The Champions League is back! And everyone is extremely elated. There really is no club competition that comes close to the drama and fanfare of Europe's elite club competition. A collection of the best. To crown the best of the bests. The craze for this tournament is not limited to the fans. Even the players consider this the holy grail of club football. The sound of the Champions League anthem bellowing on the infotainment systems under the night sky with the lights shining bright gives everyone goosebumps.
Champions League nights are special. And it feels no different. Thus, it is understandable why clubs crave for a taste of this tournament. In fact, Champions League qualification in itself is an achievement. It is almost as though playing this continental tournament is a trophy. One which football clubs celebrate. There is, of course, an added incentive to qualification - financial. Clubs earn added revenue through Champions League qualification.
Further, the top players across the world want to play for clubs that are in the Champions League. It is the ultimate annual barometer of achievement. Every year 32 teams assemble. Following the group stage, we are down to half. And then the knockouts begin. Three rounds of two-legged ties to reach the final.
Here are how the hopefuls group themselves this season.
Champions League - Group A
Liverpool, Ajax, Napoli and Rangers constitute the four teams in Group A. Liverpool are, of course, the overwhelming favourites to qualify on top of this group. Ajax, after winning all their group games last season, may find it difficult to replicate the same this time around. Napoli are no pushovers themselves. Thus, there will be an interesting tussle for the second spot in this group.
Rangers, the Scottish team, finished second in their domestic league last term. Replicating the same position may prove a step too far for them. However, one must not rule out a surprise from Rangers. Ajax are not the same team they were last season. They have lost their manager and key players, all to Manchester United. Thus, even the Europa League spot is there for the taking.
Champions League - Group B
Atletico Madrid, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Club Brugge are the four teams in Group B. Diego Simeone's team will be disappointed if they do not top this group. They are a seasoned Champions League unit. Porto, however, might feel they a score to settle with the Spanish team. Atletico kept them out of the knockouts last season. One feels Porto will make it into the Round of 16 this time around.
That leaves the German and Belgian clubs to fight for the solitary Europa League slot. Brugge, seemingly the least favourite, displayed great courage in the Champions League last season. At home, they managed to hold out Paris Saint Germain. The team that featured Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Hence, teams have to be careful of their Belgian sojourns.
Champions League - Group C
This is the group of death. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Viktoria Plzen. And one simply has to feel for the Czech outfit. They are left with very little chance on paper to make anything out of this arrangement. It will be considered an achievement to notch up even a single point.
Meanwhile, the three heavyweights of European football will battle for two spots. The third gets demoted to the Europa League. On current form, one can assume Bayern Munich will definitely book their flight to the knockouts. Barcelona, equipped with their plethora of summer arrivals, will be disappointed if they end up in Europe's second tier. Inter, hopeful of a domestic title challenge, will push the others hard. In fact, Inter showed in the away trip to Anfield last season that they are an extremely dangerous side. Hence, there are no guarantees here.
Champions League - Group D
Tottenham Hotspur, Eintracht Frankfurt, Sporting CP and Olympique Marseille are the four teams in Group D. Spurs, under Antonio Conte, pose a real threat. In fact, Conte has infused them with steel which will hold them in good stead in this competition. Spurs should ideally finish on top of this group. Neither of their competitors can match the English team on paper or resources. Hence, Spurs will fancy top spot.
Sporting and Marseille will battle with Frankfurt for the other knockout spot. And between them, it is difficult to call which team goes through. Neither have been very consistent in this competition. Hence, anybody's guess is as good as the next person hazarding a prediction.
Champions League - Group E
AC Milan, Chelsea, RB Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb comprise Group E of the Champions League. One would normally reckon Chelsea to finish top. However, Thomas Tuchel's team has been on the backfoot in the Premier League. Chelsea are underperforming and, according to their manager, is an easy team to beat.
AC Milan, champions of Italy, will thus fancy their chances against the winners of the edition prior to the previous one. Milan have lost Franck Kessie to Barcelona but are still good enough to vie for top spot. Salzburg from Austria are an exciting team, possessing the highly sought after Benjamin Sesko. That leaves Dinamo Zagreb, who look likely to finish bottom of Group E.
Champions League - Group F
Real Madrid, RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk and Celtic form a very interesting Group F. The defending champions should most certainly finish on top of the group. The Spanish champions enjoyed a quite remarkable fairy tale run to the summit of the European mountain last season. In fact, every knockout game of theirs one felt would be their last. However, every single time, someone managed to pull a proverbial rabbit out of the hat to live another day. And they kept living another day till they reached Paris and celebrated the trophy.
The other knockout spot will be a good battle between the remaining teams. RB Leipzig should finish second but one cannot rule Celtic out. The Scottish champions and Shakhtar are dangerous opponents. Madrid will know the threat Shakhtar poessess, from their meetings two seasons ago. Thus, the games not featuring Real Madrid will be intriguing watches.
Champions League - Group G
Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund and FC Copenhagen comprise Group G. The English champions, runners up two years ago and beaten miraculously by Real Madrid are out to win it this time around. Among the overall favourites, Pep's team will be disappointed if they do not top this group. Furthering the same, they will feel that all games are winnable.
Haaland, the new signing, will be in for a reunion when he travels to Germany. His former team Dortmund and Sevilla will battle for second spot. The Spanish team is a very functional unit. They are tactically very well drilled and difficult to beat. Meanwhile, the German team is among the more exciting teams in Europe. One among their many youngsters will have everyone's attention - Jude Bellingham. Touted for a move away, this season in the Champions League will determine how high his valuation reaches.
Champions League - Group H
PSG, Juventus, Benfica and Maccabi Hafia FC round up Group H of this season's Champions League. The French and Italian teams will likely progress to the next round, leaving Benfica in the Europa League and Maccabi Hafia out of the continental competitions. Between PSG and Juventus, one reckons Messi and company have enough in their kitty to make it as the group leaders.
Juventus, still reassembling and perhaps without Paul Pogba for the whole group stage phase, will find it difficult to cope with the attacking threat of PSG. They will perhaps finish second. Meanwhile, the Portuguese representatives look primed for third spot.