Group A: Benfica, Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow
Manchester United’s return to the Uefa Champions League has, inevitably, felt overdue. The British club with most successes in the competition this century were absent for the past 20 months and are only back in thanks to seizing the Europa League in May. Jose Mourinho is back too, in the running for a prize he has won twice with different clubs.
Mourinho will go back to where he held his first job as a manager, Benfica. United have had their difficulties there in the recent past. Benfica have lost a few of their 2017 champions – Victor Lindelof, now at United, for one - but should have the wherewithal to join United, ahead of Basel and in spite the long, tricky trip to Moscow, in the knockout phase.
Forecast: United, with Benfica in second place.
Group B: Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Anderlecht, Celtic
Paris Saint-Germain, spearheaded by Neymar and more expectant than ever of reaching the Champions League podium, must test themselves against a group of players as used as any to finishing in the top four in recent times. Bayern Munich v PSG would be a peppery pair of games under any circumstances. After a summer in which PSG have set new benchmarks for spending, listen out for sounds of disapproval from Bayern’s executives, who always turn prickly when new money governs the market.
Bayern’s manager Carlo Ancelotti takes on the PSG he led to the French title. Neither of the two favourites to progress will be content to have to visit Glasgow. Celtic can trouble - and have the scalps to prove it – any of the grandees of Europe there.
Forecast: Bayern and PSG to progress, PSG in first place.
Group C: Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Roma, Qarabag
A penny for the thoughts of Diego Costa, whose goals helped Chelsea to the 2016/17 Premier League title, and whose broken relationship with Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager, has led to Costa, unwanted at Stamford Bridge, telling all and sundry he would like to go back to the Atletico Madrid he helped guide to a Spanish title three years ago. Group C is complicated, with a capital C, for that and indeed or many more factors.
Conte needs no reminding how enterprising Roma, from his native Italy, can be when they click, and any group that combines teams from the capital cities of England, Spain and Italy must look daunting from any perspective. From distant Azerbaijan, whose league has a representative in the group phase for the first time, it looks both thrilling and unnerving. Qarabag have hit the big time in earnest.
Forecast: Atletico and Chelsea to finish in top spots.
Group D: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiakos, Sporting Lisbon
A re-run of the 2015 final, and of last season's semi-final, is on the calendar swiftly. Juventus and Barcelona have both had difficult summers since the two super clubs finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga – Barcelona – and in the Champions League – Juventus's fate – and much about their candidacy as potential winners will be read into their meetings.
They have escaped landing another heavyweight in their group. Olympiakos usually take some sustenance from their vivacious home crowds, and Sporting showed last season they can control segments of matches against the best. But the likelihood is that Juventus, hoping to provide evergreen goalkeeper Gigi Buffon with the Champions League medal he lacks, and Barcelona will exert authority.
Forecast: Barcelona and Juventus to go through in first and second.
Group E: Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Liverpool, Maribor
In the Europa League final of 2016, Sevilla defeated Liverpool, a reminder that the glorious European traditions of the Anfield club have gone a little rusty, while Sevilla, with three Europa League crowns from 2014 onwards, have developed an expertise in the continental arena. That expertise means being able to handle long journeys – and Andalucia to Russia, where Spartak Moscow are the national champions, is a big stretch, across time zones, and weather systems as well as distance.
The pedigree of the Spanish club, for all they have lost key players in the summer transfer window, and the Premier League contenders, suggests they both ought to progress but how they handle their away games at Spartak, and in Maribor, will have a bearing. But for Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager who guided Borussia Dortmund to the 2013 Champions League final, it's probably a group to relish.
Forecast: Liverpool to pip Sevilla into first place.
Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, Napoli, Feyenoord
Napoli looked buoyant, effervescent in disposing of Nice in what might have been a treacherous play-off to reach the group phase. In Champions League terms, and in their sense of readiness, the Serie A entertainers have matured since, six years ago, they took on a Manchester City in the group phase of the competition. Both clubs were fresh to the environment then. Napoli got the better of the meetings, taking four points from the games.
City will be wary of Naples, an intimidating venue, and of Napoli’s attack. But those two City-Napoli matches should most of all be a feast, featuring two ambitious, enterprising sides. Shakhtar, where City’s Fernandinho made a fine reputation in happier times for war-damaged Donetsk, hope to be competitive enough to stand in the way of an Italian and English wrap-up of the top places while Feyenoord, the Dutch champions, will probably be advised to target third place.
Forecast: City to go through with Napoli in their slipstream.
Group G: Monaco, Porto, Besiktas, RB Leipzig
Group G might stand for the Good Ol’ Days. Remember when, 13 years, ago, Monaco met Porto in a Champions League final? Yes, clubs from France and Portugal, with no sign of Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga or La Liga? That seems like ancient history now, and even though Monaco are Ligue 1 champions and were in the last four of the last Champions League, they will not regard this group as a cakewalk.
Nor will Porto, savvy though they are in negotiating the autumn and winter stages of the competition. The bold impediment to both is newcomers RB Leipzig, who were languishing in Germany’s lower reaches when Porto and Monaco played their final, but now have financial backing and a bumptious runners-up medal from their first season in Germany’s top flight. There is a boldness about Besiktas’s horizons, too, in this intriguing pool.
Forecast: RB Leipzig and Monaco to go into knockout phase.
Group H: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, Apoel Nicosia
Huge crowds are pretty much guaranteed for most of the games in this apparently lopsided group, what with Wembley hosting Tottenham Hotspur and the Bernabeu and Dortmund’s steepling Westfalen among the other theatres. Poor Tottenham. Their reward for finishing second in the Premier League looks brutal, even without the superstitions gathering around the club about their poor recent record playing at Wembley, which they have borrowed as their own home is rebuilt, and where they suffered in the Champions League last year.
Madrid, chasing a third successive European Cup, will need to be on their mettle against Dortmund and Spurs, two teams who press vigorously. And the outsiders? Apoel, who remarkably reached the knockout stage six years ago, are very much the outsiders, but have a series of resonant venues to visit in this adventure.
Forecast: Madrid and Dortmund to stymie Spurs and go through.