2022/23 UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP STAGE DRAWS
The greatest club competition on the planet returns next month and we’ve just learned how the 32 participating teams will be grouped. As expected, old friends are going to be reunited and old foes will clash in what promises to be another drama-filled edition of the UEFA Champions League. Reigning champions Real Madrid will embark on a quest to extend their number of tournament wins from 14 to 15 while big money spenders Manchester City & PSG would also be under pressure to deliver the title to their multi-billionaire owners after both teams’ finals loss in 2021 & 2020, respectively. Elsewhere, Rangers’ & Celtic’s qualification means this is the first time in 15 years two Scottish teams will be in the UCL group stage which should be somewhat exciting.
One much talked about storyline during the draws was the absence of the tournament’s most successful, most capped and highest scoring player, Cristiano Ronaldo. With Manchester United missing out on this season’s edition of the tournament, Ronaldo could be in danger of not participating in the UCL for the first time since joining the Red Devils aged 18 in 2003. The Portuguese captain has played in the Champions League at some stage of the competition in every season of his senior career which first began when he featured for Sporting CP in a qualifier at the age of 17. Barring a move away from Manchester United in the final week of the transfer window, this amazing streak could be over.
This year’s edition of the Champions League will be played over a 9-week period rather than the usual 12-week due to the mid-season World Cup in Qatar and it’ll be interesting to see how this affects teams’ approach to the games. Here are the eight groups:
GROUP A (AJAX, LIVERPOOL, NAPOLI & RANGERS)
The first group in this year’s Champions League is a tricky one with each team having a credible argument why they should make it into the next round. Ajax won all 6 of their group stage games last season scoring 20 goals in the process; the second best record behind Bayern. Liverpool got to the final of last year’s competition so you would expect them to make it out. Napoli haven’t always been the most consistent side in Europe but they’ve started this season in brilliant attacking fashion while Rangers were last season’s beaten Europa League finalists. Klopp’s reaction to the group summed this up: “The first thing to say is this is a proper challenge, all of the clubs have quality, they all have pedigree and I would say they all have a chance.” There is no doubt these are 4 very good teams, however, when you take a closer look at these teams, some doubts creep up.
When Ajax made the finals in 2019, they were raided as most of their top talents were bought. They followed up that amazing campaign with 2 seasons of failing to make it out of the Group Stage. This season, following a solid display last year, they’ve once again been raided with manager Erik ten Hag also among the departures. Liverpool have begun the season in poor form and talks of Klopp’s infamous “7th season collapse” which he suffered at Mainz and Dortmund are beginning to come up. Napoli are back after a 2-year absence while this is Rangers’ first appearance in the Group Stage since 2010. One thing’s for sure, Group A promises to offer us some twists and turns.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: Liverpool & Napoli
GROUP B (FC PORTO, ATLÉTICO, BAYER LEVERKUSEN & CLUB BRUGGE)
Former Lazio teammates, Sérgio Conceição & Diego Simeone meet as opponents with FC Porto & Atleti drawn together in Group B. Alongside them, Bayer Leverkusen makes a return to the competition after 2 seasons away while they’re joined by the only Belgian side to have reached the finals of this competition; Club Brugge.
Brugge’s sale of 21-year-old forward Charles De Ketelaere may have weakened their already slim chance of making it to the Round of 16 and FC Porto & Leverkusen would fancy themselves as one of the two teams to join heavy group favourites Atletico. While Bayer Leverkusen were able to hold on to top talents like Patrik Schick and Florian Wirtz, FC Porto has made it to the Quarter-finals in 2 of the last 4 editions of the UCL proving their experience and resilience in this competition.
Atleti would be aiming to win the group and should take some lessons from their performance in last year’s group stage. They finished the group in a respectable 2nd position behind Bayern but won just 2 games and ended up with a negative goal difference; something Diego Simeone should be trying to avoid.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: Atlético & FC Porto
GROUP C – GROUP OF DEATH (BAYERN MUNICH, BARCELONA, INTER MILAN & VIKTORIA PLZEN)
Viktoria Plzen might be cursing their luck after finding themselves in this season’s Group of Death. The Czech side won the Czech First League last season and had to go through three different rounds of qualifiers to get to the Group Stage knocking out HJK, FC Sheriff & Qarabag FK. They’ve been drawn with Bayern, Barcelona and Inter Milan; the last 3 teams to win the treble.
