We’re back! And we are ready for a Champions League season unlike any other, available to watch in its entirety on Paramount+. The group stages kick off in a matter of days; by the start of November they will be in the history books.
By that time you might finally have made your way through our comprehensive power rankings, which assess each team’s likelihood of winning the tournament in its entirety. So you might well contend that Barcelona are much better than the competition’s 12th best team but having been handed the archetypal group of death one has to factor in that they might not even reach the knockout stages. Here, then, is who we view as the runners and riders to win it all in Istanbul next year:
The top tier: Title or bust
These teams should be disappointed with anything less than a semi final berth and frankly even that might not be enough, such is their talent profile.
1. Manchester City
They may not have the trophies to show for it, but Pep Guardiola’s side have set the standard across the continent over the last few years and the early indications are that Erling Haaland’s introduction only adds to their quality, offering a more direct route to goal to combine with the subtlety of old. The only slight concern for them might be that this summer’s transfer business has left them one top tier player light in their frontline, but even that seems doubtful.
2. Bayern Munich
They might have been thrown into the group of death but don’t expect them to show their mortality. Further down the line a season of romping past what does not seem to be the stiffest of Bundesliga competition might leave them untested, but right now Julian Nagelsmann’s clutch of forwards seem to be hitting even greater heights in the free-flowing post-Robert Lewandowski era.
An injury-plagued midfield with several options who might be too old or too young to make telling contributions has nerves jangling on Merseyside, not least those of an unprotected Trent Alexander-Arnold. It is increasingly feeling like a bigger caveat than it needs to be, but if the squad is fully fit Jurgen Klopp’s men should have no problems coming through a competitive Group A.
4. Real Madrid
The holders will be expecting the most serene of passages out of their group, which should offer Carlo Ancelotti an insight into how easily Aurelien Tchouameni can fill Casemiro’s boots. Indeed, without wishing to unecessarily insult three solid teams in Group F, Madrid could well use this competition to blood a few other talents while holding their star veterans Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema in reserve so that they remain fresh later in the year.
Serious contenders: If things go right, why not us?
It certainly is not beyond the realm of imagination that any of these teams could be lifting the European Cup in Istanbul come May, though it may require a few fortunate breaks for the tournament to go their way.
5. Paris Saint-Germain
PSG will naturally view themselves as being in the top tier of contenders but this summer has brought something approximating a period of reflection for Europe’s most spend happy giant. Appointing Christophe Galtier and investing in younger talent from France and Portugal suggests a club willing to build slowly around Kylian Mbappe. The question is whether, come the business end of the tournament, he and the rest of their superstar front three will be prepared to do the off ball work that makes for champions.
The season has not started swimmingly for Todd Boehly and Thomas Tuchel, still assembling their ship for 2022-23 long after it set sail. Group E will not be without its challenges for Chelsea, Salzburg will surely have taken note of the high press their former manager Jesse Marsch employed to rattle the Blues last weekend, but they should be negotiated. Then the question becomes whether Tuchel can rediscover the defensive alchemy of early in his reign; if so there is nothing that is beyond this team.
Dark horses: Unlikely contenders, but contenders all the same
These teams are unlikely champions, but then so were Real Madrid at this time in 2021. It may take a change of circumstances, or a new tactical plan, or simply Karim Benzema having the season of his life, but it’s possible. It’s certainly not probable, but stranger things have happened.
Sitting higher on this list than might have been expected because their group holds no teams better than them — though none are considerably inferior — this is shaping up to be a season where Antonio Conte can move past his Champions League issues. Certainly the addition of Richarlison gives him depth to his frontline that few of his predecessors at Tottenham have had. Their lack of guile in the center of the park could show up in six games where they are expected to be favorites, but Harry Kane should be able to shoulder the creative burden.
8. AC Milan
They certainly go into Group E filled with players who have a point to prove. Fikayo Tomori and Olivier Giroud both left Chelsea, the former before he got the chance to show what an exceptional defender he is, whilst Rafael Leao is wanted by the Blues. The group stage draw was cruel to them last year but has been altogether kinder this time out; it would be a shock indeed if they are not in the last 16.
9. Inter Milan
They offered quite the stern test to Liverpool last season and in holding on to Milan Skriniar they profile to head into this year’s competition a stronger, more experienced group. Indeed put them in another group and they might just shoot up the rankings. The reality however is that they may have unwittingly found themselves in a straight knockout round against Barcelona already, one where Simone Inzaghi will hope his side’s years of experience together pays dividend.
