If games against Bayern Munich and a Copenhagen side (albeit FC Copenhagen rather than Brondby) evoke a warm recollection for Manchester United of the group stage in 1998-99, there was also a less pleasant 90s memory in Galatasaray – “Welcome to hell”, Eric Cantona clashing with police and an away goals defeat. These days, the Turkish champions are probably awkward rather than intimidating, and have signed the very familiar faces of Wilfried Zaha, Mauro Icardi, Angeliño and Hakim Ziyech. Copenhagen fall into a similar category, having drawn all three home games in the group stage last season while failing to score at all away from home.
For Bayern, last season was dominated by the dismissal of Julian Nagelsmann and the appointment of Thomas Tuchel, which led to a Champions League exit to Manchester City and a stutter in the league that saw them clinch the title only on the final day. Two league games this campaign have brought two wins and three goals for the club’s record signing, Harry Kane.
To progress: Bayern Munich, Manchester United
For Arsenal, returning to the Champions League after seven years, the draw could have been a lot worse. They were the lowest ranked side in pot two but managed to avoid the really big pot one sides, drawing Sevilla, the Europa League winners. Of the players who played in last season’s final, Yassine Bounou and Gonzalo Montiel have gone and Sevilla lie bottom of La Liga after three games, but they showed what awkward opponents they can be against City in the Super Cup.
Lens, the lowest ranked side left in the competition, finished just a point behind the French champions, Paris Saint-Germain, last season, but the sales of Seko Fofa and Loïs Openda have hit them hard and they have take just a point from their first three league games this campaign. The sale of Xavi Simons to PSG (and then on loan to RB Leipzig) is a blow for PSV but last season’s Dutch runners-up thrashed Rangers in the final qualifying round.
To progress: Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven
It was a first-round clash between Napoli and Real Madrid in 1987-88 that led Silvio Berlusconi to propose a group stage for the competition; for him losing the champions of either Spain or Italy so early was absurd. The result was the Champions League and, although Napoli and Madrid can meet again in the first round, Madrid do so as runners-up in Spain, and both will probably go through.
After winning Serie A for the first time in 33 years last season, Napoli have managed to hang on to most of their stars, with Kim Min-jae the only major departure among players, although Luciano Spalletti stood down as coach to be replaced by Rudi Garcia. Jude Bellingham was the big summer signing for Madrid, with Karim Benzema departing. Braga finished third in Portugal last season and have since signed José Fonte and João Moutinho, while Union Berlin are a rare side in Germany in preferring to sit deep rather than gegenpressing, an approach that brought them a surprise fourth place last season.
To progress: Real Madrid, Napoli
Internazionale beat Benfica in last season’s quarter-final and also in the final of 1964-65, but both face a challenge to progress in what may be the most intriguing group. Ángel Di María has arrived amid the usual swirl of transfers at Benfica, who finished top of their group last season, pushing Paris Saint-Germain down into second and eliminating Juventus, which went some way to rehabilitating their coach, Roger Schmidt, after his disappointing spell at Bayer Leverkusen and subsequent stint in China.
Beaten finalists last season and third in Serie A, Simone Inzaghi’s Inter have made several notable if not especially youthful signings: Alexis Sánchez, Yann Sommer, Juan Cuadrado and Marko Arnatouvic arriving. Fourth in Spain last season, Real Sociedad were a revelation, playing vibrant football based around David Silva. He has now retired, but Kieran Tierney and André Silva have arrived on loan. Salzburg have won 10 successive Austrian Bundesliga titles but have still made it through the group stage of the Champions League only once.
To progress: Inter, Benfica
For all their occasional promise, Celtic didn’t win a game in last season’s Champions League, their last victory in the group stage coming at Anderlecht in 2017 when Brendan Rodgers was manager. After his return in the summer, Celtic have a reasonable chance not just of improving that statistic but of progression. Feyenoord, who beat them in the 1970 final, have, after a first Eredivisie title in six years, retained Arne Slot as coach and most of their squad – although the loss of Okan Kokcu to Benfica weakens central midfield – but they were the lowest-ranked pot one side.
Lazio claimed second place in Serie A last season, but Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has been sold since then and Maurizio Sarri’s side’s start to this season has been dismal, with defeats to Lecce and Genoa. , but not yet, and they remain a team apparently perpetually battling perceived decline.
To progress: Atlético Madrid, Feyenoord
If Newcastle wanted their return to the Champions League group stage after 21 years to be about uncomplicated qualification for the knockouts, they were probably disappointed. But if they wanted glamour, they could hardly have got a better draw. Neymar has gone from PSG and, although Kylian Mbappé remains for one season at least, this is the beginning of their post-galáctico era. How realistic that is and how thoroughly Luis Enrique is able to sluice away the culture of indulgence that has undermined the club for years will be one of the fascinations of the early part of this season.
This could be a difficult campaign for Borussia Dortmund, after the emotional turmoil of losing the Bundesliga on the final day of last season and the sales of Jude Bellingham and Raphaël Guerreiro. Milan, meanwhile, have begun the season with two wins out of two, three goals for Olivier Giroud and two for Christian Pulisic. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has also settled well.
To progress: PSG, Newcastle
Poor RB Leipzig. They have beaten Manchester City and drawn with them in their two meetings in Germany, but two games at the Etihad have brought a 7-0 and a 6-3 defeat. Christopher Nkunku, Dominik Szoboszlai and Josko Gvardiol have all gone and a defeat by Bayer Leverkusen has perhaps tempered expectations, but beating Bayern 3-0 in the Super Cup showed just how dangerous Leipzig can be.
It’s four years since Red Star Belgrade last won a game in the Champions League group stage and 31 years since they last made it to the last 16 or beyond. They have scored 18 goals in five league games so far this season, but that may not help them at this level. Young Boys romped to the Swiss title last season and remain unbeaten this, although they have drawn three out of four away from home. Victory over Maccabi Haifa in the fourth qualifying round was comfortable enough. As Pep Guardiola chases a record fifth Champions League, progress should be straightforward.
To progress: Manchester City, RB Leipzig
Barcelona won La Liga last season but doubts remain as to their quality. Two comfortable defeats by Bayern and a single point against Inter condemned them to a group-stage exit last season, and they were well beaten by Manchester United in the Europa League. Ilkay Gündogan and Oriel Romeu have arrived in a new-look central midfield. They will welcome back Dmytro Chyhrinskyi, their former centre-back who has returned to Shakhtar eight years after he left. As the Ukrainian champions continue to struggle with the impact of the war, it’s largely been a summer of departures; they will play home games in Hamburg.
Porto claimed the scalp of Atlético in the group stage last season but a 2-0 defeat by Benfica in the Portuguese Super Cup perhaps suggested their level. Antwerp sealed their first league title in 66 years last season with a stoppage-time goal from Toby Alderweireld. That previous Belgian championship got them into the 1957-58 European Cup, where they played a single tie, losing 8-1 to Real Madrid.
To progress: Barcelona, Porto