How Europe's heavyweights are shaping up as Champions League returns

Favourites Real Madrid are in ominous form as they defend their crown, Barca and Bayern hope to compete with the Premier League big boys, but don’t bet on a winner from Italy… how Europe’s heavyweights are shaping up as the Champions League returns

  • The Champions League group stage gets underway on Tuesday and Wednesday
  • Real Madrid are the defending champions and are considered favourites again
  • They are likely to compete with Manchester City to win Europe’s top prize 
  • Barcelona look stronger after crashing out in the group stage last season
  • Bayern Munich have plenty of firepower but the Italian giants are underpowered 

The Champions League group stage gets underway on Tuesday night as Europe’s heavyweights once again battle it out for the biggest club prize.

It is a competition that has become a byword for drama and thrilling entertainment, with Real Madrid’s run to glory last season a prime example as they left Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City stunned.

Liverpool, the beaten finalists in Paris, and Manchester City, so desperate to conquer Europe for the first time, will certainly be among the main contenders.

But how are the continental giants shaping up ahead of the start of the group stage?

Real Madrid lifted the trophy last season – but who will win this season’s Champions League?

This week’s fixtures 


8pm kick-off unless stated

Dinamo Zagreb vs Chelsea (5.45pm)

Red Bull Salzburg vs AC Milan

Celtic vs Real Madrid

RB Leipzig vs Shakhtar Donetsk

Borussia Dortmund vs Copenhagen (5.45pm)

Sevilla vs Manchester City

Benfica vs Maccabi Haifa

Paris Saint-Germain vs Juventus 


8pm kick-off unless stated

Ajax vs Rangers (5.45pm)

Napoli vs Liverpool

Atletico Madrid vs Porto

Club Brugge vs Bayer Leverkusen

Barcelona vs Viktoria Plzen

Inter Milan vs Bayern Munich

Eintracht Frankfurt vs Sporting Lisbon (5.45pm)

Tottenham Hotspur vs Marseille


First game: Away to Celtic, Tuesday 8pm

Last season: Winners

The 14th European Cup/Champions League triumph of Real Madrid’s illustrious history must surely rank as their most dramatic.

There was Karim Benzema’s hat-trick to overcome a two-goal aggregate deficit against PSG in the last-16, an extra time scrape against Chelsea and that astonishing stoppage time fightback to leave Man City devastated.

If anything, the final against Liverpool, won thanks to a Vinicius Junior goal just before the hour, was something of an anti-climax.

It’s been a summer of partial renewal for the Spanish champions, with midfield the main area of focus.

Karim Benzema has started the season in goalscoring form after his heroics last season

The signing of Aurelien Tchouameni, to add to his French compatriot Eduardo Camavinga, will see them right for a number of years and much of the money was recovered by the £70million sale of Casemiro to Manchester United.

Otherwise, Real have simply off-loaded players who were no longer regulars, such as Marcelo, Gareth Bale and Isco as their contracts expired.

The early evidence of the season is that Carlo Ancelotti’s team are no weaker. They’ve won all four LaLiga games they’ve played and the irrepressible Benzema already has four goals.

Ancelotti is only two away from a century of Champions League match wins and will likely overtake the 102 of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

With Benzema, Vinicius and Co, Real still bristle with menace and will almost certainly be there at the end with the top Premier League clubs.

Chances of winning (from the Nielsen Gracenote Euro Club Index): 21 per cent

Carlo Ancelotti led Real to glory last season and will be aiming for a fifth win as a manager 

The Gracenote Euro Club Index has Real Madrid as marginal favourites to go all the way


First game: Home to Viktoria Plzen, Wednesday 8pm

Last season: Exited after group stage; Europa League quarter-finals

Stung by last season’s group stage exit, which saw them comprehensively beaten twice by Bayern Munich and also by Benfica, and the sight of arch-rivals Real lifting the trophy yet again, Barcelona believe they are back.

It’s been an extraordinary summer of spending, with £140million lavished and so many players coming in they’ve struggled to register them all.

The result is that Xavi should have a more competitive team and that’s just as well because Bayern lurk in the group again, as well as Inter Milan.

Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski has an excellent scoring record in the Champions League

One key difference is that Barca now have Robert Lewandowski, whose goal record in the Champions League is extraordinary. Last season, he scored 13 goals in 10 games for the German club.

After their defence leaked goals left, right and centre last term, Barca will hope the acquisitions of Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso will make them more watertight.

Raphinha, who cost them £55m from Leeds, will hopefully supply them with a bit of an X-factor.

There have been some promising early signs in the league, at least after they opened with a goalless draw at home to Rayo Vallecano.

