Champions League group stage offers taste of consequential clashes to come

Man City and PSG meet again in the Champions League

Perhaps the main intrigue with this latest Uefa Champions League group stage draw is not who will get through, but how much of this will actually matter, what games will be consequential.

Eyes may be drawn to Manchester City-Paris Saint-Germain – and a potential rematch between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – but last season’s meeting between Barcelona and Juventus showed this doesn’t have real weight until the latter stages. The increasing feeling is that you can tune into the Champions League from February and you won’t have missed all that much.

There is always at least one group that causes a stir, though, and the expected predictability of the rest may actually prove instructive in another way.

The mood around Europe is that we’re reaching a point where a handful of super clubs – City, PSG, Chelsea, Manchester United – are pulling away from the rest as the Premier League also claims an unassailable position. This group stage will test how true that is in the short-term.

It is, on paper, maybe trickier than many anticipated. United know they can’t take anything for granted given how they went out at this point last season despite demolishing Leipzig and beating PSG in their opening games, and their group is quite testing. There’s the Villarreal side that denied them the Europa League and a super-sharp Atalanta. At the very least, they’ll likely have to fight for their qualification.

City find themselves in almost the same group as United last season, although it is a Leipzig without Julian Nagelsmann and maybe Marcel Sabitzer. Chelsea meanwhile have a potentially overhauled Juventus, while Liverpool have a group with no forgiving fixture whatsoever. Every club – Atletico, Porto, Milan – is a name. But that’s part of the issue.

They’re names, and represent some awkward matches, but they’re just not what they were. The big question going into this season is whether these clubs actually have the clout to match the finances of those super clubs and the Premier League. Look at how United dispensed with Milan in the Europa League last season.

There is always one group in the Champions League opening stage that is finely balanced, at least, and that is Group C this season – not to mention the fact it’s one for the romantic. Erling Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund are superior to the rest of the group, but all of Sporting, Ajax and Besiktas will fancy their chances and offer a real challenge. Group G has a similar dynamic, and Sevilla could well be one of the teams that take the campaign by surprise.

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There is always one big team that goes out, too, and the big wonder this term is about Barcelona. It is daunting enough they actually approach this competition without Messi, and Bayern Munich are clearly a level above, but the real danger is Benfica sensing that vulnerability. It may mean this group stage matters a lot for Ronald Koeman.

The whole problem is that we’re looking for potential wrinkles, though, rather than knowing that the group stage poses proper tension in the way it used to. On average, over 14 of the 16 qualification places conform to seeding every year.

It is of course possible that the complexion of some teams – not least Juve and City – will change before it starts, but it says much it won’t change the complexion of the opening stage.

The greatest question, however, is whether the Champions League is going to start as it finishes – with City facing off against PSG.

Predictions

Group A: Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain

Group B: Liverpool, Atletico Madrid

Group C: Borussia Dortmund, Sporting

Group D: Real Madrid, Internazionale

Group E: Bayern Munich, Barcelona

Group F: Manchester United, Villarreal

Group G: Sevilla, Wolfsburg

Group H: Chelsea, Juventus

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