man City, Leipzig, Barcelona, Porto.
Mark Carey’s data takeaways
Which are the hardest and easiest groups based on team strength?
Using Opta’s Power Rankings, Group E looks to be the easiest group among the four teams, with Lazio, Atletico Madrid, Feyenoord and Celtic all vying for a place in the knockout stages.
Elsewhere, Group F looks to take the title of the annual “group of death” as PSG and Borussia Dortmund had a tough draw from Pots three and four — drawing AC Milan and Newcastle United.
Interestingly, according to Opta’s Power Rankings, it is Newcastle who come out with the highest team strength despite being the least experienced on the European stage in recent years.
Do not take your eyes off Group F.
Which team are the biggest stylistic outliers in this season’s Champions League?
Union Berlin enter into the Champions League group stages for the first time in their history, and their style of play might be a surprise to some teams.
Their low-block, counter-attacking style focuses on width from their wing-backs — with 115 open-play crosses into the penalty area more than any other Bundesliga side last season.
Elsewhere, Haise’s Lens will be an interesting watch, setting up in a 3-4-3 (or 3-5-2) with a strong defensive foundation last season. Their focus on deep circulation with good off-ball running and strength in wide areas will be interesting to see, although they have lost their most valuable attacker in the summer as Openda made the move to RB Leipzig.
Who’s an up-and-coming player to keep an eye on this season?
RB Leipzig have invested their money wisely with an influx of young talent including Openda, Benjamin Sesko, Castello Lukeba, and Christoph Baumgartner — with a shrewd loan move for PSG’s Xavi Simons also catching the eye.
Simons arrived in Germany off the back of a stellar campaign for PSV Eindhoven in 2022-23, with 27 goal contributions (19 goals and eight assists) only bettered by Ajax’s Dusan Tadic.
The 20-year-old has already hit the ground running this season, netting a goal and providing two assists as Leipzig thrashed Stuttgart 5-1 in their second game of the Bundesliga campaign. The early signs suggest that he, and Openda, can fill the attacking void vacated by Dominik Szoboszlai and Christopher Nkunku.
Champions League fixtures
(All games kick-off at 8pm GMT unless otherwise stated)
Tuesday, September 19
AC Milan vs Newcastle (5:45pm)
Young Boys vs RB Leipzig (5:45pm)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs Porto
Feyenoord vs Celtic
Lazio vs Atletico Madrid
Barcelona vs Royal Antwerp
Manchester City vs Red Star Belgrade
PSG vs Borussia Dortmund
Wednesday, September 20
Real Madrid vs Union Berlin (5:45pm)
Galatasaray vs FC Copenhagen (5:45pm)
Sevilla vs Lens
Arsenal vs PSV Eindhoven
Braga vs Napoli
Benfica vs Red Bull Salzburg
Bayern Munich vs Manchester United
Real Sociedad vs Inter Milan
Tuesday, October 3
Union Berlin vs Braga (5:45pm)
Red Bull Salzburg vs Real Sociedad (5:45pm)
FC Copenhagen vs Bayern Munich
Lens vs Arsenal
Napoli vs Real Madrid
Inter Milan vs Benfica
Manchester United vs Galatasaray
PSV Eindhoven vs Sevilla
Wednesday, October 4
Royal Antwerp vs Shakhtar Donetsk (5:45pm)
Atletico Madrid vs Feyenoord (5:45pm)
RB Leipzig vs Manchester City
Celtic vs Lazio
Porto vs Barcelona
Borussia Dortmund vs AC Milan
Newcastle United vs PSG
Red Star Belgrade vs Young Boys
Tuesday, October 24
Galatasaray vs Bayern Munich (5:45pm)
Inter Milan vs Red Bull Salzburg (5:45pm)
Union Berlin vs Napoli
Manchester United vs FC Copenhagen
Braga vs Real Madrid
Sevilla vs Arsenal
Lens vs PSV Eindhoven
Benfica vs Real Sociedad
Wednesday, October 25
Feyenoord vs Lazio (5:45pm)
Barcelona vs Shakhtar Donetsk (5:45pm)
Young Boys vs Manchester City
Newcastle vs Borussia Dortmund
Royal Antwerp vs Porto
RB Leipzig vs Red Star Belgrade
PSG vs AC Milan
Celtic vs Atletico Madrid
Tuesday, November 7
Shakhtar Donetsk vs Barcelona (5:45pm)
Borussia Dortmund vs Newcastle (5:45pm)
Manchester City vs Young Boys
Lazio vs Feyenoord
Porto vs Royal Antwerp
Atletico Madrid vs Celtic
AC Milan vs PSG
Red Star Belgrade vs RB Leipzig
Wednesday, November 8
Real Sociedad vs Benfica (5:45pm)
Napoli vs Union Berlin (5:45pm)
FC Copenhagen vs Manchester United
Bayern Munich vs Galatasaray
Real Madrid vs Braga
PSV Eindhoven vs Lens
Red Bull Salzburg vs Inter Milan
Arsenal vs Sevilla
Tuesday, November 28
Shakhtar Donetsk vs Royal Antwerp (5:45pm)
Lazio vs Celtic (5:45pm)
PSG vs Newcastle
AC Milan vs Borussia Dortmund
Feyenoord vs Atletico Madrid
Barcelona vs Porto
Young Boys vs Red Star Belgrade
Manchester City vs RB Leipzig
Wednesday, November 29
Sevilla vs PSV Eindhoven (5:45pm)
Galatasaray vs Manchester United (5:45pm)
Real Madrid vs Napoli
Arsenal vs Lens
Benfica vs Inter Milan
Braga vs Union Berlin
Real Sociedad vs Red Bull Salzburg
Bayern Munich vs FC Copenhagen
Tuesday, December 12
Lens vs Sevilla (5:45pm)
PSV vs Arsenal (5:45pm)
Union Berlin vs Real Madrid
FC Copenhagen vs Galatasaray
Inter Milan vs Real Sociedad
Red Bull Salzburg vs Benfica
Manchester United vs Bayern Munich
Napoli vs Braga
Wednesday, December 13
Red Star Belgrade vs Manchester City (5:45pm)
RB Leipzig vs Young Boys (5:45pm)
Celtic vs Feyenoord
Atletico Madrid vs Lazio
Porto vs Shakhtar Donetsk
Royal Antwerp vs Barcelona
Newcastle vs AC Milan
Borussia Dortmund vs PSG
(Top photos: Getty Images)