Raphinha (left), one of many summer arrivals, celebrates a goal against Sevilla on Saturday

They have since recorded handsome wins over Real Sociedad, Valladolid and Sevilla to suggest they will be able to keep pace a little better with Real this time around.

Whatever happens, Barca look a stronger proposition in Europe. They should make it through the group alongside Bayern and anything less will represent a failure.

However, it’s still difficult to see them going the distance.

Chances of winning: 4 per cent

The Gracenote percentages of each team’s chances of getting out of the group phase


First game: Home to Juventus, Tuesday 8pm

Last season: Lost to Real Madrid in the last-16

The way PSG were left stunned by Real Madrid last season only heightened the suspicion they’re somehow cursed in the Champions League and won’t ever win it.

It followed failures in the 2020 final to Bayern and the 2021 semi-final to Man City, not to mention other remarkable collapses to Barcelona and Manchester United at earlier points in the recent past.

Mauricio Pochettino was never going to survive that and it falls to Christophe Galtier to lead PSG’s latest quest for their holy grail.

Kylian Mbappe will naturally be crucial to PSG’s hopes having committed his future there

Persuading Kylian Mbappe to snub Real and continue to spearhead their forward line alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar was absolutely huge for the Qatari project at the Parc des Princes.

And summer arrivals such as Nuno Mendes from Sporting Lisbon, Vitinha from Porto, Fabian Ruiz from Napoli and Carlos Soler from Valencia have added quality to their defence and midfield.

Aside from a draw with Monaco, they have won all of their Ligue 1 games so far, taking plenty of momentum into a group containing Juventus, Benfica and Maccabi Haifa.

Lionel Messi will fancy adding a fifth Champions League crown to his collection

Frankly, they should top the group without any fuss but only then comes the acid test as they try to overcome that psychological barrier that too often afflicts them when it comes to crunch knockout games.

They aren’t regarded as the favourites but you certainly can’t rule them out if it finally all clicks.

Chances of winning: 5 per cent


First game: Away to Inter Milan, Wednesday 8pm

Last season: Lost to Villarreal in the quarter-finals

There was tremendous disappointment and plenty of opprobrium directed at Julian Nagelsmann when Bayern bombed out to Villarreal in last season’s quarter-finals having smashed everyone aside to that point.

Sadio Mane is a key summer addition at Bayern Munich, signing from Liverpool

They haven’t exactly been short of speedy forwards but the addition of Sadio Mane has added an extra dimension and his Champions League achievements with Liverpool could prove useful experience.

The question is whether Mane and the others can adequately compensate for the European goal return of Lewandowski.

Perhaps chastened by their Champions League failure last season, Bayern have spent quite a bit by their standards this summer.

Mane cost them £35m and they’ve also bought Matthijs de Ligt for £60m, Mathys Tel for £18m and Ryan Gravenberch for £16m.

Like PSG, they dominate domestically, meaning there is immense pressure to perform in the Champions League and a lot of that will fall on the shoulders of Nagelsmann.

Unhelpfully, they’ve landed a tough group featuring Barcelona, Inter and Viktoria Plzen but you’d still expect Bayern to finish top.

It’s what happens after that, when they come up against Premier League opposition, or the likes of Real, that they may come a cropper.

They started the season with a flurry of goals in the Bundesliga but have been held to 1-1 draws by Borussia Monchengladbach and Union Berlin in their last two games, suggesting they’re not quite the finished article.

Chances of winning: 10 per cent

Joshua Kimmich celebrates scoring Bayern’s equaliser against Union Berlin at the weekend


First game: Away to Paris Saint-Germain, Tuesday 8pm

Last season: Lost to Villarreal in the last-16

The Champions League has brought only disappointment for Juventus ever since they reached the 2017 final and the last three seasons have seen them flop out in the round of 16.

Domestically, they’ve been overtaken by the two Milan clubs and they’re European heavyweights in name only at present.

They are unbeaten in their first five Serie A games but have looked underwhelming and they already trail the Scudetto favourites, pouring cold water on expectations for the season.

Arkadiusz Milik will carry much of the goalscoring burden for Juventus in the season ahead

Paul Pogba has returned from Manchester United but he’s now going to miss the first half of the season to have knee surgery. He’s unlikely to be the player they remember from his first spell.

Max Allegri’s team resemble a work in progress as they rely on Dusan Vlahovic, new signing Arkadiusz Milik and the ageing Angel Di Maria to supply inspiration and goals.

They’ll hope to come away from the Parc des Princes relatively unscathed on Tuesday night but will have to be wary of dropping points to Benfica as they try and get through with the Parisians from Group H.

The fact they are rated as having a one per cent chance of going all the way really does sum it up.

