The Champions League is back, and the race to dethrone Real Madrid starts all over again. Zinedine Zidane’s men have won the past two Champions League trophies, but can they make it three in a row this season?
With the draw made for the 2017-18 tournament, ESPN FC’s club bloggers give their take as they plot the route to Kiev next May.
Real Madrid (Group H vs. Dortmund, Tottenham, APOEL)
Hopes of advancing: The current champions, still in intimidating form, should make it to the next round. Anything different would be a major disappointment.
The threat: Borussia Dortmund. Even if Ousmane Dembele leaves, last season Dortmund showed that they have enough talent and tactical nous to defeat anyone.
The dark horses: They lack the European pedigree of Real Madrid or the recent consistency of Dortmund in the Champions League, but Tottenham’s starting XI is as solid as they come. They can upset any of their more illustrious group companions.
The key match: Borussia Dortmund away. Successful as they’ve been in this tournament, Real Madrid have never won at the Westfalen Stadium (three draws, three defeats). A result there appears a must to top the group. — Ed Alvarez
Barcelona (Group D vs. Juventus, Sporting, Olympiakos)
Hopes of advancing: Along with Juventus, Barcelona will be favourites to advance, but they would have hoped for an easier group. The fear will be that they do not progress as winners, given the ease with which Juve knocked them out in the quarterfinals last season. That would leave them with, potentially, a very tricky round-of-16 tie.
The threat: Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve ran out comprehensive 3-0 winners when the two sides met in Turin earlier this year and never looked like relinquishing that lead in the return leg at Camp Nou. Given Barca’s troubles this summer, the Italian champions will start the group as the favourites.
The dark horses: Both Olympiakos and Sporting are capable of causing a surprise. The Greeks, one of Ernesto Valverde’s former clubs, have caused problems for Arsenal and Atletico recently, while it took late goals on two occasions for Real Madrid to get the better of Sporting last season.
The key match: Juventus at Camp Nou. If Barca can beat the Serie A winners in Catalonia, you’d imagine they will pick up nine points out of nine at home. That would give them some leeway to drop points in what look like three difficult away days. — Sam Marsden
Manchester United (Group A vs. Benfica, CSKA Moscow, Basel)
Hopes of advancing: Very good. With their squad depth, United should be expected to finish top of their group ahead of Benfica, Basel and CSKA Moscow. They should aim to win the group to avoid a difficult draw in the round of 16.
The threat: Benfica. Though they haven’t reached the final of this tournament since 1990 — when it was still the European Cup — they have long proved a fine side in Europe and have given United issues in the not-so-distant past.
The dark horses: CSKA Moscow. Also familiar to United, they held their own in a very difficult group last season against Leverkusen, Monaco and Tottenham, even holding free-scoring Monaco to a 1-1 draw in Russia.
The key match: Either away trip to Benfica or CSKA. A draw in either game would be a good result and, given the strength of both of these sides at home, there is a possibility of defeat for Jose Mourinho’s side. — Musa Okwonga
Bayern Munich (Group B vs. PSG, Anderlecht, Celtic)
Hopes of advancing: Only once, in 2002-03, have Bayern failed to progress from the group. The facile nature of this draw is not likely to change that, as the Bavarians battle it out with Paris Saint-Germain for top billing.
The threat: Bayern have been rewarded with the plumb draw of big-spending PSG, Neymar and all. With or without this expensive new addition, the French side will clearly provide the greatest threat in Group B.
The dark horses: Belgian and Scottish champions Anderlecht and Celtic will battle it out for third place, with Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side just shading the dark horse stakes; home and away, Celtic will be roared on by their fervent support.
The key match: Under Carlo Ancelotti and his predecessor Pep Guardiola, Bayern have regularly proved fragile on their travels. Therefore the game in Glasgow will be a test of their credentials. If Bayern drop points, they could lose the top spot to PSG. — Mark Lovell
Liverpool (Group E vs. Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Maribor)
Hopes of advancing: Better than if they were facing Juventus and Barcelona. The superpowers were all avoided, but, given Liverpool’s good results against the best sides, that might prove to be a disadvantage. They’ll probably lose at home to Maribor!