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Knockout stage contenders
You will note here that there are slightly more contenders for the knockout stages than there will be teams in there. Welcome to the wonder of those teams battling for second spot in the groups. There will always be someone disappointed.
10. Atletico Madrid
Much like Spurs they are perhaps over-ranked here based on quality of squad (or at least how they fit together on the pitch) but their group is one that they ought to emerge from without too many scares along the way. However, we have said this before about Diego Simeone’s side, who often do not seem to wake up until the knockout stages.
11. Borussia Dortmund
Erling Haaland’s swift return to the Westphalenstadion is the stand out story of Dortmund’s group and had the referee blown his whistle in the 88th minute at the weekend, before they somehow turned a two-goal lead into three dropped points, this team might have felt bullish about showing him how they have moved on. Even without Sebastien Haller they have the squad to be confident of second place in this group behind Manchester City, but their wobbles last season in the group stage will give Sevilla hope.
If they get out of their group Barcelona seem a reasonable prospect for a run to the semifinals. If they get out that is. They have a talented squad but can Xavi achieve any serious level of chemistry by the end of November when his employers are still yet to register all his players for La Liga duty? Early season results suggest it might be heavy going and that is why Inter and Bayern shade Barca. Those two know exactly what sort of team they are. How could Barcelona?
A flying start to Serie A has cooled fan frustration from a summer where established veterans were moved on. If they make room for talents as thrilling as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia then why not say goodbye to Lorenzo Insigne? Meanwhile Victor Osimhen is flying at the top of the pitch whilst the possible arrival of Keylor Navas would reinforce things at the other end of the pitch. Suddenly they seem the most likely to give Liverpool a headache in Group A.
Fresh from a 3-0 thumping of Sporting, Sergio Conceicao’s side seem primed to exploit a favorable draw. Indeed they might even believe that they can leapfrog Atletico Madrid if Evanilson and Mehdi Taremi take their league form onto the European stage. Recent evidence would suggest that they will be hard to score against.
Is it being overly pessimistic to expect a step back from an Ajax side that has lost *deep breath*: Noussair Mazraoui, Andre Onana, Ryan Gravenberch, Sebastien Haller, Lisandro Martinez, Nicolas Tagliafico and Perr Schuurs? Antony might add another £90million to the ledger and history has suggested that the Dutch giants will need a brief period to regroup before challenging again.
The Old Lady of Italian football hardly set the world alight away to Sampdoria on the second weekend of the Serie A season and their squad seems a little light on guile with Angel Di Maria and Federico Chiesa injured and Paulo Dybala departed. There will be pressure aplenty on Dusan Vlahovic for the goals to lift Juve over Benfica, with two non-penalty goals in his last seven games there are still questions as to whether he can deliver.
17. RB Leipzig
Slow starters in the Bundesliga they may be, but RB Leipzig’s attacking options look like enough to add a bit more oomph to their pursuit of the knockout rounds. Certainly Christopher Nkunku has proven he can excel in this competition whilst Timo Werner will surely feel more at home back in Germany. Perhaps the best signing of all might be left back David Raum whose startling rise has taken him from the second tier to international honors in a year.
18. Sporting Lisbon
Though they have conceded plenty of goals in a slow start to the Portuguese league season, there is reason to believe that this talented young side can overcome the loss of Matheus Nunes and Joao Palhinha to claim second place behind Tottenham. Pedro Goncalves could well be the breakout young star of this season’s group stage; if not then former Spurs youngster Marcus Edwards might excel with a point to prove.
The Portuguese giants breezed past Midtjylland and Dynamo Kyiv on their route to the group stages with Goncalo Ramos seemingly filling the Darwin Nunez-shaped void. Most intriguingly of all might Enzo Fernandez, dubbed the future of Argentine midfielders after excelling for River Plate. Having sent Barcelona crashing out at the group stage a year ago, they promise to be serious rivals for Juventus.
In the mix
A few fortunate breaks and they may find themselves extending their Champions League involvement beyond Christmas. Don’t bet on it though.