Chances of winning: 1 per cent

Paul Pogba (left) will be sidelined for several months as he undergoes knee surgery


First game: Home to Bayern Munich, Wednesday 8pm

Last season: Lost to Liverpool in last-16

There are similar concerns over at Inter Milan as they prepare to embark on their Champions League campaign with a far-from-easy meeting with Bayern Munich.

A close second to neighbours AC Milan in the Scudetto race last season, Inter seem to have regressed over the summer, as shown in early season league defeats to Lazio and Milan.

That’s despite the very welcome return of Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea and the handy-looking signings of Robin Gosens from Atalanta and Joaquin Correa from Lazio.

Inter Milan suffered a 3-2 derby defeat to AC Milan at the weekend amid a slow start

Simone Inzaghi doesn’t seem to have got his tactics quite right and they’re struggling to get going, leaving them vulnerable to a Bayern ambush on Wednesday night.

Inter were unfortunate to come up against an in-form Liverpool in the first knockout round last season but gave Jurgen Klopp’s side a run for their money.

Even if they navigate their way ahead of one of Bayern or Barcelona in Group C, you’d be hard pressed to make a case for them going much further on current evidence.

Chances of winning: 2 per cent


First game: Away to Red Bull Salzburg, Tuesday at 8pm

Last season: Exited after group stage

The mood is much brighter on the red and black side of the San Siro, not least in the wake of that dramatic derby victory on Saturday night built on the brilliance of Rafael Leao.

An unbeaten start domestically means Stefano Pioli’s Milan will enter a group featuring Chelsea, Red Bull Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb confident they can advance to the last-16.

Once among the most feared clubs in Europe, the Rossoneri have been feeling their way back into the Champions League after a number of seasons away from the top table.

Rafael Leao was in electric form as AC Milan beat their rivals and will be important in Europe

That shortage of recent experience showed as they lost four of their six group games last season, finishing bottom of an admittedly undesirable group of Liverpool, Porto and Atletico Madrid.

They should be better equipped this time around, having recruited talents like Charles De Ketelaere and Sergino Dest during the summer window.

It’s likely to be too soon to expect Milan to go deep into the competition, especially with a title defence to focus on, but they should do better than last season.

Chances of winning: 1 per cent


First game: Home to Porto, Wednesday 8pm

Last season: Lost to Manchester City in the quarter-finals

Finalists twice in the last decade, you have to include Atletico in this list even if very few fancy them to go all the way.

Diego Simeone’s side are a notoriously hard nut to crack, as Man City found in last season’s quarter-final when it took them 70 minutes to make a breakthrough at the Etihad, the only goal of the tie.

The question is whether Atletico are still moving forward. The club are in a ludicrous situation where they have to restrict Antoine Griezmann’s game time so they don’t have to pay Barcelona £35m for him.

Antoine Griezmann (centre) in action – his minutes will have to be restricted by Simeone

They still have Joao Felix and Alvaro Morata spearheading their attack, while Saul Niguez has come back from Chelsea, joining a packed midfield. Axel Witsel has been converted into a central defender it appears.

Their group is far more favourable than 12 months ago and they should finish ahead of Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Club Brugge.

Early season results have been a bit mixed, however, with Mario Hermoso trying to fight fans after they lost at home to Villarreal.

Expect the usual Atletico resilience but nobody is envisaging them reaching another final.

Chances of winning: 4 per cent


First game: Home to Copenhagen, Tuesday 5.45pm

Last season: Exited after group stage; Europa League play-off round

How typical that Borussia Dortmund should be paired with the club they sold Erling Haaland to.

There were plenty of wry smiles when Man City were pulled out of the pot alongside them and having enjoyed the goals of the Norwegian greatly during his two-and-a-half seasons with them, now they must figure out how to stop him.

That has been beyond Premier League opponents so far but Dortmund should have a bit of insider knowledge and that could prove key as they battle Sevilla for second spot in Group G.

Dortmund celebrate a goal by Marco Reus in their weekend match against Hoffenheim 

Edin Terzic’s side have started the season well enough, winning four of their opening five Bundesliga games. That would have been a perfect record but for a remarkable late capitulation at home to Werder Bremen.

Their efforts to replace Haaland hit an unexpected obstacle when Sebastien Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer and it’ll be several months until he can return.

They have also signed Karim Adeyemi from Red Bull Salzburg but the burden of replacing Haaland’s goals will need to be shared around and several players have chipped in during the opening games.

Their home and away meetings with Sevilla on matchdays three and four are likely to be key in deciding who makes it into the knockout stages with City.

Anything beyond that is a bonus for Dortmund.

Chances of winning: 1 per cent

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