The threat: Sevilla aren’t the same team they were when winning three straight Europa League finals — one against Liverpool in 2016 — but any side that finishes top four in Spain will give anyone a run for their money.
The dark horses: Spartak will want to prove they weren’t in Pot 1 just for winning the Russian league, and this could be their chance to defy expectation.
The key match: Liverpool relish all home games in Europe, but Sevilla away will be one in which they must be in top form. Ultimately the Reds will just want their fate in their own hands by matchday six. — Steven Kelly
Chelsea (Group C vs. Atletico, Roma, Qarabag)
Hopes of advancing: Chelsea will expect to advance, but it won’t be easy. Victories at home will be imperative as Atletico Madrid and Roma will be tough opponents on their own soil, while a first trip to Azerbaijan to face Qarabag could prove perilous. If Antonio Conte strengthens his squad before the transfer window closes, then he should have the resources to cope with a busy schedule.
The threat: Chelsea have won only one of their previous five games against Atletico, whose new Wanda Metropolitano stadium is scheduled to host its first game by mid-September; manager Diego Simeone will be keen to continue his mastery of the Blues. And that’s before the Diego Costa saga is mentioned!
The dark horses: It would be foolish to underestimate Roma, who ran Juventus a close second in Serie A last season. Chelsea’s new centre-back Antonio Rudiger recently joined from the Italian club, and his insight should prove invaluable to Conte, who will no doubt look forward to facing opposition from his homeland.
The key match: Costa won’t be playing for either side, but Chelsea’s toughest game will be Atletico, who knocked them out at the semifinal stage in 2014. A similar result could seriously hamper chances to progress. — Mark Worrall
Juventus (Group D vs. Barcelona, Sporting, Olympiakos)
Hopes of advancing: High. While Olympiacos and Sporting are capable of providing a challenge, Juventus will be expected to topple both and perhaps even a weakened Barcelona to qualify for the next stage.
The threat: Barcelona are the obvious choice, as they have the talent and style of play to challenge a Juve side, which will take time to recover its swagger in this competition.
The dark horses: Sporting are not the minnows Juve would have been hoping for, and the Portuguese side have started the season with a bang, both in Europe and domestically.
The key match: The second match against Barcelona could well determine who will qualify as the winner of the group. — Mina Rzouki
Paris Saint-Germain (Group B vs. Bayern, Anderlecht, Celtic)
Hopes of advancing: Strong. On paper, it is difficult not to see PSG taking one of the two top spots and, even though Bayern are strong and among the early favourites for this season’s title, the Ligue 1 giants can realistically target first place.
The threat: Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern are PSG’s obvious rivals for top spot. The pair of fixtures against the Bundesliga champions will reunite them with their former coach, as well as youth academy graduate Kingsley Coman, and give them the sort of tough early test that they need.
The dark horses: Although Anderlecht should not be written off, Celtic could prove a bigger challenge because of the atmosphere at Celtic Park. Plus, if he is still with Brendan Rodgers’ men after the transfer window closes, discarded PSG youth academy product Moussa Dembele will be keen to impress vs. Les Parisiens.
The key match: Both matches against Bayern will be important, but the trip to the Allianz Arena will be absolutely vital for Unai Emery and his men. If PSG can avoid defeat in Germany, they will feel top spot is within their reach. — Jonathan Johnson
Tottenham (Group H vs. Real Madrid, Dortmund, APOEL)
Hopes of advancing: Spurs have it all to do. Real Madrid have won the Champions League in three of the past four years, while Dortmund beat Tottenham 5-1 on aggregate in the Europa League in 2016. Finishing above either side will be tough, and Dele Alli is suspended for the first three games.