The biggest storyline in this group is the return of Robert Lewandowski to his old home. The Polish forward dominated Germany and Europe with Bayern Munich and had his most notable victories against his current employers; the famous 8-2 victory enroute winning the title in 2020 and a pair of 3-0 wins last season. He forced his way out of Bayern Munich after falling out with the manager and club management and now, he gets a chance to send them a message on the pitch. Barcelona haven’t had the best of luck against Bayern over the last decade but there is a growing sense of optimism that their summer recruits may have evened the playing field.
For Bayern, the loss of Lewandowski has only made them more ruthless. They’ve started the season scoring 20 goals in their first 4 games; 18 of those coming away from home. The signing of Mane from Liverpool has been an early success with the Senegalese scoring 4 times already while teenage sensation Jamal Musiala has 4 goals and an assist.
Inter would also fancy their chances in this group. The Italian giants came within 2pts of retaining the Serie A last season and gave Liverpool a proper fight in the Round of 16. They’ve welcomed Romelu Lukaku back into the team and look a more experienced side with quality options up front in L. Martinez, Dzeko, Joaquín Correa and the aforementioned Belgian.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: Bayern Munich & Barcelona
GROUP D (FRANKFURTH, TOTTENHAM, SPORTING CP & MARSEILLE)
Arguably the most balanced group of the competition, Group D is one that is very difficult to predict. Just like Group A, you could see a way for each team making it out of the group while also seeing the opposite.
Last season’s Europa League champions Frankfurt ended a 62-year wait to return to the Champions League after beating Rangers on penalties. The 62-year wait is the longest by a returning team and it’ll be the club’s 2nd appearance in the competition. Their first and only time was back in 1960 and they got to the final in that season. They’ll gladly take that offer again. They’re joined by very strong sides in Sporting CP and Marseille; two teams who finished 2nd in their domestic leagues.
Spurs are objectively the strongest side in this group. In his first full season in charge, Antonio Conte seems to have shaped this team to his own style and he’s spent a lot on reinforcements in every area of the pitch. After missing out on the last two seasons of the UCL, Harry Kane and his teammates would be aiming to not just make it out of the group but to go further than their Round of 16 exit in their last appearance.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: Tottenham & Sporting CP
GROUP E (AC MILAN, CHELSEA, RB SALZBURG & DINAMO ZAGREB)
Group E of the Champions League might look straightforward on paper but it does feel like one of those groups which could have major upsets if the favourites take their foot off the gas even for a game. Croatian giants, Dinamo Zagreb and Austrian side, RB Salzburg (who made the Round of 16 last season for the first time) are the underdogs in this group and they are up against two very strong and experienced European sides.
7-time winners, AC Milan are the reigning Serie A champions and it does feel like their days in the wilderness are finally over. They had an embarrassing return to the competition last year as they finished bottom of Group B behind Liverpool, Atleti and FC Porto. However, it does feel like they’re a stronger side now with better chemistry.
This group also sees Milan’s defender, Fikayo Tomori and striker, Olivier Giroud return to Chelsea. Giroud was part of the Chelsea team that won the Champions League in 2021 but since then, the Blues have struggled to nail down a proper striker. New Chelsea co-owner, Todd Boehly has been active in the market and could seal a deal for former AC Milan youth team graduate, Aubameyang which could significantly boost their chances of making it out the group,
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: AC Milan & Chelsea
GROUP F (REAL MADRID, RB LEIPZIG, SHAKHTAR & CELTIC)
Karim Benzema & Carlo Ancelotti were named UEFA Player of the Year and Manager of the Year, respectively for their roles in Real Madrid’s title winning performance last season. Knowing them, those awards will only serve as motivation for even more success. Despite the loss of Casemiro, Gareth Bale & Isco, they still have enormous quality to safely see them through the group stage (but knowing Real Madrid quite well, they might take just 1pt from their first 2 games to keep things interesting).