Last season’s Ligue 1 runners up look to have added quality to their squad with Jonathan Clauss, Jordan Veretout and Chancel Mbemba (an impressive performer with Porto in past iterations of this competition) particularly standing out. It has been more than a decade since Marseille made it out of the Champions League group stage — they have only competed in it on two previous occasions — but the intensity of the Stade Velodrome could be a secret weapon to serve them well.
21. Eintracht Frankfurt
The Europa League champions have struggled early in the Bundesliga campaign and will surely miss Filip Kostic this season, though they did at least hold on to the outstanding Kevin Trapp. The early season issue might be that they are putting too much pressure on their goalkeeper; they have given up 6.16 expected goals in their first three league games.
Permanently in reinvention mode, Salzburg have lost just one of their first five games in the Austrian Bundesliga but it did come to potential title rivals Sturm Graz. Fernando, one of the players signed in the summer to replace Karim Adeyemi and Brenden Aaronson, has started impressively with five goals in five games.
The Scottish champions might want to get a round in for Yaya Toure and Hamit Altintop, who handed them a rather favorable draw in Group F. Celtic are not favorites to get out of the group by any means but if they were watching last season’s Europa League latter stages they will know that RB Leipzig can be beaten on home turf. Do that and they may be playing in the knockout stages for the first time in a decade.
Had we been doing these rankings a year ago, the Andalusians would be far, far higher but 2022 has been something of an annus horribilis for Sevilla, beginning with dreams of a title challenge but now seeing them landed in La Liga’s early season midtable with starting center backs Kounde and Diego Carlos departed. Since January 1 their record in European and La Liga games reads 7-12-3 so this will still be a hard team to break down but if they don’t turn draws to wins quickly, then second place behind Manchester City looks unlikely.
25. Bayer Leverkusen
Leverkusen kept their stars and even added highly rated youngster Adam Hlozek and yet they have collapsed out of the blocks in the Bundesliga, losing all three games and struggling to get their counterattacking game going without the vision of Florian Wirtz. They will probably have to do without the highly rated youngster (certainly at the peak of his powers) for the group stage so need Moussa Diaby, Patrik Schick et al to find some form quickly.
26. Shakhtar Donetsk
No club will curry the neutral’s favor quite like Ukraine’s representatives at the group stage, who will play their home games in Warsaw following Russia’s invasion earlier this year. There is still quality in this squad, most notably young playmaker Mykhaylo Mudryk, but the Brazilian contingent that made up a sizeable quota of Shakhtar’s squad have departed on loan, as has Manor Solomon. In unprecedented circumstances it is hard to know what to expect from a team that has spent far too long away from Donetsk and now finds themselves away from Ukraine entirely, but in purely footballing terms this is a weaker squad than others.
Likely chasing the Europa League
There are no bad teams in the Champions League but these will do well to achieve much more than third place
They are not out of it by any stretch of the imagination, but Rangers have been handed a far less favorable draw than their great rivals with three strong opponents in Group A. Still Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side have already conquered PSV Eindhoven to get this far; anyone who saw the quality of build up for Antonio Colak’s goal in the first leg will not trifle with this team.
28. Dinamo Zagreb
The Maksimir has been the graveyard of many a big European name in recent years, from Tottenham to Sevilla via Atalanta, and if Mislav Orsic catches fire there are precious free full backs who can slow him down. They are probably not a team you would predict will crash out with zero points but the quality of Group E means it’s hard to see them escaping.
29. Club Brugge
Having threepeated in the generally competitive Belgian league, the predators swooped on Club Brugge in the summer with Charles De Ketelaere, Lois Openda and Stanley Nsoki all departing. Can former Barcelona striker Ferran Jutgla and in form winger Andreas Skov Olson fill the gaps? The immediate suspicion is they probably cannot at this particular level.
They may be fourth favorites in a relatively glamor-free group but there are a few reasons to keep an eye on the Danish champions, not least the highly rated young midfielder Isak Bergmann Johannesson, who top European sides have been keeping a close eye on for years. Great things have also been expected of Mohamed Daramy, back on loan in the capital from Ajax, so even if the games will be tough there will be points to be proven among this squad.
31. Maccabi Haifa
The hundreds of supporters on hand to welcome the players back to Israel after their win over Red Star Belgrade rather said it all, Maccabi Haifa were heroes in their hometown simply for getting to the group stage for the first time since 2009. With PSG, Juventus and Benfica in their group you suspect that anything else might be a bonus.
32. Viktoria Plzen
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.