The threat: A Madrid side including Cristiano Ronaldo and old boys Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. Those two were playing for Spurs when, in 2011, Madrid knocked them out at the quarterfinal stage; Mauricio Pochettino’s current crop will try to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
The dark horses: APOEL, the Cypriot champions, have come through three qualifying rounds and conceded only one goal across six games. They have earned their place and could be awkward opponents, especially on home turf.
The key match: Dortmund at Wembley. It was Spurs’ 1-0 home defeat to Leverkusen that really did the damage in last year’s group stage, after a useful goalless draw in the away leg. If they are to grab a top-two place this time they will probably need to beat their latest German rivals. — Ben Pearce
Manchester City (Group F vs. Shakhtar, Napoli, Feyenoord)
Hopes of advancing: In a balanced group, City must harbour serious hopes to finish top. Landing with one of the weaker-seeded sides in Shakhtar Donetsk means all teams will have hopes of qualifying.
The threat: Napoli are the main threat and were a thorn in City’s side under Roberto Mancini in the club’s inaugural Champions League participation in 2011-12, when City were beaten 2-1. The atmosphere in the San Paulo can also be “lively.”
The dark horses: Feyenoord are back on the big stage and will relish playing in front of their passionate fans at De Kuip. The Dutch champions are not to be taken lightly.
The key match: While City will expect to win their home games, the key will be what they do away from home. Having lost in Naples in 2011-12, they know what to expect there, but an equally warm welcome awaits in Rotterdam. — Simon Curtis
Borussia Dortmund (Group H vs. Real Madrid, Tottenham, APOEL)
Hopes of advancing: Dortmund topped a group that included Real Madrid last season and, although this group is trickier, they should have a very good chance to finish among the top two.
The threat: Once you’re in the top two pots, the threat will always come from below. Tottenham are obviously the big danger to Dortmund, with Madrid almost certain to qualify for the knockout stages.
The dark horses: APOEL can be a stumbling block, but they don’t have what it takes to qualify. With BVB and Madrid favourites to progress, the dark horses have to be the North Londoners.
The key match: Dortmund have to make sure they win the match-up against Tottenham. That is best ensured by getting a result at Wembley Stadium. — Stefan Buczko
Atletico Madrid (Group C vs. Chelsea, Roma, Qarabag)
Hopes of advancing: Chelsea are the standout opponents, and you would imagine they’ll fight it out with Los Colchoneros for top spot. While Roma is by no means a gimme, Diego Simeone’s side should have more than enough to get the better of them and Qarabag to at least finish second.
The threat: Roma. Chelsea should be one of the two sides to advance, so the other three spots are all to play for. In front of a packed crowd at the Stadio Olimpico, Roma can cause anyone problems, and Atleti will have to be at their best.
The dark horses: With a part-synthetic pitch coupled with the adrenaline of making a debut in the competition, Qarabag will be out to make a name for themselves against more established, illustrious opponents and might cause a surprise or two.
The key match: Atletico’s home form in the competition is imperious, and if they can emerge from Rome victorious then it should be an indicator they are well placed to progress from the group and launch another assault on the trophy they crave more than any other. — Joseph Walker
Roma (Group C vs. Chelsea, Atletico, Qarabag)
Hopes of advancing: Difficult but not impossible. Neither Chelsea nor Atletico are among Europe’s true elite and are eminently beatable, especially at home. But both are coached by world-class managers and have top talent at their disposal, so Roma will have to get their attack sorted.
The threat: It depends which Chelsea show: The one that collapsed against Burnley or the side that beat Tottenham. Atleti looked less than convincing in their opener at Girona but are still one of the toughest teams to beat. If Roma don’t finish above one of these two, they’ll be Europa League-bound.
The dark horses: Roma. Anyone looking at that draw would put Chelsea and Atleti as the top two and, looking at the way Eusebio di Francesco has struggled to implement his style of play, that would be fair. However the Giallorossi have the talent to cause some damage.
The key match: The visit to Qarabag away. In a group likely to have a tight top three, it is essential that Roma pick up six points from the relative minnow, as the other two almost certainly will. — Terry Daley
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