RB Leipzig have started the season in shaky form and have failed to win any of their opening 4 games of the season. Christopher Nkunku remains key for the Germans if they’re to make it to the next round.
Shakhtar could have a hard time making it out. They’ve been grouped with Real Madrid for the 3rd year in a row and have failed to make the Round of 16 for 4 consecutive years. The ongoing war in Ukraine means all home games will be moved to a neutral country which in turn means the absence of home fans and that could affect them negatively.
The fourth and final team of the group are the Scottish champions. Celtic finally made it to the Group Stage after 4 consecutive years of falling in the Qualifying Rounds. They last made the Round of 16 in 2013 leaving manager Ange Postecoglou with a lot of work to do to get out of this one.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: Real Madrid & RB Leipzig
GROUP G (MANCHESTER CITY, SEVILLA, B.DORTMUND & COPENHAGEN)
“City are naturally a force to be reckoned with in the Champions League. We’re looking forward to it just as much as we are to the reunion with Erling Haaland.” Dortmund midfielder Marco Reus said in reaction to the draw. The German side, competing in their 11th Champions League campaign in 12 years, will be looking to make amends for their poor performance last season that saw them finish 3rd in their group on goal difference and dropped into the Europa League. In addition to Erling Haaland, they’ll also be welcoming Ilkay Gundogan in what promises to be an entertaining couple of games.
Sevilla have had an expected shaky start to the season after the sale of their first choice center-back pair; Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos. They’ve looked significantly weaker in defence but still possess one of the best group of midfielders in Spain which will be very important in what is likely to be a fight to the finish between them and Dortmund. Copenhagen are the only Danish club to reach the R16 which they did in 2011 but that could be a big task for the reigning Danish Champions.
Manchester City are heavy favourites to not just make it out of the group but to win this tournament. Since he took over the club in 2016, Pep Guardiola has spent €1.042bn on players and while he has dominated England, the UCL remains elusive. The owners have never publicly shown any sign of impatience with him and he, in turn. has tried to downplay the pressure but you do feel it is a matter of time before the owners become more vocal with their demands especially after last season’s embarrassing capitulation against Real Madrid.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: Manchester City & Dortmund
GROUP H (PSG, JUVENTUS, BENFICA & MACCABI HAIFA)
Unlike Manchester City, PSG’s Qatari owners have been a lot more vocal about their unhappiness with their Champions League performances. Just like Man City, they too capitulated against Man City giving up a hat-trick to Karim Benzema in the second leg which was enough to knock them out. Christophe Galtier has been brought in from Nice as a replacement for Pochettino which has really paid off on the scoreboard but there still exists some tension between star players Mbappe and Neymar on and off the pitch. The Qatari owners have spent €1.544bn on transfer fees alone since taking over the club in 2011 which of course excludes players like Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos & Gianluigi Donnarumma who were signed for free, The enormous investment in the squad would need a Champions League to show for it sooner rather than later and the club’s star trio of Mbappe, Neymar and Messi will be under pressure to deliver this.
Elsewhere in the group, former PSG player Angel Di Maria and his new team Juventus present a worthy challenge. The Old Lady’s domestic dominance has been ended by the Milan clubs while they were shocked by Villarreal last year. Yet, with a healthy squad, they would believe they have enough to get out of this group.
Drawn with Bayern and Benfica last season, Benfica proved their toughness as they made it out of the group at the expense of Barcelona proving that they’re capable of making the most of any little opportunity given to them; something PSG & Juventus might want to worry about.
And finally, Maccabi Haifa completes the group and you have to admit they would have to be on their A-game in every single match to get anything out of this group. They’re the first Isreali side to make it to the Group stage on 3 different occasions and are returning for the first time since the 2002/03 season.
Prediction To Qualify For Round of 16: PSG & Juventus