UEFA conducted the draw for the group stage of the 2015-2016 UEFA Champions League on Thursday, and we can now begin to assess which teams are most likely to still be alive for the title of Europe’s best once the tables are completed and the knockout stage is settled. Here are my quick takes on each group and which teams have the best shot of emerging out of the group with a chance to dethrone defending champion Barcelona — and whether the Catalans can repeat.
PARTICIPANTS: Paris-Saint Germain, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmo
It’s a shame that Shakhtar Donetsk was drawn into a group with both PSG and Real Madrid, because they were one of last season’s most fun revelations. Despite unrest in Ukraine that forced them to play “home” matches on the opposite side of the country, Shakhtar still held Bayern scoreless in their first leg of the Round of 16 last year in Lviv, making it to the knockout stages with a fun blend of tactical acumen and offensive firepower. Malmo likewise might have a shot in another group, but ultimately it will be the Parisians and los galacticos that emerge to the knockout stage out of this group and the Ukrainians who have the greatest grievance.
PARTICIPANTS: PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, VfL Wolfsburg
Manchester United is back in the Champions League after a year’s absence, and they have what looks at first glance to be a favorable draw. But do they really have the depth to mount anything but a cursory run to the knockout stage and a quick exit thereafter? PSV Eindhoven always has fun young talent to throw at teams, and Wolfsburg is a skilled Bundesliga side that won’t easily capitulate. Either or both could surprise the Red Devils. CSKA could have the toughest time making a case for the knockout stages due to the heavy travel demands, but they’ll also be a tough out at home because of it. In the end expect Man U and PSV to take the top two spots.
PARTICIPANTS: Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray, Astana
Atletico Madrid has put together a case for itself as one of the most relevant teams in Europe over the past two or three seasons. The Spanish capital’s other team has won La Liga, reached the Champions League final, and is a perennial contender for European glory. Benfica is ostensibly the top seed in this group, but it is Atletico that will dominate. Galatasaray has also loaded up its roster with some big-name signings, and they’ll be the biggest challengers to the Portuguese for the other spot in the knockout round out of Group C. Kazakh champs Astana will just be happy to make an appearance and soak up money as Atletico and Galatasaray bull their way to the bracket.
PARTICIPANTS: Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach
Juventus restored some pride in Italian football with its run to the Champions League final last spring, but they got no favors with the draw this year as they try to mount a repeat performance. Manchester City is looking dominant at this early juncture of the Premier League season, Sevilla is the reigning Europa League champion, and Borussia Monchengladbach has regained the form of its glory days to emerge as a Bundesliga contender. This is possibly the closest thing to a Group of Death in this year’s Champions League. After a hard-fought campaign through the fall, Juventus should be able to emerge in one of the top two spots alongside Manchester City, but it won’t be easy.
PARTICIPANTS: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, BATE Borisov
Reigning champions Barcelona received a gift of a draw as they mount a strong title defense. Bayer Leverkusen was unlucky against Atletico Madrid last year in the Round of 16, taking the Spanish side to penalties before falling out of the tournament, and could steal a point off the Catalans. Other than that, though, Serie A runner-up Roma is unlikely to scare the blaugrana, and BATE Borisov continues to make group stage appearances without making much headway beyond that ceiling. Barca should easily emerge atop Group E, and it will be up to the Italians and the Germans to duke it out for runner-up honors. Expect Roma to surprise and continue the renaissance of Italian football.
PARTICIPANTS: Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb
In what could be Pep Guardiola’s last season with the German juggernaut, can Bayern reclaim its position atop the European game? Arsenal remains a flawed contender, having done little over the summer to bolster its depth heading into the new season, and they might have been unlucky to draw into a group with Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb. The Greeks and the Croatians are deceptively strong sides, and while their overall league competition won’t prepare them for the likes of Arsenal they also won’t have to dedicate as many resources to staying up in the domestic table like the Gunners. So look for Bayern to take top honors and Dinamo Zagreb to steal the second spot.
PARTICIPANTS: Chelsea, FC Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Maccabi Tel Aviv
Chelsea and FC Porto stand as the clear best two teams in Group G, and the pairing provides two opportunities to see Jose Mourinho on the opposite sideline from the team he once coached to Champions League glory. Maccabi Tel Aviv offers a rare Israeli presence in the group stages of the tournament, though against the English and Portuguese dynamos — not to mention the Ukrainian Dynamo — they are unlikely to make much noise. For that matter Kyiv is probably not going to reenact its past glories, and it will be the two favorites emerging. The home-and-home battles will determine whether Chelsea or Porto will finish in the top spot.
PARTICIPANTS: Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Lyon, Gent
Zenit St. Petersburg has been on the cusp in recent years, reaching the Round of 16 in 2013-2014 but otherwise remaining on the outside. This might be the Russian club’s best opportunity to break through and sustain its best run in European competition since winning the UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup in 2008. Valencia has the best pedigree in European competition, while Gent is the only other domestic champion in Group H. Lyon was runner-up in the tougher French league, though, and Valencia finished fourth behind Spain’s big three. Zenit should emerge atop the group, and after a series of pitched battles Lyon should surprise its way into the knockout stage.
The Knockout Pools
GROUP WINNERS: Real Madrid, Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, FC Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg
SECOND PLACE: Paris-Saint Germain, PSV Eindhoven, Galatasaray, Juventus, Roma, Dinamo Zagreb, Chelsea, Lyon
Looking at the 16 teams projected into the pools for drawing out the bracket, there are few conflicts between the two pools. All three Spanish qualifiers are projected to win their groups. Both Italian qualifiers are expected to be runners-up, as are both projected French qualifiers. Only one German team is projected — the same as the Netherlands, Turkey, Croatia, Portugal, and Russia. The only national conflict would cause Chelsea to avoid both Manchester clubs.
In this situation, there is a definite hierarchy to the teams which every group winner will want to either face or avoid out of the second pool. PSG, Juventus, and Chelsea are all traps awaiting in the Round of 16 for the unlucky winners who draw each of them. PSV, Roma, and possibly Galatasaray will be dangerous if unable to finish the job, while Dinamo Zagreb and Lyon will likely need miracles to make it through.
The usual suspects will likely be there in the semifinals. You can pencil in Barcelona and Bayern Munich, with Real Madrid another near-lock. Juventus might have lost too much of last year’s dynamic squad to repeat, leaving the door open for a new candidate. England will probably get back in the mix; out of the trio, Manchester City looks poised to do the most damage in European competition this season, though Chelsea makes for far greater intrigue.
With that, let’s project Barcelona and Bayern Munich meeting in one semifinal, and Jose Mourinho meeting another of his former clubs as Chelsea take on Real Madrid. Pep Guardiola once again falls short against his former side, Mourinho likewise falters in his ongoing quest to win the Champions League with three different clubs, and we’re graced with another all-Spanish final as Barcelona’s attack secures the first repeat Champions League title since AC Milan in 1990.