Lionel Messi will face Pep Guardiola — and maybe even Cristiano Ronaldo — in a blockbuster Champions League clash after Paris Saint-Germain were paired with Manchester City in Group A of this season’s competition.
City and PSG, the last two losing finalists in the Champions League, have both invested huge sums in player recruitment this summer in an effort to end their shared desperation to win the competition for the first time. And Messi, who came close to leaving Barcelona for City last season, will head to the Etihad Stadium with PSG after completing a shock move to the French giants earlier this month.
Fellow former Champions League winners Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum have also moved to Paris, with Gianluigi Donnarumma and Achraf Hakimi adding to Mauricio Pochettino’s stellar squad. But City have also been busy in the market, adding £100m star midfielder Jack Grealish from Aston Villa. And although Spurs forward Harry Kane abandoned his hopes of a move to the Etihad before the window closes on Aug. 31, sources have told ESPN that Guardiola is now close to agreeing a deal to take former Manchester United star Ronaldo from Juventus.
Elsewhere in the draw, three former Champions League winners — Liverpool, Porto and AC Milan — have been drawn alongside Spanish champions Atletico Madrid in Group B, while Bayern Munich and Barcelona will battle for top spot in Group E. Manchester United and Villarreal have been paired together in Group F, ensuring a repeat of last season’s Europa League final won by the Spanish team, while Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol will mark their competition debut with games against Inter Milan and Real Madrid in Group D.
So how will it all play out? Here are our predictions for the group stages.
Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge
This is the group that could provide the eventual winners, with City and PSG likely to be among the favourites to make it to the final in Saint Petersburg next May, but don’t rule out RB Leipzig as a dangerous outsider capable of upsetting the two mega clubs from England and France.
American coach Jesse Marsch has taken on the tough task of succeeding Julian Nagelsmann at Leipzig, but the squad that beat PSG and Manchester United in last season’s group stage is still largely intact, albeit with the exception of departed defenders Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate.
If City land Ronaldo as a replacement for Sergio Aguero, now at Barcelona, they will expect to coast through the group, but goals could be a problem if they don’t sign a striker before the Aug 31 deadline. Meanwhile, PSG may be without Kylian Mbappe if he gets his move to Real Madrid, but such is the attacking depth of their squad, they will be favourites to top the group.
Teams to advance: PSG, Man City
Steve Nicol examines Liverpool’s group in the Champions League, which also includes Atletico Madrid, Porto and Milan.
Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Porto, AC Milan
A group dripping with Champions League pedigree — Liverpool, Milan and Porto have won 15 European Cups/Champions Leagues between them — but modern-day form and strength points to Atletico and Liverpool claiming the top two spots.
Porto coach Sergio Conceicao has built a tough and competitive team at Estadio do Dragao and they reached last season’s quarterfinals, but Liverpool and Atleti should be too strong for the Portuguese team. Milan, under coach Stefano Pioli, have lost goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to PSG, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still scoring goals and summer signings Olivier Giroud and Fikayo Tomori will make them even more competitive.
It will be tight as all four teams are capable of taking points off each other if not paying attention, but it will be a surprise if Liverpool and Atleti miss out on qualification.
Teams to advance: Liverpool, Atletico Madrid
Sporting claimed a place among the top seeds by winning their first Portuguese title in 19 years last season, but Borussia Dortmund will be the strongest team in the group.
The German team have been able to hold onto Erling Haaland for another season and although Jadon Sancho has moved on to Manchester United, young stars such as Jude Bellingham and Gio Reyna will be key after impressive performances in last season’s competition.
Ajax have also been able to resist advances for highly-rated coach Erik ten Hag this summer and the Dutch champions are strong enough to challenge for qualification. Turkish champions Besiktas are regular group stage qualifiers who struggle to progress to the knockout stages, and this season will be no different.
Teams to advance: Dortmund, Ajax
Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Sheriff Tiraspol
Although Inter Milan are the “seeded” team in this group by virtue of winning Serie A last season, the Italian champions have said goodbye to coach Antonio Conte and leading scorer Romelu Lukaku this summer and could also see striker Lautaro Martinez leave before the transfer deadline. It all means that the 2010 Champions League winners are vulnerable to being knocked out at the group stage.
Real Madrid always make it through, even if last season’s campaign was more turbulent than most, and Carlo Ancelotti’s team will qualify again. But as they proved by eliminating Monaco with a late fight back in the playoff round, Shakhtar are always a threat to any team and they will challenge for qualification.
As for Sheriff Tiraspol, they will do well to pick up a point, but the big achievement for the Moldovan champions is simply reaching the group stage.
Teams to advance: Real Madrid, Shakhtar
Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Benfica, FC Dynamo Kyiv
Another group packed with Champions League history, but one that Bayern Munich should top without too much concern.
The German champions, unbeaten away from home in the competition since Oct. 2017, will face Barcelona for the first time since their 8-2 win in the 2020 quarterfinal in Lisbon, and the summer exit of Lionel Messi from Camp Nou has left huge question marks over Barca’s ability to compete at the top level. Ronald Koeman’s team is still full of quality, but they are some way short of Bayern, so for the first time in almost 20 years, Barcelona face a battle to qualify for the Round of 16.
Benfica, bolstered by the summer signing of Ukraine striker Roman Yaremchuk, and Dynamo probably lack the depth to claim a top two spot, but both will be ready to take advantage of Barcelona’s vulnerability.
Teams to advance: Bayern, Barcelona
Villarreal, Manchester United, Atalanta, BSC Young Boys
An unpredictable group, Manchester United’s history and squad depth suggests they should claim top spot, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team has shown inconsistency in Europe in recent seasons, making qualification by no means certain.
Villarreal, having beaten United in last season’s Europa League final, will be tough to beat again, while Atalanta have shown themselves to be world-beaters or also-rans, depending on their mood, over the past two Champions League campaigns. Swiss champions Young Boys, managed by former Huddersfield coach David Wagner, have U.S. forward Jordan Siebatcheu in their squad and will be outsiders, but the unpredictability of the other teams in the group mean this one is wide open.
Teams to advance: Man United, Villarreal
French champions Lille have lost coach Christophe Galtier to Nice since winning the title last season and also seen defender Boubakary Soumare and keeper Mike Maigan leave for Leicester and AC Milan respectively. Timothy Weah will have the chance to impress in the competition, with Spanish club Sevilla will be the favourites to qualify, with Lille, Salzburg and Wolfsburg all battling it out for runners-up spot.
In what is arguably the weakest group in the competition, Lille’s summer losses mean that they will struggle to make it through the group.
Teams to advance: Sevilla, Wolfsburg
Chelsea, Juventus, Zenit St. Petersburg, Malmo
Chelsea have strengthened their chances of retaining their Champions League title by signing Romelu Lukaku from Inter this summer, and they will be favourites to top this group with Juventus joining them in the next round. But if Juve do let Cristiano Ronaldo leave before the transfer deadline, it could leave Massimiliano Allegri’s teams struggling for goals in the group.
Will that matter? Russian champions Zenit are perennial underachievers in the group stages, while Malmo will be outsiders after overcoming Rangers and Ludogorets to make it this far.
Ultimately, the weakness of the group could yet prove to be Juventus’s salvation, though Chelsea should cruise through ahead of them.
Teams to advance: Chelsea, Juventus