It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Thursday’s Champions League draw produced tantalizing matchups, compelling storylines, and some fantastic quartets. Here’s what to expect from each group during the continental competition:
Related – Champions League draw: Heavyweight matchups across the board
Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Club Brugge
- Favorites to progress: Atletico, BVB
- Best matchup: Atletico vs. BVB
- Player to watch: Aleksandr Golovin
Group A feels like the hipster’s choice. With Atletico’s pedigree, Dortmund’s colorful supporters, Monaco’s youthful exuberance, and Brugge’s unknown quantities, there’s enough on tap to keep the most casual fan interested. Any of the top three teams should fancy their chances of getting into the knockout stages, leaving Brugge as the odd one out. Keep an eye on Monaco’s latest summer signing, Aleksandr Golovin, and Atletico’s Gelson Martins as the two take on defenders and make things happen from midfield.
Barcelona, Tottenham, PSV, Inter
- Favorites to progress: Barcelona, Tottenham
- Best matchup: Tottenham vs. Inter
- Player to watch: Hirving Lozano
This one feels like the Group of Death. There’s a lot of attacking potential from this quartet, with the likes of Lozano, Ivan Perisic, Ousmane Dembele, and Heung-Min Son set to entertain on the flanks. Tottenham and Inter should contest the best matches of the group, especially considering Spurs’ recent success against Italian teams. It’s a difficult run of games for the Nerazzurri, though there was always a risk they would face a tough draw as a lowly fourth seed. PSV have a difficult go as well, but now’s the opportunity to show Dutch football in a positive light.
Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Liverpool, Red Star
- Favorites to progress: PSG, Liverpool
- Best matchup: Napoli vs. Liverpool
- Player to watch: Naby Keita
Joining the headliners is Group C, which offers emotional storylines, cross-continent travel, and the prospect of scintillating football. Edinson Cavani’s return to Napoli – where he first shot to fame as a raw, greasy-haired striker – will draw cheers in southern Italy. That match between PSG and Napoli is a fantastic test for the Partenopei and an opportunity for Carlo Ancelotti to face his former side. However, Liverpool’s meeting with Napoli is arguably the pick of the bunch. The potential for goals is high between these two sides, a clash of relentless brands of football featuring high lines and rigorous pressing. Keita is at the heart of Liverpool’s push, representing a massive upgrade in midfield following his arrival from RB Leipzig.
Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray
- Favorites to progress: Porto, Lokomotiv
- Best matchup: Porto vs. Galatasaray
- Player to watch: Henry Onyekuru
Group D isn’t one for the neutrals. There’s not much that grabs headlines here, unless it’s in the stands of Galatasaray’s stadium. Porto have every reason to feel they can win the group and reach the round of 16 for a third consecutive season. Who else will advance is a toss-up, as none of Lokomotiv, Schalke, or Galatasaray seem head and shoulders above the competition. The 2017-18 Russian Premier League champions have made some decent signings, including Benedikt Howedes and Grzegorz Krychowiak, but no one player stands out. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Onyekuru, who’s on loan at Galatasaray from Everton, may be the most promising player to watch.
Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax, AEK Athens
- Favorites to progress: Bayern, Ajax
- Best matchup: Benfica vs. Ajax
- Player to watch: Hakim Ziyech
Group E is deceiving. Although it may look like Bayern have a direct route to the next round, Benfica and Ajax are good enough to complicate matters. Bayern did little to reinforce their team, putting more pressure on the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben to win matches on their own. Benfica have continued to hone their talent – Ruben Dias is a fine defender in the making – while Ajax did well to avoid a firesale this summer. Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech is a fantastic playmaker who can set up goals and score from distance, and teammate Dusan Tadic is a capable matchwinner whose linkup play could prove troublesome. It’s not as straightforward as it seems.
Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon, Hoffenheim
- Favorites to progress: City, Lyon
- Best matchup: Lyon vs. Hoffenheim
- Player to watch: Houssem Aouar
Here’s another group with a few traps. City stumbled against Shakhtar in last season’s group stage, and the youthfulness of Lyon and Hoffenheim could send a jolt through the Premier League champions. The latter two opponents have average ages of 24.1 and 25 years, respectively, with the 20-year-old Aouar already holding the keys to Les Gones’ midfield. Hoffenheim’s innovative training techniques have also paid dividends. City will have to work hard to break down each of their opponents.
Real Madrid, Roma, CSKA Moscow, Plzen
- Favorites to progress: Madrid, Roma
- Best matchup: Madrid vs. Roma
- Player to watch: Justin Kluivert
A classic case of two halves. Madrid and Roma are destined to make it out of Group G, with CSKA and Plzen set to compete for the right to claim third and the Europa League spot that goes with it. Los Blancos swept aside the Giallorossi in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Champions League, and considering their superiority in midfield, they could deal their Italian brethren another blow. Manager Eusebio Di Francesco either aces his tactics or bombs completely, so it’s imperative he gets his approach right against the three-time defending European champions.
Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys
- Favorites to progress: Juventus, United
- Best matchup: Juventus vs. United
- Player to watch: Goncalo Guedes
This is a nice group to round out the competition. Paul Pogba will face the Old Lady for the first time since his €100-million transfer to United, Cristiano Ronaldo will return to Old Trafford, and Valencia will try to break up the love-in with some good football of their own. The Bianconeri clearly have the most competitive squad of the four teams, but Mourinho’s record in cup competitions cannot be ignored. Valencia also boast some fantastic speed on the wings, especially with Guedes rejoining the side on a permanent basis.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)